Unpacking the Past

About a week ago the five month anniversary of my motorbike accident in Tanzania passed by with little more than a sigh, as if a wind blew in Africa and rustled the leaves of a tree where I once sat, and I thought of its broad limbs at that exact instant. The sight of the small scar on my left knuckle where a knife slipped as I carved open a mango causes me to run my tongue against my top teeth and taste briefly the tangy-sweet flesh of the fruit, sends images of markets and roads flashing vividly across my mind as if my eyes could somehow point backwards into the dark cinema of memory.

I have almost spent as much time back here at home, trudging painfully through this recovery, as I spent in Tanzania before the crash. Yet I seem to have lived lifetimes in the first five and a half months, and spent the past five trying desperately to regain just a few moments of wholeness, of something to call a life.

But a few nights after that unhappy anniversary, I realized I hadn’t thought about what happened in some time, having focused so absolutely on recovery. I worried that I might have forgotten some of the details of that night at the end of February, and that if I didn’t remember what I was healing from I would have nowhere to go. I shouldn’t have. The moment I trained my mind on remembering I was tossed back to the road, the pavement, the pain, as explosive as the first time, made even more intense by the knowledge I have now that I didn’t then: I nearly died.

I don’t know how to describe the experience–it was less like a memory and more as though I was reliving the thing while only a shell of me lay rigid in a hazy room draped in shadows. Memories, for me, are recollections. Renderings of events like an artist’s preliminary sketches, before color or shading. This was something new–waking moments marked by the quality of pre-dawn dreams, haunting and immediate, unquestionably real.

Existentialist philosophers spoke of dread and anguish, the sure result of a sudden recognition of human freedom (read: aloneness) in an absurd and indifferent world. My mom just calls what keeps me up at night free-floating anxiety, and she’s pretty sure there’s no way around it right now. But a poem by Rumi tells me this violent “crowd of sorrows” may be clearing the way for “new delight,” and I hope he’s right.

I tend to wax philosophical at times like this, looking for a clever phrase that will satisfy both the haughty intellect and the trembling soul. But nothing comes to me. To forget, to remember… I don’t know what to do. So as I’ve always done when thinking is getting me nowhere: I clean.

Tonight, as I emptied the last pockets of my life-saving backpack from Tanzania, I found the following covered in a fine dust and mixed with lint and empty pens: 10,000 Tanzanian shillings worth of Tigo cell phone credit (not scratched!), one bag of unused Diamox altitude sickness pills for the Kilimanjaro trek, one Vodacom internet modem, a few dozen business cards, a faded receipt from “Hoots the Chemist” in Namanga, one receipt from Subway in Shoppers Plaza Masaki, and 700 shillings in change. It’s all here, at the foot of my bed, and I can’t bring myself to throw it away. Someday, I tell myself, I may need that credit to tell a friend to meet me at the Kipepeo beaches south of the city. I will want the Diamox for the next time I climb the mountain even though our guide Killian will insist (again) that medicine won’t help me summit. I’ll need the business card for the Rohobot Ethiopian restaurant so I can call ahead and make sure the injera and wat are fresh and ready. Those 700 shillings will buy me a cold Coca-Cola in a glass bottle on a scorching Dar-es-Salaam day. And who knows when I may want to remind myself of the cost of paracetamol or cookies in Tanzania.

Perhaps these memories–and the value I attach to them–are not just relics of the past but symbols of my future. Forgetting, it seems, was never really an option.

*The Guest House, by Rumi

One Comment Add yours

  1. Sara Baker says:

    Dear Rebecca,

    I think there is a reason why we forget these traumas; as you so vividly recounted, they can retraumatize us, especially with the added knowledge of how close to death we came. I love how you describe your instinct to clean, to order, in essence to create a clear space in chaos, and then how the wonderful memories of each item lead you to hope. As you say–they are not just relics of the past but symbols of the future. These memories balance the awful ones, and remind you of all that you are. Bravo, brave one!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s