What the Body Knows

My husband and I had gone with friends to see When the Garden was Eden, a documentary about the Knicks’ stunning win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Never having been a basketball fan, I had only a vague familiarity with two of the star players: Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley. Yet as I watched the film, I was captivated by the compelling story of how this “dream team” of black and white players united New York City during a period of racial conflict.

The movie audience and I cheered along with the Madison Square Garden fans as we watched the archived footage of the Knicks winning the NBA Championship. Then just as the audience erupted in a victorious roar—the Knicks won by fourteen—I was suddenly stricken with what can only be described as a sickening jolt of dread, a gut punch of grief.

As the crowd continued applauding I sat in stunned silence, trying to make sense of this inexplicable feeling of doom and sadness that had overtaken me right at the moment the Knicks won on the screen. As the credits rolled I couldn’t understand why I felt so oddly out of step with the buoyant mood of my fellow movie-goers.

A buzz of excited voices followed us out of the theater. The air was soft and humid as the six of us strolled to a nearby restaurant for dinner. As we walked, I told my friends about the morass of grief that had swamped me as I watched the end of the film, a feeling I had yet to shake.

Once seated at the restaurant, after ordering wine and appetizers, I was still lost in thought, trying to discern what had happened to me back in the theater. Interrupting their conversation, I asked my friends, “Do any of you remember what year that was, when the Knicks won?”

Several guesses went around the table; one person thought 1969, another guessed 1971 or maybe 1970. Hearing that year—1970—I pulled out my iPhone and googled Knicks win NBA Championship and there appeared the headline, Knicks Win It! The date was May 8, 1970.

I know that date. I will always know that date. It was the day after my mother died. I was nine years old.

Once the date and my memories of it aligned, I saw the footage of another “movie,” and as I played it back, I saw my nine-year-old self at our front door holding the May 8th edition of The Bergen Record. Below the fold, was a large photograph of my family’s Ford Country Squire station wagon, smashed in, glass shattered. Just months before the accident, we five kids had celebrated the arrival of our very first new car, with the intoxicating smell of the burgundy leather seats.

I had read the caption below, “A woman was killed and her small son critically injured in Palisades Park.” I didn’t want to imagine “a woman,” my mother, pressed inside what looked like an enormous accordion with all the air pressed out of it.

One of my aunts had walked over and gently took the newspaper from me saying, “You don’t want to see that.” But I had seen it. I had read the caption, and my brain had no doubt parked it along with the major headline that bannered above the fold that day—Knicks’ Win!

My brain knew the date, but my body knew the sorrow.

The grief I felt in the theater matched what I remembered from that day in 1970. And although I had thought often about my mother’s death, grieving her loss, I had never before been transported back like I had been during the movie about the Knicks. My mind had seamlessly interlaced an uplifting, triumphant public moment with my crushing private tragedy. Maybe this was my way to undo my mother’s death in phantasy—the Knicks had won—couldn’t my mother have been saved too?

Proust’s taste of the madeleine, in his novel, In Search of Lost Time, transported him back to a powerful childhood memory. Watching When the Garden was Eden sparked, not a forgotten memory of my mother’s death, but the visceral held experience of grief; belying a more complex truth of the brain's trickery—that emotional memories can be hidden in the body. As Schopenhauer wrote, “Our brains are not the wisest part of us.”

While I can never know if the Knicks’ win had been erased from my conscious memory, or more likely, it had never been part of my autobiographical memory, never registered as part of the narrative of my mother’s death.

This moment gave a glimpse into the way our mind protects us from the transmission and laying down of painful memories. Just as the body naturally mends after an injury, the mind, too, has invisible ways of reworking, repairing and reshaping our traumatic memories. By “outsourcing” our unbearable memories as a somatic, nonverbal memory, like the Knicks game, we are better able to move forward, allow healing and not be left mired in grief. Yet, in the end, just as our body carries the scars of earlier physical injuries, it also carries the traces of our emotional wounds.

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