“Matt, you’re on belay.”
Jessica listened for his response. “Climbing!” he called.
She couldn’t stop smiling as she took in rope through the belay device she had rigged to an anchor system at the top of the climb. We’re in Joshua Tree! Jessica had managed to schedule two full weeks of vacation from work during prime rock climbing time in her favorite location. Six Colorado climbing friends had converged on this southern California climbers’ Mecca, miraculously snagged two adjacent campsites in the coveted Hidden Valley Campground, and were wrapping up their first full day of climbing on a route named Double Cross.
“Jam your fist into that crack. It’ll hold!” she advised the struggling climber below.
Matt was an excellent climber in the indoor gyms, but had just started venturing outdoors in the past few weeks. He had scoffed at the relatively easy rating of Double Cross when Jessica and Allison led the way to its base, but now he was discovering the challenges of crack climbing. Jessie remembered her early years learning the techniques of this unique aspect of the sport. A more experienced climber told her, “Most climbing comes pretty naturally — like going up stairs or a ladder. But climbing a narrow, vertical crack is different from anything you’ve done before. The only way to learn to climb cracks is by climbing lots of cracks.” And she had.
“Falling!” he screamed.
Jessica chuckled. “I’ve got you — you’re not going anywhere!” Matt’s hands had slipped out of the crack, and he had fallen about a foot lower simply because the rope securing him had stretched a bit. “Form your right hand into a wedge-shape, like we practiced. If that feels too loose in the crack, rotate your hand and form a fist instead.”
Matt inched his way higher. Finally, after a few more “falls” — which he managed without the screaming — he pulled himself onto the large ledge where Jessica was secured to the anchor. He was huffing like a steam engine.
“Move around behind me and clip in to the chains. I’ll belay Allison while you catch your breath.”
Jessica retrieved the second rope which Matt had trailed behind him, and efficiently rearranged the belay system to bring Allison up the climb. Once she heard Matt’s breathing return to something resembling normal, she untied from the first rope and asked him to use it to set up a rappel.
Allison made steady progress, and didn’t need the coaching that Matt had required. Jessica took the opportunity to look around as she manipulated the belay rope. She loved the view from this high perch above the desert valley. The gangly-shaped Joshua Trees below created an other-worldly scene, beautiful and strange. Towering, pale rock formations were scattered all around, their dramatic shapes, cracks, twists, and bulges offering thousands of possibilities for climbing. Bands of tiny, yellow flowers offered splashes of color along the valley floor. Brilliant orange-red blooms on a patch of claret cup cactus growing along a sandy wash glowed like small fires, visible even from her high perch. Jessica had been coming to Joshua Tree National Park for almost ten years, and never grew tired of the scenery.
As Allison topped out, Jessica inquired, “Did either of you bring up any water? I’m parched.”
“Nope, sorry,” they both concurred.
“Rope!” Matt called out the usual warning to anyone below as he tossed the coiled ends of the rappel rope out from the wall. He had threaded the rope through two steel rings attached to the rock by heavy chains and bolts. With the midpoint of the rope being looped through the anchor at the top of the climb, they could now set up a system to slide down the two equal halves of the rope using friction devices to easily control their descent.
“Jessie, why don’t you rap down first,” Allison offered. “You led the climb and acted as our belay slave all this time. Go for it.”
“Um, the rope is caught on that ledge near the bottom of the climb,” Matt noted. “Should I try throwing it again?”
Jessica peered over the edge, studying the jumble of rope far below. “No, that’ll be okay. I can untangle it when I get down to that point. Did you knot the ends of the rope?”
“Oh. I forgot.”
“Never mind. I know my rope is long enough — look at how much is piled up down there. And it’s only about ten or fifteen feet from the ledge to the ground. No problem.”
She rearranged her gear, forced the two sides of the rappel rope through her friction device and clipped it to her harness. She double-checked everything before unclipping her specialized sling known as a personal safety device (or P.A.S.) from the anchor, and started down.
“See you back at camp!” a voice shouted from below.
Jessica glanced over her shoulder as she continued her descent. Marilyn, her closest friend and long-time climbing partner, was sauntering along a path in the valley, moving with her characteristically cat-like grace. Even without hearing her familiar, gravelly voice, Jessie could spot Marilyn a mile away by her walk, her stance, and especially her expressive hand gestures. She and the other two climbers in their Colorado contingent were returning from a visit to The Bong, where Marilyn had been coaching Paul on his first “lead” crack climb. As usual, Marilyn was stopping to point out plants along their way. Ever the botanist.
