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Memory and Epilepsy: Through the haze of epilepsy medication

Elizabeth’s Story

Every morning, I gulp a pill that transforms my past into historical fiction. Depakote, which I began taking after my grand mal (tonic clonic) seizure in 1987, devours my memory. My imagination fills the context around documented events, such as the photo taken at a Howard Johnson’s pool in August 1973, moving from New York to Miami with my parents and my brother. I was four years old. That day, according to family lore, I jumped into the deep end without knowing how to swim. My mother, Candida, never changes the telling: how I asked if she wanted to see something funny, how I leapt before she replied, how I remained underwater. She pauses in silence for two heartbeats to accentuate her fear. I count time in syllables: hold on, dear breath.


Memory and Epilepsy

In the photo, my father and six-year-old brother are scowling. My mother, sporting a floral swim cap and a pink patterned bathing suit, is captured in perpetuity with her arms wide open, creating a spray of water. I, too, am laughing, with a white swim cap and a navy-colored swimsuit. Because my daily medicine erases the context, I imagine the photograph was taken at dinnertime. The men in our family famished to despair and my Cuban parents, immigrated recently, could only afford grilled frankfurters. Or perhaps Candida and I embraced the groovy feminism of the era, thrilled to leave behind the furniture to Pledge. Those who casually start sentences with “I am” amaze me. I am …not sure.

As years pass

In another undated photo, I am about 10 years old. My older brother has the soft belly of a child, but the long face of a pre-teen on the cusp. His Halloween costume is a western hat, red bandana, and toy pistol. Mine is a blue structured dress decorated with sequins. I wear a Mexican sombrero and long braids of brown yarn. Perhaps my mother stitched the costume while listening to her often-played Julio Iglesias LPs. The Spaniard’s lispy romantic ballads competing for attention against the mechanical whirring of her sewing machine. But I do not know if my mother and I hummed the tunes or, pouting at the jumping needle of the cheap record player, she considered divorce. I hunger to know in a way that those with better memories cannot fathom. They might believe it does not matter whether Candida hummed tunes or considered divorce. The difference haunts me. With the former, I was a good daughter bringing Candida a moment of joy. With the latter, I was a bad daughter who failed to warn her father that he needed to save his marriage. There is power in crafting a past. There is terror in knowing I might be wrong about it.

I endure because tiny memories endure. The multi colored sash on my costume was worn previously during a church play. The long, brown-yarn ponytails were sewn into the interior of the sombrero. I also remember the deep end of the Howard Johnson’s pool. The baby blue water surrounds me, adult talk muffled out, the sun’s white rays dance for me along the pool wall.

For two heartbeats. Long enough to realize that I was not afraid underwater. Thus, I know I am a curious person. My four-year-old self dives into the scary deep end of my past. Do you want to see something funny? Should I fear what I learn there, I will tell myself: hold on, dear breath.


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