There is a haunting quality to the pixelated photograph of Sonya Lea and her husband, Richard, gracing the cover of her new memoir, Wondering Who You Are. Their faces are in soft focus and only partially included in the frame, the bold, white title words overlaid and commanding. It’s as if the photo, the entire moment, is being erased by the title’s looming question: Who are you?
More than 20 years after that 1970s pre-prom snapshot, the question feels inescapable and an answer almost impossible. Richard, in ICU after surgery for a rare appendix cancer, unknowingly has four liters of blood pooling in his abdomen. By the time the hospital staff understands what is happening, the lack of oxygen to his brain has already done irreparable damage. Upon waking, all memory of their marriage has vanished. Suddenly, both Richard and Lea are left with no history, and a nonexistent sense of self.
“We say in our family, ‘One brain injury causes another,’ ” Lea explains. While Richard must essentially relearn everything—conversation, physical function, work, even sex—Lea is overwhelmed by the sudden and asphyxiating necessity, not just the desire, to be strong enough for them both. “I had the experience of my identity breaking up shortly after this happened to Richard. Before, I thought I was such a feminist and I knew who I was; that I was empowered in my relationship. This situation showed me all the ways I hadn’t yet stepped into myself and my own authority.”
The process of writing the story, which Richard closely and frequently participated in, was vital for both Lea and Richard to reclaim a sense of self, and to rebuild their marriage. They began weekly dates and created a dialogue of questions as simple as, “What’s your favorite food?” to more complicated topics like what they wanted out of life. These moments in the book are both heartbreaking and uplifting as Richard’s mind often betrays his tireless efforts to remember and his desire to be the man Lea needs. When asked, though, she affectionately and repeatedly refers to the book as “our” memoir. “One of the things I never did was make the assumption that he didn’t know about certain things,” Lea says. “I wanted to capture the little details of intimacy. How hard he was trying to learn and how he would forget over and over and over again.” So, in addition to their dates, every week she would present Richard with a prompt and then they’d separate for an hour or so to write. When they’d return to one another, they’d compare their memories of the same event, which she admits was an intensely emotional experience for them both.
Many of the memories Richard shared during these sessions helped construct the narrative, but they are fleeting, and many have now faded from his mind all together. “In a strange way, when it’s in print the story becomes his memory, because it’s laid out there as the agreed-upon thing that happened,” she explains. “So one of the things I was very cautious about when writing is that we preserve a part of our life that is not the story.”
In the absence of memory Richard has become tender, unfathomably patient, and “unhindered by reputation or regard for what other people think. He’s just happy being there,” Lea says. She proudly admits the majority of reader responses to early articles and book copies have been in admiration of Richard, and it’s hard not to share that sentiment. But it’s still difficult on a daily basis for Lea to wholly relate to his unencumbered state. “It’s like he’s living inside a fairly expansive present,” she says “It’s not like he can’t ever remember, but really he’s unhindered by living in the past.”
It’s been almost 40 years since that cover image of Lea and Richard was taken, but as recovering the past seems less and less vital to Richard’s happiness, it no longer feels necessary for Lea, either. Richard will never again be as he once was, but for Lea, wondering who her husband is has morphed from a desperate need to understand him into an almost effervescent curiosity. In some ways, their history is irrelevant. Together, they are happy, the adventure ongoing.
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, TX.