Jessica waved her free left hand in reply, then focused on the tangle of rope by her feet. She tightened her grasp on the pair of ropes in her right “brake” hand held low beside her hip, and began picking at the jumble. She manipulated herself further to the left. I need to be a little lower, she thought, and let the ropes slide through her right hand a bit further.
Suddenly, she felt a rope end rush through her grasp. Her brake hand tightened in panic around a single strand of rope as her body began to topple. She clawed desperately at the parallel ropes she could still see above her, but the two became one in an instant. She glimpsed the intense blue of the California sky for a moment before an extreme blow to her back forced her lungs to expel all their air.
The next thing she was aware of was Marilyn’s face hovering over her. Someone else was there, too, with hands gripped on both sides of her helmet, holding her head securely in position.
“Jessie, talk to me. Can you hear me? Jessie!”
Her eyes darted around. Someone hovered over her, staring into her face. “Jessie, talk to me.”
Jessica groaned. The face above her began to come into focus.
“Jess, where do you hurt?”
Jessica took a moment to respond. “My back … head hurts.” She moaned and closed her eyes. The bright light made her head feel even worse.
“Okay. We’ve called Search and Rescue, and they’re on the way. Jessie, do you know who I am? Look at me.”
She squinted. “Marilyn. My best friend.” She looked around again and tried to roll onto her side. “Hey, let go of my head!”
“No, no, no. Lie still. Paul’s going to keep your head and neck stable until we hear otherwise from the EMTs. Relax. Deep breaths. You’re going to be okay. Now, can you wiggle your toes for me? Good! Now your fingers. Excellent.”
“Head hurts,” she mumbled.
She focused on the rock face towering above her, her eyes following the crack named Double Cross as it rose up and up. Two shorter, parallel, horizontal cracks sliced across it, like a Russian Orthodox cross. I guess I’ve just been double crossed, she thought as she closed her eyes again.
The funny thing, Jessica said to herself as she lay in a hospital room the next morning, is that I really don’t remember anything after they loaded me on the back board until the doctors were running all those tests in the ER.
“Hello, Ms. Stein. I’m Dr. Goldman. Do you remember when we talked last night?”
She remembered a parade of doctors and nurses stopping to check her out last night — too many to keep straight. She thought Dr. Goldman could have been the one who came by just before they turned the lights down. “Yes. Can I go home?” Jessica replied, trying to ignore the throbbing of her head and queasy stomach she felt whenever she spoke. This was worse than any hangover she’d ever had.
“I need to take a look at your eyes again and ask you some more questions. And if we release you, you must promise me that you’ll fly back to Denver as soon as you can get a flight out and call your primary physician to follow up. You were extremely lucky that you didn’t break any bones or have any internal injuries, but we are concerned about the concussion, and you need to follow up on that if you have any of the symptoms we discussed.”
“I know. I’ll head home. I’ll call my doctor. I promise.”
Dr. Goldman shone his penlight in her eyes, had her follow the light’s movements, and used both hands to gently feel the back of her skull and her neck. “Okay, I’m going to let you go home in a few hours. Someone will be coming in with your release papers, and to go over the instructions again with you. We’ll keep you on the IV for a little longer, since you were so dehydrated when you came in. Do you have any questions?”
“No, Doctor. Thanks for everything.”
“You can go in now,” Dr. Goldman said, as he walked out of Jessica’s hospital room. Marilyn virtually leaped into the room, her energy level cranked up a notch higher than usual, if that was even possible.
“Hey — I hear you’re busting out of this place! Not that I was eavesdropping out in the hallway or anything.”
“Yep. You can’t keep … a good woman down.” She cupped both hands over her temples and closed her eyes. “I need to rebook my flight home. Can you help?”
Marilyn pulled out her smart phone and exhibited some flashy finger work over its screen. “I was just waiting for the word.” More prestidigitation ensued. “All right. We’re confirmed on a flight this evening. Done deal!”
