Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Skloot, Floyd. In the Shadow of Memory. Lincoln, Nebraska & London, England: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. Print.
Imagine being in your early forties, a writer and a poet, a distance runner. Now picture suffering brain damage from a virus that requires every bit of your concentration to walk without falling on your face. Words that once flowed easily from your mind to paper now crawl forward haltingly, scrambled, and often without coherence. You are disabled to the point where you can no longer work in public policy, and communicating is sometimes an exercise in folly because what you mean to say and the words that end up being heard are utterly different. Welcome to the world of Floyd Skloot. His book, In the Shadow of Memory, is a collection of essays that takes readers into his world.
Skloot writes about his condition with the candor of a man who has come to painstaking terms with himself. Though his illness has changed his life, he never sinks into self-pity. Just the opposite, he finds a new perspective on living: he and his wife move away from the aggravation of Portland and the constant noise and frantic pace of the city. They go to an isolated rural setting in Oregon where they are in harmony with nature. Skloot is forced to live in the moment because he loses much of his past to the brain injury, and thinking ahead often lands him face-first on the pavement. His condition requires concentration to simply walk.
The act of writing, something that came naturally to him as a novelist and poet in his previous life, is relegated to a hardship. His damaged mind has difficulty conjuring the right words to convey his thoughts, so he writes in longhand and leaves spaces in his sentences to fill in later. He depends on his wife, Beverly, to proof his drafts for coherence, and it takes him eleven months to complete a single essay. Yet his finished pieces are works of art. They delve into what it’s like to be brain damaged. They recount the horror of his childhood beatings at the hands of his mother. They reveal the epiphany of the moment he sees his father come to terms with Skloot, a boy who will be commanded no longer. They show the irony and compassion in Skloot, a brain-damaged man, caring for his mother as she loses her memory to Alzheimer’s.
The essays are personal and touching, and Skloot’s language is pinpoint perfect. He describes seeing his father in the hospital after a horrific accident: “As I approached his bed, the smell overwhelmed me, blood and sweat and waste and vomit and disinfectant, a mixture of odors that forever defined loss for me.” He uncovers insights into his mother that only a son could convey: “When it became clear that my father would not, in fact, treat her the way she wished to be treated, would neither return her to her throne nor eradicate the uprisings all around her; that her two sons were tainted by associations with peasants, by strange appetites for Velveeta or football, by profanity and rock ‘n’ roll; and that time and the world were passing her by (it was already the 1950s!) without granting proper recognition; my mother’s frustrations grew unmanageable. Her eccentricities and flamboyance turned into open hostility and she became dangerous.”
Skloot renders his brother’s acknowledgement of his impending death with a portrait: “The final image was taken a half year ago, after our last restaurant meal with Philip. He is at the head of the table, his wife beside him with her hand clasped in his, and a single red tulip juts from its vase, tilted toward them as though drawn to their warmth. I am next to Elaine (brother’s wife), looking across the table at my wife. We are all smiling. We seem almost giddy at being together. There is nothing held back and there are no questions in the air. His expression says I’ve had a good life.”
The reader has the sense these last two sentences could just as aptly be about Floyd Skloot.