by Joyce Kohl
“I don’t know any of you people. . . ” was the heart-wrenching start of a speech from my son to his immediate family near the end of an old-fashioned Christmas party in 1997. We had all gathered at my son’s request. He wanted all of us to give him some memories. He needed authentic memories, not related stories, to share with siblings and his parents.
It was a car accident not unlike many other non-fatal crashes which took my beloved only son away forever. His body survived; the “who” of him died on that tragic day, August 5, 1992, and that date is forever written in my memory. My son had been a brilliant professional. He was forty-one years old.
Though he sustained many injuries, including having the inside of his mouth ripped horribly, I will focus only on the fact that his brain had been shaken violently. All prior memories, all bonding, all recognition of anything prior to the moment of impact slipped into a bottomless void. He had, and still has, total amnesia.
Yes, my son looks the same, walks the same, has the same voice, the same color of hair and eyes. He has the same blood type; half of his genetic code matches mine. He’s my son; but he doesn’t KNOW I’m his mother. Comments by well-meaning friends, and even extended family members such as: “He’s still alive!” or “You still have him!” are, of course, meant to be helpful. They aren’t. It’s these types of comments that make me want to scream to heaven because my son is NOT alive. I don’t STILL HAVE my son. My son died both figuratively and literally – he was, when he arrived at the hospital, Code Blue.
Gone: The little boy I rocked; the little boy I saw off to his first day of school; the little boy who wanted to be a garbage man and later, a priest; the little boy who married and gave us grandsons; the confidential telephone calls through the years.
Forty-one plus years wiped out.
Bonding is accomplished during the early years. After that, it’s too late. After his accident, my son and I were no longer bonded as we once were. I believe he accepts me as his mother even though he doesn’t recognize me as his mother. I believe, also, he has learned to respect or even love me, but that’s the cold truth of it.
Some days are harder than others. Most of the time I’m able to push reality somewhere back in a hidden section of my memory. I don’t have to be around first-hand knowledge of my son’s amnesia on a day by day basis and am spared the anguish such as that experienced by his wife. Her love never faltered. She softened the facts for me in such a way that it would nearly always be much later when the full realization of the reality of it all would hit me smack in the face.
Such a simplistic phrase like “Starting over” never before had so much meaning. My son literally started over from pre-school days. Or was it earlier? Not only did he not know WHO was president, he had no idea what the word “president” meant. He couldn’t understand why I left the hospital at the same time as the man who was with me. We were, after all, just two old people who knew him well enough to visit.
There came a day when my son called me and said to me: “Mommie, was I a good little boy?” That’s what I heard. Is that what he said? Yes, of course, I wanted to throw the phone down and run screaming and lock myself in my bedroom and have a good cry. But this wasn’t the time. The little boy on the other end of the phone was my new son reaching out for his identity. He needed help, and he had finally called me, his mother. His wife, no doubt, had convinced him I WAS his mother. She also had to explain the definition of a mother.
There were many short sessions when my son and I discussed past events. He couldn’t handle but twenty to thirty minutes at a time. His childhood was lost: Four decades of memories; four decades of a past. I gave him only positive feedback, keeping him innocent of all transgressions. A child-man who didn’t understand much of what he heard, yet wanting to know; needing to know. Yet I felt and saw the fear in his eyes and in his voice.
Maybe new bonding could, after all, take place. The other things my son asked me and the way in which he asked his questions convinced me beyond any shadow of a doubt that I could bond with this new person which was my new son. No, it wouldn’t be the same. It couldn’t be. But it was something to be grateful for, and I wasn’t about to think of it in any other way. I, too, needed bonding enough to settle for anything.
August 5, 1992
I’d like to take you back to the day I lost my son. When I looked into his eyes, so full of excruciating pain, it didn’t occur to me that he not only didn’t know me, but may have been wondering what I was saying; what I was doing there; or why I didn’t do something to relieve his suffering. The blood pooled around his head, his ear was full of blood, and it ran from his nose and mouth. I wondered if there was a hole in the back of his head. The waiting seemed endless. It was. It still is.
