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Leave your country (and never go back)

Ines Maria Almeida

 

Our autobiographical memory is engineered by what we can recall. It is comprised of both episodic and semantic memories. Semantic memory refers to the portion of long-term memory that processes ideas and concepts that are common knowledge – such as phonetics, names of colours, capitals of countries and other seemingly irrelevant facts acquired over our lifetimes. Episodic memory is the collection of past personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place. These memories are constructed by personal events and are often precise, or at least detailed. Times, places, associated emotions and other contextual knowledge can easily be conjured like this:

 

Thunder Bay, Ontario.
A Sunday morning.
A kitchen.
Three siblings.
A packet of bacon and a microwave.

 

Only one of my brothers remembers this story. How is it that the other doesn’t? It’s the only good story we have of him. A ridiculous story, one that perhaps only those present at the time would find amusing. And yet, we retold it to all of our friends.

 

It goes like this: My eldest brother took a packet of streaky bacon, layered each piece to form a ball, microwaved it until it was crisp and ate it like an apple in front of me and our other brother. He called it the Bacon Ball. True story.

 

I have other brother stories. I will not tell you how he broke someone’s nose over a broken Popsicle. Or how he used to threaten to beat me with the aid of a phone book to limit the bruising. I will never bring up the time he put ten thousand dollars on my mother’s credit card, during a trip to Europe, without asking first. There is no need to discuss the trail of damaged and destitute Japanese girlfriends he left behind in Thunder Bay, Gifu, Nagoya and Tokyo. The story he can’t remember is the only story about him that I tell without embarrassment or regret.

 

My bacon memory is one of my favourite stories to tell about growing up in Canada. In telling it to my brother, close to twenty years later in a smoky izakaya on the outskirts of Yokohama, I wanted him to remember and acknowledge that we had a life there together. I know there’s a chewy core of memories inside his heart waiting to be remembered. His denial or disbelief of the bacon incident feels like a rejection of the history we share. And yet the worst part about this exchange is that I completely understand.

 

I, too, need to forget that we ever came from somewhere. I share his desire for a blank slate and a new life where my past doesn’t matter. His dream to live in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, where he could reinvent himself completely, is probably what triggered my own.

 

I begrudge the fact that he left when he did, when I needed him. But I left, too. Maybe we can’t help but leave. However, must we also forget? Can we at least make some kind of make-shift pact, pinky promise, agreement of sorts, stating what we should remember and what we can let go? What else have we forgotten? What have I forced myself to forget? My brothers and I may share the same blood, but our memories are the connecting tissue. If we lose them, we have nothing left to bind us.

 

*

 

Here is another story, but it’s not mine. In Switzerland, 1678, a young man walked into a doctor’s office complaining about his illness. He was from Berne but studying in Basel. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. His health was deteriorating to the point where this sickness was threatening his life. All he wanted was to go home. Dr Johannes Hofer diagnosed him with nostalgia. He treated his patient’s insomnia with opium, his heart palpitations with chamomile tea, and covered him in leeches to bring down the fever. However, the treatments didn’t work and the young man was sent home to Berne. He was cured by the time he arrived.

 

The 1700s saw nostalgia as a disease of the imagination. It was viewed as the result of an identity crisis: a person who is transplanted to somewhere unfamiliar becomes alienated, isolated and unsure of who they are.

 

Later, in 1816, another Swiss doctor, Dr Andres Matthey, performed autopsies on soldiers who had died of nostalgia. He found physical abnormalities in the soldiers’ hearts, which helped to certify nostalgia as a ‘real’ disease, that resulted in a biological transformation vis-à-vis a distressed emotional state. Scientists in the eighteenth century sought a locus of nostalgia within the human body – a nostalgic bone to mend. With no locus found, nostalgia lost its status as a disease and came to be seen as a malady of the imagination, or memory. Mal du pays: homesickness.

 

As a mental illness, nostalgia became more difficult to treat: this feeling of both pleasure and pain when ones thinks about the past is terminal. A nostalgic person remembers too much. They do not understand the life-saving importance of forgetting.

