To today and the tortoise

In an instant, life changes. Without warning, parameters close in. Existence is not what it was or ever will be again, for one can only endure each moment in the moment, with no sense of what lies beyond the shell, the shadowy vignette of Now, the eternity of it, the temporality of it. There is no turning of Earth, no movement of Time, no tortoise-crawl into tomorrow where Now could ever be snared in the net of memory…

Until all of a sudden, it is.

For five months Life As We Know It has been suspended by COVID-19. We’ve yet to crawl beyond its grasp.

For my family, however, today makes a year since the borders of our being were reduced, abruptly, to a sand-like speck floating in minutes as vast and endless as the sea.

One year since the Sunday afternoon that my youngest and I took our last routine walk around the church, talking about life and the future as he prepared for his final year of college.

One year since we came back home, hot and tired, and the dog went crazy barking at the patrol car pulling into our driveway. One year since the officer asked if this is where my husband lived, because he’s been in an accident, ma’am, and do you have a way to the hospital…

One year since my husband, coming home from the gym, suffered cardiac arrest while driving and his truck veered off the road, into the woods, stopping just short of a ravine.

One year since not knowing what our boys and I would learn when we walked into the ER entrance, where we were met by a nurse waiting for us, who took us into a side room…

One year since the attending physician told the boys and me it was a “big” heart attack, that their dad was alive because the EMTs were heroes, because he was not when they found him.

One year since we learned that EMS in this county happens to have the second-highest resuscitation rate in the nation.

One year since the night spent sleeping on chairs in the cardiac ICU waiting room as hypothermia was induced to give my husband’s brain time to recover.

One year of not knowing how much could be, or would be, recovered.

Time slowed to a crawl so infinitesimal that it could never really pass.

But it did, and it has, and it is.

Today makes one year, somehow. A compromised year, one in which I didn’t start or end the school year normally, a year of resuming life only to hit another prolonged pause, a year of no traveling beyond the necessary, first because of my husband’s mending heart and then the pandemic. A year of time outside of time, or time folding in on itself… I am not sure which. A year of near-implosion, of living and dying strangely, epically. A year of not knowing, globally or nationally, how much recovery there can be, or will be…

My husband has recovered remarkably well, in all ways except for a span of memory for the month or two prior to his cardiac arrest. The brain seeks to protect itself from trauma; it’s a survival mechanism. All my husband’s long-term memory, all his beloved sports trivia and history lore, remains intact for instant recall. But for a vague recollection of leaving the gym on that fateful day one year ago, my husband’s brain erased last July. He has no memory of our last family vacation to the beach, of long walks on the shore, of plunging into the bracing, beckoning ocean, of trying new restaurants, of the little Guatemalan shop he loved and visited several times, where he encouraged the rest of us to buy whatever handmade items we wanted because a portion of proceeds supports the native artisans. We ask him: Do you remember the putt-putt game? How you got beat by one point? How you demanded a rematch? Do you remember the storm blowing in on the 4th, when we ate at that new place in the enclosed deck by the marina and you said it was the best fish you ever had? Do you remember the music and dancing in the square? Don’t you remember buying this tapestry bookbag and the belt?

He looks as if we are speaking a different language, one we have created, one he has never heard and can’t grasp. No. No. Really? That happened?

One night last week he and I were watching a nature TV program. The camera zoomed in on a tortoise. Instantaneously, my husband said: ” I remember that.”

“What?”

“The tortoise. We saw one like it on the beach trip last year.”

He is right. We did. We saw a giant tortoise on the side of the road while driving. We pulled off to encounter several tortoises owned by a man who had them out for visitors that day. Tortoises, we discovered, enjoy having their heads petted; they’ll stretch their necks out to you for more.

And I know, looking away from the tortoise on the screen to the intent expression on my husband’s face as he watches it, that the return of the tortoise in his memory means that what is good remains, even if hidden. It is never just gone. Despite the extent of trauma, pain, and suffering, endurance is possible, and healing more than possible.

Here’s to today. And the tortoise.

Last July. I could not have imagined the significance of this moment, one year later.

14 thoughts on “To today and the tortoise

  1. Wow. How amazing that your husband pulled this memory back from limbic limbo and how amazing that you turned it into the perfect image of that slow steady healing progress. I wonder if this year will be one of bit-by-bit retrievals. I hope this coming school year is a healing year from after all of these traumas. It is going to take tortoise patience to walk through this pandemic.

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    • Limbic limbo-!!! I may have to borrow that! Excellent point about wondering if the year will be one of bit-by-bit retrievals; I believe so, in so many ways, and oh, yes, patience is going to be needed in abundance. I hope for healing school-ward, also. Lots to recover and, honestly, some things should go and stay gone. Prime time to start fresh, vision and all, if leaders will pull together. I could say that for the country as well. Thanks so much for your words. 🙂

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    • Prior to this I might never have thought that a giant tortoise symbolizes hope, but oh, it does … of the most determined and steady kind. I wouldn’t have thought a tortoise would be so amiable or want to be petted, either – some will follow you around like a dog (again, a hope-like metaphor). Thank you for catching hold of the hope and the good here, Margaret!

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  2. This is so touching, Fran, I loved it… Thank you for sharing your difficult times moment by moment. It’s amazing your husband remembered the tortoise. I hope he will remember more and more of the wonderful memories from last year. Sending you my prayers…

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    • There were so many amazing things throughout the whole experience, Mari – now that I am a safe distance away from the living of it, I may write more, as I could not at the time. I am deeply grateful for your words, thoughts, and prayers. Blessings to you. 🙂

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  3. The way you wove all of this together, with the tortoise at the start and the significance of its memory…..just breath-taking, really. I am sorry, so sorry, for the pain but so happy that your husband is on the mend and you, as always, have found a way to find deep meaning through it all. Utterly beautiful.

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    • The tortoise, when it resurfaced in my husband’s memory, seemed to be the perfect metaphor for endurance … not to mention that a tortoise is symbol of longevity! Hope in a shell, crawling determinedly on…. I love following such threads to see how they connect. Really they weave themselves together, with enough time. I thank you so much for your words, Kathleen.

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  4. Thank you for sharing this heart-felt post. The significance of the tortoise is so remarkable. May we all have the patience you have as things move slowly back to a new normal. You are an inspiration.

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  5. Even though the topic is dire, I love how you pulled apart this major anniversary into a list of mini-anniversaries–because time does move differently in the middle of crisis. We’ve all definitely felt it during the last five months. My memory is not something I consider a strength, but there are events for which I can remember so many details–and they were mostly moments of crisis. I have to wonder if that’s a survival mechanism, our brain’s way of reminding us how to handle such anxiety-inducing scenarios should they arise again? I am glad too for the glimmer of hope the tortoise memory has given your family.

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    • Memory so fascinates me – I almost feel as if I could study it for a career. It’s probably why I love writing memoir. We don’t really remember things exactly as they were, as time distorts them somewhat. Like photographs fading, changing color … I believe you are right about crisis. When our world shrinks in so suddenly, details seem to stand out in more starkness. It’s definitely filed way for future reference, as you mention … again, all so fascinating to me. Thank you for your thoughts, Chris!

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