How My Brain Remembers Names

Recently, while giving my medical history to a new doctor, I struggled to recall the name of the surgeon who had removed a benign mass from my neck nearly twenty years ago.  There was no need to remember his name; the situation had been taken care of and I had not needed his services since.  The last time I saw him was ten years ago, after (coincidentally) he operated on my dad.

But it bugged me, as it always does when I can’t remember a name.  I don’t keep decades-old medical records at hand, so I knew I would have to enter into that scariest storage facility of all–my brain.  Come along with me, if you dare, as I search my “files.”

We enter a room the size of an average bedroom.  The room has high ceilings–this is an older building, after all.  8 A.M. light shines through grime-streaked windows, causing you to raise your hand against the glare.  Cobwebs drape the walls, and dust bunnies crouch in the corners. You wrinkle your nose. You find all this rather messy.

Before us–not lined up against the walls, but scattered around the room–are half a dozen wood file cabinets that look like they’re from the 1920’s.  Each drawer is labelled with a letter of the alphabet. I believe the doctor’s name begins with the letter C; I head for that cabinet.

The drawer is filled with business cards, each with a “C” name inscribed.  Chen, Chew, Chou–the doctor I’m trying to remember did not have an Asian name, however, so this cannot be right.  I must be thinking of the plastic surgeon who repaired my nose after skin cancer surgery about six years ago.  His first name was Jae, and his last name was…Chen? No. Chew? Definitely not. Chou? Probably not.

Stop tapping your foot. I am not losing focus. This diversion, as it happens, reminds me that sometimes I remember first names more easily than last names. So, what was my mystery surgeon’s first name. Was it Greg?

You’re thinking of Greg House, you idiot, you say. I am not offended. It’s true.  I did go through a House, M.D. obsession this summer. The “Doctor” cabinet appears next to the “C” cabinet. This is my brain, the land of dreams, so that cabinet just appears. It does not wink into existence, it does not arrive on wheels, it simply is there. I’m sorry if it landed on your foot. It can’t hurt that much; this is all imaginary, remember?

I open the top drawer; it is filled with doctors’ names.  All kinds.  Medical doctors, TV doctors, PhDs, Doctors of Divinity… Naturally, you snarl, Uh oh, the “C” stands for Dr. Cuddy, or Cameron, or Chase. All right, whatever.

I banish the Doctor file cabinet and return to the letter files. By now, you are aware that with my brain files first and last names separately in their proper letter cabinets. And if the two names do go together, they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. But I am not having any luck fitting any of these pieces together.

By this point, you are understandably frustrated. The dust is getting to you. What’s wrong with you, you say. Why all these stupid cabinets? Can’t you transfer all of this to disk?

Alas, I have had little success in writing names on mental disk. You must remember, I am allotted less digital storage than, say, someone my daughter’s age. This is probably because I only began using computers in my mid-thirties. Often, while attempting to write data on the disk, I am given a Disk Full message, and am asked if I wish my data compressed. If say Yes, and the name is stored.  Too often, however, I return to find the data corrupted. The file cabinets serve me better, give me more of a visual to hang onto.

You are not very sympathetic. I am beginning to find your lack of patience trying. I’m taking a break. You can stay or go as you wish.

As I am straightening my hair, the second drawer of the “C” cabinet slides open, nearly knocking you over. (Sorry, but did you need to be standing right there in front of it?) It coughs up a single card. It lands before my eyes and bears a single name.

I now know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the doctor’s first name was Craig.

Craig rhymes with Greg, see? Had you checked your rhyming file cabinet, you sneer,  You might have made the connection more quickly.

Well, yes, I suppose that is true.

Okay, we have his first name; what is his last name? Dr. Craig…Mohr? No. Craig Mohr was a boy I liked in sixth grade. The “Boys I Liked Once” cabinet tries to appear, but I banish it before you can go all sarcastic on me.

But I now know that the doctor’s last name begins with “M.”

The drawers of the “M” cabinet are all stuck, though. And I’m stuck. Maybe I have enough info to go outside my brain.  Just Google it, you know? But as I open my laptop, I recall that, up until four years ago, I kept a hard-copy address book. And I still have it! It’s in the drawer of the table right next to my desk! You groan.

I hold my breath and turn to the letter “M.”

I read, “Dr. Mizes.”

The window of the storage room slides open, a fresh wind sweeps through the file cabinets, and scours the ceilings and corners of cobwebs and dust bunnies. Dr. Craig Mizes. And the plastic surgeon? He was Dr. Jae Chun. For a few moments, at least, my name storage room seems cleaner, clearer, and much better organized. Damn near what you might call efficient.

The entire process took a mere forty minutes.

Come along tomorrow, as my brain tries to remember where I put my keys.

Or not.


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