Jessica opened her eyes again. “Wait a minute — ‘we’? Mar, you don’t need to cut your vacation short. I’ll be fine by myself. Someone can pick me up at the airport and…”
“No way, Jess-say. You’re my main climbing partner, my best friend, my Sista. I’m not leaving your side until I’ve heard from your doc that your brain is back to its happy self again.”
Jessica sighed, but grinned. “Okay, but I owe you — big time!”
They heard a bit of a commotion in the hallway, and in popped the other four members of their Colorado climbing party.
“We have a present for you, Jessie,” they declared, almost in unison. Allison handed over Jessica’s climbing helmet with a ribbon attached and a colorful envelope tied to the other end.
Jessica opened and read the get-well card, pondering the notes each of her friends had written inside. She unfolded a piece of paper that had been tucked in the envelope with the card. “Good for one new climbing helmet. New skull not included,” it read.
“Obviously, you’ll be retiring your current ‘brain bucket.’ Check out the crack.”
She grimaced slightly at the slang term that she had often used herself. Jessica ran a finger along the crack on the back of her helmet, considering what might have happened if she had not been wearing it when she fell. The EMTs and medical staff had painted an extremely sobering picture for her, extolling the virtues of this vital piece of equipment. Yes, she’d definitely need a new helmet, but this one would be kept as a precious memento.
Her friends queried about her health, told their versions of what had happened, and offered up a few stories from the previous night’s dinnertime at camp sans Marilyn, who had — Jessica now learned — spent the night in a visitor area of the hospital. When it became apparent that Jessica was getting fatigued, they offered their good wishes, hugged her gently, and retreated to head back up into the Park for another climbing day.
“I’ll let you get some rest, and see you in a little bit,” Marilyn said.
“Wait. I need to tell you something.” Jessica had a worried frown on her face.
Marilyn pulled a chair close to the bed. “What’s going on?”
“Everyone who was just here… They — I mean, I…”
“It’s okay, Jess. Just spit it out.”
“Who were those people?”
Marilyn stared at her, frowning in concern.
“Seriously, Jess? That was Allison, Matt, Paul, and Brian.”
Jessica frowned in puzzlement. “Really?”
“You didn’t recognize them?”
“I don’t remember seeing any of them before — ever!” Now Jessica looked closer to panic than simply worry.
“Do you recognize me?” Marilyn asked, puzzled.
Jessica relaxed a bit as she stared at her friend. “Yeah. You’re Marilyn Monroe. How could I forget that beauty mark, cascading blonde hair, and voluptuous figure?”
Marilyn laughed in relief at the familiar, good-natured ribbing. She had long ago shared the story of her first name with Jessica, and it had been a source of amusement ever since. When her father got his first look at his newborn daughter, he immediately noticed her tiny facial mole, positioned just like the famous beauty mark of the glamorous icon. Combined with her miniscule wisps of white-blonde hair atop her head, he declared that she was surely another Marilyn Monroe. The truth was that this Marilyn — Marilyn Morrison — had grown into a tall, lean, athletic “jock” with a shape that could sometimes be mistaken for a young man’s. Her blonde hair had darkened a bit as she grew up, and she wore it in a casual, short style. No cascades.
“Didn’t they tell you that you might have some memory issues for a week or two after the concussion? I’m sure that was just a temporary thing. Don’t let it worry you.”
“Yeah, you’re right. By the time this fun-filled vacation is over, and I get back to work, this will all be nothing but a bad ‘memory’.”
Marilyn groaned at the pun. “Okay, now get some rest and I’ll go see what kind of mess the gang left in our rental car. They packed up our camping gear this morning for us and brought it down from the Park. I’ll see you in a bit.”
“Thanks for everything, Mar. You’re a great friend — I don’t care what everyone else says about you.”
“See, I knew you’d be back to your old self soon. Later, Sista.”
During the three hour drive back to Las Vegas and the hours spent at the airport and on the flight home to Denver, the two friends had plenty of time to discuss the questions which were on both their minds — how did Jessie’s accident happen? What did she remember? What had Marilyn witnessed from her vantage point?
As for the first question, both agreed that the rappel rope must have been set up unevenly, with one end hanging far longer than the other.
“I should have checked the set-up and looked for the middle-mark on the rope. And I don’t know why I didn’t insist on pulling the rope back up so we could tie knots in the ends. I know better.” Jessica leaned back in her seat, closing her eyes and massaging her temples gently.
