About twelve years ago, on a warm summer day, my world briefly disappeared. I’d gone to the gym with my sons Bob and Vincent, and Bob, a macho 17 years old, kept encouraging me to bench press heavier and heavier weights. I complied until my 47-year-old arms were limp noodles and I was drenched in sweat.
“You drive,” I told Bobby, tossing him the keys.
“Are you sure?” he asked – after all, he’d only had his learner’s permit for a few months.
“Absolutely,” I assured him.
I settled into the passenger seat for a well-deserved rest and to contemplate my plans for the day – fix the frayed clothesline, cut the grass, spend the afternoon at the beach. Then, just a half block from the gym, it happened.
I felt a tiny buzz at the base of my neck and as I tried to access my mental checklist my entire mind was wiped clean, as if an eraser were passing over a blackboard and leaving blackness behind. All memories, all names of things, every basic premise about where and who I was, evaporated from my consciousness like dew in the morning sun. Dizzy with vertigo, I desperately scoured my mind for any objective reality I could define.
I tried to think of simple things like the name of the town where we were – nothing. Who’s the President? What country is this? What’s today’s date?
I remembered I’d known all these things just moments ago. But like a morning dream, the harder I tried to recall any details, the further they receded from my grasp.
“What day is it?” I asked, my heart racing in panic. Bobby glanced at me as he drove, worried by my apparent bewilderment.
“No, what date?” I asked, feeling more confused every second. “What’s today’s date?”
“June 19th,” he replied, looking askance. “Why?”
In the back seat, my younger son Vincent sensed something wrong and tensed in his seat, listening. I was in free fall; I was lost and knew I needed help.
“Where’s…?,” I faltered as I gestured toward the east side of the road, where I had a vague recollection of a safe and familiar neighborhood. I could picture our house there and my wife Maria and our daughter Abby, and I knew they loved me and could help. But I couldn’t remember their names.
“Where are those…my…” I wanted to describe them; to say “people” or “women” or “wife” or “daughter,” but I couldn’t find those words, either. I had no labels to attach to my mental images.
“What are you talkin about?,” Bobby demanded, exasperated by my rambling.
“They’re at our…uh..our…the place, over there…” and I stopped again because I couldn’t recall the words “home” or “house.”
It had been less than two minutes, but then things changed again. Until that moment I’d been on funhouse stairs where the risers and treads suddenly fold down flat and it’s a ramp and you scream and fall, sliding helplessly with nothing to hold you back. But as I fell deeper into this bizarre state of unknowing, and the memory that I’d once known many things itself began to fade, my panic dissipated.
Wrapped in a private fog, I became quietly complacent. As I’d asked him to do before I was stricken, my son drove to the newspaper store and the bagel shop, but I had no recollection of why we were stopping, what newspapers I wanted to read, or what “bagel” could possibly mean. And I no longer cared.
When we pulled into the driveway fifteen minutes later Maria walked out to meet us and reality clicked back into place as all my memories flooded back. It was over, having ended as quickly as it had begun. But now that I’d awakened from the dream, I panicked again – was I crazy? Had I suffered a stroke?
I hurried to the bathroom to examine my face for droopy muscles or eye anomalies that would signify a stroke – nothing. Except for my anxiety over what had just happened, I felt fine. Nonetheless, I crawled into bed for an hour to calm down.
I lay there looking at the sun-streaked ceiling as the curtains surged across the windowsill, billowing in the breeze. I could hear a distant lawnmower; a buzzing fly; a chirping bird. I was terrified that my world might suddenly fall away again and that all these things, and more, would be lost.
The feeling wore off as the day went on; by dinnertime I was back to normal. My doctor a few days later diagnosed it as “Transient Global Amnesia” (TGA), which is a fancy name for what I’d experienced – you temporarily forget everything you ever knew. It might last a whole day, it’s unlikely to happen again, and no one really knows what causes it.
My TGA episode is instructive as my mother continues her sad, inexorable descent into the dark maze of dementia. I can sympathize with her panic when her memories first began to fade and she realized she could no longer name everyday things like “broccoli,” or “cookies,” or “shoes.” And as with Mom’s advanced dementia, in the midst of my TGA episode I was blissfully unaware of the profound extent of what I’d forgotten, settling into calm submission to my ignorance and leaving everyone else to deal with my incapacity.
But it took moments, not years, for my memories to fade. And minutes, not months, for me to settle into the relative comfort of total oblivion. And I came back.