Flawless Memory

I arrived at the intensive care unit in the early afternoon. I was shocked to find my mother rising and falling atop a motorized bed with no nurse in sight.


I arrived at the intensive care unit in the early afternoon.

I was shocked to find my mother rising and falling atop a motorized bed with no nurse in sight.


My mother, who resembled Elizabeth Taylor even as they both aged, and who was now unconscious, or partially conscious, as well as terrified and without a claim to dignity (with her tracheotomy, her heart monitor, IV drips and a macerated open chest cavity)— my mother was being tortured to death in the hospital on an ordinary day in September. Outside you could see the beginning of autumn foliage.


What to do? Stay calm, of course. Despite the bungled surgery and the failures of postoperative care, you need the nurses on your side. Everybody who has ever been in a hospital knows that you need the nurses on your side. Don’t yell at the nurses. Don’t spit in the soup.


“Excuse me, excuse me, sorry, sorry, but you see I’m blind, so I can’t make eye contact, and I could hear you over there—yes, hello.Yes, is my mother’s bed supposed to be rising and falling since, as I understand it, she has an open chest cavity?”


Stray, affiliated questions asked over a 24-hour period:

“Why can’t you sew up her chest cavity?”

“Why can’t you find a chalkboard so she can communicate?”

“Why did they perform the heart- valve surgery if her sternum was too fragile to close?”


Because I travel with a guide dog, I discover things. Even the oldest hospital apparatchiks like to see a Labrador wearing its professional harness.


My mother’s surgeon is called the Italian Stallion.

He was once the doctor of a famous TV personality, but he left New York and fame and glory for rural New Hampshire.

Since he couldn’t sew my mother up, the Stallion put a staple in my mother’s chest, but it wouldn’t stay in.

They’ve placed a sort of weighted- pillow contraption over her breasts.


Autobiography ain’t the movies. When a loved one dies, there is only paperwork and seemingly endless journeys to the Salvation Army. We gave away my mother’s favorite clothes. We bundled up the bed sheets and threw them away as if we were Victorian charwomen. What the hell else do you do with the landlord breathing down your neck?They wanted to show her apartment before she was in the ground.


The funeral director hands me a black plastic garbage bag as we stand in the cemetery. “I forgot to give you this,” he says. “It’s her teddy bear and bathrobe. You know, left over from the hospital.”

I can’t believe he’s handed me a garbage bag with a teddy bear inside. He might as well have handed me a bundle of shorn human hair and a sewing machine.


My mother’s death was so ghastly that it’s taken me eight years to confront the business. She was an old woman. She had congestive heart failure. She was diabetic. Her body was malnourished owing to years of alcohol abuse. She was a high-risk patient for heart surgery. Then, while leaning above the operating table, the Italian Stallion discovered he couldn’t sew her chest back together.


And so she slowly bled to death while rising and falling atop an electrical bed.


Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Book Eleven, tells of Odysseus’ journey to the underworld.The man requires words from the dead. Everyone knows that if you want to get home, you need the dead on your side. D.H. Lawrence said the dead stay around and help. Or something like that. The Greeks were less certain. Ancestors were no more trustworthy than the gods. Odysseus leaned into the smoky underworld and put a bowl of blood on the ground. Soon the shades of the dead came forward, and Odysseus saw his mother. She was unloved, grieving, bloodless, thirsty and kept from the world of solid form by the two-dimensional forces of Hades.The Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf wrote that everything in Hades is flat. The dead navigate there like stingrays.


Is memory real? Yes and no. Longitudinal studies in “memory theory” report that human beings “see” specific incidents poorly; they remember experiences incorrectly. After time has elapsed, they are convinced of their misapprehensions about the past.

Freud saw that we do not remember the past; we rearrange it in symbolic figuration. In other words, we are reinventing the personal past at every moment, and we are doing so with the signs and symbols that we have absorbed along the road of life.

Just as there is no “true green” in nature, there is no “true memory” stored in the human individual.


I used to believe this. Until I found my mother dazed and bleeding, rising and falling in a malfunctioning bed, which was designed to prevent bedsores. Her mattress heaved her wounded torso up then, with a merciless sequence of chirps and a grinding of gears, dropped her back down, leaving her flat for 20 seconds, flat with her leaded cushion over her chest, her eyes wide open, her throat blocked with a tube.


“No, no,” said the nurse. “The bed isn’t supposed to do that!”

“Well, how long has it been doing this?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said and then quite literally ran away.

A bowl of blood.
Shadows of early morning.
A Roman carnival spins at the top of the narrow street.
It’s spring, and they are honoring the dead. Look.

About the Author

Stephen Kuusisto

Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening, and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges.

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