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Thursday, October 22, 2009

More Mexico Memories

I need to keep writing about Mexico. I spent all of yesterday writing and crying uncontrollably, almost non-stop. I wanted to rest but I could not stop writing. Once, I turned around to see MJ just staring at me with a very strange look on her face, because I was fighting the tears which kept clouding my vision and preventing me from seeing what I was writing. I was summoning my earliest memories—the very first emotions I ever felt, the images, the sights, the smells, the sounds—but (and this was the key) ONLY the ones I could say came 100% from within my own head and were not put there by someone else.

As my method of categorizing memories and life experiences has been completely blasted apart following my tumor removal, I am simply picking up the pieces and wondering if I should put them back just as they were or stack them back up differently for the second half of my life. But the important part was to get the memories RIGHT, regardless of what they were, so I know what I am dealing with, completely unadorned. I want to be rebuilt stronger than I was before, and nothing is stronger than truth.

When I am often asked what is was like to grow up in a lot of foreign countries, I give the standard reply that it was great: I was exposed to a lot of different things, different cultures and had all sorts of amazing experiences most normal children would not have had an opportunity to take a part in. I knew from an early age that the world was a big, varied, wonderful place, and, with the foresight of my parents, I got to embrace all these things. I never felt "caged up" during my childhood, and I never felt like I needed to "get out and spread my wings" once I was old enough. I already got to see every part of the world. I got to travel everywhere, go on African safaris, conduct kangaroos in Australia, see the pyramids of ancient Egypt, ride a camel, take a boat to the highest waterfall in the world in the middle of Venezuela, climb to the top of Masada in Israel, see the little gold houses in people's yards in Bangkok, the Sydney Opera house, the Australian outback, and travel everywhere in the first class cabins of 747s when first class had a spiral stairway to take you up to an open room with a standing cheese board to snack on while you relaxed at a table and played cards to pass the time in the air. From any perspective I could possibly imagine, I had it all. My parents did everything "correct," everything they possibly could have done to give me an amazing array of experiences. This blog is not about my parents.

I thought after yesterday I was over and done with anything I would need to say about my time in Mexico when I was two or three, but having slept on it, read my blog this morning, (then re-read it several times after to let it sink in), I realize I am looking at what is, in essence, something like a physician's clinical report simply listing my memories, just as they are. It reads as a "this is what we have to work with" starting point if I want to rebuild myself in a different way following the removal of my tumor. You cannot CHANGE your first memories, or erase them, or alter them. They are your starting point, no matter what. You do not try to black them out because they simply ARE. You build yourself up using them.

So, regardless of what anything means, I can say with a lot of certainty that I can look at yesterday's blog like a list of myself at age 2 and 3, the experiences that—for whatever reason—made an impression on me. And now I must ask myself if I took a new "tabula rasa" and etched these memories onto it, where would a 2 or 3-year-old boy go from there, having these as the first concepts he could grasp?"

I can tell you, most of my perception regarding my childhood in Mexico—the way I have thought of it most of my life—is a retroactive "memory" I have inserted into myself based on what I have been told by others. Roughly, here it is:

I was a "holy terror" as my mother often recounted. I had constant temper-tantrums and threw fits of such extreme violence she had never seen other children act that way. I was told I was a bad kid who threw these horrible, bizarre, and extremely violent fits. I took a black magic marker once and ran through the house, screaming and yelling at the top of my lungs, scribbling on the walls, the lampshades, anything I could scribble black on as violently as I could, wanting to destroy the nice house we lived in, ripping it to shreds. These were frequent, not just a "normal" kid's crying or whining, but something of particular note. This was recounted over and over again to me for years after that—I was a "holy terror" right from the seed. Stories at the dinner table of "Oh, and there was the time Alexander did THIS in Mexico, remember that time? . . ." were good, funny stories to talk about at the dinner table as I grew up. My brothers had other issues that were "their" issues and not mine (as does every child), but for me the big problem from the start was the extremely violent temper-tantrums those two years in Mexico, and how I was the "holy terror."

