The Brain Has Its Secrets

Joanne Jacobson

Alone in bed I perform some quiet reconnaissance. I can feel flesh, ridged like a walnut, fitted neatly inside the shell of my skull. From the distance, the signal of my blood is starting to come in like a radio, pulsing at the frequency of life I already know. Still the soft huddle in my brain hangs suspended, remote and uncertain as a distant blinking star.

In the waiting room I survey the other patients on plastic chairs, completing their clip-boarded forms. They leaf restlessly though today’s Wall Street Journal and through old People stories about unexpected celebrity breakups and the murder trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor. All of them must have their secrets as well: the man slouching in the Armani suit, tapping the arm of the chair with his car keys, marking the time that he seems certain he’s wasting here; the couple holding hands, intent upon a morning TV news story as though they hope it will never end, without leaving a clue as to which one of them is the patient. When my name is called I’m escorted by a technician in medical white, pointed behind a canvas curtain. I unhook my bra and take off my wedding ring and my watch, the metal items that might confuse the machine’s powerful magnetic forces. I let my head be taped to the gurney, let plastic flippers close over each of my arms. I lie back and imagine my brain shaken loose by the jack-hammering vibrations, the little spiny cells careening in every direction, piling up in sloppy heaps before collecting themselves in swirls inside the circle of my bound, immobilized head. When the noise stops will I be able to remember the book I started reading yesterday? Will I still be me?

Fifty years ago my parents and I visited Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, descending long switchbacks of rickety stairs into the vast, leaky caverns of the planet. Over centuries the eerie, milky fish that dart through the cave’s subterranean rivers evolved, surviving blind in that darkness. Out here at the surface, though, we aim our instruments—a thousand times more sophisticated than a miner’s lamp—into the brain’s deep, lightless caverns, and we fret and question, we are frightened by what we can see. Cavernous hemangioma: a bloody shadow deep in the brain. Mine could be as old as my time on earth, a capillary constructed incorrectly, leaking blood just this once, no longer mattering; “clinically insignificant.” Or it could be a sign of buried danger, observing its own private calendar of disaster.

“Combining multiple MRI sequences,” my neurologist tells me, is the only way for us to keep watch for the changes—growth or movement—that reveal the presence of a tumor. We’ll not be able to be certain “with a degree of peace of mind” without returning to the same machine every six months for new images. He flips his computer screen in my direction to show me the arrayed slices of my brain, touches with the tip of his finger what he wants me to notice. My doctor waits for his medical student to confirm that she understands, as well, before he closes the file, leaving only my name spelled out in capital letters at the top of the frame.

It snowed in October this year in New York, thunder cracking over Manhattan, laying waste the unnatural softness; announcing that the order of things is in disarray. My mother and her twin sister are both eighty-six years old, both stiff and short of breath as they face ahead another harsh Chicago winter, the chill threshold of the annual cycle. Now I have just turned fifty-nine and I cannot shake the thought that I could die before they do. On the subway ride home from the hospital, the bodies crowded around me dissolve into naked brains dancing on stems, like Halloween skeletons.

I pass through the city each day, wrapped in my invisible difference. Around me the world revolves: the neighbors in the elevator saying good morning as their spaniels and terriers yank on their leashes; colleagues with their greetings and their questions; the women grabbing for numbers at the deli smoked fish counter, accidentally touching my mysterious head without pausing to check for damage, or drawing closer to listen for its secret.


Joanne Jacobson‘s writing has appeared in such publications as Fourth Genre, New England Review, BOMB, The Nation, Massachusetts Review, The Iowa Review and Michigan Quarterly Review. Her memoir Hunger Artist: A Suburban Childhood came out in 2007, and her academic study Authority and Alliance in the Letters of Henry Adams was published in 1992. She is a Professor of English and former Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Yeshiva College in New York.



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