My daughter picked up a green balloon pump, squirted the air at me, and ran off, around the kitchen counter. When I caught her, squealing, it was her turn to chase me. I was wearing white slippers, from some hotel somewhere, back when international travel was normal. They felt soft and thin-soled. I recall all these clearly, because of all the things I will be unable to recall later. I turned away from the kitchen to make the chase longer and something happened. I slipped or I tripped or my destiny thinned and I fell and hit my head on the hardwood floor.
At the beginning of the stay-at-home order, plagued by amorphous anxieties, I taught my daughter how to call my doctor husband at work. Just in case. My daughter says that after I fell I told her, “Call Papa.” My husband says I spoke coherently. I told him that I fell and that the pain in my head was “excruciating,” and when I said “excruciating,” I seemed to wince. He says he asked my daughter to get me the ice pack in the freezer and that I said, “Thank you, baby,” when she gave it to me.
I do not remember any of this. I found myself upstairs, sitting on my bed, an ice pack pressed to my face, when my husband hurried in, having driven back from work. Later I will imagine him, after my daughter’s call, yanking off his protective equipment, the puffy white suit, the see-through shield over his face; I had fretted when it took a while for his clinic to get the protective wear, and when finally it came I told him he looked like an ungainly robot in it.
“We have to go to the ER,” he said, adding that my brother, working from home about 30 minutes away, will meet us at the hospital to pick up and watch my daughter.
I looked at him, dazed. Why? What happened?
I know I fell, but it is a half-lidded knowledge, and I cannot claw through my memory’s haze to reach any clear detail. I feel a profound helplessness, a sense of something slipping away. How did I get here? I am in my husband’s car, driving to the University of Maryland emergency room in Baltimore, and I do not know what happened to me.
“It’s probably just a concussion, but you should get a scan to make sure nothing else is going on,” my husband says.
But why don’t I remember? Why can’t I remember? It feels like a failing, my fault.
“Remember your brain is a delicate organ floating inside your skull. You hit your head and your brain jolted,” my husband says, and it is newly astonishing to me, that because of this “jolt,” a slice of my consciousness has disappeared into nothing. We are so fragile. We are so breakable. And yet to navigate this life we must believe that we are not.
I wonder what else I do not remember and, more terrifying, what else I will be unable to remember. My brain is now a stranger. My understanding of myself begins to tilt sideways.
In secondary school, when I was growing up in Nigeria, one of my teachers often called me “Electric Brain.”
“First Class Brain,” another teacher liked to say. “That brain of yours,” my mother would say, with the maternal half smile that mothers throughout time have worn to praise something they believe themselves to have at least a passing responsibility for.
My brain, my identity
I think of how linked to my brain my identity is, I think of life without my brain as I know it and I begin to cry. In the past year or so I have noticed myself forgetting words; once in a while a term would lag on the edge of my mind, close, familiar, but always one step away, outside my reach. “Platitude” was the recent one. For a whole day I tried to remember “platitude.” I had worried but only mildly, because a Google search said it was nothing to worry about. And now this.
The waiting area of the ER is almost empty, to my surprise, my mind full of stories of the coronavirus bedlam in New York hospitals. There is a kind of ghostliness in the air. In the days before covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, I might have bridled at the woman who takes my details, sitting inside a glass capsule, her brusqueness just at the edge of rudeness. But now I feel empathy, imagining her stress, her layers of fear, her wondering if the next patient might arrive in an invisible cloud of a million viruses which she, despite her glass house and face shield and hands raw from repeated washing, will inhale and fall sick.
'I fell,' I mumble
When I am taken in, another woman — perhaps a nurse technician — asks me my weight and I stare blankly at her. Do I remember what I weigh, or do I merely think I don’t remember because I know I don’t remember what happened after my fall?
She says, impatiently, “I’m just trying to get some information here.”
“I fell,” I mumble through my mask, as though to explain my befuddlement, to seek understanding, patience even, but what comes from her is a decided coolness.
“So do you not know what you weigh?” she asks, and feeling like a reprimanded pupil I tell her what I think I weigh. Later I will wonder what a person whose head has just forcefully hit a hard surface might be forgiven for not knowing.
My first nurse turns out to be a fan of the novels I have written, but I like to think she would have been attentive anyway, bringing me a pain pill and telling wry coronavirus jokes, tattoos spread like art on her arm. She tells me it might be a long wait for my scan. Somewhere in the middle of the six-hour wait my husband, sitting in the car because only patients are allowed inside the ER, texts me to say, “Not the best time to have a bad fall.” Indeed.
My neck is aflame, and the throbbing in my head has moved from one side to the other. Why has the pain moved? Why am I so sensitive to sound and light? Everything portends ill for my brain. I feel the sudden vertiginous fear that I will never again be as I used to be. When the doctor examines me, I will magic to happen, the stars to align, my ancestors to intervene, and her conclusion to be that I don’t need a scan but only a nap to have my brain restored, and myself fully enamored of the world again. But of course she says I need a scan. I resist the urge to google “concussion brain damage” and instead text my parents in Nigeria to tell them what has happened.