But I have not a single memory myself of any of this—not even the memory of being unhappy, or angry, or displeased, or uneasy about anything at all—only that people have told me I was this way. Believe me, I tried yesterday (and tried, and tried) but I simply have nothing I can come up with to recall a single one of my temper-tantrums which are apparently the stuff of legend. I can't even recall being mildly upset even once, and my memories of that time are plentiful.

When I turn my attention back inside the confines of my own head, when I flash on the concept of "childhood in Mexico" it is always the same image that pops in front which I have become accustomed to setting aside all my life: the shooting of the dog by the policeman, which I witnessed from a perspective standing right next to the policeman, so close I could have reached out and touched his gun.

My thoughts are always as such: Remember Mexico? [Dog shooting.] Fun things we did. Remember that other thing we did? [Dog shooting.] Oh yeah, that was great too.

I have done this all my life, every single time, very clinically removing that image from the top of the deck when I recall something we did in Mexico. I have never spoken of it because the image from the start is so odd, so out of place it just doesn't belong with anything else. As a 2 or 3-year-old I was in a nurturing family, I had all the wonderful things around me in my house, and we went on fun adventures (I quite enjoyed digging in the dirt, looking for artifacts with my mother.) In general, you would have to say it was a good time.

But every time I think of Mexico, I do stop for a private millisecond and think about that dog getting shot. And I have no idea where this vivid memory is from. I don't know where it took place, when it took place, why it took place, why I was there, how an unsupervised 2 or 3-year old got there to witness this, or what happened before or after this memory. And I don't remember thinking or feeling much about it. It is just an abstract memory that sits in the middle of all the other nice things. I have never spoken of it because it does not fit or connect to anything, but I am 100% certain this was a real thing that happened and that I saw this while we were in Mexico.

All I know was I was outside, standing right next to a policeman, looking into a ditch. The dog clung to the top of the ditch with its front paws, and it yelped, looking directly at me for help. We had our own little black dog at home ("Cutie") who looked in my eyes all the time, asking to be petted, to have food, etc., and this dog in the ditch was looking at me with the same pleading eyes, only it was more desperate. I wanted to help it. I was standing right there, so close I could have knelt down and pulled this dog out of the ditch. The moment was slow and tender. A dog wanted me to help it, and I could see the dog's beautiful eyes. But a policeman was standing next to me, and the policeman drew his gun, shot the dog, and the dog disappeared. I leaned in to look and saw the dog climb up again to cling over the edge and yelp and plead to me again, a little more loudly, and now his eyes blinked oddly. The policeman shot again and the dog disappeared. I looked over again and now saw the dog use only its front legs to climb its way back to the top of the ditch again, clinging with its front paws just over the top edge once again, yelping some more, this time more quickly but also more softly, looking straight at me for help. Then the policeman fired several more times ("puff, puff, puff" as the bullets were dispensed), and then the dog disappeared for good. I never saw any blood, and the dog's head did not take any bullets. That memory is so crystal clear, it is perhaps the one thing in my life I can say for certain happened EXACTLY the way I write it, and I have never told anyone about this.

The other memory about Mexico I flash on privately every single time is more complicated, because it deals with Eloy, our maid and nanny, who died. I have nothing but great, personal memories of the actual time we spent together playing. The traumatic memory has to do with an image I conjured in my own mind when it was explained to me that Eloy had died in childbirth (which was the first time I found out it was possible to die in childbirth).

A memory, an image or a concept that makes an impression on you can come from within, and even though it may be a complete fabrication (i.e. it didn't "happen") it is still a "memory" in the sense that it is real within the confines of your own head. Since this is etched there permanently in mine, I must simply decide how to work with it and not how to black it out. In so many words, the mental image I have stored in my head from an extremely young age is this:

Eloy was the person I shared the most joy with, from my earliest memories. She was perfect, and everything I remember about her makes up the closest thing I can think of when I think of the abstract idea of "my innocence." I knew she was not my mother, but I wanted her to be my mother instead because everything with her was funny and exciting. When I was told she had died, it was explained (at one point, maybe right then) that "because she loved you so much" was the reason she made the decision to be a mother in the first place. I was the reason she put herself in harm's way—because we had such a great time playing together and she wanted someone to replace me when we moved back to the United States.

