BLESSED AS I AM WITH AN ordinary memory, I am able to reconstruct my first meeting with Audra Thomas, which took place last February at her family’s house, as a series of discrete moments.
One: On the way there, I crept along in heavy Dallas traffic, increasingly discouraged as the hour of the interview drew near, then pulled over at a gas station to call the Thomases and tell them I would be late. The day was cool and windy and thickly gray; I remember shouting into the pay phone.
Two: I drove, some forty minutes later, just past the blinking light that announces the town of Celina and turned into the subdivision where the Thomases live, Morgan Lake Estates. There had been a harsh storm earlier in the week, a pelting of icy rain and snow, and while most of the residue had melted, patches of snow still dotted the winter lawns.
Three: I waited outside the front door of the Thomases’ house until it opened, and there was Audra: a big girl, slightly knock-kneed, with strikingly pale skin and thick brown eyebrows. Her eyes wandered shyly in my direction without making contact directly. Audra can’t really see, and I’d known that before I arrived, yet I felt suddenly shy myself, unsure of what to do instead of shaking hands. We sat down on the living room couch and began to talk.
There are certain things I remember because I happened to jot them down in my notebook: that the couch was covered in a dark plaid fabric, and resting on it was a throw patterned with a golf motif; that on the wall was a tapestry of a forest scene illustrating a Bible passage. There are other things I didn’t write down and don’t remember: For instance, I recall that Audra wore gray pants, but her shirt—a white blouse, maybe?—is lost to me, and though I suspect she had on a silver necklace, I might have merely inferred that because she wore a silver necklace the other times I saw her.
She was soft-spoken at first, but she quickly grew more animated, looking upward and gesturing rapidly as she spoke, a knowing half-smile on her face. She told me that she’d lived in Texas since she was two, that she’d attended elementary school in Plano, that for the eighth grade she’d gone to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, in Austin. While she knew all this, she didn’t remember any of it, for she does not have an ordinary memory. In 1996, when Audra was in the fifth grade, she fell off a playground swing and hit her head, and afterward her mind seemed to turn against her. She lost most of her vision and was able to make things out only if they were an inch or two in front of her eyes. She no longer saw colors, only shades of gray. She lost the ability to tolerate touches and smells and other sensations. She also began to forget past experiences. Worse, her amnesia was ongoing, and at her lowest point the days just fell away. At a time when she should have been starting the sixth grade, she was reduced to playing with infant toys, and her mother was caring for her around the clock.
Since then, Audra has not regained what she lost, but she has grown into her own person; in May she graduated from Celina High School, and this fall she’ll start college. Though she doesn’t remember things that happened to her more than four or five months ago, she can learn and retain information—about places she’s lived or school subjects or what’s been in the news. “I’m a big geek,” she volunteered early in our conversation. In particular, she is a big current-events geek: In the tenth grade she won a statewide Current Issues and Events academic contest by scoring higher than any other student in her division on a test of state, national, and world affairs. As one of the few people in her town to have vocally opposed the war in Iraq, she has tended over the past year to get into arguments with other kids about U.S. foreign policy; in the spring, she was voted the most opinionated girl in the senior class. “I scare people,” she said. “They see me coming with my cane and they are like, ‘Oh, my gosh, get out of the way!’”
As I recall our first interview, what stands out is not any one of the immediate details—the jewelry Audra might have been wearing or the living room decor or even anything she said—but rather my initial sense of her person, which emerged gradually and is much harder to put into words, and has no doubt been influenced by my subsequent visits. I remember how it felt to sit there with her, this bright, half-smiling, wry seventeen-year-old who criticized the Bush administration, who explained that she sometimes walks straight into trees—who charmed me, really. Most of the other moments I remember from that day are also bound up with how I felt: my anxiety about arriving late, my nervousness at the door.
By the time you read this, or not long after, Audra will have forgotten how that day felt to her. And this is what I find most arresting: not that she can’t remember what happened, but that she can’t remember the way things felt, and that lacking such memories, she is nevertheless such a strong presence, such a lively person. She talks about herself with self-deprecating humor, and more than once she said to me, “I have no life.” It’s the sort of thing a teenager says when she’s bored and stuck at home much of the time, yet coming from Audra, it resonates in other ways. After her accident, she was deprived of her regular middle-class girlhood; she really did have no life. In the years since, with the help of her family, she’s built a life for herself—and more to the point, she’s constructed