Cynthia Flood, all photos by Dean Sinnett
Memory Island’s in Shawnigan Lake, north of Victoria. During World War II, two young men from families who summered at the lake were killed in Europe. Their parents bought the little island and donated it to the BC Parks system, in memory of their sons and to provide summer happiness for other kids.
Each August, my family rents a lakeside cottage at Shawnigan. Swim to the island and explore, row to the island for a picnic, canoe there with the dog anxiously aboard — everyday activities.
With my teenage grand-daughters, one afternoon last year I stepped into the refreshing lake-water, all sparkly in the sun, and began to swim.
Next: I am lying flat, wearing a blue hospital gown. A voice says, “We’ll take her up to the ward now.”
Next: a nurse fits sensors around my arm. There’s snoring, nearby.
Next: getting up to pee. Darkness. The woman in the next bed breathes quietly now. She must have turned on her side.
Next: awake. Hungry. I read words stitched on the window-curtain: Cowichan District Regional Hospital. No questions occur. A kindly nurse brings breakfast. I eat everything, and wonder where my tote-bag is.
Then I hear my partner’s voice, coming into the ward. He appears, round the blue curtain. I smile and say Hello! Big tears burst out of his eyes.
This episode of Transient Global Amnesia was of average length. For about eight hours I was gone, AWOL. My brain formed no memories whatsoever. Even when it began recovering, during that hospital night, I felt no surprise or concern. Queried nothing.
After our holiday, when we returned to Vancouver, my doctor supplied me with an 8-page single-spaced literature review on TGA.
Briefly, its causes aren’t well understood, though anyone 40 or up can experience one. Migraines may be involved (I don’t have those). Strenuous exercise, violent arguments or sex or fights, extreme emotional stress, severe dehydration: all are sometimes implicated, though not in this case. Luridly, people in the midst of a TGA have been known to drive, give public lectures, play musical instruments. . . . The condition’s deemed medically benign, with no known negative sequelae. So — I won’t go dotty any sooner than I would have without the experience. My favourite stat: a recurrence rate of about 5%.
Information helps in coping with such an event, but of course none was available to my family that August afternoon.
What I’ve been told:
When the girls and I reached Memory Island, I wanted to stay alone on the beach. They reported to my younger daughter, when she swam over there a bit later, that I seemed “sort of absent.”
Indeed. I asked her, “Where are the others? How did I get here?” And refused to believe I’d swum.
All returned to the cottage, where my daughter and my partner checked me for possible stroke. Negative. I was calm, passive. Obediently I ate a bit and got dressed, but had no recall of being on the island or of the canoe-ride back.
Partner and daughter made a decision. We three drove away.
“Where are we going?”
“What are we doing there?”
“Heading for the hospital.”
“Oh! Well, no family vacation would be complete without some minor emergency.” Laughter.
“Where are we going?”
Repeat, repeat, as partner and daughter cried and drove and googled maps of Duncan.
In Emergency, we soon bypassed other patients. Then came a CAT scan, x-rays, blood tests — none of these registered in memory. Questions about my history and present life I answered willingly, but slipped up on my own and my daughters’ home addresses. Of the afternoon and evening’s events, zip remained.
Quite soon, a doctor suggested Transient Global Amnesia. Transient! My family seized on that.
Still, for everyone but me, a night of great concern followed. Would I have to go into care? Need constant attendance from now on?
In the morning, my older daughter joined my partner by my bed (they’d both been there the night before, but my brain didn’t record that), and they explained. After the doctors OK’d my release, we three went for coffee and I got more details. Felt horrified, yet numb. The events seemed unattached to me.
Back at the cottage, for the rest of the week I played boardgames and read and laughed and talked and cooked and canoed and ate ice-cream, all as usual but not. On our last day, we all went to Memory Island. I got up my nerve and swam there. Blue water sparkled in the sun.
Time pre-TGA seemed distant, beyond a line etched in a sharply different colour, as in sedimentary rock. Something odd happened here.
Memento mori, indeed. My 75th birthday, a month later, felt irrelevant. Also, a glimpse of a future when either my partner or I may be helpless, dependent. For my daughters, perhaps the first time their mother has been exactly that.
Four months post-TGA, a neurologist ran various physical tests. I’m fine. My passivity during the event she termed typical of the condition.
Sometimes I still visualize my kind nurse, and the curly script on that hospital curtain.
Sometimes I ask, What have I done in the last two hours? Grocery-shopping. Then I walked west, by Lost Lagoon, where the otters played. Then north to Third Beach, yes, saw a big raft of goldeneyes there. Up the hill, now heading east on the Tatlow trail. . . . All clear.
Cynthia Flood’s fifth collection of short stories, What Can You Do, will appear from Biblioasis in 2017. Her most recent book, Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis 2013) was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor award. Cynthia lives in Vancouver.