Of Memory and Mental Breakdown

Michelle Cabral

I’m talking about family or responsibility or narrative voice. I’m taking about narrative voice and perspective. I’m talking about, no, I’m writing about distance. The distance between my memories and your memories and your dad’s memories and that thing your sister said. I’m talking about how you said you saw something this way and I told you that you were wrong. We’re talking about perspective and eyeballs and synapses and memory recall. We’re talking about Borges. It’s always Borges. We’re talking about recalling a memory. I remember that day like it was the best day ever. It was sunny and hot and I was hung-over. I was driving down Lake Shore Drive with my windows open to get some air. All I needed that day was air. But then miles away my grandmother died and suddenly I needed air and whiskey. My undergraduate paper on the idealization of the American Frontier cited Borges: “The fact is that each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past as it will modify the future.” I want to modify your memory of me. I want to say fancy words to you so you think I’m smart. I want to tell my grandmother that I’m gay but she’s dead and so is my grandfather. Maybe telling them would have been selfish. Let’s talk about how we build memories, let’s talk about chemical reactions. Let’s use words like neurotransmitters and synapse recalls, let’s talk about brain function and the frontal lobe. My parents are medical professionals, they talk about heart sounds and diastolic pressure. They talk about new medications and patients that don’t follow doctor recommendations but who do remember to ask if they can take Viagra with Nitrates. You shouldn’t. Everyone is under performing. It’s not just old men with four hour erections; it’s all of us. I don’t have a Borges quote about erectile dysfunction, at least not one off the top of my head.  We should be talking about memory, not medication. The body is an amazing machine but our bodies lie to us. We stand in the mirror and see fat where there is none. We stand in the mirror and see wrinkles as flaws. We pinch skin and pretend we can regain youth with a cream or gel. We eat when we are full. My father cannot remember his mother’s recipe for empanadas. He wakes up in the middle of the night screaming that he cannot breathe. My father says that the brain is different from the body, but that’s only because he doesn’t want to talk about mental illness. I think it’s all connected. It has to be. I want to tell you about how I cry in my therapist’s office when she asks me to name moments of happiness in my life. She thinks I cry because I’m too hard on myself, too negative. I want to tell her I don’t want to tarnish the memory. That I can’t think about the day I crossed the state line into Illinois and saw the Chicago skyline and felt, for a moment, free from everything. I can’t tell her—because I’ll lose that memory. The more I think of it or remember it the further away I will be from the original. I will lose that feeling. This is supposed to be about memory. I want to tell you about the day my grandmother died because my grandmother had Alzheimer’s and she didn’t know who I was when I visited her. She couldn’t tell me her name or her husband’s name or her father’s name. She didn’t recognize my mother, her child. I want to tell you how none of that mattered because my grandmother remembered she was in love.  Eric Kandel described memory by likening it to a pen and notebook. That in the time before the ink sets, it is possible to obscure and change what has been written. But once the ink is dry the memory is stable and cannot be erased. I’ve taken to writing in pencil because the noise of the graphite scratching at my legal pad drives me crazy. How melodramatic.  I chose pencil because it was easier to erase the mistakes than to cross them out. I don’t like a trail of failed ideas censored on my paper, but the globs of eraser shavings spoil my good ideas so all I’m left with are faded lines about my grandmother’s perm. My father switches the way he parts his hair every six months, he says it gives it more bounce. This is meant to be a discussion of how memory fades over time. I go to the grocery store and return home not realizing I forgot milk and eggs.  I’m never out of rice. I find it’s easy to remember fear. Two summers ago I spent two weeks refinishing my family’s old kitchen table trying to sand away at scuffs and dents in the wood. I even added a chemical to make the wood harder, more resilient. But the scratches are still there. The loose spindle on the chair from when my sister got her head suck. Or was it her leg? My mother tells me she keeps the good memories up front. My father tells me he doesn’t remember. My sister lives in memories. I try to talk to my therapist about memory. But she just sits with a tight lip smile, nodding her head as I quote Borges. She’s always wearing scarves and playing with the top of her water bottle and I’d like to ask her what memory she doesn’t want to lose, but we’re not allowed to talk about her life. One time she sat forward on her chair and said, “memory works like this,” only she might not have said it that way, she might have sighed or gritted her teeth together or shouted, “Jesus Christ, stop asking me about this.” I’m on Lake Shore Drive and the sun is shining and I’m listening to country music even though it’s a song about being a real man. I want to catch my breath, but my Honda Civic only has two windows and the papers in my back seat are flying around. Memory starts with perception, the visual, the auditory, the senses are processed in the hippocampus where they form one single experience which is stored in the cerebral cortex.  I was in a room that smelled like stale coffee when I got the call about my grandmother’s death. But I got eleven more calls before the meeting finally took a break for lunch. When we write memoir or nonfiction and we write about our family are we turning our back on them?  It was early June when I stopped getting out of bed; instead, I looked at the ceiling and counted imaginary spiders. I know they were imaginary because one day I got out the stepladder to try and kill them but none of them died. My friend told me I needed to talk to someone about my depression. I told her to mind her own business. I kissed my grandmother on the forehead, I told her I was leaving New York and moving to Chicago. I told her my name. I told her I loved her. In a time before she lost her memory or when it wasn’t apparent it was gone, she shouted at my grandfather about the women who were stealing her silverware and having affairs with the repairmen in the kitchen. There’s a difference between losing your memories and losing hold on reality. I’m talking about myself now. I started seeing a therapist in June. Between the spiders and the way I pictured myself hanging from the rafters in my new apartment, I wanted to make my head stop spinning. I’m talking about the day my grandmother died. I didn’t cry. A memory is strengthened the more times it flows through the Papez circuit, it’s strengthened with spatial and emotional associations. The more we think about the stale coffee, the song on the radio, the feel of the jeans, the more the memory will stay with you. I am on Lake Shore Drive and I exit at Bryn Mawr. I turn right to go up Ridge and then a left onto Victoria. I park my car. This is a memory. No this is a memory of a memory. I drove all the way home. I parked in front of the church and walked to my apartment. I rang the buzzer to have my girlfriend let me in. I pounded on the door with my fist. I scratched my frontal cortex. I called my sister. She told me how one time she visited our grandmother and how our grandmother’s roommate at the nursing home had just died and how our grandmother called the hearse a funeral bus and laughed saying that lots of people she knew went on the funeral bus nowadays.  She said she will miss our grandmother. I wanted to tell my sister memories fail us, that she never visited our grandmother, that I was the one who told her story in the first place.


Michelle Cabral lives and writes in Northern New Hampshire. She holds an MFA from Northwestern University. Her work can be found in Santa Ana River Review, Gertrude Press, and elsewhere.

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