In 'Wondering Who You Are,' A Man Wakes Up And Doesn't Know His Wife

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sonya Lea and her husband Richard Bandy had a 23-year-old marriage filled with ups, downs and memories. In 2000, he developed a rare form of appendix cancer and had an operation in 2003 which was successful, sort of. The patient lived, but he was almost a different man. Richard suffered a post-surgical complication, called anoxic insult, that cut oxygen to his brain and cleared much of his memory. He called his wife sweetness but could not remember how they met, when they got married and the births of their two children. Twenty-three years, more or less, vanished from his mind. Sonya Lea, whose essays and interviews have appeared in Salon, The Southern Review and other publications, has written a book about their journey forward together - "Wondering Who You Are." Sonya Lea and Richard Bandy joined us now from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thanks so much for being with us.

SONYA LEA: Thanks for having us, Scott.

RICHARD BANDY: It's our pleasure.

SIMON: Richard, I think a lot of people just would like to know from you, what's it like to wake up in a world, surrounded by people who care for you, including your wife, but not really know who they are?

BANDY: Well, I'm not sure I can tell you that because my first memory is about two weeks after I actually woke up from the hospital. I think what happened is I sort of imprinted on Sonya as the first person that sort of came into my vision. And I can't say that I knew exactly the nature of our relationship, but I knew that she loved me. And I grew to love her fairly quickly.

SIMON: Yeah, Sonya, what did you see when you looked at the man to whom you had been married to for so long?

LEA: You know, his expression and experience in the hospital was nearly angelic. He was so neutral. He didn't appear like he was suffering pain at all, and he was able to write a few words, and he kind of kept writing the same questions over and over again to me.

SIMON: What questions did he keep writing?

LEA: Who is here? Who has been here? And who is coming? He didn't really remember his - the narrative of his life, which became apparent fairly quickly. I told him stories about having children and what work he did, and he started to build some container where some information was kept and some information was let go of.

SIMON: Yeah.

LEA: So while he's completely functional and being back to his career, he has to use accommodation strategies to hold on to experiences. And where that becomes difficult and challenging is in relationship. So for example, he has a calendar with - every Wednesday a little message pops up for him to call his daughter.

SIMON: Sonya Lea, you write candidly in this memoir about some of your past problems with drinking.

LEA: Yes.

SIMON: And with Richard's temper.

LEA: Yes.

SIMON: Especially towards your children. Richard, any memory of that?

BANDY: No, I mean, when I read it in the story - 'cause I've read the story several times - it kind of always makes me cry unfortunately - but, well, I don't know if it's unfortunate or not. But when I read this stuff about myself and Joshua, I honestly could not believe that that had happened.

SIMON: Could I get you to explain what you did?

BANDY: I'm not sure that I actually remember, but I was physical with him - pushed him down to the ground and pushed him out the door and that sort of thing - and, you know, was very intimidating to him, yelling at him, screaming at him, that sort of idea.

SIMON: Yeah.

LEA: The interesting thing about that, Scott, is that he had already made amends to me for what occurred in that relationship, and he had made amends to Joshua for what occurred. But there were a couple of scenes that I needed to write in the book, and when I brought that information to Richard, he really struggled with it because to him that's that man - that former man. Then he came to this really beautiful statement which was, I don't have any reputation to manage. And that really, I think, liberated me to write the story as it was without concern for protecting him or protecting us.

SIMON: In a way, did - and this is for both of you - in a way, did the loss of memory give you a fresh start?

BANDY: It definitely did for me. I mean, having no memory of how I was before, I mean, I had no choice but to start afresh. And so it was very challenging for me to get back to my career, but I was determined. I read chapters and chapters and chapters and forget 90 percent of it, forget 90 percent of it, forget 90 percent of it.

SIMON: I guess if you keep remembering 10 percent over and over it's...

BANDY: (Laughter) Yeah, at some point it kind of sneaks through, yeah.

LEA: I think for me, it really did allow me to look at our marriage, look at our family and community relationships and certainly look at myself and say, you know, what in my identity am I living here that is no longer interesting to me? You know, what am I living out of convention or habitual response to life? Why should I hold on to things based on this continuous narrative of who I think I am?

SIMON: Yeah, Richard, how are you doing?

BANDY: You know, I honestly wake up grateful to be alive every morning. And that is no B.S. I'm very happy to be working, very happy to have Sonya in my life and my kids in my life. And it's been - I don't want to say it's been great because I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy - but it's been a lot better than it could've been. Put it that way.

SIMON: Richard Bandy and Sonya Lea. Sonya Lea's new memoir is "Wondering Who You Are." Thanks, both of you, so much for being with us.

LEA: Thank you so much for having us, Scott.

BANDY: Thank you very much.

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