So when I was told she had died in childbirth and it was explained to me that she decided to be a mother because "she loved me so much," I instantly conjured an image (I was either 3 years old, 4, or 5) which remains with me to this day, and—though very private—it is always the same, familiar (and now even comforting) scene. In this scene, she is lying on a table, straining horribly, thinking of how much she wants to make a person just like me, trying to give birth, straining her neck muscles—just like the dog in the ditch—and then she almost dies. Then she looks right into my eyes and finds one more ounce of strength to try straining one more time. Her face then contorts horribly out of shape and I watch her die because the whole thing is just too painful for her. This scene plays out the same way every time in my head, in exactly the same fashion, from the first time I dreamed it up as a little boy.

It is not hard to say that, actually, to just spell it out like that, because that image is so familiar as a recurring thing I can simply write down what I have seen play out thousands of times in my head. It's always the same, and that "memory" is as old and familiar an image to me as a snapshot of my family gathering by the Christmas tree. It's just in my head along with all the other things I associate with being a child.

In essence, I always felt that by being so special I convinced Eloy to become a mother herself. She then tried to do it, and because I convinced her to do it is the reason she died. This has sat on my shoulders all my life, and whether it is "true" or whether I made it "become true" in my own mind is irrelevant. It is simply part of who I am.  It is a private thing I share only between myself and Eloy, and I have always felt, out of respect for what she gave up for me, I should go on to do something extraordinary with my life, something different, something where I'm not just another person like anyone else.  I feel like my innocence was lost at a very young age (despite what others think about my pampered life) and that I knew very early on that I had a heavy burden on my shoulders to shine for two people instead of just one.

As I finish this blog for today, still convalescing on the couch, still getting better, the phone rang right now. It was my father calling, just a routine call saying hello. He was returning from one of his board meetings, just saying hello on his new iPhone, seeing how I was doing with my recovery.

"Great!" I just replied. "I am putting myself back together, like all the pieces of me have fallen to the ground after the tumor removal, and now I'm building myself back up from the bottom, but now I am choosing how to do it."

"Terrific," he said.

"I need to ask you something," I said. "Something I've never spoken about, something about Mexico, and I just need to ask. This may sound weird, but I need to ask you this."

"About Mexico? Well, sure. What?"

"Did I see a dog get shot?"


"So I did, then."

"Yes.  Boy, that was . . . jeez haven't thought of that in, like, about 40 years? Anyway, it was complete mayhem, so fast. It was a German Shepherd. It was a rabid dog, foaming at the mouth, completely rabid, going crazy, just crazy, running like 100 miles an hour in circles on our lawn all of a sudden. We were already out there, all kinds of people, neighborhood kids running and screaming, everything moving so fast, people running around."

"I was right there. I know I was extremely close, like right next to it."

"The dog was all over the place, here, there, across the street, right next to me, running and running so fast, so it might have gotten close to you at one point. Everything was fast, complete mayhem. One of the neighbors had a gun and shot it because it was in danger of biting one of kids, who were all running around and screaming outside. Everything happened fast."

"I thought it was a policeman who shot it."

"Yeah, maybe it was a policeman. Or there were also the security guards from the club area who had guns on them. Someone had a gun, probably someone in a uniform."

"But I still think I was right next to it when it was shot. I was right there."

"Could be.  Again, everything was so fast, so sudden and chaotic no one could tell what was happening or where anyone was. We heard the shots and we got everyone inside to safety as fast as we could."


  1. You are doing some good work for yourself, Ale. Keep letting others in. And... tears are good.

    I hope to see you real soon. Take good care, my friend. -Ava

  2. Your writing is fascinating, Ale. I am especially intrigued because, even though I have worked in the field of neuropsychology, I have never known a patient who was so adept at communicating what the recovery process feels like. There's been a lot of research on emotion and memory; Wikipedia has a pretty clear overview: You might find it interesting reading as it relates to your memory of the shooting of the dog.

  3. after my brain injury (bike crash) I experienced a little bit of what you're going through, this whole reordering of emotion and memory, and fascination with the mechanics of the mind. Scary and humbling but also incredibly, I don't know, I want to say seductive, poking around as both the observer and the observed. I had been unconscious twice in the space of two months -- first from a diving accident and then following my crash -- and I was really in awe of the brain.