Nonfiction Writing Contest XLVI, First Place (2018)


Kristin Kostick of Houston, Texas for “Blanking”

Kostick will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.


By Kristin Kostick

On entering his stark, beige-colored room, my dad was introduced to Grandpa Tom as “an old friend.” His name didn’t seem to ring a bell. Tom had greeted him with a smile like he might greet a business partner. Firm hand shake, steady gaze. Dad said it was like meeting a different person. He seemed kind, his wild, white eyebrows looking like something out of a storybook. But something about his grin resembled a meddling vine overtaking the façade of a house you’d grown up in, something you go after with a machete and trash bags.

Grandpa Tom couldn’t remember anything from his life, not his profession, not the names of his parents, or even what his kids look like. My dad says the tell-tale sign of his total memory loss was the big smile the first time he visited him in the assisted living facility. Dad hadn’t seen him in years, and all of the sudden he gets a call from a half-sister my dad never knew he had, saying that Tom is in the hospital and one of them should probably go and tend to him. Grandpa Tom can remember the names of his kids, but nothing else about them. “We haven’t told him who you are,” is what the nurse whispered to my dad when he arrived at the facility, as if my father were committing espionage.

• • •

Grandpa Tom has something called “wet brain,” technically called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, when the neural pathways that deliver memories get zapped after a lifetime of heavy drinking. The condition is caused by a lack of thiamine or B1 in the brain, which heavy drinking prevents your body from fully absorbing. Because he lived alone when the effects finally set in, no one was around to see Grandpa Tom’s symptoms worsen, his coordination declining into a staggering, irregular gait, bumping into furniture or knocking over his whiskey glasses in bouts of disrupted motor coordination. No one was around to know if his visual and auditory hallucinations sent him wailing aloud in his living room or slumping deeper into his armchair, pouring another round. No one could see what Tom saw from the inside, his abnormal eye movements and double vision blurring the pictures on the walls, the labels on bottles. No one was around to witness the piecemeal loss of memory until it was already completely gone, until he was checked into the hospital, or to listen with him when the doctors issued the prognosis: Total recovery extremely unlikely.

The nurse leaves. My dad and Tom decide to walk the grounds along a meandering path through open grass and trees. The two men don’t have to think about where to go – that’s why the path is there, my dad notices. It lets you simply walk and talk, the body a vessel for conversation. Grandpa Tom tells my dad that the people at the clinic treat him “ok,” but he doesn’t know why they’re keeping him there.

“I don’t know what these other guys are in for,” he says. “I’m not getting too close or friendly with them.” Dad realizes that Tom thinks he’s in some kind of prison. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” he insists. If they don’t let him out by December, Tom says he’s walking out. He doesn’t realize he arrived on a one-way ticket.

My dad calls me long-distance when he comes back home, astounded that Grandpa Tom really can’t remember anything, that the brain can just wipe away memories like fog on a steamed glass. In the photograph he later sends me of the two of them together, smiling into the camera, I think: Who is this small man, standing next to my father? Why does he look so happy? In the awkward, distant composition, my father stands over him nearly half a foot taller – a distinction that seems to me symbolic of my father’s greater integrity – a strained smile strapped to his bearded face.

Given that I never knew Grandpa Tom, apart from meeting him once or twice as a child, I am not familiar with all the things that he did or said to my Dad throughout the years. The “fixer” in me wants to know every story, to chronicle the pain inflicted on my father in the same way an accountant wants to mark every error on a spreadsheet in order to arrive at a final, ameliorated total. But a laundry list of offenses will not change the past, nor prove that Grandpa Tom didn’t mean to spend most of his life making choices that would culminate in the way my dad’s voice lodges in his throat just saying the word “dad.” All of what I associate with my own father – strength, integrity, generosity, kindness, conscientiousness – are conspicuously absent from virtually every anecdote I have encountered about Grandpa. My impression of Tom as a kind of cowardly, accusatory, anger-displacing and self-loathing character is cobbled together from a series of brief moments in my life when I have witnessed the effects of these traits on my father, whose face has only a small but thoroughly memorable number of times resonated with sheer sadness and disappointment in response to Tom’s affronts. I never needed to know the details. The unforgettable look on my father’s face was enough to convey all.

