Even Though He Fell by Maxwell Suzuki
From concussion to calving glacier, from tectonic plates to digital imaging, Maxwell Suzuki explores themes of memory and mishap, grief, and the fear of loss in his new essay, “Even Though He Fell.” The essay’s structure evokes a spiral, mimicking the confusing nature of the concussions themselves. As Suzuki explains in his author’s note, “This essay’s structure is fractured, imperfect, and disorienting at times because I wanted to convey how the fall still rattles me.”
“Fractured…and disorienting” doesn’t, however, equal unfocused or unclear. In fact, Suzuki applies concrete and lyrical language to contain the anxiety and distress caused by such a frightening accident. “He is cutting the carrots to be mixed in with kibble for his yellow and chocolate labs. He is stirring the salted pasta water into a starchy froth. He is repeating to my younger brother on the phone that he is okay while the backside of his skull drips red into the pot,” Suzuki writes, allowing the horror of the incident to meld with the mundane, creating a backlit X-ray juxtaposing insight with the experience.
Throughout the essay, Suzuki wrestles with the possible loss of his father. He returns again and again to the concussion, to the harrowing what-ifs. He was working on a MATLAB project when his father called, using the specialized programming platform to compare “two photos, separated by time, to track the vectors of shifting earth.” MATLAB then becomes a metaphor for Suzuki to explore the disquiet—the vectors of what happened and the worst that might have happened—and how, in either circumstance, the aftermath creates a new reality that Suzuki and his father must learn to navigate. —CRAFT
My father, after slipping backward on a stretch of rooted Alaskan ice and hitting his head, miraculously walks the three miles to get back home—heavily concussed and alone—with our two unleashed labs directing him in the winter dark. He calls me, in my college apartment two thousand miles away, to ask for the code to our front door. Because, of course, he has forgotten it, somehow its numbers leaking like helium or heated breath from his memory. He reassures me, a crystalizing slur in his speech, that he is okay even though he fell. I do not know how hard, that is, not until later when he receives the three staples that patch up a crack, which I imagine to be the size of the 1964 Anchorage earthquake. What matters, I believe he must be thinking, is that he is alive.
I hear him unlocking and entering our home, gathering himself, and then cranking the heat of an electric stove burner to high. On my computer in front of me is a partially completed MATLAB project that uses two photos, separated by time, to track the vectors of shifting earth. At the moment, it doesn’t work. And a week later, when I present it to my engineering professor, it still won’t work. Together, we will stare at the field of red arrows, meant to show the changing distance, as I stutter through an explanation that one half of the photo is shifted down ten pixels, and the other half is left untouched. Frankly, I will forget about the project until presentation day.
What frightens me: my father remembers the fall, repeats it to me over the phone as if I have just answered. When he checks himself in the mirror (because he is okay even though he fell), I hear him contain a gasp to keep me from worrying. I begin to worry. I understand the seriousness of my father’s condition, so I explain to him, having to repeat myself three times, that I will call our family friend a mile away to check on him. Then, I tell him I must hang up.
Next to me is my younger brother who, after I reassure him that Dad is okay even though he fell, keeps our father on another line. My father asks him where he is. He has to explain that he graduated high school a year ago and is now two thousand miles away at the same college where I’m studying. No, he isn’t at a friend’s house smoking weed or drinking vodka. No, he isn’t calling to wish a happy fiftieth birthday or ask for fatherly advice on a budding relationship. Yes, he knows there was a fall and a calving glacier. No, an earthquake didn’t pull the ground from below—he already checked Google to be sure.
I call my aunt, my older brother, my roommate, my roommate’s girlfriend, and a TA who is confused about whether I’m actually talking about the MATLAB project or not. Because, beyond waiting, reaching out is all I can do. I learn, on another phone call with our family friend, that when she arrives to pick up my father to drive him to the ER, he is cooking. He is cutting the carrots to be mixed in with kibble for his yellow and chocolate labs. He is stirring the salted pasta water into a starchy froth. He is repeating to my younger brother on the phone that he is okay while the backside of his skull drips red into the pot.
