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Hey, it’s Anna. Before we get to the show, I’ve got some very exciting news. On Wednesday, June 14, “Modern Love” is headed to the Tribeca Festival for a live event in New York with special guest Kim Cattrall. Kim Cattrall. I’ll also be joined by Daniel Jones and Miya Lee, the editors of the “Modern Love” column.
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Love now and forever.
Did you fall in love?
Love is stronger than anything you can think of.
For the love.
And I love you more than anything.
What is love?
Here is to love.
From “The New York Times,” I’m Anna Martin. Welcome to a new season of “Modern Love.” Today, we’ve got a story that sounds like a romcom. Girl meets boy. They fall in love. They break up. Then just a few months later, boy gets amnesia, forgets everything.
I used to receive messages like this from my ex-boyfriend — “did we have a joke about flamingos,” and, “how did I get the scar on my hand?” They were not invitations for a trip down memory lane. He was asking because he couldn’t remember. I wasn’t just his ex-girlfriend. I was the only one who could remember everything that we had shared together.
Tyler Wetherall wrote a “Modern Love” essay about how she tried to help her ex-boyfriend remember their relationship. But in the process of jogging his memory, things got complicated, and confusing, and messy because her ex didn’t remember anything, including their breakup.
Tyler Wetherall, welcome to “Modern Love.”
Thank you so much for having me.
So a few months after you broke up with your ex-boyfriend Sam, he had a very scary accident. Do you mind reading that part of your essay for me?
[SOFT MUSIC PLAYING]
“After a night partying, Sam had fallen 25 feet from a tree and landed on concrete. Doctors induced a coma to prevent the swelling in his brain from causing a hemorrhage. Years ago, on our first date, he and I had also climbed a tree together.
He was wearing Chelsea boots, and I was in a miniskirt, but it didn’t matter. Tree climbing was part of the playfulness I loved about him. Now he might never climb a tree again. He might never wake up.
I used to kiss his closed eyelids and say, I love your beautiful brain. I imagined him in intensive care, that same brain swollen perhaps beyond repair. I couldn’t rush to hospital because I was just an ex. I didn’t have a close relationship with his family. I could only send messages of support and wait.”
Mm. That waiting must have been really hard.
Yes. It was terrifying. We were told he probably wasn’t going to make it. So those first few days were — I was — I was terrified.
Yeah. I mean, that’s so scary. You were broken up, but you obviously still had very strong feelings for him. You’d been together for years. Can you tell me about the beginning of your relationship?
So we were both street cast. Someone runs up to me on the street and says, hey, would you want a free haircut? We’re doing this fashion shoot.
Wait. So street casting — like, they saw you on the street, and they pulled the two of you out because you had amazing hair?
And independently. So I got stopped —
You do have great hair.
And I said, yes, not really knowing what would happen. And I turned up. And there’s cameras. And there’s makeup artist.
And there’s, like, wardrobe changes.
You were a model for free, is what it turned out.
Basically. But also, this beautiful boy — and straightaway, we hit it off. And they dressed me up in these amazing clothes. At some point, I’m wearing a bustle. And I’ve got, like, this leather harness on.
And I’m holding a porcelain chicken.
It was just, like, this totally wild photoshoot. And then me and him are just flirting. And —
I mean, this is a dream.
This was my dream, to be plucked from the street and put in a room with a hot guy. Are you kidding?
We sent them a letter later to be like, thank you, we fell in love.
Was it — so did you quickly get together after that? Or was it sort of a prolonged courtship?
We quickly got together. I was 24. And I found out he was only 20. And I was like —
— you’re what? Like, I couldn’t even control myself. I was like, you’re 20?
Yeah. There’s such a difference between —
— 24 and 20.
Totally. Like, he’s still at university. I was working on magazines. I let my own apartment. Like, our lives felt very different. But I really liked him. And so I agreed to go to a show with him on the Saturday night. And then that date lasted for three days. [LAUGHS]
You said in your essay that you loved his playfulness. What did you feel like Sam brought out in you?
Oh. What did he bring out in me? I found myself very much through Sam. He and I had a group of friends which he introduced me to. They were his friends. A lot of them were theater people. And they got me on stage, which is an unthinkable thing to do.
Only the once, and then I had realized that that wasn’t for me. But it happened.
But that feels big. That feels big. I love that. He amplified or even brought out for the first time these qualities that you didn’t know you had.
And there was a sense of momentum. And I often think about this. Some relationships have momentum from the very moment, where you never stop to make a decision. You never go, oh, should I do this? It’s like a rolling, tumbling feeling. And you just keep going. And it keeps being fabulous. And more wonderful things keep happening. And it just feels so obvious. And I think that is incredibly intoxicating.