I’ll just say it: Maybe out of protectiveness for my dad, I’m skeptical about Grandpa Tom’s total loss of memory. I understand the lack of thiamine, the impaired function – I understand what alcohol can do. But I also can’t help but recognize how convenient it is for Grandpa Tom to suddenly lose his memory now, as he approaches the end of his life, when ordinarily the lonely hours ticking by in the dim light of his living room might represent a justifiable finale to all the years he had wronged himself and wronged his family with selfishness and drunkenness, and when looking around and realizing you have nobody might spark a recognition of culpability so strong that one would wish there were something else to be done, a way to backtrack the years, to pour the drinks back into their caramel-colored bottles and whisk them back to their boozy store shelves, everything speeding up in reverse so that the weight of your guilt and self-disdain as you settle into your worn-out recliner begins to fade faster and faster with the possibility that maybe none of that was real, that entire life you just lived must hold something more, cannot be left like that, and everything must rest open to revision or you’ll go mad with the guilt of squandering it as you did, that there exists a way to go back and do it over, or if failing that, to fix it somehow and make it right or like it never even happened at all, surely there must be some undiscovered mechanism among all of the universe’s enigmatic machinery, that allows us to reconfigure the past and shape anew the future into something brighter, more beautiful, nearly sparkling with possibility.

How convenient, I think, to go blank when it’s time to reclaim your life’s earnings and you realize there simply are none. Does he really not remember my dad? What about the time he finally left my dad – then only eight years old – to take care of his younger sister and his mom, her multiple sclerosis worsening every day? Does he really not remember all the letters my dad wrote to him over the years, trying to forge a relationship and never receiving anything back other than occasional letters penned in Grandpa Tom’s drunken scrawl? Or the time my dad finally brought his son – my older brother – to visit him, to show him that my father had proudly raised a man, and my brother and dad had walked into Grandpa Tom’s house to find him fire-breathing drunk, totally indifferent at their arrival? That, neither?

“I don’t know if I want to read it,” I remember my dad saying, returning from the mailbox one Christmas with a card from Grandpa Tom in his hands. I was home from grad school, and it was just me and Dad that Christmas. I remember the decorated tree blinking blindly behind his tall frame. Dad paced the room, which I had never seen him do. I remember watching him open the letter with a small but doubtful smile playing on his mouth, and then silently reading the card. He stood there clutching it in his hands, reading for a long time, though I could see from where I sat that there were only a few lines written on the card, and that the handwriting was big and messy.

I distinctly remember, too, how when Dad started to cry, the tears didn’t stream down his cheeks but clung instead to the surface of his eyes, the way globs of water stick together in outer space, in zero gravity, the water anchored only to itself. I remember how he had crumpled the card in his strong fist and flung it into the trash, letting the words that Grandpa Tom would never remember writing mingle with the leftover ham bones and pie crusts.

• • •

I had never known anyone else who’d lost their memory. My only knowledge of amnesia came from a social anthropology class I used to teach, and whenever we got to the subject of “identity,” I always showed a documentary to illustrate the idea of identity as “constructed,” something we create for ourselves, not out of thin air but from our cultural and personal experiences, under the influence of the world around us. Just how much can we construct our identities, was a question I always posed to the class. The documentary was about a man, aged 35, who “woke up” one summer morning in Coney Island on the F train, having no idea who or where he was. He had a British accent, a backpack containing a pair of swim trunks, a learn-to-speak Spanish book, some pet medications (which, contrary to what you might expect, did not later show up in his bloodstream), and a slip of pink paper with a phone number written on it. He was not carrying identification. He had some bumps and cuts on his scalp, a throbbing headache, and could think of nothing else to do than turn himself over to the first policeman he saw. He was terrified. Once taken to a local hospital, the doctors ran tests but found nothing wrong with his brain. The nurses commented that he looked different from other people who came into the hospital with no memory – people who were usually dirty, homeless, wild-eyed. But this man was handsome, clean-cut, earnest. When asked to sign some hospital paperwork, he was ecstatic to find that his left hand instinctually began to sign his name with the letter D, but then stopped. He could not remember the rest of his own name.

