“I woke up 42 years ago,” she said, looking me dead in the eye. “I woke up and all I could see was a square of bright blue sky.”
I had no idea what she meant. She leaned in, eager to talk. I leaned in, too. Her speech was hard to understand. Her top teeth protruded from her mouth; her bottom teeth were missing. Her words came out fuzzy. I listened carefully. It took time to untangle her story. With no one to corroborate or clarify her narrative, I had to sort out the details for myself.
She is now 83. A month ago she moved into the nursing home where my father-in-law resides. Her husband, at age 42, lost his life in an automobile accident; that was 42 years ago. She was in the car, too. She lost her memory in the collision, had to start over from scratch at age 41. When she woke up she recognized no one, not even her children. She had no recall of her past or her purpose in the world. “I woke up 42 years ago and all I could see a square of bright blue sky. I said, ‘thank you, Lord, for that square of bright blue sky.’ That was all I knew.”
As she spoke, she brushed her white hair back from her neck and I saw a small praying hands pin attached to the collar of her purple velour dress. Her Sunday best, I surmised. She had listened to a Catholic television program that morning, she said. “It helps me, you know.”
It was a challenge for her, reconstructing a life from thin air at age 41. It still is. After the car accident, she was transferred to a Veteran’s Administration hospital, evidence she had once served in the armed forces. She has been in and out of VA hospitals ever since, most recently when she fell this past winter and broke one hip, then fell and broke the other. She was transferred from the VA to this nursing home. Her daughter lives in the next county over.
“It’s not easy to wake up at 41.” She said this several times throughout the course of our conversation and laughed each time in apology. It seems she takes personal responsibility for having misplaced four decades of her life. Here’s another phrase she often repeats: “You just never know.”
“Things change. You just never know.
“I lived with my son down in Florida until he passed away. You just never know.
“I’ve lived too long. I don’t want to be here anymore. Maybe the Lord has some reason for keeping me around, but I don’t know what it is. You just never know.”
I nodded and agreed with her each time. No, you never know. She sums up her life with this one phrase. And no wonder.
I don’t know what it’s like to lose 40 years of memory; I hope I never find out. But I do know that what she says resonates with my experience of coming out. I felt as if I were waking up at age 35. It was upheaval and it was exciting; it was terrible and it was wonderful; it was life and blue horizons and I was grateful. My husband recounts a similar awakening experience at age 48.
He and I often voice regret and sadness over lost decades, lost opportunities, lost life. We also recount joyful memories, our present happiness. And I usually voice anger. I feel angry to see my former self reflected in several people whom I see sleepwalking through their lives. I want to shake them, wake them up, shine blue sky square in their faces.
Of course, I can’t talk. I can barely keep my own eyes open. My husband just reminded me that income taxes are due in a matter of days. This came as a complete surprise. No, I have not the wisdom, wit nor authority to take responsibility for another’s awakening. But what I can do is tell my story. I can lean forward, look you—or anyone who will listen—dead in the eye, and in words that may or may not sound fuzzy say, “I woke up 15 years ago. It’s been hell. It’s been heaven. I woke up and saw a square of bright blue sky, and I said, ‘thank you, world. Thank you for that square of bright blue sky.’ I’ve been looking up ever since.”
This essay first appeared in The Letter, April 2009