A SYSTEM REBOOT
BY PAUL LAMB
The longest day of Rimi’s life was also the shortest day of her life. It started with a software upgrade she needed to get installed – finally – on her work computer, and though the prospect distressed her, she intended to stay online with the software company until it was done. She could expect a Facetime chat with at least one of the grands sometime during the morning, she had her diet to mind, and, of course, there was all kinds of speculation about what the orange man might still do in the hours left to him.
Around mid-morning she came upstairs to where her husband had set up his home office since the start of the pandemic.
“Something’s wrong,” she said, bracing herself in the doorway.
“The software upgrade?” She had been struggling with it for days, and he’d seen her tearful, frustrated outbursts a few times already. But she didn’t respond. Rather, she looked at him with haunted eyes.
And then he thought she must be joking with him.
“What is that?” She pointed to the battered table in their bedroom where he’d been working for months, covered with its line of computer monitors. “What is that?” Her words were agitated, angry.
“WHAT IS THAT?”
Her eyes were startled, alarmed, her finger arched in accusation toward the workstation that had been in their bedroom for nine months.
“Why don’t you lie down for a moment.” She complied, but she couldn’t stay down. She sat on the edge of their bed and looked around, seeking something.
“Can you hold both of your hands over your head?” He searched her eyes. He searched his memory. What do you do when this happens? “Do you understand what I’m saying? Can you raise both of your hands?”
She did so without difficulty, and then she seemed to surrender herself to him, knowing somehow that she was no longer in control.
“Do you know what day it is?”
“The date. The day of the week. What’s going to happen tomorrow. Can you tell me?”
Her eyes glanced across their bedroom but didn’t find what they sought.
“No.” But this didn’t alarm her.
“What are the names of our grands?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know how many grands we have?”
“Who is the President?”
“I don’t know.”
If there were any mercy in whatever was happening, he thought in a rueful moment, it came with that admission.
“I’m going to call 911. I think you’re having a stroke.”
“I don’t want to go in an ambulance,” Rimi insisted, more distressed, she said, by becoming fodder for neighborhood gossip than by whatever might be happening to her.
“Then I’ll drive you.
Asher slipped his phone into the pocket of his sweats and put on a pair of shoes that hadn’t seen much use for months. He grabbed his wallet and car keys then lead Rimi down the stairs.
“Just relax. It’s probably nothing at all, but we need to get you checked.”
“I don’t see why we need to go to the hospital. I don’t feel sick.”
Asher held his phone before her, a picture of their newest grand shown on it. “Who is this?”
Rimi looked at it for a moment. “Should I know? I think maybe I should know.”
“That’s Small Paul. That’s Seth’s son.”
“Seth is married?”
“Oh boy! We need to go now.”
“Seth is married?”
“For four years, Rimi. C’mon. Get in the car.”
He chose to take the highway to the hospital that was only a few miles away because someone had once said minutes meant brain cells with stroke victims. And he kept up a patter with her the entire way. She responded to his questions but had no answers. She was beginning to understand something was wrong, though she couldn’t say what it was.
“Where are we going?”
“To the hospital. There’s something going on in your brain that we need to get sorted out.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Who is our newest grand?”
She considered this for a moment. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t remember Small Paul? Seth’s little boy?”
“Seth is married?”
“We’re almost there. Hang on.”
He used the word “stroke” in the emergency room to ensure they got immediate attention. He spoke through his face mask to the nurse behind the glass, but he wasn’t sure if the urgency was getting through. So much expression was lost behind a mask.
The nurse listened to him and then turned to Rimi.
“Ma’am, who is the President?”
“I don’t know. Why is everyone wearing masks?”
The urgency was not lost. In a moment, a wheelchair appeared and Rimi was whisked away.
“She’ll have a CT scan, and we’ll let you know the results as soon as we can. But you can’t stay here because of COVID. We’ll call you.”