But I just — he was 20 years old when he met me. I always suspected or I knew deep down that there would come a time when he’d have to go out into the world and grow without me.
Well, tell me about that end that you saw as somewhat inevitable. How did you two break up?
After three years, it felt like — I felt like I was something on his to-do list — like, oh, I need to make sure I see Tyler. It was really chipping away at my self-esteem. And I reached the point I was like, I’m done.
[SOFT MUSIC PLAYING]
It sounds like you could sense he wasn’t happy anymore, even though you still loved him. Can you read that part of your essay for me?
Yeah, of course.
“After three years, I felt him drifting away. We went to the pub, ordered a bottle of prosecco, and toasted our time together. We knew when the bottle was finished we would say goodbye. And we cried as we reached the last drop. ‘Everything I know about myself has come through you,’ he said. ‘I don’t know who I am without you.’ I said, ‘that’s probably why we have to break up — so you can figure that out.’”
After you and Sam broke up in this quite beautiful, it sounds like, and sad but amicable way, did you see each other again?
Yeah. One of the times that we saw each other — it was about — it was a couple of months afterwards. We went for coffee. And there was this kind of spark between us. I think we held hands. I don’t know. I mean, who knows what his experience of it was. But to me, it felt like there was this question that was unanswered of, did we miss each other enough to try again.
Ugh. You feel this small possibility that you might get back together. What happened after that coffee?
He and I had agreed that he was going to come to my best friend’s birthday party at my house. And he was going to come that weekend. And certainly, in the days leading up to the party, I was asking myself like, if something happens, is that a good thing? Do I want something to happen?
Mm-hmm. So did he come to the party?
No. I will never know how he felt. Because on the Wednesday before the party, I got the news about his accident.
So it was about a week after. And that’s when his sister called me and said that he had woken up and asked for me, which obviously came as a real surprise to me, and that he wanted to see me. And —
He’d asked for you by name?
And she was confused, too. And she said, I thought you broke up. And I said, we did, but of course I’ll come. And I was worried about seeing him.
And I walked into the room. And he smiled. And he reached sort of his hands out. And I went and sat by his bed. And then it was shortly after that that he turned to me and said, I don’t know why I’m here.
And I think at that point, I just answered, saying, you were in an accident. And you’re in the hospital, but you’re safe. And you’re going to be OK. And then he asked me the same thing again just a few moments later. And I think that’s when it hit me —
[OMINOUS MUSIC PLAYING]
— that the brain damage had been significant enough that his short-term memory was really not functioning at all at that point.
You have a part of your essay where you talk about sort of the extent of his diagnosis. Can you read that right now?
“The head trauma had caused short-term memory loss. It was significant enough that, several times, Sam tried to get out of bed in confusion and fell. His mind would restart every few minutes, causing a stream of kaleidoscopic ramblings. He was still eloquent and charming in his incoherence, as if trying to talk his way out of the abyss of amnesia. He greeted each nurse as if they were visiting for tea.
I soon realized it wasn’t just his short-term memory. He didn’t know he was about to start a graduate program at Central Saint Martins or that he lived in a dilapidated warehouse in Whitechapel with a pet rabbit. His childhood was intact, but the last few years — the entire span of our relationship — had vanished.
He knew who I was but couldn’t remember what I did or how he met. He couldn’t recall that first tree climbing date or how, the next morning, he went to buy us breakfast and returned with three boxes of cake from the French patisserie. And we ate strawberry cream puffs naked in bed with our bare hands.
He couldn’t remember our strolls down Brick lane in our Sunday best or dancing in a field with our friends. He couldn’t remember the joy. And if he couldn’t remember the joy, it may as well have never happened.
To break up with someone is to lose the imagined future you would create together. But you would always share the landscape of your collective past. If Sam could not remember, I would be alone in that landscape. I left that first visit shaking.”
Sam had forgotten your entire relationship. He’d forgotten every single year you were together?
Yes. And the interesting thing about it is that he remembered I was important.
He didn’t know any of these parts of our lives, but he had the sense that he remembered me, and he loved me, and he wanted me near. And that was very overwhelming.
Mm-hmm. You wrote that you felt alone with these memories. What was that experience like — to be alone?
There was an enormous sense of loss. Like, what was it all for — all of the various ups and downs and everything we had learned together? You have these in-jokes with a lover.
When somebody thinks of flamingos, they think of you.
