Tick. Tick. Tick.
The periodic ticking of the dusty old grandfather clock in the corner was the only sound in the room aside from her sporadic breaths of varying intensities. Her tiny exhales accessorized the ticking to produce a dulcet harmony in its wake.
As she came to, her eyes opened wide in anticipation, glaring at the leisurely rotating ceiling fan, trying to invoke that familiar sense of recognition.
Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.
And there it was.
Her eyes opened further wide, this time with a sense of remembrance.
A barrage of memories flew her way as if a flock of bats greeting you in a cave, except her memories were anything but dark. She took a second to replay them again in her head, attempting to disentangle the web of jumbled memories, and smiled wide.
She remembered it now.
She closed her eyes again and kept replaying the freshly recalled day on her eyelids, only opening them to look at the picture of a young couple no older than 20 by her bedside.
Her train of thought was only interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Dorothy, are you up yet? It’s me, Tina!”
“Tina! Yes, my dear, Come on in!”
Tina opened the door and saw Dorothy’s immobile frame, her lifeless arms by her side. She still hadn’t got used to that. All the life was on Dorothy’s face. Tina noticed the grin stretching up to her ears and smiled to herself.
“Oh! Is it a good one today?” asked an excited Tina.
“Indeed, my dear!”
“Wow, I’m excited! Let me just get you up quickly and then you can tell me all about it”.
Tina flicked the switch on the side of her bed, initiating the mechanical humming. The top half of the bed started folding upwards, allowing Dorothy to sit upright.
“You’ve got a bit of a clean-up down there”, said Dorothy just as Tina pulled the blanket off her and saw the wet patch between her legs.
“You know, you would think that after 3 months of this, I would get used to it”.
“Excuse me, what about myself? I am the one who has to lay in my own filth”, said Dorothy.
“You can’t even feel anything down there!”
“But I sure as hell can smell it, Tina. My nose works just fine, it’s just everything from the neck down that is lifeless.”
“Alright, alright, Jesus! You’re unusually chipper today. Did you remember a particularly good day?”
“Oh, just wonderful!”
“I’ll get my notebook!”
A few minutes later, after cleaning up and giving Dorothy her daily dose of medicines, she took a seat across from her, and said, “Okay Dorothy, how did Nick manage to sweep you off your feet this time?”
Still smiling, Dorothy looked into Tina’s eyes, as if all that she wanted to say was emanating from her eyes straight into Tina’s.
“This time we were at Disneyworld! Oh my, what a day it was! Feels just like yesterday, but it was about 27 years ago, back when I was 22” said Dorothy with a tone of excitement Tina has rarely heard before.
“Disneyworld! That’s amazing, haha! Tell me everything”, added Tina.
“We were just a couple of young kids, our first time in the US. I remember we were there because Nick had finally got a big meeting with a potential client.
“Going to Disneyland had always been a bucket list item for me, and so of course, we set aside a whole weekend to visit the dream factory.
“We went to ALL of the rides and attractions, multiple times, in fact. The popeye ride was my favourite, no question.”
Tina kept diligently making notes and looking up to smile after every sentence.
Dorothy continued, “But the best part of the trip had to be the final day, while we’re just about to head back, still drenched from the raging rapids ride, and I’m waiting at the exit for Nick to bring out the car.
“I stood there for about 15 minutes, and he still didn’t show up. And I was so pissed! You know how much I hate being in wet clothes!”
“And waiting, too”, added Tina.
“And waiting too!” echoed Dorothy.
“But then he finally came around, and he had got me those Minnie Mouse helium balloons. And all my anger just evaporated as if the water on my clothes had as well.
“The entire 30 minute ride back to our hotel, we just spoke like two little kids, in that ridiculously high-pitched voice, and just laughed the entire time. God, I don’t even remember anything we talked about, just the sounds of our laughter.
“Well that’s not fully true. I remember one thing he said very clearly, in the same ridiculous voice when he just looked at me, looked me in my eye, and said ‘Oh Dorothy King, I love you like crazy’.”
Tina looked up immediately to look at Dorothy’s expressions, and she noticed her eyes were glistening. But she didn’t say anything.
“It was the first time he had said it to me. The first of millions”, said Dorothy.
Even Tina was welling up now. Someone as practical, grounded, not-at-all a gooey romantic Tina, was also feeling it now. And how could she not?
Dorothy was a 49-year-old woman, who was living in The ABC assisted facility for the specially-abled for the past seven years.
Since the accident.
The car accident that left her paralyzed from the neck downward. She sustained a critical injury to her Hippocampus, and she woke up with zero recognition of who she was. But with every passing day, she remembers a new day from her life. From Before. Before the accident that revoked her identity.
The first couple of years she did not remember anything, and the doctors tried to piece together details about her life, who she was, where she was from, what she did for a living, and so on.