He could not remember, either, that before he lost his memory he had been a successful stockbroker who had made millions of dollars in the stock market while living in Paris before moving into a luxury New York apartment facing the Empire State Building’s sun-glimmering façade. He could not remember that he had quit his job to pursue a new life and career in photography. He could not remember that he had used some of that fortune to travel the world, climbing snowy mountain peaks, surfing waves in exotic locations, dating models in Biarritz. He did not remember that, before he had awoken to his own new childlike, warm-hearted and mild-mannered disposition, he had before been something of a jerk, someone others described as “arrogant” and “cynical.” He would later rediscover all of this about himself by following leads from the phone number he had found on the pink slip of paper in his backpack, belonging to a girl he had dated briefly but who had dumped him because she had found him too shallow.

The man whom he had awoken to would never come to identify with the man he once was. That before-man was shrouded in mystery. Incidentally, that man also had an inexplicable gap in his life history during which he had made his enormous fortune. During this time, he has gone missing, unaccounted for. Everyone interviewed about this time in his life or how he made so much money either did not know anything about it or would not comment. Had that man left on a clandestine trip? Had that man committed a crime? Was he trying to forget something?

I wanted to know how someone with no evidence of brain trauma could simply lose their entire memory and forget their identity. After seeing the documentary about the Coney Island man, I did some research – for my lecture at first, and then out of pure curiosity – to discover if others had experienced similar “fugue states,” as they were called, and unexplained bouts of memory loss. It appears that, while extremely rare, other people with perfectly healthy brains have suffered similar “total retrograde” memory loss, meaning they can’t remember anything past a certain date. In one case, a 44 year-old Scottish butcher from Aberdeen with no evidence of brain abnormalities experienced an inexplicable “attack” of amnesia and found himself twelve miles from home after walking for hours. The last thing that he remembered was leaving his house. Then his cell phone rang. He couldn’t remember how to answer it. He wandered into a restaurant and was given a ride by a passerby to a bus station where he caught a bus home. His wife came to pick him up at the station, and the look of horror on her face as he stepped off the bus startled him. He thought, “I’ll never forget that look.”

And for all we know, he didn’t forget that look. But he did later forget what his wife looked like in general. He forgot who she was, that he had a wife at all, not to mention two daughters, who he forgot too. Even now, the report says, his memory comes and goes, and it still surprises him every time he sees the look of devastation on the face of someone he doesn’t recognize, and that person turns out to be a family member or long-time friend. The damage his loved ones experience from not being remembered haunts him. After one of his worst bouts of amnesia, the butcher from Aberdeen was coming out of the shower as his wife was talking on the phone. She found him in his pajamas, slumped in a corner of the bathroom. He recalls, “I didn’t know why I was there like that and I didn’t know she was my wife. I didn’t know why I was in her house and I wanted to leave.” She was crying and he felt bad for her, this stranger before him. But he couldn’t help who or what he remembered, he said.

Couldn’t help it, he said, as though memory were a thing to be assisted or supported, intervened upon. I continued digging to find that in the past two decades, more and more new cases of unexplained amnesia have been documented than ever before. In 1999, a man in his mid-twenties appeared in a Toronto hospital with a broken nose, barely able to walk, and with no memory of who he was or where he had come from. His wallet and identification were missing and all the labels on his clothes had been removed. When they ran tests, the doctors could find no evidence of traumatic brain injury, and could not explain why he had no memory. When it was discovered that he spoke fluent French, Italian and could read Latin, the media devoured his story and christened him “Mr. Nobody.” Later, allegations arose that before he lost his memory, he had been a pornographic model in Britain.