Marilyn came to her defense. “Well, as you said, you thought you were seeing plenty of rope on that ledge, and didn’t think there could be any problem reaching the ground.”
“The short end must have been hidden in the tangle. Dumb, dumb, dumb. I should have seen that something was wrong,” Jessica continued, becoming more agitated.
“Yeah, and Matt should have set up the system right in the first place!”
Jessica took several deep breaths, and turned to look at her friend. “I hope everyone isn’t blaming him for this. How’s he doing? Was he the one who hung back by the doorway when everyone came to see me in the hospital?” Marilyn nodded. “I need to give him a call when he gets back to Denver, and let him know I don’t blame him for what happened.”
Jessica dozed off and on during the hours of travel. When she’d awaken, she’d ask Marilyn for more details. Had she remained conscious? Yes, but she hadn’t responded to questions for the first few minutes, other than to look around as if she were seeing the people and rock formations around her for the first time. Marilyn, in turn, asked if she remembered when they were carefully unclipping climbing gear from her harness, and asking her to wiggle her toes and fingers. No, but she remembered when the EMTs arrived and strapped her on the back-board, then the dizzying ride as they carried her over and around boulders to the waiting ambulance. But things were a bit vague after that, until she found herself in the ER and a bevy of medical personnel had inserted IVs, run scans, poked, prodded, and asked questions about everything from the current date to her entire life’s medical history.
It was after 10 p.m. when they finally arrived at Jessica’s house in southeast Denver. Marilyn pulled her Subaru into the driveway. “Let’s just leave our gear in the car till morning. I’ll get our clothing bags.”
Jessica rose stiffly from the passenger seat and headed to her front door, fumbling in the dark with her house key. “Pooka — I’m home!” The gray tabby dashed into the living room to greet her, remembered that he needed to teach ‘Mom’ a lesson for leaving on a trip, and retreated to his food dish. “Didn’t Della pay enough attention to you while I was gone?” she called. She’d have to remember to call her neighbor in the morning to let her know that she didn’t need to keep checking on Pooka for the next two weeks after all.
Marilyn had insisted on spending the night, using the excuse that she was too tired to drive the additional ten minutes back to her own house. Both knew that she just wanted to keep an eye on Jessie, and make sure she was doing all right. Although the doctor had said that it wasn’t necessary to wake Jessica throughout the night, he had emphasized that it would be a major concern if it was difficult to awaken her in the morning. Marilyn wanted to be there when morning arrived.
Jessica awakened to the smell of fresh coffee and bright sunlight streaming into her room. Pooka was perched by her pillow, staring intently into her face, purring at full volume. Apparently, she had been forgiven for going on a trip. Marilyn had come into her room and watched her sleeping for a minute before drawing open the curtains. “That coffee smells wonderful!”
“Well, I know how much you love the smell of coffee. Maybe someday you’ll actually decide you like how it tastes, too.” She grinned as she brought her personalized mug over to the bed so Jessica could truly savor the aroma. Jessie kept a coffee maker and all the usual fixings in her house so that friends who were addicted to their morning brews wouldn’t have to suffer. The mug in Marilyn’s hands was also a permanent resident.
The rest of the morning was filled with phone calls to her neighbor, Della (thanking her for looking in on the cat) and to Jessica’s family physician’s office (setting a quickly-arranged appointment for that afternoon). Marilyn unloaded and unpacked much of Jessica’s gear and clothing, dropped off her own items at her house, then returned with a load of groceries, ready to shuttle her to the doctor’s office later. Jessica was under orders not to drive until her own doctor gave her the all-clear.
It was an unseasonably warm day, and they took advantage of it by eating a late lunch on the back porch, where they admired a few early spring crocuses which had poked up in the garden just in the few days they had been gone to California.
As they came back into the house, the doorbell rang. “I’ve got it,” Jessica offered, since her friend’s hands were full, carrying a tray of dirty plates and dishes to the kitchen.
She squinted through the peephole in her front door. A gray-haired woman with glasses was standing on the porch, holding something in front of her. She didn’t look familiar, but seemed harmless, so Jessica opened the door.
“Jessica! You were so vague about why you were back so early from your trip that I got worried. Is everything all right?” she exclaimed in a deep, contralto voice.
