Magnetic Memories

I answered no to all the key questions. No implants, no tattoos, no permanent makeup, no prosthetic knees, hips, or shoulders, no aneurysm clips. Still, they told me it was okay to keep my underwire bra on, and the snap and zipper on my pants didn’t present a problem.

They asked about my musical preference and I chose Yanni. You’ve got to be careful what you ask for. Once I requested the Beatles, thinking ahead to Let it Be for the reassuring lyrics, or Hey Jude with the lulling Naa na na na na na na. Instead, twenty seconds into Helter Skelter, I thought I was having a heart attack. The rapid clamoring of the magnets mimicked my heartbeat and I saw my own EKG projected on the back of my eyelids. It looked like ventricular tachycardia but I didn’t push the panic button. The anticipated joules of the defibrillator never came. Eventually, I calmed myself a bit.

This MRI was for my left knee—a pesky post-surgical problem stemming from an unfortunate meniscus repair gone awry. My face would be outside the machine, so if I chose to open my eyes, I would see the florescent lights on the ceiling and not feel as though I were being buried alive. The operator would be spared the unpleasant task of wiping my bloody claw marks off the inside of the tube. This time would be a breeze compared to being inside that cylinder and wondering when I might start screaming, “Get me the hell out of here! Now!”

Once the technician had gently placed the headphones (hygienically covered in little disposable jackets) over my ears, Yanni’s fingers began flying over the ivories. I thought of jungles, then elephants, then poachers and dead elephants with orphaned calves sold into slavery as circus performers. Forcing those thoughts away with the knowledge that piano keys are now made of plastic or resin, I tried to focus on the music. Things soon got under way and the dreaded hammering sound began. At first it was kind of hypnotic. A drum circle on the beach at sunset. I relaxed a bit, pretending I was lying in my casket and friends and family were gathered for the viewing. I made myself look what I hoped was serene—like I’d made peace with my creator and finally forgiven all trespasses against me.

Try as I might to keep my thoughts from running amok, the invasive images began to creep in. Yanni’s piano took on a frenetic pace. The high notes started to pluck at my nerves. I thought of pushing the panic button and asking if they could switch to Yo-Yo Ma. The deeper, richer tones of the cello would be more soothing and not compete so much with the staccato percussion section of the machine. After years of worrying about shark attacks and highway fatalities, I am, ironically, about to experience death by fortissimo.

Not wanting to interrupt the sequence, and determined to get this over with as soon as possible, I kept still. The image of me in my casket morphed into my daughter in hers—a sight I have struggled for years to un-see. This happens sometimes when I am forced to be idle, like at the dentist, when hiding in a closet from a band of knife-wielding home intruders, or here in this magnetic casket-tube.

Perhaps because this is a medical procedure, my thoughts migrate to that most horrible night in the emergency room and the moment I felt her leave her physical body.

There was a strange man sitting in a chair—the only other person in the room after all the earnest young doctors had slunk away; humbled in knowing their best was not good enough. He was a shomer, the “watcher” or guardian of the dead. Who called him and why? It should have been me watching over her. I should not have finally gone home and slept, no matter how fitfully.

While much of it is a blur, a few scenes from that night are etched firmly into my psyche, my heart, and every cell in the marrow of my bones. These images might play on a continuous loop if I’m not fastidious about making sure the power source is extinguished. I do this by keeping up a distracted, frenzied pace, running from one activity to another all day long; seldom completing a task and doing nothing well. 

Gardening tools are left outside to rust, hoses are left on, causing tremendous waste and flooding, keys and glasses are lost daily. Perishable groceries remain in the car until I become aware of the smell of rot. Important deadlines are routinely forgotten so that my husband has taken over the job of paying the bills.  Cautious about overuse of drugs and alcohol, the mindless distraction of social media becomes my latest addiction and hours are wasted perusing the dinner selections and the misguided sharing of un-fact-checked memes by hundreds of my “friends”.

It was easier when I still went to work—had a set schedule, a pattern to my days. I couldn’t always concentrate as much as I’d like, but I got things done. Sedatives helped at night. And walking. Walking was my Prozac and my Adderall, my mantra, and my muse. One foot in front of the other, rhythmic and soothing, mile after mile. One day, I set out for a walk and logged fourteen miles on my pedometer. They were mostly city sidewalk miles, but still with magnificent creatures, birds and dragonflies, dogs, squirrels, and trees to help me remember all that is good and sacred on the planet.

Years ago, I walked from sunset to sunrise in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s first Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Washington DC. Twenty plus miles. A heartfelt, but ill-fated, decision to wear my daughter’s running shoes, just a skosh too small, resulted in my feet resembling large loaves of rising bread dough as I hobbled to the finish line at first light. The physical pain was a welcome relief and I slept that night without dreaming. 

Because of age and a knee as unstable as the rest of me, I have no illusion of being able to walk those long distances again. My knee brace helps, but after a mile or two that left knee is singing the blues and despite my expensive, professionally fit walking shoes, my feet join in for the chorus.

I miss those walks. Maybe tapping away here at my keyboard is a substitute for that bilateral brain stimulation of walking—right foot—left foot—repeat. Arms swinging like twin pendulums. The sound of my soles slapping the asphalt like a metronome, keeping me moving forward and tuned in to the rhythm of life instead of lurking around in darkened rooms looking for clues. Searching for the why. 

I should have been the shomer that night. I had fifteen years’ experience watching over her. The guy in the corner knew nothing about her. He didn’t know that she liked orange tic-tacs and opera, Marilyn Manson and Mozart. He knew nothing of her talents and her fears, her rage or her heartache.

He sat in the corner mumbling prayers that were a comfort to no one. I wanted him to leave. I wanted to climb up on that gurney and hold her. Instead, I allowed myself to be led away, leaving her with a stranger.

The hammering of the magnet is still very loud but it seems far away now. My eyes are closed and every thing seems far away. I don’t allow myself to think of that night too often. Now I regret coming to this place where my stillness has lowered my guard and allowed the memories to take over. 

A doctor once asked if I’d tried meditation. Sure, hon. Just give me the damn Xanax and I’ll try it again.You try sitting still, focusing on blocking the most horrible image you could imagine, and let me know how that mantra’s working for you. 

I wonder if they still perform lobotomies and if they could just ablate a pathway in my brain that lets certain unbearable thoughts get through. I couldn’t take the risk, though, of forgetting one minute of the good times. One minute of her life.

The noise has finally stopped. This “non-invasive” procedure is over. I see that it has taken less than twenty minutes. I hope the images will be promising. I really need to get back to walking. Right foot—Left foot—Repeat. Until then, this keyboard will have to do. 

-Eileen Vorbach Collins


Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. She lives in Florida and is working on a collection of essays because it's cheaper than therapy. Her Story, The Burdon of Perspicacity, has been published in Anastamos, the Graduate Interdisciplinary Journal of Chapman University, and is forthcoming in the Santa Fe Writer's Project quarterly journal. Another story has been accepted by Chaleur Press for an upcoming anthology.