by Susan Polizzotto
March 21, 2010. I’m a singer, not a writer, but my therapist thinks writing a journal will help me. She gave me this notebook. I have my doubts. What could words possibly do to cure a traumatic brain injury? A goddamn piece of shrapnel perforated my skull. The surface wound has healed, but my short-term memory hasn’t. My life’s a bloody Wagnerian tragedy.
That’s what I wanted to say, but she’s a really nice lady. When I can’t talk about me anymore, we take breaks and talk about opera. I’m not sure if she really likes opera, but Mother pays for my sessions at this posh office off Central Park West and insists on getting her money’s worth. Only the best for her only child.
So I thanked my shrink for the notebook and asked what I am supposed to write. She said whatever I want — thoughts, feelings, conversations. Write it all down.
I told her I’d probably forget. She must have read my mind, because she gave me this elastic wristband too, orange with the words ‘KEEP WRITING’ printed on it.
There are reasons I want to get better. My shrink made me write them inside the front cover where I can’t help but see them and remember:
Reasons to Get Better
To be able to memorize new lyrics
To go back to Juilliard and complete my degree
To find work and make money
To move out of my mother’s apartment
To be honest, I hate writing
Okay the last one isn’t on the list, I’m just following orders and writing down all my thoughts. What the hell — I’ll give journaling a try.
March 22, 2010. I suppose I should introduce myself. I’m Morgan. Everyone calls me that. Mother, the doctors, my shrink, my voice coach, the guys in my platoon. Those who survived, that is.
Fortunately, you are one of them, Mother says.
Trust me, I’m glad I’m not in a box underground. Or worse — blown to bits on a dusty road in Iraq. But not a day passes I don’t think of those who didn’t come home. I survived an IED blast; they did not. That’s it. The End.
Writing about it won’t bring them back.
March 30, 2010. Today I’m at the lake where I’m supposed to be relaxing. At least that’s the intent.
Doctors orders, my shrink said. Relaxation is known to improve episodic memory.
Remembering what happened before Anbar isn’t the problem; it’s what happened after that’s challenging. Along with journaling, my shrink’s been teaching me how to use mnemonic devices. Both methods are helping my memory improve, slowly, when I remember to use them. My brain is a work in progress, you might say.
April 1, 2010. I’m still at the lake, still “relaxing.” My aunt and uncle own this cabin. Uncle Andre built it, in fact, along with the majority of the furniture. They live about a mile up the road and stopped by to check on me today with Bear, their chocolate lab.
Bear jumped up and put his paws on my chest, licked my face like he hadn’t seen me in months. Maybe it was months, for all I know. My aunt said he could use some exercise, so I took him for a walk. It’d be nice to have a dog. They’re always glad to see you and don’t ask questions like where’ve you been and why haven’t you called.
Uncle Andre served in Vietnam. He never talks about it and he doesn’t ask me questions about Iraq. When he heard I don’t have a shadowbox though, he offered to make me one.
You can pick out the wood, he said. Bring all your ribbons and medals and whatnot next time you visit.
I said I would if I remember.
That made him laugh. We’re just two old soldiers, ain’t we? he chuckled.
His smile looked like my father’s — one corner of his mouth tugged up higher than the other. Or rather the picture of my father. I don’t actually remember him, and it has nothing to do with my brain injury. I was a month old when he was killed in Beirut. Mother moved us from North Carolina back to New York — to raise me somewhere civilized, she said, where bombs don’t explode buildings.
April 5, 2010. My last night at the lake. Uncle Andre dropped by with a surprise. As soon as his truck pulled up, a blond dog leaped down from the bed, licked my hand and settled on the porch, like she owned the place.
I asked him what the deal was, and he claimed he didn’t know, she’d shown up out of nowhere and needed a home. I recognized the look on his face, his notorious Texas hold’ em tell.
She was no purebred, just a lovable mutt. I wanted her but knew Mother would kill me. No way she’d allow it.
Turned out he’d already called ahead and sweet-talked Mother into it, told her dogs were therapeutic, and that sooner or later I’d be on my own again. The dog was mine. I hugged Uncle Andre like I hadn’t since I was ten.
She had no name, so I asked what I should call her. He said “something you can remember” and gave me a wink.
April 30, 2010. I found three notebooks exactly like this on my desk today. Each has five or six pages covered in my handwriting. They begin boldly with full page entries then peter out to a few lines per day. On one of the days in one of the volumes I didn’t write anything, just taped in a photo of Max. Max is my dog — short for Maxine. She’s named for Mother’s best friend and sorority sister whose blond bob has kept the same sunny glow for forty-two years. Her hair matches the canine Max’s coat, so it’s easy to remember. But just in case, MAX is engraved on her dogtag, along with Mother’s cell phone number.