Jessie knew that voice well. But she was flustered that she hadn’t recognized her next-door neighbor, Della Giambrocco, before hearing her speak. “Come on in. Everything’s fine.”
Della was carrying a covered plate, undoubtedly filled with some sort of scrumptious baked goodies. Jessica figured her neighbor seldom let a day go by without baking something wonderful. She usually ended up taking many of the treats to work to share — otherwise she’d weigh about 400 pounds by now.
The older woman headed to the kitchen table where she uncovered the plate. A small bundle wrapped in aluminum foil was tucked by the edge of the pastries. As soon as she began opening it up, a gray streak of cat rushed into the kitchen and Pooka began an enthusiastic do-si-do dance around the women’s ankles, complete with his own musical accompaniment.
“Pooka, amore mio. Yes, Della brought you a treat, too,” she cooed, as she delivered the packet of what appeared to be finely cut up brisket to the cat’s dish.
“Della, you spoil him so much. No wonder he turns up his nose at kibble.”
Her neighbor smiled broadly, then turned more serious. “Okay, but the main reason I stopped by is to find out why you came back so early.”
“I just had a little accident, and thought it would be a good idea to take it easy instead of climbing. It’s no big deal.”
Marilyn interjected, “Sorry to be a party pooper, but we have that, um, thing we need to get to by two o’clock.”
Jessica glanced at the kitchen clock. “Wow, I didn’t realize what time it was. I’m sorry, Della. We’re going to have to rush off. I’ll come by tomorrow and visit with you for longer, if that’s okay.”
“Of course, dear. I’ll talk to you soon,” she said as she headed to the door.
“Thanks again for watching Pooka,” Jessica called as her neighbor departed.
Then they were off to the doctor’s office. A nurse entered the waiting room, called Jessica’s name, and gave her a big smile as they walked back to an examination room. “How are you doing, Jessie? Have you been out climbing lately?”
Jessica managed a quick glance at the nurse’s nametag. She was dismayed to read the all-too-familiar name there — Margaret. How could she not have recognized Margaret? She had been with Dr. Ehrlich for the entire decade or so that she had been going to him. They had often talked about her climbing, her work, and even the antics of her cat.
She recovered quickly, and launched into the usual conversation with the nurse, asking how her son was doing in college, and if her daughter still liked her job as a physical therapist. Then she briefly explained the reason for today’s visit.
“I’ll check to make sure they’ve sent us all of your test results. First, let’s get your blood pressure, a pulse-oximeter reading, and a few other quick tests. Doctor will be in to talk with you in just a few minutes.”
Jessica closed her eyes and breathed slowly and deeply after the nurse left the examination room. She tried to picture Dr. Ehrlich in her mind. Okay — white coat, stethoscope, slightly-receding hairline … but she couldn’t pull up any sort of visual memory of her family doctor’s face.
A rap on the door was followed quickly by the entrance of a man in a white coat, stethoscope hung around his neck, with a slightly-receding hairline. Jessica was slightly relieved to realize that this man seemed vaguely familiar.
“Hello, Jessie. I understand you took a fall a few days ago. Tell me what happened.” He sat on a padded stool, and rolled it over to where a laptop computer was set up.
“Well, I fell about ten feet or so from a ledge, and landed pretty much on my back. And, since my helmet ended up being cracked, I must have hit my head, too. Or at least hit the helmet.”
“Did you remain conscious? I assume there were others there with you.”
“Yes, several friends were close by. They tell me that my eyes were open, and I was kind of looking around, but wouldn’t say anything for a few minutes. Then they started asking me questions like ‘how many fingers am I holding up?’ and ‘where are you?’. I remember that part pretty clearly, and I think I passed their tests,” she joked.
Dr. Ehrlich gazed at the computer screen, typed a few notes, clicked several times, and studied the reports and scan images which had been received from the hospital in the town of Joshua Tree, outside of the National Park. “Are you still having headaches?”
“Just a little. They’ve gotten a lot better, and I’ve switched to just taking some Tylenol a couple of times a day.”
“Any other symptoms? Sensitivity to bright lights? Dizziness? Nausea?”
Jessica shook her head to each question. Those symptoms had faded away. He produced a pen light and repeated the tests she had undergone in the hospital as he asked more questions.
“Any problems with concentration? Have you gone back to work?
“Not yet. Actually, I’m on vacation for almost another two weeks.”
