I have always been fairly confident in my ability to remember things accurately. At least I was. And then Judy said I just had to read “the gorilla book.”
The book has startling things to say about us humans and the way our minds work. We can look right at something and not see it at all. We can remember something that never happened. It was a hard book to deal with, and I have talked about it with Richard probably more than he would like. Our brains play tricks on sometimes, and I no longer trust very much my memories of the past. Judy and I refer to these as “gorilla moments.”
The book presents two very public people who had “gorilla moments” with their memories. One was Hilary Clinton, who got off a plane having been to Bosnia and talked about things that she experienced at the airport that video footage showed never happened. Another was President George W. Bush, who said he remembered seeing some of the events of 911 that he could not possibly have seen in real-time because he was reading a story to some children in an elementary school (this, of course, played right into the hands of conspiracy theorists). Neither person was telling a deliberate lie. Their brains had played tricks on them. They were having “gorilla moments.”
And I came right up against my very own “gorilla moment” a few days ago.
The tumor in our son’s brain was removed on June 7, 2010. On June 8 at noon they moved him from the neurology ICU to the ward. Late in the day on June 8, the radiologist came into the room and said “melanoma… spread from somewhere else….” I left the hospital in the early evening and drove home with those horrible words ringing in my head and heart. Knowing now what I know about the gorilla and the problem of "distracted driving," that I was able to make it home without killing myself or someone else is something of a miracle.
The next morning, June 9, Richard left and drove to the hospital and spent the day with our boy. While he was there, the neurosurgeon came to check on our son. Richard and the surgeon went out in the hall to talk so that our son could not hear them. He said to Richard:
This is a very aggressive cancer. We will throw everything we have at it, and we will lose.
And two years later, as I was thinking back on that week, I thought that the surgeon had told us that when he came to see us immediately after the operation was over. I was convinced of it, until Richard assured me that I definitely was wrong. He was by himself with the surgeon in the hall. I was not there.
A gorilla moment.
But then in that blessed way that He has, another memory scuttled in to give me something else to think about.
Parts of the wood scaffold that Richard built against the side of the house several years ago have started to drop off. And at about the same time 2 years ago that Richard was hearing that dreadful prophecy in the corridor of the hospital, I happened to walk by the fallen board and I saw this fellow basking in the sun.
A fence lizard, who very patiently sat still for me while I went in the house and got the camera and fumbled with it trying to get it to turn on and focus and get close enough to take his picture.
Yes indeed. Seeing this little fence lizard sent me on another much more pleasant trip into the past…
A memory I absolutely trust. Or most of it. I think. It was summer and our family was visiting my father’s sister, Betty, and her husband, John in Carmel Valley. He had to go tag fence lizards for a project he was working on as part of his job as the director of the Hastings Natural History Reservation run by UC Berkeley. I have no idea what the project was about. I am sure he told me, but I don’t remember. It may have been simply counting them to see if the population was healthy. In any event, he let me come with him.
He had slick technique for catching the lizards. He had a fishing pole with fine line and a noose tied at the end, and he would slip the invisible noose over the head of the unsuspecting lizard and jerk, and the lizard was his. I am not sure how he marked the lizards he had already caught and tagged, but I am almost sure he used nail polish (go away, gorilla).