After he is taken to the hospital and asked what year it is (incorrectly answering 2007), where my younger brother is (forgetting we are both in college), who he called first (he doesn’t know), and after they staple his scalp back together, and after they tell him he can sleep now (because before it was possible for him to fall into a coma), he dreams. I imagine, because my father is a heavy sleeper, that he dreams of orbiting the earth but accelerating so fast sideways, he will be unable to hit the ground. Below him, he will take snapshots of the tectonic plates subducting against each other. And somehow, he will piece together the history of what it means to be in constant flux.
I am in second grade when my younger brother is raced to the hospital for tripping on an older boy’s untied shoelace while playing Wall Ball. I wait in the nurse’s office as my brother is carted off in an ambulance. He is blind at this point, the impact decoupling his eyes from his brain. The nurse explains to me, in a voice as light as fog: my brother is okay, of course, even though he fell. Sometime later he will gain his vision back. And I will learn, a grip of sadness holding me ever so still, that on the gurney, he calls out to our father. But because he cannot see, because our father is miles away, because he can barely remember what it means to be alive, my brother begins to drift toward sleep. However, the paramedics prevent the coma by asking questions to which he should already know the answers. When I see him later that day, not only is his memory lost, but also the thin tendrils of happiness.
My first concussion, the one that is caused by another separate but similar recess game, happens on the sidewalk of my future middle school. After a fifth-grade tour of the place, we decide to play Red Rover as we wait for our school bus. Once we line up so naïvely along local fault lines, when I am sent over, I can feel the tremors awaken below my feet. I do not blame my height, or the way I am easily clotheslined by a pair of interlinking arms, or the teacher who decides Red Rover is an appropriate game to play on a hard surface. No, I blame the quicksand I imagine tunneled its way to the imprint of my sneakers. How under this thin, thin layer of crust what was once stable has become hot magma. I am sleepy after the impact, riding the bus back crying then laughing then staring into the distance trying to match one part of the scenery to another. The afternoon horizon cracks in my vision, a lightning bolt of TV static. I sleep calmly that night, but not because the concussion is over.
The next day, my father must pick me up from school because I forget how to stand. And as I vomit into the nurse’s toilet, my body unsure of what needs to be rejected, I imagine a planet with a core so solid, its surface never budges. On the drive to the family clinic, my father is barely two feet away from me. He is quiet-lipped, if not a little perturbed, and I tell him I know I fell, but I will be okay.
I have been trying to determine what it means to exist in the aftershock of my father’s concussion. He has been thinking about it too. In an attempt to understand what happened that night, my father uses the fitness data of his Apple Watch to show that, immediately after the fall, he walked around in circles for at least five minutes before he found his way back. A slurry of confusion, luck, and muscle memory tangled as he stumbled about. Now, he believes he has learned his lesson and thus prevents disaster by wearing crampons while he walks.
In an effort to make sure he is okay, I call him more often, happy to hear his voice and to know he will not remember that night like I so vividly do. I need to reassure myself: he finds his way back home, he calls me, tells me he is okay, and ultimately, survives.
My father, my younger brother, and I go to our family friend’s house to celebrate Christmas where we laugh and joke and see humor in what happened following my father’s amnesia. Our conversation reminds me of the project I was unable to finish, and so, when we return home, I try to open the MATLAB file again. Because it is years old, the file throws an error before crashing the program altogether. I wait as I try rebooting the program over and over, frustration settling in my throat. I want to pull up the file so that I can continue working on it. I know now what is wrong with my code, but to fix it is to erase and rewrite the memories of that night.
MAXWELL SUZUKI is a queer writer who lives in Los Angeles. Maxwell’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, South Dakota Review, and Cheat River Review. He is the prose editor of Passengers Journal and reads for Split/Lip Press. He is writing a novel on the generational disconnect between Japanese-American immigrants and their children. Find Maxwell on Twitter @papasuzuki.
Featured image by Joyce McCown courtesy of Unsplash