Then a memory comes back.
I remember a swift fall, pain exploding all over my face and head. I remember lying on the floor moaning and holding the side of my face in crushing pain that would not ease. I remember realizing something serious had happened and saying “call Papa, call Papa.” That I have wrested this memory from a void feels like a feat. Its dazzling clarity brings a surge of hope, even something like joy. My brain is fine. My brain will be fine. But minutes later I am obsessing again — why don’t I remember the rest? How could I have spoken coherently to my husband and have no memory of it? What else happened that I do not remember?
I need to go to the bathroom and I press the “help” button, to be freed from the leads taped to my chest, but nobody comes. At the nurses’ station just outside my room, one nurse is seated eating potato chips. Another is holding up her phone to show two others a photo on her screen. My nurse is not there. I press and press the button, until finally unable to wait any longer, I slip my finger out of the pulse oximeter that measures the oxygen level in my blood and pull off the heart monitor leads, setting off loud alarms. None of the nurses so much as looks at me as I, bladder emptied, return to my room where the alarms are still blaring and beeping. The sound seeps into my head, a jarring pressure. Still nobody comes.
I get up and go out to ask, “Can I can get some help turning off the alarm, please?”
“I’ll be right there,” one nurse says. She eats some more chips, a long minute passes before she gets up.
Maybe coronavirus has made everything else seem small and dismissible. Maybe the nurses wake up thinking of all the health-care workers who took every precaution but still died of this new scourge. Maybe their apathy is a shield, a way of coping.
My second nurse — the first left after a shift change — arrives, scrubs disheveled, a sense of restrained panic about her.
“Do you have an IV?” is the first thing she says.
“You can’t tell?” Is the quick response that comes to my mind. But instead I say, “No.”
She must be overwhelmed. Scared, maybe. Has she watched many cough-weakened patients struggle to breathe and die?
Later, after the scan, a brief slide in and out of a machine, she arrives with a form and says, “You’re being discharged. Please sign this.”
I am startled into silence. This is it? I expected the doctor to tell me about the scan, or at least the nurse. Or have they discovered a damage so grievous they want to simply send me home? Surely they would not send me home if so.
“Is there anything I need to know about my scan?” I ask.
“It showed no abnormality.”
She turns to go, signed form in hand. I am still connected to the heart monitor.
“Could you help me take these off?” I gesture to my chest.
“Oh, of course,” she says.
On the drive home, as I fold and refold the generic discharge paper, I feel deflated, unsatisfied but almost apologetically so. I wanted a proper account of my fall, to be told of my brain, and of the scan, and of what to expect in the coming days. But this might be an unreasonable expectation in a time of coronavirus. Perhaps this is the new norm, this hurried, harried care, yet another loss to be counted in the pandemic’s final toll.
Desperate to lure back my memory, I ask my daughter to tell me what happened, exactly what happened, step by step. I have always been charmed by her nonlinear storytelling but now I wish it were linear. “You told me to call Papa. Then you sat down on the chair,” she says. A moment later she adds, “I got a mask at Marcon’s birthday party” (which was nine months ago).
My brother, offering dark humor as comfort, tells me that the problem is that I don’t have rough friends, or I would be familiar with people blacking out after fights and my memory loss wouldn’t bother me so much. It does bother me. Every moment is fraught with apprehension; hidden meanings abound in each throb in my head, each word I fail swiftly to recall. My face is swollen and tender. I cannot bear the sound of music. Even though it is too early in my cycle, I get severe menstrual cramps. Do women suffer differently? Does a concussion affect the menstrual cycle, or has my stress brought it on?
I want to compel my mind to remember, because only a restored memory can ease my worry, but the more of an effort I make, the wider the creeping blankness. What I have forgotten bears more weight than what I remember. I fear most of all for my imagination: a mind stalled, a creativity flattened by a brain now porous as a sieve. I dare not think too much about my ability to do what I love most — write fiction.
How could I have somehow enabled this freak accident? Perhaps something else happened to cause my fall that I am unable to remember. (I examine the perfectly normal hotel slippers I was wearing and then throw them in the trash, an act strangely satisfying). What I want, and do not have, is an understanding of my fall. And so it becomes a mystery, made more confounding by my feeling of responsibility.
“I just fly in the air and land on my face? Why didn’t I break my fall with my hands?” I ask my husband and brother.
They look at each other, and suppress small smirks. The family joke is that I lack physical coordination: the dancing, the poor technique in sports, the impracticality about practical things.
Coronavirus made me, for the first time in my life, interested in taking vitamins for immune health, and now I find myself googling supplements for brain health. I know they might all really be snake oil but all the same I order some to try. An act of hope, that my brain will very soon be right again.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the best-selling author of “Americanah,” “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “We Should All Be Feminists.” She divides her time between Maryland and her native Nigeria.