Awakening: Her forgotten life leads to her rebirth

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The playwright Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us."

But what if your diary of memories is completely blank? You have no memories. You look at your Book of Remembrance — so common to Latter-day Saints — or you look at the family photo album and it's like looking at a catalog.

That's how Patsy Cannon describes looking at pictures of herself and family taken before Oct. 13, 1986. On that rainy day almost 15 years ago, Sister Cannon, at the time not a member of the Church but now a member of the Birmingham (Ala.) 1st Ward, was driving with her 9-year-old daughter. Another driver ran a red light and slammed broadside into the driver's side of her car. Sister Cannon's seat belt failed and she was thrown into the front window and then bounced off the side window. Fortunately, her daughter suffered only minor bruises.

But she doesn't remember any of this. She only remembers waking up several hours later in the hospital — and not knowing who she was. "It was just that bad of a lick," Sister Cannon said during an interview in the living room of her home. "Doctors think that the jar [of the impact] knocked out the connectors to the long-term memory deep in the central brain, like the hippocampus area."

The first real memories she has that are clear are from about three weeks after the accident. "I remember not knowing where I was, not knowing who I was, not knowing what was going on. Didn't have any idea what people were. I think it's pretty close to being set down on Mars. You don't know the language. You don't know where you are or why you're there.

"I was terrified," Sister Cannon recalled. "I can remember hugging the pillow and just sitting in my bed at the hospital and watching the door because every time someone came in, they would want to talk to me. I could speak physically, but I didn't know what language meant. I kind of mimicked, parroted back anything you said to me. People would ask, 'How are you?' and I would say, 'How are you?' "

If you ask her if her personality changed, she replies, "I don't know." Some people tell her she's just the same, others say she incredibly different. She used to love chocolate. Now she hates it. She used to hate bananas, now she loves them.

One thing that didn't change, however, was her faith. In what, she didn't remember. "Trusting in my own gut feeling was incredibly difficult. There were times that I would get to being almost suicidal, but then there was always this feeling inside me of, 'It's O.K. You can do this.' "

Reared in the Baptist faith, with her father a Baptist minister, she again learned about God. "The more I learned and the more I put pieces together, the more I was overcome with how precious life was and what a miracle life is and how important is just the day-to-day way you treat someone, how you speak to someone, being there for people — the hugs. Hugging people is so important to me because I was able to be reinforced by people coming in and embracing me. I felt like maybe I'm not such a bad thing."

But all of this took lots of time and patience — both on the part of Sister Cannon and on the part of her family, especially her daughter. "It was difficult for her," Sister Cannon said of her daughter, Leah, now 24 years old and married with two children, Nicholas, 6; and Rhiannon, 2.

"I didn't know what 'daughter' meant. In retrospect, she was such a cute kid, and I loved kids so much that I thought, 'She comes in and hugs me.' I thought, 'Oooh, this is a whole lot better than hugging the pillow.' "

When Sister Cannon was released from the hospital, she went home to a house she didn't remember. Leah, who had been staying with friends, came home the same day. At times, their roles of parent/child were reversed. "I didn't know how to cook. It's a wonder I didn't burn the house down. Because I could physically mimic conversation, people didn't recognize how far on the edge I was. I was hanging by a thread."

That's when her doctor suggested a support group for survivors of brain trauma. Through this group, she began volunteering with the National Brain Injury Association and eventually became an advocate for people with brain trauma. She even served for a time on the board of directors of the National and the International Brain Injury Associations. She was featured for her work in the June 1995 National Geographic. She is scheduled to be featured in early April on MSNBC, a cable station. Her work and voluntarism have made her a sought-after speaker at seminars and conferences throughout the world.

It was such travel that led to her conversion to the gospel. In 1994, while flying to Salt Lake City, she sat on the plane by a returning sister missionary who she described as "just darling. I would give anything to know the [young woman] now and to be able to get back in touch with her."

The missionary encouraged her new friend to visit Temple Square. Upon arriving, she asked a friend, whom she didn't realize was LDS, to show her the historic site. "The thing that I remember the most was the spirit at Temple Square. I thought, 'I could stay here. This is just so wonderful.' "

Three years later, in 1997, she saw an ad on TV for an LDS video on families. She called the 800 number and soon Elder Benjamin Tanner of Utah, and Elder Chris Carlson of Montana brought her the video and began teaching her the discussions. She was baptized Aug. 12. A year later, she received her endowment in the Salt Lake Temple.

The gospel and Church service, Sister Cannon said, have accentuated her faith and positive attitude. "The gospel has taken me to that next level of peace and that next level of understanding."

Sister Cannon's initial brain injury caused a secondary trauma, called dystonia, a progressive neurological disease similar to Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis. Because of her health conditions, she has had to retire from any full-time employment or voluntarism. She focuses on her Church service and on her family — especially her grandchildren.

"Of everything I've ever done in my whole life in this world, being a 'nanna' has been the most important. I watch them learn. I watch them develop. It's like, 'Wow! This is so wonderful!' "

In some ways, watching her grandchildren grow gives her "memories" of her own daughter's childhood. Sister Cannon remains close to her daughter and her parents and expresses gratitude for their support, love and understanding during those difficult early years and, now, with her current health problems. Sister Cannon also copes from a weak spinal cord and has had numerous surgeries.

Again, her faith — now knowing it is in Jesus Christ and His gospel — sustains her attitude. "You modify your life," she added, speaking of facing her challenges. "It's the equivalent of being short. I cannot reach the top of the cabinet without a stool. It's a compensation. Life's a compensation."

E-mail: julie[email protected]

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