The results I remember hearing: Brain injury; plastic surgeon called to stitch the inside of his mouth. There was more. I don’t remember for sure. I’d heard enough to know my son was badly injured. I left him then, in the hands of professionals and his grief-stricken wife and one of his three sons. At home again struggling with the information, I wondered what we’d hear next. I still wasn’t aware of the amnesia. To this day I don’t know for sure when I knew, or even if I believed it would be a permanent side effect.
The Struggle Begins
When my son finally left the hospital and was able to visit me and his father at home, he had no idea where he was going . . . the scenery during the drive was completely new to him. Shortly after he arrived, he walked from room to room. As he walked, he paused, carefully inspecting each photograph on our walls, the piano, and the bookshelves. I pointed out to him photos of himself, his siblings, and of his parents. No sign of recognition. No sign that he even understood what I was saying. I had no idea at this time that his mind had not yet passed that of a toddler. He was determined to hide everything from everyone. And he did it very well.
No one would believe the number of times my heart would leap with the hope of some sign of memory in my son. It never came. The doctors say it probably never will. The longer he goes without remembering, the more likely the amnesia is permanent.
During those times of ordinary conversation, my son would sit quietly nearby with a look of intent interest, but seldom joined in. It was later, and little by little, that I began to know why. He didn’t understand half of what was being said. He didn’t know his sisters, their children, friends, the surroundings. Good God above! He knew NOTHING. We expected SO much; gave SO little. Neither I nor any of his family and friends meant to be uncaring; we simply didn’t know caring was needed and when we did, we didn’t know how to give it. My son’s doctor certainly didn’t have a manual of instructions for us. He didn’t know either.
As my son was bombarded with every day living in a world of adults in which he was literally a child, he vacillated between absorption like a sponge to shutting down like a chunk of cement. Talking about “it” was only when he wanted to talk. I always had mixed emotions during the times he asked about things in his past. I had to put away my own needs. I had to concentrate on filling his needs. Once he asked me to write some things down for him to read at his own pace. Another time he wanted a small album of photographs consisting of himself, his children, his siblings, and his parents.
While my son grew in knowledge, and began storing up new memories, my son-in-law, only thirty-nine years old, had a massive heart attack and died instantly. My son needed to know the meaning of a new word. He took me aside and asked me the meaning of “death.” He accompanied his sister to the funeral home and upon their return, he whispered to me that he thought he now knew what death meant.
Prior to my son’s accident, he and this son-in-law had been extremely good friends. Both men were busy professionals, but never too busy to fax jokes to each other, play golf, or meet for lunch. After the accident, my son didn’t like his brother-in-law at all. Naturally, my son-in-law was horribly hurt even though he said he understood.
Many things about my son changed. But why wouldn’t they? No two people are alike. My son was a new person with likes and dislikes quite different than he had before. There were so many glaring and subtle reminders that I had lost a son, and a new son was being born.
Have you ever had a son ask you who the lady was in the family portraits? Or while looking at pictures of his sons ask you who the little boys are? The time came when my son wanted to experience a Christmas at home. A Christmas like his siblings talked about all the time. He had no memories of his own, so he asked that everyone meet at home for Christmas and give him something to remember. My son specifically requested to see slides and photographs, too.
Oh, the plans we all made! The joy the entire family felt. The anticipation of such a day burned in each of our hearts. But the main part of such a request was trying to set the scene in my home as much like those Christmases of the past as possible. We had saved so many of our children’s toys and nearly all the holiday decorations from our first year of marriage to the present.
All my children are adults with holiday traditions of their own. Each gave up our yearly family gathering, left their children and spouses at home, and drove “home” from all points of the city; one flew in from another state.
