I had some surgery a couple of days ago. Modern medicine really is amazing: I reported at 6:00, went into the operating room about 7:30 and would have been home by noon, except it took a little time to get a cab. (Amazingly good and caring care, too.)
But that's not what I want to talk about in this post.
I remember being wheeled into the operating room--not by an orderly (although one might have been pushing at the head of the gurney), but by the anesthesiologist and the anesthesiology resident. I remember moving from the gurney to the operating table and hearing the resident say that she was going to give me a sedative through the IV line in my arm. I knew, from the anesthesiologist, that they were going to give me a mask for oxygen, put the anesthetic through the IV line and, after I was out, put an oxygen tube in my throat. (Yeccchhhh to the last!) Then the surgeon was going to burrow into my innards. But after hearing the resident say that she was going to give me the sedative--preparatory to the mask, etc.--the next thing I remember is seeing black and, I think, hearing someone (probably the nurse in the recovery room) call my name.
What happened was that the anesthetic caused some retrograde amnesia. That is, I lost the memory of 1-5 minutes before I was actually knocked out. Retrograde amnesia is common; especially in cases of concussion and, I now suppose, anesthetic. When I did personal-injury law, I had a client who said he remembered falling from a loading dock, all the way down to the ground. I am sure that he believed that, but I never did. I always assumed that he had amnesia and filled in the blank in his mind.
The point of my maundering is this: Memory is almost all of our consciousness. Think about it: there is now and there is memory. The future is a guess, at best. The present is the most transitory of states--the cursor moving across the page of our lives. The rest is memory.
Those few lost moments in the operating room stand out, because the are so sharp-edged. I know that I am missing something--perhaps not the sequence exactly as described, surely it was not the way I imagined it when speaking with the doctor, but something close to what was told me. But I cannot fill in that void with a version of "what must have happened."
That is rare. We all forget things, but we surround our lost recollections with haze of the half-forgotten. I know that there are people I went to school with whose names and faces I no longer recall, but I am comforted by the knowledge that I once knew, and the feeling that the information I had has merely receded into the background. The few minutes I lost the other day are different: there is the before, the after and nothing in between. (If I had not remarked on this, I suppose that in time I might have constructed a "memory" of those lost minutes.)
To me, that blank in my life is eloquent. I suspect that I have not described my experience well enough for you to understand what I felt, but I now have a new appreciation for the preciousness of memory.