 

*

 

My brother left Canada in 1994 and only returned for our mother’s funeral. It took us ten years to see each other again. In 2004, I packed up my life in Montréal, saying goodbye to friends and a fiancé, to take my chances on discovering a connection with the brother I lost. Over the years, he’d become a drunk, frequenting red light districts, while his wife and young son slept in their home in Yokohama. I lasted a month before I found a reason to leave. I haven’t seen him since.

 

Before I left, my brother and I watched Akira Kurosawa’s black and white film Rashômon. Made in 1950, this classic movie is an examination of the nature of memory. The story is set in the 12th century, a time of civil wars and samurai. The infamous bandit, Tajȏmaru, is on trial for killing a samurai and raping his wife. The story is told in a series of flashbacks wherein the incident is recalled by four different witnesses: the wife, Tajȏmaru himself, the murder victim via a psychic, a woodcutter who had seen the crime play out in the woods.

 

Each testimony – while influenced by the person’s own experience, intention, and self-perception – is plausible, but they are contradictory. Each character tells their own truth, but this truth is distorted by their past and the implications of the future. At the beginning of the movie, each character is completely certain that their version of the story is the only truth. However, during the trial, as they listen to the others recount their stories, they begin to doubt themselves. We never find out what really happened because there are so many different versions of the actual movie.

 

*

 

Here is a story that I can’t stop telling over and over again:

In 1995, my mother died. In losing her, we lost everything. The three of us drifted out, scattered across the world to Canada, Japan and everywhere in between. Whatever held us together once became weakened, frayed and eventually disintegrated. This story of loss is what anchors me.

 

*

 

Here is a story about a heart. One dark evening in late September 1995, a seventeen-year-old girl is ill. She cannot catch her breath because her heart beats so fast. She cannot eat, cannot sleep. Her head spinning, she lies down on her brother’s waterbed. No one is home. Her heart beats so hard it ripples through her body and into the water beneath her. As she rides the shallow waves on silken sheets, she picks up the phone and calls the nurses’ line. ‘I think I’m dying,’ she says. She describes her symptoms to the nurse. The nurse asks the girl if she is going through an abnormally stressful time. Irritated that she wasn’t offered an ambulance, the girl curtly says yes. Puffing through shallow breaths she tells the nurse about her impending final exams. It is the girl’s last year of high school. She was planning to do an exchange in Shropshire, until her host mother suddenly died from a surprise tumour the size of a cauliflower in her abdomen. The girl is failing geography and math. She doesn’t know what university to go to – which majors to choose. Finally, the girl tells the nurse that her mother died suddenly of a brain aneurism just days before. The nurse tells her to breathe. There is no cure for grief.

 

*

 

Tachycardia is not so much a disease as a condition. The normal electrical impulses that control the rate of your heart’s pumping action gets confused. Our heart rates are controlled by electrical signals that are sent across our heart tissues. A normal heart beats anywhere between 70 and 80 BPM. When the heart produces rapid electrical signals nearing 200, you’re having what is known as an ‘episode’.

The exact cause of tachycardia can’t be determined. It is not hereditary, but both my father and I have it. I know this because I triggered an episode for him when I showed up on his doorstep in Queluz, on the outskirts of Lisbon, in 1999.

 

*

 

If nostalgia is a disease then saudade, that haunting, intoxicating and supposedly untranslatable Portuguese word that gives name to a feeling, or a state of being, must be a curse. Portuguese scholar George Monteiro describes saudade as ‘a vague and constant desire for something that relates to the past or the future but does not exist in the present’. Charles Frederick Hartt, a Canadian-American palaeontologist who specialised in Brazil’s geology, wrote that saudade was ‘a word so dear to the Portuguese as our word “home” and nearly as untranslatable.’

 

*

 

My father lives in Queluz with a new wife and daughter. Most of what I know about his current life I learn from stalking him online. We are not friends on Facebook, but he’s clearly not familiar with the privacy settings, so I can see everything he posts, and what others post to his feed. In his profile he says he has two sons and one daughter.

 

He is with Daniela in a dark street and they are illuminated by the flash of the camera. He looks tanned and his hair is silver. He is wearing glasses, a white T-shirt that says ‘US EAGLES’ (and it’s a little tight because his gut is clearly visible), a black belt and blue, blue jeans. He writes: ‘I look as good as she … only older.’