“That’s good. I’d like you to take it easy for the rest of your vacation time. You may find that you’ll need to ease back into work. I can give you some information to provide to your employer, if you like. You’re a computer programmer, aren’t you?”
That was close enough of a description of her job. “Yes. But, I don’t think I’ll have a problem with work.”
“All right, but keep that in mind, and don’t push yourself too hard in the next several weeks, either mentally or physically. Are you sleeping okay? Feeling depressed or unusually angry? Is there anything you have questions or concerns about?”
She hesitated. C’mon, Jess, she said to herself. Now is not the time to play tough. Tell him.
“I’m sure this is just a bit of the confusion they told me I might experience for a little while after hitting my head,” she started.
“What sort of confusion?” he prompted when she took a long pause.
“I’m having trouble recognizing people I should know.”
“Can you give me some examples?”
“Well, I didn’t recognize Margaret until she started talking to me about climbing and I read her nametag. And I didn’t recognize you when you came in, either. Also, when several of my friends on the climbing trip came to see me in the hospital, I had no idea who they were.”
“Let’s take a look.” Dr. Ehrlich studied the computer screen again. “Your vision tests they sent over look okay. Let’s check again.”
More familiar tests ensued. “There’s nothing apparently wrong with your eyesight, but we can look into that further if we need to.”
“I don’t really think I’m having trouble with my vision. Everything seems to be in focus. I just can’t seem to remember what people look like.”
Dr. Ehrlich returned his attention to the computer, this time calling up what was clearly the results of a brain scan which Jessica remembered being done while she was in the ER. He turned back to her. “Jessica, I’m going to refer you to Dr. Nguyen. He’s an excellent neurologist, and he’ll be able to tell you a lot more than I can. Give this to the receptionist when you leave, and she’ll get you set up with an appointment. Meanwhile, don’t worry about this. It’s not unusual to have some memory issues in the weeks following a concussion.”
“Okay. I’ll see what Dr. Nguyen has to say,” she said, feeling frustrated at the likely delay in learning more about what was going on. “Oh — I almost forgot. The doctors in California told me not to drive until I got the okay from you.”
“I assume you got a ride here today?” Jessica nodded. “I think it’ll be fine, but let’s give it until tomorrow to start driving again. And limit yourself to short trips — nothing more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time for now.”
“Okay, I’ll take it easy. Thanks, Doc.”
Jessica rode home in silence. Marilyn had asked her how things went with the doctor when she returned to the waiting room, but quickly sensed her mood when she simply answered “okay” with a shrug, but didn’t offer anything further. Marilyn didn’t press her for more, knowing that her friend sometimes just needed to mull things over in silence when something was on her mind. It was a trait they shared, and both women cherished their ability to simply be with each other in silence when needed.
Marilyn dropped her off at home, with a final, “You need anything?” Jessica managed a thin smile and a brief, “No, I’m good. Thanks again for everything.” They hugged, and Marilyn departed.
Jessica headed straight to the tiny bedroom she had set up as her home office, and booted up her laptop. She googled “trouble recognizing people.” The first page of results was filled with articles about something called “prosopagnosia” or “face blindness.” She was surprised to discover that an impairment in recognizing faces actually had a name. She skimmed several online articles, printing out a few, then created a new folder in her browser to store numerous other pages she bookmarked. When her headache returned and her eyes began to bother her, she glanced at her watch, surprised to realize that she had already been at the computer for almost an hour. Although her job as a software developer and designer often found her engrossed in her work in front of a computer screen for hours at a time, she realized that this fatigue was one of the expected symptoms of her recent concussion. Hopefully, this too would pass.
“C’mon, puss-puss,” she whispered as she picked up the sleeping cat curled in her lap. “Let’s both go take a nap.”
Her appointment with Dr. Nguyen, the neurologist, was set for Friday of the following week. Jessica spent time each day perusing the articles she had bookmarked, finding that she could comfortably spend more time each day focusing on her self-assigned studies. After assurances from Jessica that she would be fine on her own, Marilyn had headed to Colorado’s Western Slope to do some downhill and cross-country skiing with friends for what was left of her prematurely-aborted vacation time. Here in Denver, the weather was in full roller-coaster mode, offering up a warm day flirting with 70 degree temperatures, followed by a day of wet spring snow and wind. Today was somewhere in the middle, with yesterday’s snow melting rapidly and noticeably greener grass peeking through the melted spots.