Then in 2005, a 20 year-old German man turned up on Kent Beach in England wearing a sodden suit and tie, having no recollection of who or where he was. He was not carrying identification and all of the labels on his clothes had been removed (same as the previous case). When he would not speak during his stay in the hospital, nurses gave him a paper and pen and he drew a piano. When they brought him a piano, he skillfully played Tchaikovsky and songs from the Beatles for hours before they finally took the piano away. He still refused to speak and spent four months in a psychiatric facility, during which time his interpreters and caregivers were contacted by hundreds of newspapers, television networks, interested fans, and orchestras pining to discover his identity and to hear more talent from the memory-less “Piano Man.”

In another case – also in England – Sussex policemen found a man lying unconscious and hypothermic between two piers on Brighton beach in early February, 2010. The 26 year-old man wore a soaking-wet suit (same as the previous case). He was not carrying identification. He was tall and slim with dark straight hair, and spoke with a perfect English accent (or, as the British newspapers said, with no accent at all). When asked his name, he gave two possible names but said he could not be sure which was his. The police officers doubted the authenticity of the names but “gently” took him into custody. He was in a “fragile state,” they said. The policemen hoped someone would identify him. Days later they released a report that his fiancée had recognized his picture in the papers and took him home. It was not mentioned whether or not he recognized her back, agreed to go with her, or whether “home” was still, or ever, home for him.

I plowed through these case descriptions as though trying to get to the bottom of a crime. My fascination grew with every story. This was long before we had any news of Grandpa Tom’s amnesia. Even after my dad came back from the hospital, I did not immediately draw any connections between these stories and his. I had no immediate reason to compare, as Grandpa Tom’s issue was apparently a neurological one. Alcohol had taken a physical toll on his brain. What other explanation was there?

When I had first delved into these other cases, my interest came from a more basic, anthropological curiosity: I wanted to know if it was a coincidence that all of these cases had been either from Europe or the United States. I tried to find cases of total retrograde amnesia in non-Western countries, but found only a sparse few and all were explained by obvious brain trauma, lesions or congenital abnormalities. Could it be that the kind of “acausal” amnesia found in the other cases is culturally-based? That maybe total retrograde amnesia is the extreme exemplification of a more common Western impulse to forget as a way of moving on? Most non-western cultures don’t even have a name or classification for “amnesiac” the way we do, a term that becomes a defining feature of a person’s identity when they can’t remember their own past. But in our culture, amnesia is a culturally recognized designation comprised of an expected set of features and behaviors that sets the amnesiac apart from others. You aren’t just amnesic, you become an amnesiac. The cultural script is already there, and if it happens to you, the role somehow slips over you like a silken tunic, draping in all the right places. There are no decisions to be made, and nothing to strategize or consider. Your former self is simply gone. Now, by definition, you are expected to either rediscover who you once were or simply begin again with both the future and the past a yawning blank.

People with amnesia find it hard to imagine the future. This is because the way we imagine and predict the future is closely linked to our memories of earlier experiences. The areas of our brains that are stimulated during fMRI experiments as we envision the future are the same ones that light up when we try to remember the past. These areas of the brain do not just overlap partially, but completely, so that it is literally impossible to envision the future without recalling something of the past. Researchers think that this is an adaptive mechanism that helps us to prepare for future challenges by recognizing patterns across situations we have encountered in the past. The ability to accurately predict how future scenarios might unfold might keep us from walking into oncoming traffic or being eaten by a bear. We know – or can predict with some degree of accuracy – what will happen if we tell an inappropriate joke at a cocktail party or pick a fight with a tall stocky guy at the bar. Maybe we’ll lose friends, or get our nose broken. We know because we’ve seen this happen before – either to us or to someone else, or to someone on TV. Being able to predict uncomfortable or dangerous scenarios allows us to avoid or change them – it thereby helps us, in small but cumulative ways, to survive.