And with that, Rimi, who didn’t know what was wrong or even clearly that something was wrong, was beyond his reach. The only tether between them was a promised phone call that might deliver horrible news.
Back at home, he collected what information he could find about her medications. She took a half dozen pills every day, and he’d never given much effort to understanding what each was or what it did. Rimi had always been on top of that. He also wrote down her Medicare number, finding it in a bulging file folder, but that had also been something she organized, and he wasn’t sure if what he found was what he needed.
The hospital called not long after he had finished collecting what little he could, telling him he could return to see Rimi.
“You said visitors weren’t allowed.”
“With patients who have memory issues, we make an exception, so a familiar face is with them. Just ask at Emergency reception, and they’ll show you to your wife’s room.”
For the second time that day, Ash drove to the hospital. It was where Rimi had had her bypass surgery a decade before and where two of their eight grands had been born. Now this.
He would be breathing through a mask in a hospital all day, something he didn’t have to do sitting at his desk in his own bedroom. It would remind him to stay calm; keeping his breathing measured would help keep his thoughts from racing.
When he got to the Emergency ward, a nurse led him through a labyrinth of corridors to a room where he found Rimi sitting upright on a bed, hooked up to several beeping machines, alert and pleased to see him. She was not required to wear a mask.
“You’re going to have to tell me what’s going on.”
His face may have fallen then. He wasn’t sure, but he hoped his mask hid it.
“You don’t remember why you’re here?”
“The nurse said something about me losing my memory, but I don’t remember anything like that.”
He brought up a photo of one of their New York grands on his phone. “Do you know who this is?”
Rimi looked at the image but showed no flicker of familiarity with the child’s face.
“I suppose I should, but I don’t.”
“That’s Kenneth. Rachel’s boy. Our first grandchild.”
Asher didn’t know how to respond. Earlier the keen edge of panic had served him, had kept him focused. But now, with Rimi where she could get care and in no physical distress, the loss of her memories began to suggest deeper implications. She knew who he was. For that matter, she knew who she was. But how much farther did this extend? What holes would trip them in their lives ahead? Kenneth was six. Did that mean she’d lost all of her memories at least that far back?
“Can you tell me the name of our dog?” Quigley, the terrier who’d been with them for a decade, gray-snouted now but still with a sparkle in his eyes.
“We have a dog?” Her brow furrowed.
Ten years, thought Asher. Going back at least ten years.
“We have eight grandchildren. Can you remember that?”
“Tell me how I got here.”
“You don’t remember?”
Ten years. Three hours.
“You came upstairs and said something was wrong. You pointed to my workstation and didn’t recognize it. It’s been there for the entire pandemic, Rimi. You’ve seen it every day, and you didn’t recognize it. You couldn’t tell me the day of the week or who the President is.
“Did I come in an ambulance?”
“No, I drove you. I showed you a picture of Small Paul, and you were surprised that Seth was married. That happened four years ago. You don’t remember any of this?”
“This is weird. That really happened?”
“Really and truly.”
A nurse came in and pressed some buttons on one of the monitors. She made notes on a clipboard. “How are you feeling, Honey?” she said.
“I feel fine,” Rimi said. “I just don’t know why I am here. Tell me why I am here.”
“The doctor should be here soon. She can tell you more.”
Ten years. Three hours. Two minutes.
“We just discussed this just now. You don’t remember?”
“Your brain is taking a vacation, Rimi.”
“It is? When did this happen?”
“I don’t even know how I got here. Tell me how I got here.”
And so, Asher repeated the story of their morning, the unanswerable questions, the dash to the hospital. He would tell her this story many times that day.
When the doctor came, she brought good news. She was a tiny woman who wore a hijab and spoke, through her mask, with very precise, accented English.
“I am Dr. Melabadeen. I am the neurologist who will take care of you.”
No one shook hands, of course.
