I’ve been looking at dozens of Father’s Day posts on Facebook. They are beautiful things, those posts. Often very beautiful. Full of love. But they all strike me as odd. They shouldn’t, but they do. Because I don’t really have any powerful memories of my father. He died way back, around 1990, I think, and it was sudden and an emotional bruiser. That I remember. I remember the funeral. I remember the wake. It was a good wake. He was German, born in Flint, Michigan, but married into an Irish family and just loved the idea of a wake. He really loved New Orleans funerals — Dad played trombone — but the wake was doable. And we did it.
But that was a long time ago. And the memories before them, of my entire thirty plus years with him, well those are faded at best, and utterly missing the rest. Epilepsy does that. Big seizures — what they used to call grand mal but are now tonic clonic — can make entire memory banks just disappear. Poof. Gone. Like they never were. I had a mess of those big seizures from maybe age 20 through 24, I’d say at least half a dozen. They were nocturnal, coming out of nowhere during deep sleep. I don’t remember them. I just know what people told me, all freaked out, sometimes screaming at me they were so scared. There’s be broken things around, and blood on he pillow from biting my cheeks. Otherwise waking up was quite blissful. The next day all the muscles in my body seemed to hurt, like I had pulled every one. I never seemed to take a day off of work for something as little as epilepsy and just went about my business, every step making something hurt. And suddenly I didn’t remember a lot of stuff. Sometimes I noticed. You notice if you don’t know your name, or who you are, or who anybody is. That all comes back quickly though. Longer term stuff, though…if that’s gone sometimes you never notice. That’s the funny thing about long-term memory — what you don’t remember want bother you. You don’t know it was ever there.
That’s where a lot of my father went. Zapped away in a big giant seizure. Gone. Poof.
But I think epilepsy affects long-term memory in other ways, too. Mainly, I think it weakens it, or maybe just shortens its retention. So stuff I still remembered after my seizures, stuff that came back to me, well at some point since then those memories just kind of faded away. Not zapped away instantly but just sort of slowly disappeared, like a morning fog in a sunny afternoon. The memories get more and more faint and then one day aren’t there at all. Not that I noticed they were no longer there. How could I? I didn’t even realize it was happening. You don’t if it’s something you don’t use every day. But long-term memory is by definition something you don’t use everyday. It’s something stored away to be remembered a long time later.
A lot of my Dad faded away like that.
Most epilepsy, though, isn’t those big crazy seizures. That’s what you think when you hear someone is epileptic, the big dramatic seizures, the falling sickness. But most epilepsy, absolutely the overwhelming most common form of epilepsy, is what are commonly called petit mal seizures. Neurologists call them simple partial seizures *. They affect little sections of the brain. Sometimes just one part. And sometimes they spread like a forest fire, one there, then one over there, then one over there, each throwing an electro-chemical spark that lights the neurons in the new section into more simple partial seizures, Have enough of them, over and over and over, for days or weeks or months at a stretch, you’ll notice things changing. Things not working right. Certain cognitive skills being impacted or disappearing altogether. Sometimes they reappear, or sometimes they can be rebuilt. The brain, extraordinary thing that it is, can do a lot of its own repairs. Essential memory seems to be recovered. Maybe not 100%, but it comes back. But I think that maybe that the brain rebuilds some of that missing capacity by taking neurons used for one thing and using them for another. Maybe facial memory (I lost most of that once, but it seems to have come back) was restored utilizing some neurons used for certain types of long-term memory. You don’t have just one big thing called long-term memory. It’s scattered through different parts of the grey matter, and is divided up functionally. You remember names here, friends here, family here, things you learned in school there, there and there, etc. And well, Dad was dead. Been dead a long time. Those neurons (what you call memory cells) that are dedicated to retaining memories of my father are neurons that the brain used to repair other damaged parts of the brain. My brain took a lot of damage in 2006. Simple partial seizures swept across it like wildfires, like a season of wildfires, month after month after month. The brain seemed to begin repairs as soon as those fires abated though. Functions slowly came back. It’s much improved from its low point. Then, a few years later, my brother is telling a very detailed story about my father and me and I realized I barely remembered my Dad at all. He was a shadow, two dimensional. A television show I watched as a kid and barely remembered. I don’t even recall what he sounded like. I’ve forgotten his voice. Imagine that. Not remembering your father’s voice. Yet it seemed more odd than sad. He was my dad after all, and you’re supposed to remember your father’s voice. But the emotional connection was gone. If you can’t remember somebody, what they sounded like, it just doesn’t bother you. It should, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t because he is no longer in your memory. Because that memory is gone. Poof.
Memory loss is a weird thing. It ought to bother you but it doesn’t, really. Not if it is non-essential memory, memories you don’t draw on every day. And you can’t miss memories you can’t remember you had. But I do know I loved my Dad, we were good buddies, he was senior, me junior. I was the first born son. He’d tell me that I was the man of the family when the company sent him off on another business trip. He taught me all kinds of stuff. But I don’t really remember that either. In fact my entire life before my first big seizures, until I was nineteen or twenty, is just a smudge. When us siblings get together and tell stories I can remember just a fraction of any of them. It’s like I’d never been there. Or maybe had heard the story third or even fourth hand. That’s where my dad memories are. All those memories people are sharing today, those are memories I know I had, must have had, but I have no reference point. They’re gone. Like they never even were.
Just the same, Dad, Happy Father’s Day. I may not know what it was I’m missing, but I’m sure I’m missing you nonetheless, like a good son.
* Complex partial seizures–absence seizures–leave you staring blankly for a moment or two. Those will cost you your driver’s license. Those I don’t have.