Given this logic, if you can’t remember the past, the future is completely uncertain. There are certain benefits to this. Let’s consider that, while the only thing that connects Grandpa Tom to those mysteriously acausal amnesiacs is, well, a cause. In Tom’s case, the doctors blame alcohol, neurochemicals. This alone is what distinguishes him from the cases of unexplained amnesia. Those other cases could not pinpoint a physical anomaly to explain their memory loss. No lesions, no bumps on the head or skull, no trace of memory-erasing drugs in the bloodstream, nada. The only thing that hinges Tom’s case to these others is the factor of motive. That I could so easily identify in Grandpa Tom a good reason to forget – this became the pivot-point that led me to consider Grandpa Tom’s circumstance in light of the other cases. This, and one other very important thing that my father told me about his visit to Grandpa Tom’s facility.

• • •

As they walk around the grassy path, Grandpa Tom begins to smile, not the way that he did when my dad first came in, but in a different way, more subtle. It becomes obvious as they’re walking that Grandpa Tom’s tired brain is grinding and clicking, like an old tractor digesting the earth below. Little by little, Grandpa Tom begins to remember my dad. As my dad is talking, something sets off a firework in Tom’s brain. He stops along the pathway and says, “Wait. YOU’RE….GARY.” Grandpa Tom looks at my dad under his feral eyebrows, and the two of them stand there staring at each other. My dad nods, is fighting back tears because it is like his dad is seeing him for the first time, more fully than he saw him even with his memory intact. This sudden recognition from the hazy depths of Grandpa Tom’s recollection seems to carry the full weight of his lack of recognition of my father as his son all these years – not due to amnesia all that time, but something else, more cruel – and the weight of it comes swinging round like an anvil for them both. Dad doesn’t know what to feel. Is he happy? Tom doesn’t know what to feel either, probably, but he is smiling so big, like he’s just discovered a goldmine in the caverns of his own brain, like he’s putting down the pick-axe after months of climbing aimlessly and staring at the shimmering gold of my father’s face and thinking, bingo.

That actually happened, Dad says. But what if, now that Grandpa Tom recognizes my dad as his son, he begins to recollect all of the other more painful memories too, the ones that, when pieced together, slowly reveal an image of Grandpa Tom as a mean old drunk? Psychologists have taught us for decades that perceptions of the self as “good” and “right” are among the most motivational needs that humans have. In other words, we are motivated to think of ourselves as other than despicable, even if it means thinking ourselves into that someone. The effect of having the full heft of your former self come back to you like a wheelbarrow full of coal dumped at your feet could be psychologically devastating, an impetus for great depression, crisis, the cognitive equivalent of paralysis. Maybe if Tom had to be that person for one more day, he just couldn’t go on living. Maybe when the psychological pain is so great, the stakes grow high enough so that you don’t even have a choice. Consciously or subconsciously, you have to make that transformation, or else you’ll no longer be able to function, your self-loathing like a pair of iron shackles nailing you to the ground. Maybe for people like Grandpa Tom, survival is not in remembering, but in forgetting. By some cryptic, psychodynamic process, you don’t even have to think about how to get from person A to person B, it just happens. That’s why the path is there. You don’t have to think about where to go. Another drink, and then another, and you are already putting one foot in front of the other in a miracle of motion.