“The CT scan, I am happy to report to you, showed no signs of a stroke. We may rule that out altogether. We shall do an EEG to see if you had a seizure, but I think that is also unlikely. And I have ordered an MRI to look for a possible tumor or other physical trauma in your brain. But, again, I think such a finding is unlikely. My preliminary diagnosis is that you have what we call transient global amnesia. If I am correct, then this is the best possible case of an unfortunate situation.”
Whether Rimi was tracking all of this or not, Asher couldn’t tell. She did not react to the diagnosis and had no questions for the doctor.
“How so?” he asked to fill the empty air.
“TGA is frightening, but it is ultimately harmless in nearly all cases. While this is happening, she is not making any short-term memories. It generally lasts only a day, often less time than that, and the patient can expect to recover all of the missing memories, except for the events while it is happening. And it is extremely unlikely to recur. There is no treatment other than time and patience.”
“So, she’ll be able to name all our grandchildren? Resume her work? Know who the President is?”
“Rimi.” The doctor turned to her. “Can you tell me who the President is?”
Rimi thought for a moment. “Is it Ronald Reagan?”
“Perhaps it would be a mercy not to tell her,” said Asher.
“It should only last for a few more hours.”
Asher thought, imagine coming out of this and learning who that actual President is.
“Is Ronald Reagan not the President?”
“No, Donald Trump is.”
“HE IS NOT! That man couldn’t possibly be President! You’re lying to me!”
“It’s true. Trump has been President for four years, but tomorrow is the inauguration and we get a new President.”
“Joe Biden. Do you remember him? He was Vice President under Obama.”
“Should I know who Joe Biden is?”
“I am confident that you will tomorrow, Rimi,” said Dr. Melabadeen. “Today’s confusion will pass, and you’ll wake to your memories restored tomorrow. We’re going to keep you overnight while we wait for the test results and to keep an eye on you. Tomorrow will be like a new start for you.”
“What caused this?”
Dr. Melabadeen turned her sharp but caring eyes to Asher. “It is a bit of a mystery to us in the field of neurology. It has been linked to several possible causes, but each case seems to be unique. I understand she’s had no physical trauma. Can you tell me if she’s been under emotional stress lately?”
Asher thought of her frustration with the software upgrade. That had had her in tears several times, and it still wasn’t resolved. Of course, the pandemic. She hasn’t been able to visit the grands for nearly a year. The insurrection the week before – a horror no one believed could ever happen – had kept her doom scrolling. And, of course, the President she could not name. He told Dr. Melabadeen all of this, speaking about Rimi even as she sat, awake and alert, in the bed beside them.
“It is likely that all of these worries simply peaked in her head this morning,” Dr. Melabadeen said with kindness and clarity, “and her brain decided to take some time off. When you think about it, she is truly living in the moment. She is not burdened by her traumas now. She cannot remember many things, but she isn’t even aware of this loss. It is likely she will not remember this conversation in a few minutes, so that won’t trouble her either. It’s an enviable state to be in from one point of view. Nonetheless, I think you can expect a complete recovery very soon.”
She patted his arm in the consoling way doctors have. “I will see you both tomorrow when we have all of the test results back. But do not worry. I am confident she will be fine.”
Dr. Melabadeen rose. “We shall take good care of you, Rimi.”
When she was gone, Rimi said, “I feel like I am coming out of a fog. Have I been unconscious?”
“No, Rimi. You’ve been awake and alert this entire time. We’ve been having conversations.”
“I wasn’t unconscious?”
“Not one moment.”
“Tell me why I am here.”
When the nurse came in to do the EEG, she explained that Rimi needed to be as drowsy as possible. The lights would be dimmed, and the door closed, and it would be better if he were not there to distract her. He could sit outside her room or go to the lobby to wait. They would come for him when it was done. He used this time to call their children and explain what little he knew. In their own ways, they were as stressed as Rimi, clinging to the edge of the cliff by their fingernails, waiting for the last four years to come to a definite end. Bad news like this would not help, but Asher chose to describe it as a passing incident, that their mother would recover.