Jessica decided she needed some fresh air. She headed for an urban trail which passed close to her home. Gigantic cottonwood trees lined the path that ran for dozens of miles alongside a historic irrigation waterway — the Highline Canal. In a few more weeks, the old trees would produce a snowstorm of “cotton” that would pile up along the edge of the path like plowed snow. Today, the white patches beside the trail consisted of real snow.
She paused at a street crossing, waiting for several cars to pass before she hustled to pick up the trail again on the other side. She slowed her pace, then stopped as her head began to throb from the sudden exertion. She reversed course, and walked gently back to her house, taking care to avoid jarring movements.
After downing some Tylenol for her headache, Jessica lay down for a short time to let the pain subside. Before long, she returned to her research. She had discovered several do-it-yourself tests on the web related to prosopagnosia — face blindness — and worked through each one in her usual, competitive manner, determined to get as close to a “perfect” score as possible. Her passion for excellence had always been a trait that she credited for her outstanding grades in school. She was sorely disappointed with her performance on the face blindness tests.
The first test explored her ability to recognize the faces of famous people. It was self-scoring, since the emphasis wasn’t on being able to remember their names accurately. The instructions explained that you could score an answer as “correct” if you saw, for example, Mick Jagger and remembered that he was the lead singer for the Rolling Stones, but couldn’t bring his name to mind right away. You could also mark someone as “unfamiliar” if, even after being told their name, you didn’t think you had seen their picture before.
Jessica found the celebrity test frustrating, and often surprising. Each photo was presented with an oval frame around the face, hiding features like big ears or distinctive hair styles. She managed to recognize Mahatma Gandhi (with his distinctive round glasses and nose that dominated his face) and Madonna (whose makeup, abundant blonde hair not quite hidden by the oval frame, and gap between her front teeth were all traits she had noted in the past). That was it. Two out of thirty.
The second test was even more difficult for her. It presented computer-generated faces from different angles, and had her try to pick out faces she had already been shown. Even more faces were displayed for her to match. She suspected some had identical eyes as another, but other features were switched. Her score was again far below what was listed as “average.” She realized that she could have achieved the same score purely by guessing, simply based on the mathematical odds for a multiple choice test.
The more she read, the more she believed that she had hit upon what was wrong with her. She was face blind.
Jessica glanced at the caller ID on her phone, her dismay almost convincing her to let the call go to voice mail. I really should have called him. “Hi Matt,” she managed in an upbeat voice.
“Hey, Jessie. We’re back from J-Tree and I wanted to check in to see how you’re doing.”
She kept her tone light. “I’m doing much better. The headaches are almost gone and the doc gave me the okay to drive. Yeah, doing great. How was the climbing?”
“We did a lot of top-roping after you two left, but nobody really wanted to lead anything.” He cleared his throat. “Listen, Jessie. I just want to tell you how terrible I feel for what happened. I really thought I had enough length on both ends, but…”
“Hey, Matt. It’s okay. Really!” she emphasized. “I missed it, too. We usually check each others’ set up for tying in, rappels … everything. I guess we just got in a hurry. It’s okay. We’ll all be more careful in the future.”
“Still, Jessie, I just want to apologize and let you know that I really hope you’re going to be fine. I hope someday you’ll be okay with climbing with me again. But I’ll understand completely if you don’t want to.”
She heard the tightness in his voice. “Thanks, Matt. I don’t have any problem at all with climbing with you again. Don’t worry. We’re still friends.” Now she was starting to choke up a bit.
They both managed a few closing pleasantries and promised to talk again soon.
“These scans were run twelve days ago,” Dr. Nguyen explained, “immediately after your accident. I’d like to see what this area of your brain looks like now. This will give me a better picture of your mTBI — Mild Traumatic Brain Injury — and how the healing has progressed.”
The scan was followed by a series of cognitive tests administered by a very pleasant female technician. Or, perhaps there had actually been more than one female technician returning to the room as the tests progressed — Jessica no longer felt confident that she would notice as long as each technician wore the same medical garb as another.
Finally, the battery of tests was complete. She was escorted into Dr. Nguyen’s office, where he sat at a desk, flipping through papers in a folder and peering at a now-familiar image on his computer screen — a brain. Probably my sorry-ass brain, Jessica thought.
