Notes from a Former Ghost

By

I started keeping a journal ten minutes ago. It’s 800,000 words long and it’s on 2,043 scraps of paper, 7 shopping bags, 4 paper plates, 1 paper cup, 3 placemats, 12 receipts, and 2 popsicle sticks.

I mean I started keeping a journal eight hours ago, with a few thousand thoughts on a few thousand things. They skip past the real to the essential and take place in diverse settings like Saturn and Iowa more or less at the same time. I mean over ten years.

Eleven years ago on a Tuesday morning, a drunk driver stole a two-ton GMC and ran into a parked car, compacting it. I was in the car. It was a Code 4 emergency, which means my life was threatened. Then it wasn’t my life.

The frontal lobes are among the most complex and recently evolved parts of the brain—they have vastly enlarged over the past two million years, which is like two seconds in evolution, about as long as it took to dismantle mine. My brain left my body and didn’t come back.

In my first life, I was paid to write thousands of pieces for dozens of networks and magazines: New York, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, PBS, CBS, CNN, BBC, and HBO. I was an “uncredited writer”—otherwise known as a “ghost.”

More a story seller than a storyteller, I was a tool like a broom or a mop. I telescoped huge amounts of information into tiny numbers of words. My clients paid me to get the “main point” across and I had to know what it was. It was normal to learn something for the first time and write about it a few moments later, for millions of people all over the planet.

I wrote about places I didn’t go, and things I didn’t do, for legends and icons I didn’t know. From baking a Bundt cake to buying a car to dropping a bomb on Afghanistan, I knew how to state it and where to stick it. What to put first, what to put last. How to fly to Alpha Centauri and look great in jeans while launching the best-ever start-up, basting the best-ever turkey and hosting the best-ever birthday bash.

A freelance career in media is fairly long if it lasts a heartbeat. Beyond probability, mine lasted thirty years. My clients got the credit and I got the cash, which worked great for me. I was a single mom, feeding my family. We ate my words at every meal, and they paid the mortgage, too.

I spent decades telling folks how to prevent everything bad, protect everything important, and procure everything good. All they wanted or needed to know, have, want, wear, buy, try, lose, use, taste, sip, skip, slip into or out of. But nothing to keep you from drunks with trucks.

Brain injury blasts apart identity. You might wonder how it feels to wake up one day and not know who you are. I don’t know. I don’t remember. The accident wiped out precious memories, obliterated short-term and long-term recall, words, space, and time. My child says I disappeared.

A lot disappeared for me. Anterograde amnesia means you can’t remember events that occur after brain damage. Retrograde amnesia means you can’t remember events that occurred before. You also can’t remember things like how to get to the bathroom and back.

I can barely read the left side of something before it disappears, so by the time I get to the right, the entire left side has “left.” Then there are my thoughts. They get shipped Parcel Post Book Rate from Katmandu or don’t arrive at all. Memories that connected different parts of my life are fragmented or totally gone. On a good day, it’s like they’ve been through an earthquake; on a bad day, they feel like they’ve been through a Cuisinart.

I also have aphasia. That means I don’t understand what people or signs or books or TV or movies are saying and, too, can’t find the words I need. Now consonants fight consonants, vowels fight vowels, tongue fights teeth. The world is divided into things I used to know, things I never knew, and things I won’t know a moment from now. I lose my bearings every few words and say strange things like “fading to Bolivian.”

Once there was a little parrot and she carried one drop of water at a time in a leaf she held in her beak. I forget who she was carrying the water to. “Don’t you know that what you are doing cannot be done?” said a voice to the little parrot. I forget whose voice it was.

“Sort of like a brain-damaged book by a brain damaged writer,” that same voice said to me. “It can’t be done.” But I’ll try to do it anyway.

I’m moving 64,800 miles per hour. Really I am. I’m orbiting the sun. So are you. With the naked eye, I can see 2,000,000 light-years to the Andromeda galaxy. So, I’m moving 64,000 miles an hour and seeing 2,000,000 years. As are you.

Images flicker before my eyes faster than I can comprehend or contain them, faster than I can name them. My old life in New York comes back to me in flashes, like everything else. Chanel No. 5, my mom wearing pearls, the lights that alternate spelling “Time” and “Life” above Rockefeller Plaza. Walking home, mauve sky, June.

Time tips, trips, slips, stops. Some things stay the same. The sky is purple at sunset. Once upon a time, my daughter’s hand was warm and certain in mine as we crunched across decades of castaway shells. They were purple on the inside.

Everything connects: your child, your mom, the music you hear, the books you’ve read, the poems, the theater, the art, the travels, every image in your life, every conversation, everything you learned, knew, did.

I’d like to write a book. To capture upheavals, aftermaths, key events of the last few minutes. The story will be funny and flinching. It would be composed of short staccato scenes, modular like Lego blocks. Something I could build, block by block, word by word.

The story could be told shorter, tighter, and with architected narrative if it were told by someone else. It could be polite and linear, with each piece appearing in just the right place at just the right time and containing just the right words. But this is the only way it can be told by me, a tattered former ghost with a full-time scattered brain.

Einstein said the past and future are merely different places, like left and right. He also said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” I’m with him.

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Rumpus original art by Lauren Friedlander.


Judith Hannah Weiss made headlines for thirty years, promoting print and broadcast for clients like Time Warner, Conde Nast, Hearst, Hachette, and HBO. Her recent work has won the Women’s Initiative contest at the Virginia Festival of the Book, and placed in the 44th New Millennium Writing Awards, The Cutthroat Barry Lopez Creative Nonfiction Contest, and the "Leaving" Contest hosted by Hospital Drive. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Hospital Drive and Midcentury Modern. Judith recently completed Away with Words: An Amnesic Memoir and lives south of Charlottesville, Virginia, where she also makes art for humans and homes for birds. Her website is www.JudithHannahWeiss.com. More from this author →