The way our culture distinguishes illness into Cartesian categories, physical anomalies always trump the psychological or emotional. Identifying a physical cause of Grandpa Tom’s memory loss saved everyone – especially his family members and anyone else who really knew him – from having to bother with other potential sources of his memory loss – guilt, shame, fear. These might have implicated a formidable set of reasons for forgetting, thereby calling into question even the most innocent of Grandpa Tom’s memory lapses. It might have removed Tom’s amnesia from the realms of inevitability – a consequence of “wet brain” or lesions or physical trauma – into a realm of choice, however subconscious. Still, even biomedicine does not understand very well the boundaries between the physical and the psychological. Indeed, most neurologists and biologists now argue that one is inextricably linked to the other, and that our state of mind is intimately tied to our biochemistry, just as our biochemistry is intimately influenced by our mood and responses to external events. Given our current knowledge, it is impossible to delineate where our emotions and cognition leave off and our neurochemistry and biology begin. The proverbial chicken and egg dilemma ensues with as much force as it did a hundred or even five hundred years ago.

When the doctors say, then, that Grandpa Tom’s amnesia is due entirely to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, I can’t help but ask: All of it? And if not all of it, then How much? He did, after all, begin to remember my father after just one visit, which indicates that his memories were not simply erased. They remained somehow hidden in the folds of his current experience, perhaps coloring his emotional reactions in ways that even he could not explain or understand.

What had changed was not the existence of the memories themselves, but Grandpa Tom’s capability – or desire – to access them.

This kind of subterfuge would seem to take a lot of work and meticulous planning. One might think that the brain of an alcoholic like Grandpa Tom isn’t capable of the difficult cognitive leaps and masterful self-deceptions it might take to pull off a real identity switch – one that not only others believe but that you believe, too, utterly convinced that you are no longer that man from before. But I came across a study from the 1990s showing that while chronic heavy drinking can significantly impair the memory, it does not result in the loss of gray matter – the “thinking” part of the brain. This means that Grandpa Tom’s strategizing skills remained intact throughout what I call his “blanking” episode, and still do to this day.

And what about the bizarre details of the other cases, that nearly all of them carried no identification, with one man missing even the most trivial identifiers – the labels ripped from his clothing? Did he rip those labels off himself? Did everyone just coincidentally forget their I.D.s at home the day they blanked out? And why had they all been walking around so long, miles away from home? Can’t one have a “fugue state” in their own neighborhood or backyard, circling the barbecue pit or the community pool? The more I consider the details of these cases, the more I see a certain intelligence revealed in the ways these men parted with their previous selves.

This kind of intelligence, however, might not be a conscious one. In the same way that Freud posited a kind of psychodynamic, unconscious intelligence that leads us to adaptively transform negative thoughts of ourselves or our mothers and fathers into more manageable and psychosocially acceptable pathologies (or dream-objects, etc.), so might we possess an unconscious intelligence that allows us to forgive ourselves and move on. Or just, simply, to move on.

As far as Grandpa Tom goes, the undeniable facts are that the physiological effects of excessive drinking culminated in the gradual degradation of the nutrients his brain needed to inform his sense of self in a space approximating reality. He didn’t decide to forget, orchestrating some sort of auto-heist of his own memories. It is clear from a biomedical perspective that the alcohol made him forget. But what made the alcohol travel down his throat, settle into his veins, steadily lap away at the shore of his fragile neurons? How many micro-decisions to unscrew, pour, sip, swallow does it take to add up to a larger, more unconscious decision to forget? And what about his openness to the memories that do begin to resurface? I wonder to what extent these are carefully vetted at a level that is out of even Grandpa Tom’s consciousness, allowed to pass into conscious memory according to a variety of psychosocial contingencies more complex than Tom could ever hope to imagine or understand, but which allow him to effectively survive in the absence of total despair.

Even if deep down I don’t believe that he is consciously faking the whole phenomenon of his memory loss in an effort to reconnect with family in his last, dying days, I can’t help but acknowledge that becoming another person overnight has certain consequences that could be conceived as beneficial, even if inseparable from their obvious devastations. I wonder if the “thinking” part of Grandpa Tom’s brain recognizes this too.

