I am rushing—our taxi will arrive in 45 minutes. As I brush my teeth with a towel tightly wrapped around me, my husband walks in, sits on the edge of the tub, and makes muffled noises. I turn to look at him. He folds over and holds his face in his hands. “Are you okay?” I am not sure if he is laughing or crying.
He lifts his head. His cocoa brown eyes radiate fear and spill tears. “I don’t know where we are going,” he says.
“What? You know where we’re going. Dirk—Florida, remember? To see Steve and Merly?”
He stares at me. His face is blank. “I don’t. I don’t know.” He grabs his head as if to shake the missing information loose from his brain. Something is very wrong.
“Do you know who Steve is?” An odd question—my husband of eighteen years certainly knows my brother. Please answer this simple question, I think to myself as panic rises through my chest.
He sits up, shakes his head, folds back over, and bellows a guttural sob.
My rising panic reverses direction and sinks like a crashing lead balloon. I scream for my daughter. She is packing for our trip to Florida to see my brother Steve. The trip we planned a while ago. The trip we talked about last night. The trip my husband doesn’t remember this morning. “Liza! We need to take Dad to the hospital.” I try to make my voice loud and strong. It is wavering and full of cracks. She hears me anyway and bounds into the bathroom.
“What’s going on?” she asks. She takes in the scene, me in my towel and Dirk folded forward at the waist on the edge of the tub surround, crying. It is not a typical sight. She looks scared and perplexed.
“Dad can’t remember anything. We need to go to the ER.” I start to cry and babble and walk in a frantic circle—fueled physically by the adrenaline to act quickly and simultaneously paralyzed with dread. My body’s energy and mental clarity are disconnected.
Liza sits down by her dad and puts her arm around him. He sobs. She talks to him like a child, “It’s okay Dad. You know who I am right?” He nods and says her name. “Good Dad, good. Yes, it’s me, Liza. Do you know whose birthday it is today?”
“Noooooooooo!” he says like the question inflicts a wound.
“It’s okay, Dad. It’s okay. It’s mom’s birthday today, but that’s alright, we’ll get you to remember.” She is soft spoken and direct, and her calm command at the age of sixteen astonishes me, but I see her alarm. “He doesn’t know it’s your birthday?” she says, “but he just told me about your gift last night.” This doesn’t make sense. I rush into my closet to drop the towel and dress quickly.
We get in the car. Liza drives with Dirk in the passenger seat. I sit in the back and cancel the 8:00 a.m. taxi that was on the way to take us to the airport. Dirk repeatedly asks us questions, the same ones over and over. “Were we supposed to go somewhere?”
“Florida,” I answer.
“Noooooooooo.” he bellows. And then, totally unrelated, “What’s the name of my assistant?”
A minute passes, and again, in the same inflection, he asks, “Were we supposed to go somewhere?”
Again, my answer provokes the same outcry, “Noooooooooo.”
“What’s the name of my assistant?”
And again, “Were we supposed to go somewhere?”
I try a new approach: “We’re not going to answer that question anymore.”
Liza grips the steering wheel and drives with determination. “What’s happening to Dad. Mom, I’m scared.”
“I don’t know. I’m scared too.” He has snippets of memory, he knows who he is and who we are, but mostly he is blank. I try to focus on the hospital ER—they will treat him, they will know what to do, they will make this go away. I try to keep out the unwelcome thought invaders: What if this is the day that changes everything? What if we are traveling a pivotal passage that will forever delineate the before and after for the rest of our lives? Is this moment that moment?
Don’t go there. Stay here. We don’t know anything yet—stay with the now. I steer my thoughts away from the worst.
Dirk’s Dad died from Alzheimer’s disease. It was devastating to watch as he slowly faded away from the man he was. In the beginning, he lost his ability to retrieve words. Then, he lost his ability to retrieve his memories, and we lost him. What is a life without memories? Memories hold us together by unifying our past and our present. Without this container to unite our experiences, who are we?
Dirk is convinced he has the same affliction as his dad. The rare overnight onset of Alzheimer’s seems unlikely, but this idea affixed itself as another repetitive theme that replays in his limited-memory brain. “Alzheimer’s. This is it. The day the lights went out.” He bangs the dashboard with his fist.
I tell Liza where to exit off Interstate 94 for the Fairview University Hospital. Dirk continues to repeat, “The day the lights went out.” Bam. Fist on the dashboard.
“Wow. He’s super dramatic.” Liza says softly to me as I watch her lips move in the rear view mirror. We are unsure how to respond to his continuous metaphorical recap.
“We’ll get them to turn your lights back on, Dirk,” I say and hold his hand.
We arrive and the hospital staff immediately ushers us into a small room with a rolling bed. A blood pressure cuff encircles Dirk’s arm, and EKG sticky pads are attached to his back and chest. A clasp covers his finger to measure his oxygen, and a team of medical professionals surrounds him. Assortments of doctors come and go. More questions. Looking for clues. CAT scans. MRIs.
Is he having a stroke?” I ask. It was the first time I said the word out loud. Until this point, I kept the S-word confined inside my head, separated from reality.
“We need to run some tests to see what is going on,” a young doctor says. She asks a series of simple questions.
“Who is the President?”
There is a long pause. He is fighting through brain fog. “Obama” was slow to surface.
“What is your favorite color?
He hesitates before he says “blue.”
“Something you should know,” he says to the doctor, “I have a history of Alzheimer’s in my family.”
“This is not Alzheimer’s,” she replies.
She leaves the room. She comes back three minutes later. “Something you should know…” he doesn’t remember that he already told her three times.
“He did not have a stroke,” she says, relieving my worst fears.
Dirk pipes up, “Something you should know. I have a history of Alzheimer’s in my family.”
The doctor, Liza, and I all say in unison, “This is NOT Alzheimer’s!”
“The tests results are all good. He has a form of amnesia,” the doctor reports.
The only reference l have for amnesia is getting bonked with a coconut on the head on Gilligan’s Island. “Amnesia?” I ask. “That’s really a thing? What? And how?”
She explains that Dirk has what is known as Transient Global Amnesia. The underlying cause is unknown; it is typically harmless, and unlikely to happen again. The repetitive questioning, agitation, and emotionality are typical symptoms of TGA.
“So when will he remember my birthday?” I ask, and wink at Liza. We feel enormous relief. She explains he will slowly retrieve his memories within five to six hours, and we can go home. The horror of the morning was slowly going to dissipate, and we would return to our normal lives.
We never made it to Florida, but Dirk was back in full swing that evening.
It was just five hours. Yet, I shudder when I think of the what ifs: what if it was five years, 30 years, forever? Dirk will never remember the time he lost; there are no memories for him to retrieve. But he will have to take our word for it, we are lucky that he knows Steve and Pam again, he is quick to name the President, and the lights shine on.