Max’s character flaws have become all too familiar. As Mother says, she’s probably a dog school dropout.
May 1, 2010. Mother caught Max sprawling on the buff leather sectional, chewing her shoes. She shrieked “not my Manolo Blahniks!”
Max jumped off when scolded and slurped from the floral arrangement in tongue’s reach on the coffee table.
Knock it off you crazy mutt! Mother yelled and threw one of her ruined shoes.
Max raised her jowls from the Waterford bowl, slid her paws off the table and retreated backward, head held low as if taking a bow. A trail of slobber pooled on the glass-topped table and dampened the carpet.
I laughed at her theatrics. Exit stage right with style and leave something for the audience (or adversary) to remember you by.
Morgan, keep your damn, dropout dog out of my sitting room!
French doors rattled shut.
I don’t know why Max’s antics stick with me when most memories drain out like sand through a sieve.
May 2, 2010. Max the shepherd, vizsla, god-knows-what was destined for something greater, I believe. Like the kids I went to boarding school with, she was probably on a fast track to fame and glory when a tragedy occurred that altered the direction of her life. I have no idea what; I can only imagine she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps an uncontrollable Pavlovian response compelled her to charge down a driveway toward a white truck carrying boxes of organic beef at the elite canine academy where she trained. A blast from the truck’s exhaust pipe assaulted her eager, too close ears, traumatizing her. After this incident, she couldn’t focus, forgot the hand signals she’d been taught and ignored voice commands. Unable to conform, she marched in her own direction and wound up getting discharged.
Whatever it was, this sweet, imperfect beast is a perfect companion for me. We share a flair for the dramatic. For me, it’s opera. For Max, it’s shiny objects — she finds them irresistible. Like the Waterford bowl. A family heirloom that attracts light and spins it dancing over the furniture and walls. Mesmerized, Max barks and chases the mini rainbows to their source, shoving an inquisitive nose in the tulips. Pure performance art!
May 5, 2010. Mother announced over a pre-dinner cocktail — or maybe three, my memory isn’t perfect — that my aunt and uncle had invited me back to the cabin. I suspect she arranged this to get Max out of the apartment. I don’t mind; we could both use some fresh air and a change of scenery. Like in Act Two when the curtain goes up and the stage has been reset. It’s invigorating and signals something interesting is going to happen.
Mother reminded me to bring my medals for the shadowbox Andre’s going to make me, to pack them in my suitcase tonight so I wouldn’t forget. After dinner, I scrounged around in my closet collecting them. I love Andre like a father, and appreciate the kind gesture, but have mixed feelings about a shadowbox. Why display medals in a box on the wall when they can remain in actual shadows in the closet?
One by one I removed them from their small blue boxes and placed them on the bed. My Purple Heart dangled noncommittally from my dress uniform jacket. Unpinning it, I ran my fingers over the frayed edges of the ribbon. It’s damaged, worse for the wear. Seeing all my medals laid out on my bed nauseated me. I had a flashback of my friend’s memorial service, all their medals laid out by their flag. I swept everything into a shoebox, closed the lid and shoved it in my duffel bag.
May 12, 2010. Max and I are at the lake. Creatures of habit, we thrive on routine. Walk, walk, walk. Pant, pant, pant. Toss and fetch seven, eight, twenty-two times because neither knows what else we’re supposed to do today.
I’m happy to oblige her seeing how repetition is my ally, reinforced by the U.S. Army and the faceless enemy whose creative tour de force left its mark on my platoon and body. Swear to god, the Iraqi insurgents could improv a dozen ways to kill us every day. Farmers, goat herders, a bunch of ragtag unprofessionals without twenty-five bucks to feed their kids — let alone twenty-five million for an Apache helicopter and some ammo — invented ingenious ways to detonate IEDs. Tripwires, pressure plates, daisy chains, garage door openers. You name it, they were using it to kick our asses.
Maybe it would feel more honorable if I’d confronted another soldier face to face, and the stakes had been one life or the other, and on that particular day I lost and he won. But in Iraq it doesn’t happen that way. The front is everywhere and the enemy could be anyone. For all I know some twelve-year-old kid planted the IED that injured me and killed my friends.
TBI my doctors call it. The same three letters again and again in my personnel record and the medical board report, as if typing out Traumatic Brain Injury requires too much time and effort. Meanwhile I know what it really stands for: no longer useful to the Army and separated as damaged goods.
No one invents acronyms like the Army and the VA, but now and then I like to have a go at it. TBI could mean many things, actually — the possibilities are endless. Too Bloody Intelligent, for example. Or Terribly Blown to Infinity.
May 16, 2010. Tonight I invented a new TBI acronym — my best one yet. Mother’s bridge club friends were here, and from my bedroom with the door cracked open I could hear them in the sitting room laughing and gossiping. Mother came upstairs to “powder her nose” as she puts it, and I tiptoed down to the kitchen for a beer and snack.