In the last five years, she started waking up with memories. One day at a time. Of one day at a time. A day from her past.
Since then, she has been able to, with the help of some very diligent volunteers at the facility, create the semblance of a story for herself. However, she only recollects days from her adulthood, mid-twenties-onward, and nothing about her childhood, or even teenage years.
Hardly anything about her family. A little bit more about her friends. And especially about him.
It was all about Nick.
Every single story Dorothy recollected featured Nick in it. Every single one of them. Snapshots of a lifetime’s worth of memories. From cute moments to passionate evenings, to even some gloomy days with plenty of words that they wished they could take back. But for the most part, Nick and Dorothy’s relationship seemed almost out of a movie script.
Two weeks later, Tina was sitting at her usual cafeteria down the road from Dorothy’s care home, with her usual cappuccino with a dash of cream. Her friend Vicky had joined her this evening.
“So, how long are you going to keep working for this old lady?” asked Vicky. Tina’s friends were not-so-secretly sceptical about her job. She was on her way to be a hotshot lawyer in New York City in two months.
“Till I have to leave for New York, of course”, said Tina, without looking up from her coffee cup. “But I don’t get it, what is it about this old woman that has got you so hooked?
Tina sighed. Looked up at her friend for the first time that night, and said, “I don’t know. I just don’t know. Her stories, man! Her stories. They’re so incredible, it’s almost unbelievable. What a life she has lived, and what a love she has experienced!
“But the gaps are not all filled yet. Her stories cover an entire generation with the same person, over 20 years of them! And she remembers just one random day at a time.”
“What do you mean gaps?”
“Well, like for example, we still don’t know how Nick and Dorothy met. Or, their wedding day. Or the day of the accident. Nothing about that.”
“Well I mean, there are 20 years’ worth of stories, so it’ll probably take 20 years to cover them all. So I mean, unless you wanna do this for the next 20 years..”
“Yeah. I know, you’re right. It’s just these last two months. After that, new city, new life. New York.” They toasted to that.
47 days later
Tina is at the coffee shop again after another day of stories. Today’s was about the day Dorothy and Nick went to go see Shrek 2 and then went home and had sex in Shrek and Donkey costumes. Pretty standard stuff.
She got to the counter, got her cappuccino with a dash of cream, and as turned around, she bumped into the guy behind her in the queue.
“Oh I’m so sor-“
She started saying it but couldn’t finish the apology. Her face was frozen with shock, or confusion, or a mixture of both, staring at this man she just bumped into.
The faint, fading feeling of recognition. Where have I seen this man before?, Tina thought.
The man just smiled wryly and said, “uh, it’s alright. Just glad you didn’t spill any of that on me”, pointing to her coffee.
The picture! On Dorothy’s bedside table!
But all Tina could let out was, “It’s you.. Nick!
“Wow, you looked way better when you were 20”.
The smile was gone from Nick’s face and was replaced with mild amusement as he said, “Do I know you?”
“No. But I know you. You’re Nick Rodrigues, Dorothy’s husband. Or wait, ex-husband? No wait, you’re alive! So you didn’t die in that accident. But you’re not with Dorothy? Why not?”
“Uhh, okay I feel like there’s some misunderstanding.”
“You’re Nick Rodrigues, aren’t you?”
“Yes. That is me..”
Tina was smiling wide now. She was almost delirious. Was she dreaming? Nick was alive, right here in front here, down the road from Dorothy! She couldn’t believe her luck.
“Oh my God, she’s going to be so happy! I cannot believe it.”
“Wait, who’s going to be happy? Also, did you call me an ex-husband a minute ago?”
“Yes, aren’t you?”
“Uh, no.. I mean not unless you’re my wife’s lawyer and about to serve me divorce papers. I’m happily married with 2 kids. My wife is back home in Florida.”
Tina’s smile was fading away.
“Wait, did you say the name Dorothy?” added Nick before Tina could speak. “Dorothy King?”
Her eyes lit up again and said, “Yes! Dorothy King Your ex-wife!”
“Ex-wife? What are you talking about? We never married. We broke up after dating for about 2 years.”
Tina’s face was blank. Almost pale.
“Huh? You-.. wait. I don’t understand. You guys broke up after two years?”
“That’s right. I told her I loved her, and she… didn’t.”
There was a lull.
Nick’s face looked like he had just seen a ghost, his eyes were travelling in the past, down memory lane, as if he were making an effort to recollect his memory, but also at the same time simply just dusting it off a memory shelf.
Tina didn’t know what to think. She was dumbfounded. And then:
“Wait, did you tell her you loved her at Disneyland?”
Nick’s eyes widened and before he could say yes, Tina continued.
“In a ridiculously high-pitched voice because you had just inhaled helium from a Minnie Mouse head-shaped balloon” asked Tina, in the form of a sentence.
“I-.. who are you? Why do you know all this about me?”