Old toys lined the walls. Decorations were abundant. The slide projector was ready to go and there were pictures of Christmases past in boxes and albums.
True to tradition, all our children went with their father to see the lights and decorations around the neighborhood. When they returned, they discovered Santa had visited while they were gone just as he had all those years in the past. He left a doll for each girl; a two-gun holster holding two guns (caps included) for the only boy.
Each of my six daughters had prepared a written speech relating the things they remembered most about Christmas. Here are a few excerpts of the memories they gave to their brother, and to us:
“The tree was usually decorated the day of my birthday. I could hardly wait until the lights were placed on the tree so I could claim my area in which to place my favorite ornaments. The highlight was the contest of how high we could throw the tinsel on the tree. Most of the time I could hardly wait for the new baby doll I had asked for that year from Santa Claus. I loved the smell of a new doll. Still today I have captured that familiar smell in many other particular items.”
“The smell of new dolls filled the air. Each girl ran to her doll she had asked for and quickly took it out of the box. And then closing her eyes would smell that wonderful new doll smell.”
“Another wonderful memory was the beautiful nativity scene he (Dad) made out of wood. He built a stable for the figures and then piped music out to it so when people would drive by, they could hear it.”
“Do any of you remember when Dad baked his big cookies? I still remember him making the batter, then putting this huge amount on a cookie sheet then in the oven it went. Our oven was a clear glass front so we would watch the cookie grow. Of course we fought over who got the best spot in front of the glass. The cookies were as big as a plate. Just the fact that Dad made them and they were so big always made them the best tasting cookies ever.”
“I remember the week of Christmas when Mother allowed us to open up a present early after many hours of begging and we wouldn’t tell Dad. Every year I always got the baby doll I wanted. Christmas was always so special.”
“I think we all agree on one Santa Christmas memory. That would be the moment we walked in after looking at lights and would see all the new toys left out around the room. I felt so much love and I knew how special each one of us was.”
Once again, the smell of new dolls filled the air. My heart was filled to the brim. The tears were close to spilling over. I saved them for later as I relived the evening of wonder and magic. I hoped it gave my son a plethora of memories to share with and laugh about with his sisters.
My son is an extraordinary man. In only a few years, he’s once again fully active as the CEO of his company.
I’ve purposely given no names here except my own. My son doesn’t want anyone’s pity nor is he ready yet for outsiders to know the details of the accident that changed us all forever. He prefers anonymity and I respect his wishes. I also understand his desire to maintain complete privacy. I DID get his permission to write this from MY point of view.
The crack in my heart is slowly beginning to heal; to regenerate. My mind is beginning to accept the things I can do nothing about. What’s another battle scar? Mothers earn them in ways they least suspect. My old son may be gone to me forever, but my new son becomes more precious day by day. Sometimes I think about my son in the plural. Twins, if you will. This helps me cope with brutal reality and helps me to help him which ultimately helps me.
Crying in the shower or in my sleep has, for the most part, ceased. Since beginning to put it all in writing, it has started again.
“I don’t know any of you people . . . but I DO know I love you.” That’s how my son finished the sentence you read at the start of this article. That was the depth of my son’s gift to his sisters and to his parents. He was telling us he loved us; that he didn’t HAVE to have known us prior to August 5, 1992. Our gift to him was accepting the way he is NOW; a silent unanimous agreement to grieve no more for what was, but rejoice in what is. He IS alive. He IS still with us.
Life planted a big lemon tree in the yard of my son’s mind. Lemonade is something he’s learned to make daily. His wife sweetens it with the honey of understanding and eternal love. Now and then I’m privileged to add a cube or two of ice for cooling. His father is the glass, the container of understanding. His sisters are the napkins ready to absorb the moisture of the tears which we all still shed as we all watch him becoming the best he can be. He doesn’t have to have known us before. We, his family, are and forever shall be his umbilical cord to an unremembered past.
My son. My son.