My Shadow’s Shadow
(Memories of Before & After a TBI)
Before the fall, I did not appreciate the power of memories. They were of the forest’s shadow, easily eclipsed by the echo of my forward footsteps upon the broken parts of my now.
Once I’d become my shadow’s shadow, I saw memories through new stalker’s eyes. I became the observer, concealed behind a forest of lost snapshots of me.
My memories were too aggressive. Painfully thrusting themselves to the forefront or tugging me backward to a past best left behind. Even the innocent were more of a distraction than something I cherished. I was focused forward.
Post the fall, I wished only to travel back in time; to turn around and scoop up those lost comrades. To hold them under my cloak, both the innocent and the pained, lovingly cocooned together. Without exception.
I saw memories as slithering, living things. Like earthworms wriggling out of the ground to chase the rain, memories had a sly way of slipping in and out of my consciousness, of gleefully appearing without warning to disrupt my present. The cruel ones were experts at waiting to pounce, cunningly curled up in the darkness until the time was right to show themselves—to remind me of all the burdens and hurt they cradled.
It wasn’t their fault. Like me, memories were at the mercy of time. Time changed us both, without consideration and with few concessions. Memories found a way to embrace time’s wreckage, morphing into something new. They demanded I support their vision even though they’d managed to recklessly color themselves with experiences and emotions that were never part of their beginnings, or mine.
Memories were such a negative presence in my life that I took them for granted. Until I fell.
Until a patch of ice on a blustery, snowy day. Until a misstep that birthed a head injury. In that instant, a large company of my memories and I parted ways. They flung themselves free, to scatter like mirror twins along with the swirling snowflakes that danced upward into the sky, riding the wind as I lay on my back, watching until my eyes blurred and the last stragglers melted on my lashes.
Suddenly, I became a mess of “Couldn’t” s. I couldn’t wash my face without vertigo shoving me over. I couldn’t write without leaving out expected prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions. I had trouble finding simple words or replaced the desired word with something that sounded or looked the same but wasn’t. I couldn’t smile and say, “Yes, that was a great day,” when my family told a story—a story from a past where I’d lived and loved, but now couldn’t remember.
A large piece of me was left behind on that ice, sliding sideways until coming to rest roadside. No matter how much I’ve tried to retrace my steps, I never found what the snowflakes so merrily coveted. My memories enjoyed their new freedom and chose not to return.
No more past stories to be tainted by time, no thoughts snaking in the basement, no happy memories swinging defiantly in the gallows. Just clean, crisp, nothingness. A decade long hole in my life. The head injury decided which memories were worthwhile and which were too heavy to carry on, and it didn’t care to sort through the good and the bad—it dumped them all. It had its own forward focus.
The encampment that once sheltered my memories now burnt to the ground, I began to feel invisible. Most of my memories were truly lost, although some would occasionally pass by to whisper in the ears of my loved ones, allowing them to share their version of my lost stories. Hearing it second hand didn’t feel the same; the stories didn’t engulf me the way the memories did when they still wriggled around within me. They were not mine. They were not real.
I hungrily looked at photographs from those lost years, hoping to tempt back that nagging tickle. To feel memories’ insistence for acknowledgement—so they could validate that I had a past worthy of remembering. When this failed, I would flee to walk circles around the block. Determined to go anywhere the quiet photographs were not, but with nowhere to go.
After the Shadow’s Gift
Post the fall, the initial deficits and memory loss forced me to sell my business—I had to leave behind the healthcare company I’d founded. Nor could I return to my previous career as a Speech-Language Pathologist. I had to find a new voice.
In my career, I had worked with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) patients. So I knew that if I wanted to heal, I should exercise my brain through math, word puzzles, reading. This led me to reconnect with my first love, writing. It took five years, but eventually, I found acceptance. I found ways to embrace my reborn self and the lessons of my head injury. Diving back into writing was only the first gift.
I discovered that I could leave unkind slithering thoughts in the shadows; it was in my power to forget them. I could use the absence of their biases to move forward free of the burden of past hurts. As new memories were born, I could allow them to wriggle through my consciousness and poke without competition at my future present—I could birth my own forest of recollections to echo new life choices.
I learned to slow down and appreciate life’s gifts more. This was a new me—one with a past full of holes. Perhaps, a trail of holes was just fine and dandy. It was the wholeness I could make of today that mattered.
These choices, this acceptance of my reborn self—it ensuredthat my new memories and I could cast our own shadow, instead of only belong to those we’d left behind.
The story behind the story:
After a Traumatic Brain Injury several years ago, the initial deficits and memory loss forced me to sell the healthcare company I’d founded in Canada. Ironically, I had worked with other TBI/head injury patients in my career as a Speech-Language Pathologist and Rehabilitation Business owner, but I did not fully appreciate nor anticipate the additional impact memory loss would have on my identity. It eventually returned me to my first love, writing, as part of my recovery process. This flash nonfiction piece touches on that experience at a turning point in my recovery. I have had many exchanges with other TBI survivors who have said this piece resonates with them and their experience, and I am honoured that SugarSugarSalt has chosen to share this glimpse into my head injury journey again.
Cheryl’s fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in US, UK, and Canadian publications, including Barren Magazine, Reckon Review, National Flash Fiction Day, Exposition Review, Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine, Longridge Review, SFWP, and many others. A multi-Pushcart nominee, her work placed in thirty-seven competitions across 2019-to date, including: shortlist, Five South’s 2021 Short Fiction Prize, shortlist, Blank Spaces Magazine’s 2021 Fiction Anthology Contest, Runner-Up, 2022 Pulp Literature’s Flash Fiction Contest, Honorable Mention, Exposition Review’s 2022 Flash 405 Contest, shortlist, Solstice Magazine’s 2022 Literary Contest, and shortlist, 2022 International Amy MacRae Award for Memoir. Cheryl has a MHSc Speech-Language Pathology and an HBSc Psychology. She is a staff reader at Reckon Review & Flash CNF Contributing Editor at Barren Magazine. You can find her on twitter @cherylskorysuma.
“My Shadow’s Shadow” was first published in Nightingale & Sparrow.
Header photo provided by the author.