In 'Wondering Who You Are,' A Man Wakes Up And Doesn't Know His Wife
Sonya Lea and her husband Richard Bandy had a 23-year marriage filled with ups, downs and memories. In 2000 Bandy developed a rare form of appendix cancer and had an operation which was successful — sort of.
Bandy lived, but he was almost a different man. He had suffered a post-surgical complication called "anoxic insult" that cut oxygen to his brain and cleared much of his memory. He called his wife "Sweetness," but could not remember how they met, when they got married and the births of their two children. Twenty-three years more or less vanished from his mind.
"I very much live in the now now," Bandy tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I mean, I have no real recollection of how I used to be and no real interest in trying to preserve it or trying to go back there."
Lea, whose essays and interviews have appeared in Salon, The Southern Review and other publications, has written a book about their journey forward together. It's called Wondering Who You Are.
On what it's like to wake up and not recognize your wife
Bandy: My first memory is about two weeks after I actually woke up from the hospital. I think what happened is I sort of imprinted on Sonya as the first person that sort of came into my vision and I can't say that I knew exactly the nature of our relationship. But I knew that she loved me, and I grew to love her fairly quickly. And I don't really know exactly the feelings I was having at the time because everything is sort of gray for me at that point.
On caring for her husband in those early weeks
Lea: His expression and experience in the hospital was nearly angelic. He was so neutral. He didn't appear like he was suffering pain at all, and he was able to write a few words, and he kind of kept writing the same questions over and over again to me. ...
"Who is here? Who has been here? And who is coming?" He didn't seem to have an orientation for the past or the future. He didn't really remember ... the narrative of his life which became apparent fairly quickly. I told him stories about having children and about where we were now living, and what work he did.
He started to build some container where some information was kept, and some information was let go of. So while he's completely functional and being back to his career, he has to use accommodation strategies to hold on to experiences. And where that becomes difficult and challenging, is in relationships. So for example, he has a calendar ... every Wednesday a little message pops up for him to call his daughter.
On whether he was aware of his past life
Bandy: To this day, I do have some visions of the day we got married, memories of the birth of my kids, my life before the surgery. But I don't know if they're actual memories or that they've just been stories or pictures that I've seen, or stories that I've heard, and I've kind of filled in the void. Because it's been 12 years since the surgery and so I can't, you know, not think about things that have been in the past, and not have some sort of visions.
On whether Bandy remembers some of the darker chapters in their marriage, such as Lea's struggles with drinking, and his bad temper
Bandy: No. I mean when I read it in the story — because I've read the story several times — it kind of always makes me cry, unfortunately. But — well I don't know if it's unfortunate or not. But when I read the stuff about myself and [my son] Joshua, I honestly could not believe that that had happened. ...
I'm not sure that I actually remember, but I was physical with him. Pushed him down to the ground and pushed him out the door and that sort of thing, and, you know, was very intimidating to him, yelling at him, screaming at him, that sort of idea.
Lea: The interesting thing about that, Scott, is that he had already made amends to me for what occurred in that relationship, and he had made amends to Joshua for what occurred. But there were a couple of scenes that I needed to write in the book. And when I brought that information to Richard, he really struggled with it because to him that's that man, that former man. Then he came to this really beautiful statement which was, "I don't have any reputation to manage." And that really, I think, liberated me to write the story as it was without concern for protecting him or protecting us.
On whether losing his memory gave him a fresh start
Bandy: Having no memory of how I was before, I mean, I had no choice but to start afresh. And so, it was very challenging for me to get back to my career, but I was determined. I'd read chapters and chapters and chapters and forget 90 percent of it, forget 90 percent of it, forget 90 percent of it.
Lea: I think for me it did allow me to look at our marriage, look at our family and community relationships and certainly look at myself and say: You know, what in my identity am I living here that is no longer interesting to me? You know, what am I living out of convention or habitual response to life? Why should I hold on to things based on this continuous narrative of who I think I am?
On how they're doing now
Bandy: I honestly wake up grateful to be alive every morning. And that is no B.S. I appreciate my life. I'm very happy to be working, very happy to be productive, very happy to have Sonya in my life and my kids in my life. And it's been — I wouldn't want to say it's been great, because I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy. But it's been a lot better than it could have been. I'll put it that way.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.