If you look at the other cases, the benefits of memory loss seem to outweigh many of the detriments. Of the “unknown white male” who woke up from his fugue to find that he was a rich man but no longer obliged to assume the less-than-enviable personality of the before-man who had made him rich, people said he had become nicer and more introspective, with an “almost mystical charisma.” A friend said, “It was like dealing with a child.” After his memory loss, he rebuilt afresh many of the relationships he had with people in his former life, including his girlfriend. Because his story was so incredible, he became a darling of Manhattan socialites and celebrities, scoring invitations to parties and dinners by the likes of the singer Bjork, the director Spike Jonze, and the actor Vincent D’Onofrio. Everyone wanted him to tell his story, and so the Coney Island amnesiac told it, over and over.

“Are you buying this?” asked someone who had met him at a party, speaking to a mutual acquaintance. He thought that it seemed strange how every conversation became an opportunity for the man to tell his captivating story of amnesia. If someone played an album by the Rolling Stones, the man would say, “Who is this? Is this a new band?” and someone would look at him incredulously and this would launch the story all over again.

In the case of the Piano Man, the man’s identity was confirmed with the help of the German foreign ministry and he was released from the psychiatric facility. Shortly after, it was discovered that in previous years leading up to his amnesic episode, the Piano Man had “bombarded” German television stations and pleaded with celebrities to help launch his career in music, but to no avail. He had come back to Britain on a train after losing his job in Paris. Four months after his mysterious bout of amnesia, the man spontaneously recovered his memory. To his stunned parents, he said “I have no idea what happened. I’ve just suddenly woken up and realized who I was.”

By the time the Piano Man remembered who he was, he had already garnered the attention and fascination of the public eye. He admitted that when the police found him on the beach, he had been planning to commit suicide. It is not known whether he remembers why, or what had happened to him out there as he drifted through the cold water. Maybe it was something like what happened to Grandpa Tom right before he landed himself in the hospital.

“Sometimes he gets violent,” the nurse had told Dad the day he visited. The words had swam in Dad’s ears as the nurse walked him across the sterile-looking lobby, past the reception desk, the tangled plants nesting in their pots, down the echoing, clip-cloppy hallway. Violent. Dad already knew this about Tom. The nurses said that he often refused help, refused food, demanded to know when he would be set free.

I am not surprised to hear that Grandpa Tom gets violent – even now, even here, even the new Grandpa Tom who, teary-eyed, had embraced my dad for the first time as his son while the birds chirped in the trees and the sun shone overhead. Maybe it is because I can remember the past that it seems so easy to predict the future. I predict that Tom will live for another five or seven years, remembering just enough, the way children selectively remember the best parts of the story, letting duller details fall away. I predict that dad will try to get to know the new Tom, that Tom will both look for and drop hints in conversation that he and my father have some deeper connection, more substantial than the same blood type. I predict Tom will gradually begin to remember who he once was, who my father is, and that Tom’s resentment will slowly creep back, his self-loathing and whatever drove him to blank in the first place. Because I believe that Tom is still there, floating beneath the surface of his memory loss, like a sunken canoe growing buoyant with algae.

Until then, what a strange relief for my father to walk into Tom’s room and see his memory dissipated into a kind of dust you see floating around in rays of sunlight – some bits of substance there, but nothing sticking together. The two men come to know a new, indefinable levity.


Kristin Kostick is a poetry and nonfiction writer currently working on a collection of essays called You Not You about the advantages of self deception.

She is also a medical anthropologist researching bioethics and health policy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Learn more at

“Blanking” © 2018 Kristin Kostick

• • • Thanks for Reading NMW • • •

7 thoughts on “”

  1. beautifully constructed and moving story. I can see a future story that creates an analogy with the historical crimes of Europeans and Americans and the cultures who cannot “willfully” lose their memories.

  2. I found the researched depth behind this family event interesting & she made the leap to ” wilfull forgetting” very plausible. Congratulations, Ms. Kostick

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