Trauma Is a Time Machine: On Loss -The Toast

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Laura Passin’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

There is a difference between normal memory and traumatic memory. Trauma sears images and sensations into your brain: they are as vivid a year later as 10 minutes later, involuntary so. But normal memory is reconstructed each time you access it: soon it is not the memory you recall, but the story of the memory, and then the story of the story of the memory (as I know that I used to remember my first time on a plane, but now I only remember that I once remembered it). We recollect in an almost literal sense: we take the strands of memory and collect them, compose them, again and again. It’s why Proust writes epics that start with the flavor of madeleines: memories become tall tales that we knew were true. Christopher Robin Milne is said to have hated Winnie the Pooh stories: they made him forever confused about which parts of his memory were real and which were fictional, belonging to the public. But the rest of us get to read The House at Pooh Corner and remember our childhoods, because it was always a story to us: our memory becomes the story of being told someone else’s story.

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My mom’s days in the DHARMA Initiative, apparently

My mother was 37 years older than me: she had half a lifetime of stories that intrigued me, of her younger self winning judo championships, climbing Mt. Fuji in Japan, going on dates with boys with cars while her father (whom I never knew) glowered from the front porch. The person I knew as my mother had long since converted these memories into stories, the folklore of our family. She was middle-aged, not at her physical peak, which I now understand chiefly by contrast with a picture of her in judo practice calmly hurling a large person over her back.

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But that picture belonged to a different era, an era of JFK and cigarettes and trains with sleeper cars. She was just my mom: a slightly off, slightly crazy, mostly normal woman with a heap of kids and a master’s degree she didn’t use. I loved her, I resented her, I liked her: she was my mom.

I now have a very hard time accessing the “just my mom” character in my mind. In some ways, her folklore is more present to me, because it’s made of stories I was told, not things I didn’t know I was supposed to remember. None of us truly goes through life thinking “what if this is the last time we rake leaves together” or “this is the last full conversation we will ever have,” no matter how much we acknowledge that death’s motto is et in Arcadia ego. My mother is dead. She has been for four years now. But the worst part is not that she is gone now: it is that she was gone before she died.

I am guessing that the last normal conversation I had with my mother was when I was about 22, in grad school across the country. We must have talked on the phone, as we did once or twice a week. I probably asked her how my brother was doing, and she probably wanted to know what book we were reading in my poetry seminar. We probably talked for no more than 20 minutes; since we spoke often, we didn’t stretch our conversations out for hours (the way my father always does, bless his heart.) I probably hung up and got back to reading or perhaps to drinking, the chief occupations of all creative writing students. I probably had a very pleasant, normal conversation with the person who had been the keystone of my life across divorces, difficult moves, and desperate adolescent anger. We hung up and I went back to my newly grownup life.

And there must have been other conversations, later, that felt much less normal: conversations made of repeated phrases or strange questions, conversations that abruptly ended without saying goodbye. I don’t remember. What I do remember is confusion and fear: what I remember is the envelope with the birthday card in April (my birthday is really in August), signed “Barbara” instead of “Mom.” I remember calling her and finally asking the question: what was wrong? She couldn’t answer. She didn’t know.

It was, we know now, the onset of dementia. My mom had a bad hand dealt by her neurological systems, and she disappeared rapidly: first memory, then language (she had aphasia), then physical ability. She was so sick for so long that I could not stop the inevitable superposition of Sick Mom onto my memories of Just Mom. Her illness was traumatic: it involved brain surgery, terrifying falls, a stroke, months of hospice care. It wasn’t trauma like a car crash, all life-shaking terror and cataclysmic sensations. It was trauma the way poverty is trauma: it changed everything in our lives so absolutely we could not be the same people afterward. It was the worst thing that could happen, and it kept happening, and it kept getting worse. I remember so much of it so vividly: it is written behind my eyes, so that every December for the last three years I have nightmares and flashbacks about her deathbed. I want to remember her for who she was to me my whole life, but trauma speaks its own language: it tells memories that don’t make a neat story, and it tells them when you don’t want to listen.

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Sick Mom, and trying-too-hard me

Just Mom is so close to being gone from my consciousness that I have to work to find her. The stories I used to have about her have been almost entirely replaced by the chaotic swirl of the most obvious story: My Mom Died Horribly. But before she did that, she also did these things:

  • She permed her hair in the 80s and the first time I saw it, it was so frizzy I got scared.

  • She made delicious cookies, including peanut butter cookies made with white cake mix that were somehow better than cookies made totally from scratch.

  • She went along with all the stories I made up for my stuffed animals and helped me work out their family trees.

  • She showed me how to use carbon paper in her electric typewriter, so that I could write stories about my stuffed animals and send them to my grandparents.

  • She made me laugh all the time.

  • She broke her wrist on one of her earliest dates with the man who would become my stepfather. She was going back to school at the time, and she had to write all her notes left-handed.

  • She read me poetry when I was way too young to understand it, thus unknowingly launching me into a (penniless) writing career.

  • She was overprotective. She wouldn’t let me pierce my ears or get contacts. She wouldn’t let me go to boy’s houses (she didn’t know I liked girls too, then.)

  • She didn’t like it at all when I came out to her as bi: she wasn’t against it, per se, but we had never talked about sex or even dating in her household and it was clear that she didn’t want to start. Something that felt like it should be life-changing was almost frighteningly anticlimactic: she just didn’t want to know. She didn’t want anyone to know anything about each other’s hearts.

  • She had a vocal tic: she would mutter “okay” to herself while going about her daily life. It drove me up the walls.

  • She never swore in my presence, except when OJ was acquitted and she exclaimed, “But he’s guilty as hell!”

There’s more. There’s got to be more. But it is always like this now: these shards, no stories. I didn’t know that she would be gone by the time I was 30, and that my college graduation was the last family event that would make any sense to her. I didn’t know that our life as mother and daughter wouldn’t keep happening, that I would have to learn to mother her. I didn’t know that the past had already announced its leaving. Now I have intrusive memories of her corpse and so few memories of her body. I no longer dream that she is coming back to life, to me: I dream that I am going back, in time, to her.


Laura Passin is a writer, professor, and feminist at large. She holds a PhD from Northwestern and an MFA from the University of Oregon. Her writing has recently appeared in Prairie Schooner, Bellevue Literary Review, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, The Archipelago, and Best New Poets 2013. She also writes a quasi-regular newsletter about feminism, poetry, and pop culture called Postcards from a One-Woman Army. Laura lives in Portland with too many cats.

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