I couldn’t see her friends, but standing near the fridge I eavesdropped on their stage whispers. They were sympathizing and speculating, saying how awful that I came back this way and how relieved they were their children didn’t enlist. One piped up about the tragedy of 9/11, then asked in the next breath, “Who’ll date Morgan now?”
Definitely no one normal, another chimed in, not with TBI.
Someone asked “what’s TBI?” so I answered in my finely-honed operatic voice: Thought-Blowing Intercourse.
Gasps, then silence.
It’s true, I haven’t gone out with anyone since before boot camp, at least not that I remember. But I hope my outburst erased any idea of inability.
Before I could tiptoe off with my beer and pretzels, Max came loping downstairs and made a beeline for the sitting room, where she shoved her nose in a bowl of hummus. Or maybe it was artichoke dip. I didn’t stop to verify which sterling silver container held what. Grabbing Max’s collar, I nodded to the impeccably coifed ladies of the Upper East Side and made a hasty exit, stage right.
What’s going on, Morgan? Mother asked as she passed us on the stairs.
Nothing but The Best of Intentions, Mother.
June 1, 2010. With another party on the horizon, Mother procured Max and I an invitation to the lake. In other words, we’ve been banished. Which suits us fine. I spent the afternoon throwing things into the water for Max to retrieve. When she got tired, I swam and floated on my back looking up at the sky, taking stock.
Journaling has gotten easier. My short-term memory comes and goes. Some days it’s there and a fragment or anecdote will catch in the sieve. I hold fast to it when it does and try to write it down. To keep frustration over my slow recovery at bay, I replayed some of my Greatest Hits while I floated: my first kiss; the thrill of my Juilliard audition; the shock of seeing commercial airplanes puncture and explode into the Twin Towers; the moment I realized Juilliard could wait because I loved my country more than opera; my aunt and uncle’s pride when I announced I was enlisting in the Army; the grin on the recruiter’s face when my foreign language aptitude score came in.
How would you like to study Arabic? he said.
I remember feeling both nervous and excited when I left for bootcamp. Mother cried — the only time in my life I remember her doing so. She couldn’t imagine I’d actually go through with it. Try as I might, I can’t erase how badly boot camp sucked. However, the name of the lake still sometimes escapes me until I read the sign at the trailhead. And don’t ask me if I tossed Max the stick three times today or three hundred. She didn’t bother to count, and neither did I. Every toss was heaven and we kept going until her flanks were matted and glossy and the whole lake dripped from her tail.
June 3, 2010. This afternoon, Max and I walked over to Andre’s house. It’s over a mile away, but I didn’t worry. I trusted Max would get us there and back if I forgot which direction to turn at a fork in the road.
Andre let me pick out the wood for my shadowbox. He had everything you could imagine in his workshop — maple, oak, cherry. But I chose wormy chestnut, salvaged from an old church. Because of the nail holes and insect blight that killed off most of the chestnut trees, some might call it damaged. I prefer rustic. Rare and valuable, Andre called it.
He’s a real magician with wood and can finish the shadowbox in a month. “That is, once I have all your medals,” he said. It was weird because I vaguely recall handing over the shoebox yesterday, but he seemed to think there were more. When I said no that was everything, he shook his head in a disappointed way and went back to measuring wormy chestnut.
Max and I stayed for supper. Andre offered to drive us home, but I wanted to walk. I promised to text him when we got to the cabin.
Arcing toward the summer solstice, the day hung onto its light long past twenty hundred. I opted for the scenic route, the one that meanders along the lake. Max walked a few paces ahead, studying the sun-dappled shore. With the cabin in view, she paused and cocked her head.
What’s up? I asked.
She ignored me and rustled through weeds and detritus, excavating with her paws and nose. I figured she’d found a dead squirrel or possum’s bones. Prying a small object from the muck, she barked a victory woof and raised it in her mouth like a happy prospector.
Hey girl, show me whatcha got, I said.
Max trotted over and deposited a clod of mud about the size of a car key in my hand.
Good dog. I rubbed her head and velvet muzzle.
Through the ooze I saw a bit of shine, which must have been what caught her eye. Someone dropped their key and would be missing it soon, I thought, if not already. Maybe a personalized fob with the owner’s phone number was underneath the grime. It was worth a try. Bracing one arm against a tree, I submerged it in lake water and worked my thumb over the uneven metal surface, cleansing it.
What remained in my hand astounded me. A military medal, its ribbon frayed on the edges, but still hanging on. George Washington’s profile was etched on the front and the words ‘For Military Merit’ inscribed on the back. A Purple Heart.
It isn’t mine. At least I don’t recall bringing it near the water — why would I? But it takes no time or imagination to understand why someone would. That’s a real no-brainer.