Gray Matters

A photograph of an antique anatomical model of a head with the brain exposed.

David Matos

I envy my seven-year-old. I’m afraid of my seven-year-old.

Her memory is the root of both feelings. Her brain has the gray matter necessary to store MP4s and MP3s and JPEGs of the past, all ordered and labeled as cleanly and precisely as an Apple store. Everything in its right place, nothing left out.

She’ll say, “Dad, remember when [insert very specific and maddeningly accurate moment—my precise recitation made more astonishing by the fact that I was, like, three at the time—here]?”

My reaction is always the same: stunned, slack-jawed, blinks of disbelief. Because she’s always correct. Occasionally there’s minor embellishment, but I think she adds those to egg me on. My disbelieving expression probably feels playfully dramatic to her: Dad’s being goofy again.

One night, I google the ability to remember things so clearly and end up on the National Library of Medicine website. There’s a 2016 study: “A Cognitive Assessment of Highly Superior Autobiography.” The abstract rings true for my kid: “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) is characterized as the ability to accurately recall an exceptional number of experiences and their associated dates from events occurring throughout much of one’s lifetime. The source of this ability has only begun to be explored.”

OK, but we all have moments we can replay with what feels like ironclad accuracy. We all have a handful of stories we can tell. Here’s one of mine:

Western New York, summer. I’m eight or nine. I’m in a woodland area near my uncle’s property, a storybook plot of land with a giant tree in front that’s probably been there since the book of Genesis. An old house that used to be a farmhouse. Even at this young age, I understand that kind of setup is his jam: big gravel driveways and shade trees and nights where fireflies make it seem like the stars have come down for a visit. 


I’m there by myself, for some reason. Maybe that was OK then, being eight or nine and walking in the woods alone. I turn a corner and see a shape, someone wearing black and a mask. I don’t see details of the mask beyond a lot of white. Maybe it’s a ghost. Maybe it’s a skull. Maybe it’s what Michael Myers donned in Halloween. Don’t remember. I stop, and they stop, and there’s this moment of frozen clarity where we just stare at each other. Through sunlight broken up by tree trunks and low-hanging branches and uneven shadows. Pause button. Freeze frame.

Then this frost-bitten moment in time breaks. The masked figure runs, executes a tight one-eighty and sprints into the wilderness. Their shoes are so heavy I can hear them thud on the packed dirt, the whip crack of brittle low-hanging branches baked in the summer heat.  

I run, too. This is where the memory stops for a bit. There’s a lull in detail, like my hippocampus just finished painting this particular recollection, and it spilled thinner on the canvas by accident and smeared it into something that resembles the leftovers on a used bandage.

The memory skips and jumps, and I’m with my uncle’s wife, Shelly. She walks back with me. She says, “Hello” into the thicket where I saw him—him?—and the trees and exposed roots and blanket of dead leaves swallow her voice up. Nothing. It’s a still life, unblemished. Can’t even hear the wind.

The rest is conjecture. I think she reassures me. That it was right and good to come and get her. Mask and owner are gone. A ghost story. Shadows. Tricks of the light.

That’s one of a select few. My daughter’s ability seems more pronounced. The way she remembers events that happened when she wasn’t even out of diapers in meticulous and consistent detail is eerie. Kid-from-a-Stephen-King-novel stuff.

I want to understand it because, post-COVID, I feel like my memory is the opposite of hers, like it suddenly has a lot of holes in it. Words—easy ones—elude me. I’ll be in the middle of a sentence, speaking normally, and suddenly I’m fumbling for “tree” or “fork” or some other elementary monosyllable. My new moments ride in on waves of frustration: embarrassment, increased heart rate, sometimes actual anger. Speaking used to be a highway with steady traffic interrupted by occasional rush hours. Now there are construction zones and multi-vehicle crashes and black ice and inadequate road crews. It used to be like breathing, but now it seems off. Not quite broken, but something’s definitely wrong; I’m just tired, maybe. Depressed. Grieving.

I want to understand what feels like a wink from dementia across a crowded room, how it came to be in that room in the first place. And why my seven-year-old, who also experienced the pandemic, gets to remember while I get to forget. It’s selfish of me to talk this way, I know. But I’m scared: of what I’ll lose, of what is lost already, of what, someday, I might remember. I think the past two years maxed me out, no different from updating an old computer. New operating system on an archaic model. Files lost and files found anew. A relic, still functioning, but just barely.


The pandemic started with a lot of closures and cancellations. That’s something I do still remember clearly, how it began with the clicking of metaphorical and literal locks and big red X’s over calendar dates. I was still in a newsroom. The first postponement notice I received came from a cop, though at the moment he called he made it very clear he wasn’t calling as a policeman, but as an official for a local Kiwanis chapter. Their annual crab feed event would have to be canceled because of this new virus. I wrote up something, posted it. Then I did it fifty more times, maybe more. Press releases and calls and social media posts became a storm. Churches, businesses, events. Postponement. Cancellation. Closure (for now). Closure (for always).

Eventually, many of us had to work from home. That was right about the time my kids’ daycare and preschool joined the tidal wave of closures. Theirs was the permanent variety, so my kids stayed home with me. My wife, a nurse, still had to go to work. When there’s a pandemic and you’re a nurse, you go to war. When you’re a reporter at a local newspaper, you move your desk.

