3rd Place Winner in the Able in this Diverse Universe essay contest!
Judging note: Like Echoes in the Mist meditates in startlingly beautiful prose on what it means to lose memories to the brain fog of fibromyalgia. Who are we without memory? What does it mean to move through the world as if managing someone else’s life? What does it mean to be a nonfiction writer when memory is slipping away?
Like Echoes in the Mist
Sometimes I think aging is growing used to your heroes dying. Other times, it doesn’t feel like it matters. Because aging is just what we do, like leaves turn yellow and fall, what we do when we’re not thinking or trying too hard. Except unlike leaves, we don’t grow more vibrant with age. We fade. We wither. We convalesce instead of blaze.
My most vivid memories are from times before they mattered. The sharp metallic taste of fear on my tongue as I ran up the basement steps, certain spiders were going to crawl from the webs illuminated by the ground-level windows and nip poisonous at my heels. My wonder the first time I saw a sun shower and realized things could be two dichotomies at once. The way my first dog’s ears were velvet at the very tip, so different from the coarse waves that rippled down his water-safe labrador back. Mom signing the cross on my forehead before she went to bed, her last stop before sleep always to ask heaven’s favor down on her children. Every night, until we left home and then, every night we’re back again.
These tiny pebbles populate my brain like a river bed, waves of recollection riding over them and sometimes carrying them to the forefront of my consciousness. Often in dreams. “You have such boring dreams,” my fiancé says sometimes, when I recount a dreamed mundanity. But to me, these boring moments are the precious ones. It’s only in retrospect we realize why we stored them at all.
I hoard memories, these days. Mine has been failing, or sputtering like an engine struggling to start. Small things, like squeezing out the sponge after washing dishes, and larger ones, like putting the wrong date on a poster, leaving a crepe in the toaster oven until it burns to a cinder, leaving its incendiary smell lingering in the walls for weeks.
That smell, Nick’s face, the sharp reminders of my failing brain, that lags increasingly behind where I expect it to be.
As a personal essayist, I need my memory sharp and salient. I hesitate to use the term “memoirist,” because it crackles like an antique patina laid over my words. I trade in memories, in stories from my own past, because they feel like worthy ones. Because I feel more real when I can pick up papers and pinch my skin, when I can lay stories over my face and say, “Here. I am.”
I’m sitting on the steps leading up to the altar at church, stroking my stockinged legs. This is my first day wearing real, grown-up nylons and they’re soft, so soft, silk turning my prepubescent legs from their naturally rough, scabby stems into something transcendent, an imagined peek into who I can be. The women at church have long fascinated me, with their high heels leaving tiny divets in the carpet as they waltz up for Communion, their leather gloves shining as they peel them off like surgeons going into the theater. Their fur hats and coats, their shining lipstick and gleaming hair. My gangly body feels like a puppet without strings in comparison, my legs always going the wrong way, elbows bumping into corners as grown-ups hiss, “Careful!” But today. Today, my legs are theirs and I can’t help running my fingers up and down, imagining myself among them.
My father grabs my hand as we leave, bells tolling tinnily, sending us out into the cruel world for six more days.
“I saw you feeling yourself up, up there,” he says, his face dark above his white collar. “You can’t do that in public like that. People are watching.”
My tiny chest fills with shame and thick, choking dread. This, then, is what it feels like to be a woman.
When I learned fibromyalgia causes “brain fog,” I saw the interior of my skull drifting over with smog, a hazy interface between my thoughts, like dark-cloaked strangers passing beneath yellow pooling streetlights. I imagined my brain like a London street I used to walk, echoing footsteps on cobblestones in the strange silence the only reminder that anyone else exists in the world. Those echoes tracing me to the other inhabitants of that space, like magpie calls in lonely darkness. But it’s not like that, at least not yet.
More and more, my loved ones recount conversations of which I have no recollection. There’s no black hole, no blip in the radar. My mental record doesn’t skip, it simply doesn’t record the moments, as if someone forgot to hit the button before starting the scene. This disturbs me, these missing times, because unless someone points them out to me, there’s no way to know what I don’t know. No echoes call me to what I’m missing; I’m simply adrift, my own footsteps of the now I control, the only reminder I’m existing at all.
“What’s this on the calendar?” I ask my fiancee, pointing to a dinner date next Thursday. “We talked about that,” he says, grimacing. My lapses frustrate him as much as they frighten me, rendering his partner unreliable, as precipitous as a hasty child, but with a driver’s license, a stove.
In a way though, I want to cherish these surprises. I want to delight in the unexpected, but there’s safety in control. My anxious mind fears dark corners like that long-ago basement. I still shiver at shadowed places. And if my brain becomes one of them, as so many of ours do, I’m afraid to lose myself in the darkness.
There’s no cure for this “fogginess,” and management strategies are guesses, at best. Destress. Organize. Use a calendar. Mono-task. Get better sleep. Exercise. Eat well. All of these strategies are the same for every complaint to which modern medicine has no answer, and they’re all soft-tipped darts bouncing off a metal board.
I find myself managing my days like they’re someone else’s. Listing tasks, ticking them off as I tell myself to do this, do that, the other thing. Meticulous calendars remind me where to be, notes around the house point to medications, stove dials, locks. These reminders are my echoes, my shouts across the chasm. Mundane dreams remind me all is not lost to the fog, even if my frazzled brain considers making the bed, feeding the dog important tidbits. Who knows how those moments will manifest themselves, when the dog is gone and the bed goes cold from one of our departures? We can’t predict our lives’ importance. We can only hold onto what we find, what we manage to grasp in our ever-aging hands, and hope somehow, it stays.
Lizz Schumer is a writer, artist and teacher living and working in Buffalo, N.Y. Her work deals largely with the interplay between the personal and universal, and how one’s personal development is influenced by both cultural and environmental factors. Lizz’s writing has appeared on Salon.com, XOJane.com, Thoughtcatalog.com, The Manifest-Station, Wordgathering, Breath & Shadow, Connotation Press, Minerva Rising, Love Your Rebellion and others. She can be found at lizzschumer.com, @eschumer on Twitter, @lizzschumer on Instagram and Facebook.com/authorlizzschumer