This seemed to work. Each accepted the news without panic, with measured concern, the only option when so little was known. It was likely that their mother would have a complete recovery, he insisted, with only the memories of this one day permanently lost. She would remember the grands and everything else that was eluding her now. “And it’s almost comical how she does not know who the President is. The lack of that stressor will probably help her recovery.”
When Asher returned to Rimi’s room, she was alert, whatever drowsiness she had achieved now passed.
“The nurses are so nice but tell me why I’m here.”
“You don’t remember? I told you a little while ago.”
“I guess not.”
And so, he explained the sequence again.
“I must have been unconscious. I don’t remember any of that. I feel like I am coming out of a fog.”
“You were never unconscious. You’ve been awake and talking to me this whole time.” He tapped his phone. “Can you tell me who this boy is?”
“He looks familiar.” Her brow furrowed as she tried to remember. “Tell me who that is.”
“It’s Small Paul. Seth’s boy.”
“Seth’s boy? Seth’s boy.”
“The memories will come back to you.”
“I’ve lost my memory?”
“Just for now. Your brain will reboot in a day or two.”
“Why is everyone wearing a mask?
The MRI would happen the next morning. Tuesday had nearly run its course. Asher peeked at the news occasionally on his phone; it didn’t appear that the feared, second insurrection was happening. He texted the children with what non-news he had, stayed in touch, tried to reassure them that this mess would be gone, and all would be well the next day. He hoped that was true.
Rimi was moved to a room in the neuro ward. The nurses got her settled into a bed, a drip of saline in her arm, various monitors tracking the ebbs and flows of her body. Asher sat nearby, unable to help much except to answer questions if Rimi couldn’t. He thought maybe she was already recovering a little. Her worry about how much the stay was going to cost was the clearest sign of her old bookkeeper self emerging. She asked that he bring a few personal things for her when he returned in the morning. She seemed to understand why she was there.
Rimi had already finished her breakfast by the time he arrived on Wednesday. She sat up in bed, and the television was set on the news channel, muted but visible. It was inauguration day. In his last hours, the orange man had said some vacuous words and then skipped town. No one seemed to care, and attention turned to the change about to happen.
“I just want to forget the last four years,” Rimi said, shaking her head.
Asher took this as a good sign. If she remembered that blight, then she was recovering. She was having her Rip van Winkle morning.
He showed her a photo on his phone. “Do you know who this is?”
“Give me a moment.” And then, triumphantly, “Small Paul! Seth’s boy.”
They turned their eyes to the television as the nation waited.
“This whole thing has been so weird,” Rimi said.
“By turns frightening and comical.”
“It seems like a dream, like it didn’t really happen.”
“It really happened.”
And then the nurse came into wheel Rimi away for the MRI. Asher stayed in the room, for where else could he go in a hospital during a pandemic? He watched the news, but it was about waiting out the last few hours with trembling anticipation. He texted the children with the hopeful update that their mother was visibly recovering, that her brain was rebooting.
Rimi was back in time to watch the swearing in. To learn that the nation was not broken but simply unfinished. To start over. And Asher thought, what could be more serendipitous, more perfect a balm for Rimi’s recovery than such a moment in history?
In the days and weeks that followed there were moments of uncertainty, fears of lost memories that might never come back after all. The forgotten appointment or the misplaced keys. The word on the tip of her tongue. The name she couldn’t summon. But a cautious confidence built as the challenges of remembering and never forgetting came to them both. Rimi found that her family was still whole, their hopes and dreams remained, and it was with this that she moved ahead.
Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to his Ozark cabin whenever he gets the chance. His stories have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Magnolia Review (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Aethlon, Fiction on the Web, Little Patuxent Review, and dozens of others. He keeps a blog about his writing and other oddments at https://paullamb.wordpress.com. He rarely strays far from his laptop.