“Jessica, your brain injury has improved considerably since your accident, and I’m pleased with the results of the cognitive tests you took today. I see no signs of problems with your visual or verbal skills, your motor skills are good, and your memory is fine.”
Jessica let out a breath. She hadn’t realized she hadn’t been breathing while listening to the doctor’s words.
“However,” he began again. Jessica froze. “The facial recognition tests you took today and what I’m seeing in today’s scan could indicate damage to an area of your brain called the fusiform gyrus.” He turned the monitor so she could see it better. Jessica stared at the image. Her brain. Her … damaged brain.
“Jessica, take a look at your CT scan. See this area near the lower rear of your brain?” He pointed with his pen. “This is the area that was affected by your concussion.”
She knitted her brows and nodded slowly.
“This area is thought to be involved in facial recognition. It’s certainly a possibility that you are experiencing prosopagnosia. It’s sometimes known popularly as face blindness, although that’s a very misleading term since it isn’t a form of blindness at all.”
Jessica frowned. This was exactly what she had focused on with her web research. She had hoped she was wrong, but now this expert was confirming her hunch.
“The term prosopagnosia comes from the Greek words for ‘face’ and ‘not knowing.’ It’s not a problem with memory or vision or a learning disability. Our brains have a very special way of recognizing human faces that is quite sophisticated, and we believe part the area of your brain that was injured is where that processing takes place.”
Dr. Nguyen continued his discussion of her condition. Her thoughts flew rapidly from question to question about what this might mean — would people believe that her “brain damage” was limited to this crazy problem with recognizing faces? What would they think at work, where her job relied on the ability to solve problems with logic and attention to a plethora of details, and to be able to present software users with well-designed visual interfaces.
“…wait several more months before we know if this is permanent…”
Jessica registered a phrase now and then, but her mind continued racing. Would friends and co-workers be offended if she failed to recognize them? Would she ever be able to make new friends?
“…support groups, particularly online…”
She recalled bookmarking several social networking groups for people who were face blind, but hadn’t spent much time on those sites yet. She had been more focused on the medical and scientific information.
Jessica realized that Dr. Nguyen had stopped speaking, and was waiting for her to respond. “Sorry, I was thinking about some of the things you said…” she muttered.
“I understand. This may take some time to get used to, but I think you’ll find that there are a number of strategies you can learn to help you recognize people even though you may not be processing their facial information the same way you did before. You seem quite savvy with online searches, so I suggest you follow up on that and look at the online support groups in particular. As I said, we now believe that about 2% of the population, perhaps even more, has prosopagnosia, either congenital — from birth — or like you, due to an accident or illness affecting the brain. You are still the same intelligent person as before; you may just need to develop alternative cognitive skills to compensate.”
She nodded, lost in thought.
“Let’s schedule a follow-up two months from now and see how you’re doing by then.”
Jessica returned home feeling emotionally drained. A nap was in order — doctor’s orders, that is. She found it difficult to fall asleep at first as her mind raced, trying to process all the information and sort out the implications, but she drifted off at last.
Jessica hoped that watching a fun, light movie would lift her spirits. She picked out a romantic comedy, and set it up to watch on her big-screen TV. First, though, zap some popcorn in the microwave, pour a tall glass of iced green tea — decaffeinated, of course — and plant herself on the sofa, her legs propped on the coffee table in front of her. Pooka assumed his normal position, sprawled out along the length of her legs, facing the screen. She assumed he slept through most of the movies they watched, but he always seemed to awaken and pay attention to any scenes with animals or skiers.
Just twenty minutes into the flick, Jessie hit the Stop button on the remote. There were two actresses in the film with blonde hair, and one of them (or was it both?) sometimes pulled her hair back in a pony tail. She thought the pony-tailed actress was a third woman character until someone called her by name. Then there were the men, who all seemed to be the same guy until they appeared in a scene together. She was totally lost.
Although she had already watched it a dozen times, she switched her movie selection to Harvey. “Look, Pooka. It’s your fellow pooka — the six foot, three-and-a-half inch invisible rabbit.” She could keep track of all the characters now, even the invisible one.
Want more? Faces is available in paperback directly from the author via this website, or from Amazon as a Kindle edition or paperback edition.