Can Valentine’s Day survive amnesia?
OLYMPIA, Wash. – Jeff Ingram hunches over the countertop and peers at the foreign words in the Betty Crocker cookbook.
One-and-a-half cups of egg whites.
He should know this. He shoots a puzzled glance to his girlfriend.
“I haven’t shown you yet how to separate an egg,” she says as she cracks the egg and gently demonstrates how to toss the egg between the two shells to separate it.
Jeff is 40, and this, in a way, is his first angel food cake.
He used to bake so much that he had a special cake platter to display his creations. But now he moves about the kitchen a bit unsure of where the ingredients are kept.
He and his girlfriend, Penny Hansen, brush by each other. They exchange flirtatious smiles, like a couple in the first bloom of romance.
To Jeff, she is as new in his life as angel food cake. But Penny knew Jeff in another life ” before he went missing and wound up on a downtown Denver street with no memory.
“Dissociative fugue,” doctors called it, a rare form of amnesia caused by stress or trauma that can influence people to travel far away from their homes.
Jeff was found, but he had no idea who he was, much less who Penny was.
If they were going to stay together, they would have to get to know each other all over again. For Jeff, there was no past.
But what about the future?
Is it possible to find the same love twice in a lifetime?
Jeff Ingram and Penny Hansen were about to find out.
When Jeff and Penny met for the first time in 2005, the connection was instant. Jeff joked that he should just kiss Penny immediately and get it out of the way. They had talked on the phone every other night in the year since they connected on an Internet game site.
Never mind that he lived in Canada, where he worked in a mill, and that she lived in Olympia, Wash., where she worked as a state transportation and policy analyst. The 988 miles were little hindrance, and finally Jeff moved to join her.
Relationships hadn’t worked out for either in the past. But now, at 40, they were in love.
She did not blanch when he told her he had once suffered amnesia in 1995 ” that he had turned up in Seattle, nine months after disappearing from his home in Slave Lake, Alberta. Where had he been? How did he get there? He did not know, and he never regained memories of his life before he vanished.
It was just a medical condition, she thought, a small matter compared with all of Jeff’s fine qualities ” his kind and gentle way, his sense of humility, his nurturing soul.
Last summer, Jeff proposed, and Penny accepted.
Then, on Sept. 6, 2006, Jeff said goodbye and walked out of their tidy green house. It was 7:30 a.m. and Penny was crying. She wouldn’t see him again for a month.
Jeff planned to drive to Canada to visit a dying friend in the hospital. He had been meticulous in his planning, lining up a job there and renewing his driver’s license.
“This isn’t a goodbye,” she told him. “If you miss me, I’ll be right here,” and she touched her heart.
But Jeff never called. He never answered his cell phone. He never made it to Canada.
Something horrible had happened, she was certain.
Penny didn’t know it, but Jeff did surface four days later.
Only it wasn’t Jeff ” it was someone so confused he didn’t know who he was. He remembers picking himself off the street in downtown Denver, a place he had never been before, and somehow finding his way to a hospital.
He didn’t have a name, so a Denver Health hospital worker wrote “Alpha 74” on his chart.
Jeff underwent a battery of tests. He was hypnotized, given an IQ test, fingerprinted and had spinal fluid drawn. He was tested for drugs and scanned until it was determined he was the healthiest person in the hospital.
He was sent to live at a transitional housing facility. He spent time going to church and visiting with some Denver police officers he’d come to know; they suggested a plea on national television, and on Oct. 22, his face appeared on news stations all over the country.
“If anybody recognizes me, knows who I am, please let somebody know,” he said.
In that vast television audience, someone did recognize him: Penny’s brother. And though Jeff had shaved off his mustache and goatee and was wearing different glasses and a hat she had never seen, Penny knew him instantly.
Jeff was waiting in a room at the Denver police station when a detective walked in and tossed some pictures down in front of him.
“This is Penny,” the detective said, as Jeff stared at her picture.
Beautiful, he thought. Absolutely beautiful.
Penny was pacing and crying at the airport.
Forty-six days has gone by since Jeff had left their home that morning. She had been searching the sides of highways, checking hospitals.
And now they would see each other again.
To him, it would be for the first time.
To her, it was a homecoming for the man she loved.
“Welcome home,” she whispered in his ear.