Tina just looked at Nick, grabbed his hand in hers, and said, “Come with me.”
They raced down the road, and back up to the care home.
As Tina burst through the care home entrance with Nick tagging along, a man in a doctor’s white blazer saw them coming in and ran towards them.
“Wait!” said the doctor, blocking their path clearly headed towards Room 256, Dorothy’s room.
“Wait, you can’t go in there.”
“What? We have to, Dr. Osman! Look who I found! It’s Nick Rodrigues! In the flesh! Dorothy will be so happy to see him!”
“No. You cannot meet her”, said the doctor, motioning towards Nick. “I feared this day would come.”
“What? What are you talking about?” demanded Tina.
The doctor sighed, and looked to his feet.
“Please. Let’s talk in my office.”
The doctor showed them the way, and as they took a seat, Nick said “can someone tell me what the hell is going on?”
Without missing a beat, the doctor said, “You’re dead, Nick.”
He left that hanging in the air for a second, as if to build suspense on purpose.
Tina didn’t say anything. Nick didn’t say anything.
Osman just shaked his head and continued, “I mean, you’re dead to Dorothy. As far as she knows, or believes, you died in the accident that took away her memory.”
“I did?”, said a bemused Nick, having one of the strangest days of his life.
“7 years ago Dorothy was in a car accident, and her Hippocampus suffered major damage. She lost pretty much all of her long-term memory, except it seems the memory of you, Nick.”
Before Nick could respond, Tina asked the question she’d been dying to ask ever since Nick told him they broke up after two years:
“What about the ‘memories’ of her times with Nick that spanned over twenty years?”
“Well, we’re not absolutely certain, but we believe that after her accident, her Neocortex – the part of the brain responsible for imagination, took over some functions of her long-term memory. And over time, she wasn’t able to differentiate between her memories and imagination.
The doctor noticed some scepticism on their faces, and added “I know it sounds made-up, but sometimes, when one part of the brain stops working or gets damaged, another part tries to pick up the slack and attempts to carry out the same function.
“That is probably why Dorothy only started remembering these ‘memories’ 5 years ago. For the first couple of years after the accident, her brain functions were just rallying, doing their best to keep her coherent and alive. And in those two years, the Neocortex started picking up more and more slack from the Hippocampus.”
Tina looked solemn.
After what seemed like an eternity but was probably just 30 seconds, she said, “so, Dorothy’s brain is lying to her..”
“Well, you can call it lying, I could call it a defense mechanism vital for keeping her alive. She’s paralysed from the neck down, and has nearly no quality of life. But everyday, she wakes up with a supposedly new memory. One that she didn’t remember before. That, in essence, has become her will to live. She’s moving forward in time, making ‘new’ memories, that are in fact her imaginations of the past”.
No one spoke. For about a minute. Dr. Osman and Tina kept looking at each other, as if stuck in a trance. And Nick, looked at either of their faces, and finally broke the spell:
“So what you’re saying is, that telling her that I am here and alive and that our love wasn’t the glorious tale of romance she thinks it was, but just a failed relationship that she probably regretted so much that she spent years after it ended trying to imagine ‘what if’, would be a bad idea.”
“But it’s still not the truth, right? Doesn’t she have a right to know this about her life?” Tina pleaded to Nick.
“Okay, but what is the truth anyway? Isn’t it subjective? As far as she is concerned, and believes to the best of her ability, her memories are 100% real. She really believes that her memories are her experiences, and that’s her truth.
“She believes we were together. She believes we stayed together, and she believes that her love was ever-lasting, boundless, and unaffected from the limitations of time and consciousness”, said Nick.
Tina felt defeated. She didn’t know what she was going to be next.
“Look, I’m not going to tell you what to do. I don’t have the right to interfere with Dorothy’s life anymore. All I’ll say is this: some part of me is almost glad that she has these memories. That there was a version of us, real or not, that said ‘I love you’ back to me on that drive back from Disneyland, and that we spent over 20 loving years together.
“Maybe that version of us is a reality in some other universe out there, which has found a node in Dorothy’s mind.”
Tina smiled at that. But still didn’t say anything.
“Well, so what are you going to do?”
Tina sighed, shook her head, and said, “I don’t know.”
The next day, as she made her way back to the care home and up to Dorothy’s room, Tina felt hollow.
She stood outside her door for a minute, took a deep breath, and went in.
“Tina! You’re here! Come on in! I have another! I just remembered one of the best days of our lives, Nick and I’s first date! Oh, what a beautiful day! What a beautiful man, Nick!
“By the way dear, there’s another clean up situation down there, if you know what I mean,” said Dorothy, rolling her eyeballs to the bottom of her eyes, as if to point downwards.
Tina looked at her, let out a wry smile, shook her head, and said, “Let me clean you up and then you can tell me all about your first date.”
To that, Dorothy looked at her and just smiled.
She smiled like there was no tomorrow.