 

This photo was taken on July 15, 2010 and Daniela is 17. She is wearing a short, black sleeveless dress and long gold earrings. She is tanned with green eyes and caramel skin. Daniela is smiling. Fernando is trying to smile or perhaps saying something. They are not touching. Daniela is holding her own hands in front and Fernando has his hands behind his back. They are looking at the camera. She has his nose. I have his nose. I have her nose. I love her and hate her at the same time.

 

*

 

In ‘A Prototype Analysis of the Portuguese Concept of Saudade’, Félix Neto, a student from the University of Porto, and Etienne Mullet, from The Paris Institute of Advanced Studies, compiled research on the way ordinary people conceptualise saudade using the Rosch Prototype Theory. Through two studies, in which they interviewed unmarried undergraduate students from the University of Oporto, they found that each participant was able to attribute seven different archetypal features, which resulted in a list of 182 characteristics, of saudade. From this number they subtracted 115 idiosyncratic features that were just too vague, leaving a final count of 67 distinct features starting with ‘memories’, ‘sadness’, ‘missing someone’ and finishing with ‘sighing for’ and ‘butterflies in the stomach’.

 

*

 

When I was in my last year of primary, my father sent me a postcard. On the front there is a faded picture of the River Tejo in Lisbon. There is no date.

 

Dear Agnes, hope you had a good time at Sibley Park and enjoyed the woods with bugs and all. How are you? Have you been good and have you been looking after your mother? The weather here is gorgeous and I arrived well but tired. I’m sitting at a coffee shop having a coffee and a small cake (because of my diet!!!!) I thought of writing to you to let you know that I’m well and that I love you very much. Vovi is well too and loved your pictures. She sends you lots of love and kisses. I’ll write again, soon. Look after everyone and please write to me. I miss you. Love, dad

 

*

 

Inside the white plastic container under my bed, there is an envelope of photographs that span lifetimes and continents – my own, my mother’s and my grandmother’s. My favourite photograph is one of the whole family. It is the only one I have of us. We are sitting on a faded brown couch in our duplex on Inglewood Crescent. My father has his arm around my mother. My brothers and I flank them. We are all squint, teeth and dimple. There is a genuine happiness here – this is proof! We look happy! Even if just for a little while. The time it takes to take a nice picture.

 

There are other photos, classic immigrant photos wherein a family tries to assimilate, but the more they try to look and act like the people around them the more they stand out as strangers. Here is my beautiful Indian mother, draped in crimson polyester, in line at the Ponderosa buffet. Here she is drowning in a wool sweater, on one knee in perfect curling form at the local rink. In a polaroid, she wears nothing but a beige towel as she reads the newspaper in a novelty moose hat.

 

*

 

The last photograph taken of my mother was done by Glamour Shots®. She’s wearing a red feather boa and, just like the website promises, she is fabulous. Two weeks later she’d be dead at forty-one. Several weeks after that we would have to sell our home to pay the bills. I moved into an apartment, and my middle brother moved into his own. During the rest of my years in Canada I would only ever stay for one year in any given place. Then, I would move on looking for something else, often leaving friends and lovers in my wake. Some of them asked me what I was running from. I don’t know if it was ever running away, but I am certain that it was never a choice.

 

This photo is on my fridge. I look past it, every day. A few weeks ago I took the time to really look. I gingerly slid it from underneath the magnet holding it in place. I looked at her face, and saw myself in it. Then, I felt that familiar current in my heart, triggering an episode of saudade. We rushed to the hospital. There, I was hooked up to an ECG to capture the irregular rhythm so the doctors would finally be able to diagnose this for what it was. I have the ECG print out: a panorama of jagged peaks, a short flat line and then the regular waves of a ‘plum-normal’ beating heart.

 

During the ultrasound, my cardiologist shows me a black mass on a darkened screen and I am mesmerised by my aliveness. With a few clicks of his fingers he’s able to set off bursts of red and blue pixels that show me the to-and-fro of my blood flow. He points out my vena cava, aorta and mitral valve. I want to see the damage. I want scar tissue, fissures and holes, bruises and bleeds. I want physical proof.

 

But no, it is a good, strong heart, a black fist beating in my chest roughly the size of a pomegranate, the fruit of the dead.

 

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