I can’t give you a rundown of a typical day in 2020 because one doesn’t exist. There’s a phrase a lot of us have used before to describe times when details and minutiae decide to evaporate: “It’s all such a blur.” My remaining and fast-fading memories of this time are more akin to a fallen power line: arcs, surges, short circuits, lulls, sparks, fire hazard. High voltage.

Here is what remains. Here is what must be recorded—the threads of a ramshackle sweater.

When it came to my new work environment, routine was hard to come by. Interviews got interrupted frequently. Lunch and snacks and playtime and all other forms of attention happened in between. My daughters, seven and four as I write this, are proximity vampires and need to be close by as much as possible. That won’t cut it when you’re trying to interview people and get details and quotes airtight. There were a couple times I had to hide. In the darkness of my closet, I once interviewed the director of Jackson County Public Health about COVID data, my laptop up on my knees at an odd angle as the silhouettes of pants and shirts hung silently about me. Other strategies for making work possible included yelling, stern monologues, electronic distractions, and lies that I was almost done.

Tears. So many tears. Little to no prayer. Prayer takes time, takes silence.

Panic and Guilt were my key muses. They’re hard allies to adjust to, but we journalists need something to make our fingers go when we’re in the home stretch. Panic and Guilt and Pride—proving to invisible, fictional doubters that I could do this—were my imaginary cheer section. Sometimes they weren’t loud enough.

“You should just quit,” a voice that sounded an awful lot like mine would sometimes whisper at night as I stared into the darkness of my bedroom. “No one was built for this.”


On September 8, 2020, my older daughter’s first day of virtual kindergarten, the Almeda Fire broke out on the south end of the Rogue Valley, maybe fifteen miles from my home. The flames, spurred by dry conditions and rare, angry winds, ripped through more than 2,500 structures, leaving thousands houseless and three dead. Our WiFi and power suddenly went out. I had to go in to the newsroom for the first time in six months. I took my oldest with me, left my youngest safe with my mother-in-law.

My editor told me to get in touch with a local advocate for the houseless, whose home had just burned down. I did. He agreed to give me some of his time. We talked; I wrote. I wrote more, a basic story on what we knew so far. The fire raged on.

Our neighborhood was put under an evacuation notice. My daughter and I went back to our home multiple times to grab clothes and toiletries and important documents and pictures. I heard explosions rumble from the titanic smoke column that seemed to scratch the stratosphere with oily fingers. It sounded like a war.

The next day, it looked like one had concluded. That’s another detailed image I’ll never have trouble remembering: neighborhoods reduced to dust and ash, smoke still drifting upward like so many slow-motion screams.

I thought about the communal anxiety and mourning a lot as I watched the rubble clear and the massive wound on the valley start to scar. I still think about it. Unlike a lot lately, those details remain vivid.


Two months later, my wife got COVID. We did everything by the book: put her in our bedroom and isolated her for ten days. I delivered her meals on paper plates with plastic cutlery so she could just throw them away after eating.

My daughters and I had to quarantine. Still, I worked. I supervised Zoom school and kept my youngest entertained. Some nights, my daughters fell asleep crying because they missed their mom. I slept on the couch and felt alone all the time. I fell asleep crying myself once or twice. Or maybe just once. Phones and WiFi saved my wife and me from having to communicate by knocking on the wall. She emerged after ten days, but the effects lingered for months: shortness of breath, fatigue, coughing fits that sounded like Marlboro veteran war whoops.

I kept working from home, then was summoned back to work, a nearly impossible task. School was still virtual for my eldest. Daycare remained a non-option, a myth, for my youngest, and my wife was still fighting the war. Staying at home had mutated from one kind of necessity to another. Luckily, I had in-laws to step in and help. My return to the newsroom was short-lived. Something was missing. I didn’t love it anymore. I tried to convince myself I did, that this was a necessary growing pain. It wasn’t. The lies we tell ourselves.

Guilt, my muse in isolation, ended up being my executioner, too; my own personal Annie Wilkes from Misery, hobbling whatever energy and love of journalism I had left and leaving me with a permanent limp.

Panic had turned to Exhaustion. I was beyond worn down. I was eroded.

Nine months after the fire and seven months after my wife got COVID, I left a field I thought I was going to be part of for the rest of my life. Guilt and Exhaustion hadn’t won, exactly, but it was a stalemate for the ages.

I’ve noticed my struggle with words and recall since then. They are permanent aftershocks, I think; the culmination of two years, manifest. Has to be. Instead of a sturdy memory, now calendars and planners and reminders penned on my knuckles are commonplace, necessary. Making sticky note checklists is no different than taking my vitamins. I look at someone like my daughter, someone with an attic space that is clean and dusted and meticulously ordered, and it scares me. What does she remember? What did she see me turn into? When she was lost in the woods of a pandemic, a disaster, and her mom getting sick, did she see me as a protector, or as a masked stranger who ran away?


I call my daughter from across the house and ask her what she remembers from the pandemic.  

She gives a little shrug and says, “That we were bothering you.”

“I said that?” I ask. 

Grunted acknowledgement.

“OK, thanks,” I say.

More grunted acknowledgement. I know she remembers way more than that, a tapestry of low points that fills in so many blank spaces.

I think of one of a handful of my own childhood memories that I do remember with precision: of being eight or nine, of the frightening stranger who ran away. How for a second, we froze and stared at each other. How it felt like looking in a mirror.


Family, Health, Place, Work, COVID-19, Memory


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