Friday, March 5, 2010

Out of Context

I listen for the inaudible drip drip drip of the colorless poison as it crawls down the long tube leading to the needle impaled through my chest, and the shrieks of my next door neighbor, a young child, at our pediatric hospital wing. I reach for the silver triangle dangling above my bed—a toy to me—in my dry, small, frigid room. I sniff for the hospital slop that I never eat, and thus can refrain from trying to smell my vomit that would ensue. I smack my lips to taste the metal after heparin is infused rapidly—hopefully not made in China.

But none of it is real, as they are now imaginary remnants.


Autobiographical memories are best retrieved when the environment where the events took place is replicated. I learned this in one of my many psychology classes at UVA and later Northern Virginia Community College. Through the marathon of writing and editing my book, I implemented it in order to recreate my detailed cancer world. With one exception that became among my book’s best writing, I was not able to write passages from my old hospital, and was also too lazy to prepare macaroni and cheese or oatmeal—staples of my former cancer diet. Instead, I played music in hopes of firing up the same brain neurons of those past memories.

I listened to R. Kelly’s “I Wish” and remembered that JD had burnt a CD for me in November 2000 which included the R&B hit. I labeled the CD “Mix 4,” as in my fourth CD since discovering Napster, though JD wondered how I could differentiate the mixed CDs. “I label mine with the date of creation and the first song or two,” he said.

While riding to the hospital with my mom, I always asked if I could play music. “So long as I can stand it,” she would say, and so I inserted Mix 4 and skipped a few songs here and there, including the remix to “I Wish” which uses the n-word 26 times. She preferred the soft rock/pop mix I created specifically for our trips, and my boy band albums that I’m only occasionally embarrassed to have purchased.

I listened to Nelly’s Country Grammar that SuperSoccerStar had introduced me to on our way back from the SAT prep course we attended in August 2000, in between a stop at McDonald’s where he always saved the fries for last. We mostly discussed our girl fantasies, despite us both being too afraid to act on them—his revolving around CC, mine Orange. Both girls are now married.

I popped Nelly into my portable CD player and listened with headphones during uneventful mornings at the hospital when my immune system was annihilated. I could recite most words to “Ride wit Me” and “Luven Me.” I kept my room dark, like the damp and cloudy world outside my window that autumn, and shut my eyes. I mimicked, “Can I make it? Damn right, I be on the next flight/ Payin’ cash, first class, sittin’ next to Vanna White,” thinking, Vanna who?

I listened to the top country songs from 2000-2001, like “The Little Girl,” “My Next Thirty Years,” “But for the Grace of God,” “I’m Already There,” and “One More Day,” remembering the Country Top 40 my dad and I listened to on the way home from the hospital some Sunday mornings, after he took over for my mom on weekends. It wasn’t unlike when he picked up JD, myself, NoCommonSense and NoCommonSense’s sister from Temple after Sunday School when we were younger, always whipping into the parking lot like a maniac with the Star-Spangled Banner playing at high noon on 98.7 WMZQ, and ultimately forgetting to drop off the NoCommonSense siblings—every single week.

The difference is that I had used to make fun of my dad for listening to country music, for being “the only Jew from Brooklyn” to do so. On those hospital rides home when I couldn’t wait to flop on my couch or La-Z-Boy and piss out the stench of saline and mesna, to eat a whole box of pepperoni Pizza Rolls and play six straight games of Madden, I kind of enjoyed Tim McGraw, John Michael Montgomery, and the others.

I listened to Cam’ron—aka Killa Cam—a hard and offensive rapper, and remember discussing the awesomeness of his hit, “What Means the World to You” with Taps in Functions Analytic Geometry during our junior year, taught by Mrs. Weber—aka Web-Dogg. “Wassup baby?” Taps would greet me. “Wassssup baby!” I would reply.

I placed Cam’ron into my portable, while riding home with my mom from weekday checkups that always went way too late, in the darkness of night that was darker than my hospital time with Nelly. I thought about whether Taps learned anything from Web-Dogg that day, or any day for that matter as I always napped in classes because I was permitted to—even encouraged to—since I had cancer. I thought about calling Zeke or HollaAtYoBoy to get the day’s gossip, and would have if the convenience of text messaging was used back then. I didn’t even bother asking my mom if she could stand Killa Cam.

“He belongs in jail,” my dad likes to say of every rapper except Jay-Z since he tried bringing the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn.

“What about 50 Cent?” JD and I pleaded. “You must like him since he’s also from New York City.”

“I don’t know anything about fifty cents,” my dad replied.

Wikipedia has nothing on Killa Cam being a criminal.

I didn’t neglect my favored modern rock, listening to the now-sellouts known as Good Charlotte, namely The Young and Hopeless. Infinicuralier had burned the album for me before my trip to Minnesota, where I received a stem cell transplant. After the transplant and the brief yet punishing conditioning regimen, I turned up Good Charlotte as I walked on the treadmill in my room. Heart rate 120 before even beginning. Start walking. Heart rate 150. 160. 180. I can’t breathe. Must stop. All in less than five minutes.

Good Charlotte — “The Young and Hopeless”
“And if I make it through today will tomorrow be the same [Me: yes]
Am I just running in place? [Me: well, walking in place on a treadmill]
and if I stumble and I fall
Should I get up and carry on or will it all just be the same” [Me: yes of course, and, still yes].


I’ve always had a strong episodic memory; I can even describe what others were doing, saying, wearing, or eating at events where I was present. But placing myself in the context of those events makes them feel real—no longer simply an image or video, or a “flashbulb” memory as they are often described, but a sensation. A recreation.


Raine said...

I have a bad memory, especially my short term memory, but then there are episodes, like you say, that I can actually feel... and music definitely helps to revive them. Good writing does that too - like when you read a book (or a blog) where the writer captures something you have felt and makes it real again for you and makes you feel less alone or less afraid or just nostalgic or happy or sad or whatever. Thanks for sharing... you have to blog more often!

Benjamin Rubenstein said...

Wow, great comment; thank you. That Jay-Z song on your blog is awesome, by the way. Maybe I'll burn it to a CD...probably up to "Mix 100" by now.

Raine said...

I give all my mixes cheesy names! Lol!

Rosa said...

This was an amazing entry. I remember things as if I'm watching a movie - though sometimes memories are triggered by things like smells, and they aren't quite in my conscious brain, it's just a feeling... I am a cancer survivor and was lucky to be working for ChiliTechnology during my treatment. I wanted to let anyone who is currently fighting cancer know that if you have heat or chills from the chemo the ChiliPad is really a lifesaver. It's a mattress pad that lets you set the temperature of your bed anywhere from 46 - 118 degrees. They should have one of these in every hospital. It really made a difference for me (I am now two years cancer-free).

anavar said...

I have terribly bed memory! I don't remember much about my childhood and it's great to talk with my friends and schoolmates about past. Only that way, when they remember me about some fun events, I remember them for good. least I do! :)