- An excerpt of an essay by Lou Cook
There is no known way to dredge up the memories created by a baby. But I have one such memory, a precious image forged when I was four weeks old. When it first surfaced, I had no doubt it was a memory. But only a year later did I finally recognize the source.
It is very specific: Above all, I am hysterical with panic. A few feet above me, a merciless light blazes. Arms reach from a female body. Her form casts shadow in the pitiless light behind her. She is a stranger with a shape, but she has no hair, no chin, no nose, no mouth. Just eyes. It is horrifying. She watches my desperation in silence.
I shrink and twist and struggle. I stop my breath. I arch up. I turn my head. To the left I see a shadowed wall with smooth wall tiles, chrome carts lined up against it. There are shapes on the cart shelves. A linoleum floor. A closed door. And full-body panic.
Before this memory materialized, my earliest memory came from when I was just over one year old. The Shepaug River flooded our town and many other towns along its length in late September 1955. Many buildings were damaged or destroyed in the flood, but our ‘new’ place, the old Milk Depot across the road from the river, survived. Temporarily, the building was no longer across the road from the river because the river had flowed into the basement. But the stone foundation held steady.
It was a curious and thrilling event, having water in the basement, lapping near the top of the steps. Strict rule: I could not go down, even when Dad did. When he went down to check on the progress of the receding waters, I had to stay at the top of the stairs. I leaned over as far as I could and listened to the water lapping inside our house. On sunny days, a little ray of light snuck down ahead of me and reflected off the ripples covering the steps. Against orders, if no one was around, I would crack the door open and sneak a peek.
I loved the anomaly of water in the basement, and desperately wanted to go down to see it for myself. Finally, Dad said yes, when the water was down, I could go with him, so long as I had my boots. Immediately, I got my red rubber neigh boots (‘neigh boots’ because there was a horse head on the side) and tucked them under the window by the basement door, handy when the big day came.
Every day, Dad would open the basement door and check the waters. Slowly the steps reappeared. As the water got toward the bottom, he would walk down to measure the depth of the remaining water with a stick. Finally the water was down. Dad laid big planks on the floor in the last few inches of water. He put on his big, black boots and started down.
I quickly put my boots on and started down behind him. Casually he turned and said, no. I couldn’t go. Still too dangerous, he said. Stunned and furious, I went back to the top. Plainly it was not dangerous. If planks could be laid down across the floor, it was NOT dangerous. I watched his flashlight beam bounce around, and heard the water slosh against the planks. He muttered darkly at the damage. He abused my heart.
But now I have found, many years after the flood, that the flood is not my first memory. An earlier memory has unfolded. I know it is a memory because I felt the back of my brain crack open right before I was drowned in panic and the blazing light.
For months, as I thought about it, the panic would burble up every time I brought it to mind. What event could have brought on such alarm and desperation? With no other clues available, I constructed scenarios that such a memory might be fit to. I tried to make the figure into my mother or my few years older sister. Was I picking up on a tense mother with too much to do, newly moved from city living to a small country town where she knew few people, and had two small children? That didn’t make sense. I was too panicked for something like that. Did my older sister tease me in jealousy when Mom wasn’t around? I didn’t think so, and besides, the shadowy figure was too large for a four year old, and did not have her curly hair. There was no hair. Why no face, no hair? What room was I seeing? Why was I so utterly panicked? I could make no sense of it.
At some point I realized that during the original explosion of the memory, there had been just the images. No words were attached. This was interesting. Then the day arrived, with that gut feeling when you know you have the answer, and I realized. I was remembering the hospital room I was in when I was three or four weeks old.
But was it even possible to remember something that early? The mantra had been intoned my whole life by my parents: You were too young to remember. But here’s the thing: at three weeks old, I returned to the hospital where I had been born, for a pyloric stenosis operation. At that age, I had no words. So after some struggle, I accepted the only thing that made sense: I now had a memory of my hospital visit, a treasure I had given up on long ago.
The doctor who operated on me was a woman. She had a surgical mask on, so no face. Her hair was wrapped up, so no hair. The light would have been so offensive, for the operation. Carts of equipment and tile walls are in operating rooms.
There is another reason this would be an operation memory. At the time the memory appeared, I was at Jane’s. I had been getting acupressure massage from Jane for several years. She worked, in particular, on my numb hands and on my constant back pain, pain I had endured since my early 20’s. So it was another Thursday at Jane’s. I had slipped into that deep massage state that is not sleeping, not meditating, not dreaming, but is somewhere beyond simple consciousness or unconsciousness.
And I felt my brain crack open like a geode. The light floods out and I am filled white-hot with terror and panic. There were no words to mediate. Just those images, burned into my brain.
Then Jane is there, at my head, quietly bringing me back. I lie still, too raw to move, afraid I might fly apart or collapse or start screaming. I remember where I am. The panic fills me like a monster, completely at odds with the quiet massage room and Jane’s knowing hands.
On the table, I am afraid to move. I can feel the entrenched place in my skull that has wrenched open, loosing this thing. It is a place low down in my brain, toward the back, on the right. It felt stiff, cracking open as though it had not stirred for years. I am stunned. Unbalanced. I turn the scene over and over, try to place such consuming terror in time. I sit up carefully and dress. I don’t want to lose this strange knowledge. I want to know what it is.
As always, Jane is waiting in the entry hall, to say goodbye. I am speechless. I need to come down from this panic before I can walk out her door. Can she see that? No, she is smiling. I describe the scene to her. I need a comforting hug, some support. It is difficult to find words. My jaw is stiff as I search around for them. She listens and then tosses back her head and laughs, a big, open laugh. I am confused. How can she laugh? Suffering from shock, I almost collapse to the floor. Telling her took such effort, to talk past the panic still bubbling in my blood, to find proper words to recount the event. At the time, I thought the struggle was a result of the engulfing panic.
But in the laughter I hear her knowing, her delight. She tells me she was working around my scar just before the end of the session. I get tense. If she had asked, I would not have allowed it. My private scar—nobody goes there. It must be protected. It is for me alone. My panic demands to know how could I not perceive she was near the scar? Jane tells me that she had never worked there before. Neither had I.
This scar across my middle is the only visible reminder that in late August or early September, 1954, I was sliced open. For pyloric stenosis. For my own good. This scar has been with me my whole life. Almost. No one remembers the exact date of the operation, but I was three to four weeks old.
There was so much drama at that time, it is still fresh. Growing up, when I asked questions about my scar, three stories were trotted out, recited like a hero cycle. There was the projectile vomiting, the screaming so loud in the hospital that my parents had to leave. And the car stuck in the mud as they drove to escape the screaming. Then the mantra: but you were too young to remember.
The complete version of this essay by Lou Cook can be found on MEDIUM at: https://medium.com/@lou4cook/unearthing-5dfca9f8a4d2