The Widow’s Brain Is Missing!
Those of you of a certain age might remember ‘The President’s Brain Is Missing’, a series of Spitting Image sketches featuring US President Ronald Reagan’s brain, an organ that lived in a jar, but which kept escaping to go on madcap adventures. If you’re too young to remember Spitting Image, what can I say other than I’m sorry for your loss, but there has to be some upside to being middle-aged and satirical latex puppets is one of them.
Back in the 1980s, I laughed at these viciously funny sketches unaware that decades later my brain would also go missing. I’m not entirely sure where I left it because my memory is so bad, but all the evidence points to my losing it at around 11am on Sunday 27th February 2011. It was all such a rush that day, my theory is that whilst my body was being bundled into the back of an ambulance and driven away at speed, my brain – relaxing in the Caribbean sunshine – failed to follow me, and without access to my Amex card and no Air Miles of its own to cash in, remained stranded in Barbados. It’s probably right this minute still sitting in a beach bar nursing a rum punch, regaling anyone who will listen about the good life it used to have.
As dear Sir David Attenborough keeps pointing out, nature is a wonderful thing, so just as an octopus can regenerate a new tentacle, I formed a new brain. The problem is, this new brain is pants compared to the one I used for forty-six years. OK, so the old one had its problems: depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, fear of being trapped in my own clothing and an unnaturally healthy attraction to Alastair Campbell, but I’d got it under control, beaten it into submission with a cocktail of education, experience and endless self-hypnosis tapes. This new brain is too hot to handle: a temperamental hormonal teenager prone to breaking down or blowing up without warning, firing off in all directions. It’s all style and no substance (or fur coat and no knickers as we Geordies say), unable to hold on to new information and missing great chunks of old data, particularly information about the first fews months after the 27th February, when presumably it was booting itself up, sorting out those neurological connections and restoring information I would rather have lost. If it wasn’t for the fact that I started blogging on the 14th June 2011, and so put everything down on paper as it happened, I doubt I would have remembered anything at all.
Let me give you an example of new brain’s failings:
Pre D-Day (Death Day, Drowning Day) I was a news junkie. Through total immersion in TV news, internet news and pouring over newspapers, I was confident that I could hold my own in any discussion about current affairs, anything from European politics to the latest YouTube sensation of a cat doing something cute with a pingpong ball. I’m not saying I could spout forth with any great authority on these subjects (well, perhaps the cat and the ball), but then as the last few weeks in politics have shown, even professional pundits (and highly paid pollsters) don’t know what they’re talking about either.
But that was then and this is now.
After the recent General Election, there was a great deal of discussion about ‘fairness’ and ‘proportional representation’. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to become a party political broadcast, I promise you. Anyway, I said to Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower that I thought that there should be a referendum, that the people should decide on how the votes are counted. GGHW asked me how I had voted in the last referendum. “What last referendum?” I asked him. “The one to ask the voting public whether they wanted to scrap the current ‘first past the post’ system,” he replied. Dear Reader, I practically smirked with scorn that GGHW had got it wrong, that there hadn’t been a referendum and that the poor man had became confused between voting on X-Factor and voting on our Parliamentary process, possibly even thinking that Simon Cowell was an MP. Pah! GGHW might be able to do fiendishly hard Sudukos at speed, but clearly he was an amateur when it came to political knowledge; as a current affairs junkie I would have remembered if there had been a referendum on something so constitutionally important. I Googled it. GGHW was right. There had been a referendum, in May 2011, about two months after JS died. I had absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever, though as the turnout was only 42%, 58% of the population probably couldn’t remember either, and they didn’t have a recently dead husband as an excuse.
Time and time again this has happened. Something will crop up, I exhibit my ‘blank and confused’ face, someone will say, “You must remember! It was all over the news!” and I’ll look it up on Google and see that it was, but that it was within the first six months or so after JS drowned and so passed me by in a fug of grief, Merlot and Mr Kipling Almond Slices. I can remember things that in some warped way I connected to JS’s death: the Japanese tsunami because I was furious so many drowning victims were muscling in on his spot in the afterlife, or the Royal Wedding at the end of April 2011, because I got myself in such a state that I had to ring The Samaritans, but anything else? I’d like to say forget it, but I’ve already forgotten it.
Of course part of the issue is probably because after JS died I had no concentration for newspapers and couldn’t bear the news, preferring to have QVC burbling away in the background promising me soft sheets and gadgets that made vegetable spaghetti. Now, I watch the news and read newspapers, but my concentration has never gone back to pre-D Day levels. For instance, I love books. As I sit here tapping away, I am surrounded by them, but now I barely read fiction; I seem to have lost the ability to follow a plot, to hold fictional characters in my brain. I joined a local book group hoping that the discipline of having a book a month to read would re-train this new grasshopper-like brain of mine, but it didn’t work. However good the books were, my mind never became truly lost in the plot; it was always flitting about in the way my eyes used to continually scan the room for signs of JS when I was watching television.
At one stage, my memory loss was so bad I seriously feared that I might be getting some sort of early onset dementia, so I did a online test. Apparently, if you can answer the question, “Who is the current President of the United States?” with “Barack Obama,” rather than “Ronald Reagan,” you’re fine. So that’s OK then.
It pains me because I always had a good memory, not just for events, but for dates and times. Even without a diary to prompt my grey-matter, I could remember where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing from the moment the appointment was written in ink, even if it was months ahead. JS and I would go through the diaries at the beginning of the week, and every day on the way to the office he’d ask me, “What I am up to today?” and I could flawlessly roll off his appointments. Last weekend, I forgot my wedding anniversary. It wasn’t so much that I forgot the anniversary as I forgot that Saturday was the 9th of May. I don’t know what date I thought Saturday was, but I suspect that if you had asked me, I would have had to flick my phone on to check. My old brain wouldn’t have let me down like that, but if it had, if there were dates and times and memories I had forgotten, I had two-decades worth of back-ups close by: JS.
Perhaps I don’t have a new brain, perhaps I still have the old one, but just as in the way putting a computer’s hard drive through a powerful magnet scrambles and destroys the stored information, so sudden shock and trauma disrupts our brains, messing with our heads so that we quite literally lose our minds. Perhaps intense grief is the equivalent of a giant magnet. The thing is, when a magnet disrupts a hard drive, you can’t go back and unscramble the data, restore the connections as if unravelling knots from a ball of string; the hard-drive is irrevocably damaged. The only thing you can do is wipe the disk and start downloading information all over again.
I miss my old brain.
image found on www.gizmag.com