That night, Penny showed him where his clothes went and then offered to sleep on the couch. She didn’t want to force the relationship.
But Jeff said no.
He needed her. He needed to know he was loved and missed.
They laid in bed and held each other. And they cried.
But he didn’t know her any better than he knew a stranger. He didn’t even know who he was. What would become of them? Could they fall in love again?
Jeff was home again, but nothing felt quite right. Coming home was just the beginning of his struggle to find out who he was. Penny became his guide.
But to Jeff they were just empty memories. They meant nothing to him. Looking at his own photographs was like looking at someone else. There were no emotions behind the images.
In the beginning, Penny had to show him the most basic tasks _ how to put detergent in the washing machine, how to make a scrambled egg, how the shower works. He relearned the names of states and got reacquainted with movies like “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.”
They went to visit old friends. As they drove, Penny explained the relationship Jeff had with them. “You were good friends,” she said.
But what’s missing was their history. Did they ever have a fight? Did he truly like the person? What kinds of things did they do together? How close were they really?
Jeff Ingram was home, but he really was just an observer to his own life.
“I want to be who I was,” he said. “That’s what I think about every waking moment. I want it all back.”
His mother and stepfather came down from Canada to visit. Conversation was awkward and there wasn’t much to say. He doesn’t remember Canada. He doesn’t remember family holidays or if he was close to his mother.
Sometimes Penny, without meaning to, bombards him with information. At times it is too much, and he has to tell her to stop. It sends his mind into overload.
He has a constant, throbbing headache that won’t go away.
“He is the same person,” Penny said optimistically. “He just can’t remember he is.”
But she keeps her own feelings to herself. She doesn’t want to burden him with her struggle. She is hurting, too. Their relationship as she knew it is no more. He politely smiles and nods when she talks about holidays they celebrated, places they went.
“I’m just extremely sad,” she said, tears welling. “I’m sad for him. I’m sad for what we had. It’s heartbreaking.”
The old Jeff hated green peppers and turnips. The new Jeff loves them. His likes now are based largely on food he ate in the hospital. He used to build with Legos, but now isn’t quite sure what to do with them.
He still smokes though, just as much as he did before. Penny jokes that she wishes she could have told him he never smoked.
He likes the song “Roxanne,” new to him though it came out in 1978. Pop culture is almost overwhelming and, at times, confusing. “William Shatner is Captain Kirk,” Penny tells Jeff.
Thoughts swim around constantly in his head, with no permanent home.
Experts say there are three types of memory: emotional, motor and intellectual, which includes long-term memory. Jeff’s motor memory, the ability to know things automatically, such as a burner being hot, was intact.
But not much is known about this rare form of amnesia. It is usually triggered by a stressful or traumatic event. Jeff believes that his friend’s cancer in combination with his sensitivity to the anniversary of 9/11 most likely caused it. There is no way of knowing when, or if, he will get his memory back.
Penny, fun-loving and constantly smiling, has been his teacher and comfort, always reminding him of who he was and how much she cares. She took time off work to be with him.
Weeks after his return, Penny was walking through their house when Jeff blurted out: “You know what? I love you.”
She started crying.
He still was getting to know Penny, but his heart knew.
“There’s a reason we’re together. It’s bigger than us,” Penny said. “Even though he doesn’t know me.”
On Dec. 31, 2006, a few friends and family gathered at the home of Penny’s brother as the sun beamed in through the windows.
Inside, the couple, smiling and holding hands, recited their vows.
“You are my friend, my lover, my hope and my happiness … ,” Jeff told his bride. “You never gave up on me when others might have. We were meant to be together forever.”
Then it was Penny’s turn.
“Jeff, I fell in love with you not once, but twice. Everyone wishes for a miracle in their lives and you are my miracle. I love the way we both can finish each other’s sentences. I love that we can play like kids. I love how we hold hands and walk together in a comfortable silence. … But most of all, I love your unconditional love for me.”
Their lives are not untroubled. Jeff is working on regaining memories that may never come; he still mourns the loss of who he was, and he is afraid, as is Penny, that he will disappear again. He worries that he’ll go out for a cigarette and not return.
But for now they are newlyweds ” laughing at the same jokes, settling into a comfortable routine. And every Dec. 31, as the world celebrates the new year, they will celebrate their anniversary and the chance they were given to fall in love all over again.
They picked that day, they say, so they would never forget.