Whatever it is, that there’s these little ones that remain with you. And through life, you’ll go and see these things that will remind you of that person forevermore. And I wanted to know that I had as big of a role in his life as he had had in mine.
Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s important that he validate almost these experiences, too, by having a memory of it.
Yes, “validate” is a really interesting word. It’s like, these times were important for me. And I need them to be important for him, too.
Mm. So what did you decide to do to try to get him to remember?
It was hard to know what my role was. And the doctor had said that, the more memories that we could prompt now, the more likely it would be that he would recover them. So there was this window of opportunity in which his brain was healing. And if we could prompt these memories during this time, then most likely he could recover more than otherwise.
So I put together a slideshow of photographs.
[SOFT MUSIC PLAYING]
When I showed him the slideshow, he was still in the hospital bed. And I sat next to him in a chair by his bed, and held the laptop, and scrolled through the photographs. And he didn’t say a great deal.
I would tell him who each of the people were, and a little bit about them, and where we were, and what was happening in these scenes. And then we would get to the end. And he’d ask to see it again.
And I was always worried with this because I know that when someone tells you a story, you imagine it. And imagining and remembering is basically the same thing. And I didn’t want my stories to become his stories. I really wanted him to genuinely remember his version of events.
He was concentrating. He was looking. And I could see — it was almost like you could see these little synaptic connections firing in his mind as he — as the memories were coming back. And there were certain people that, when he remembered, he would start to cry. Because it was like that person had not existed a moment before. And then, all of a sudden, it’s like someone turned a light on and said, there’s this person in the world who you love, and they exist now. And that is a beautiful experience to have.
I got to say, choosing photos to remind someone of their life is a lot of pressure. How did you decide which specific photos to show Sam? Can you show me one of them?
I’ll probably show you — even though we’re not in it, I think this is something that I was trying to get him to see. So this is his apartment, where he lives — the warehouse. And this is the table he set for a Christmas that we would do every year for our friends.
Why did you choose this photo? What was important about this photo to you?
This is what we did. We cooked wonderful meals for one another, for our friends. We hosted ridiculous parties and dinners. We came up with wonderful ideas of how to make life more colorful, and brighter, and playful. And we had a whole philosophy based around joy.
Mm. So that photo of Sam’s apartment and the Christmas dinner — you were trying to get Sam to remember his friends and his very beautiful community. But did you show him any photos of the two of you to try to help him remember your relationship?
Well, actually, I remember one picture I took out was from that photoshoot. And I had it in originally because it felt like, well, this is significant. But then I was also aware that I —
: I didn’t want it to be a slideshow of me and Sam, just the two of us together in our relationship, because I — it felt like centering myself more than I should be in the narrative of his healing. So I would tell him about our lives, but I definitely shied away from talking about our relationship.
Mm. Did that mean — did you tell him about the breakup?
It was like that, in some ways, it was quite surface. It was like, you know, this is your friend Pete, this is your friend Lawrence, this is your friend — it didn’t go kind of deeper than that. And so to take it deeper than that when he was already struggling with so much —
But also, like, you’re showing him these photos. And it would be natural for him to assume you were together. Like, you look like his girlfriend in these photos. You look like you’re a couple.
Did you talk explicitly about what your relationship was?
No. It definitely occurred to me that I should say something at some point. And I would think about what to say, and how, and when. And I also guess I didn’t want to be like, you do remember we broke up, and him be like, of course we broke up. I don’t know.
It’s all these excuses you give yourself to not have difficult conversations.
And that’s what it was, was a difficult conversation.
And I used the excuse that, often, he didn’t remember our conversations. So — not that that’s justified.
What were you afraid of if you told him that you’d broken up?
What was I afraid of? That I guess I would — I guess I felt like I was helping, and that, if I told him, then that might change, and that that wouldn’t be helpful.
[SOFT MUSIC PLAYING]
I was aware that there was potential for a lot of pain on all sides. And I was scared to have that conversation.
After the break, the truth about Tyler and Sam’s relationship comes out. That’s next.
The entire time Tyler had been visiting Sam in the hospital, she’d avoided talking about their relationship and their recent breakup. But that all changed when Sam started to have questions.
He had asked — Sam had asked a friend of his why I didn’t visit more often. And the friend said, because she’s not your girlfriend. And then Sam brought it up with me next time I came to visit. And he asked me what had happened between us.
Mm. What did he say?
He asked if it was true that we weren’t together anymore. And I said yes and that I was sorry that I hadn’t said anything, feeling just like a — just totally ashamed that it hadn’t been me to say it, and that I hadn’t had that conversation, and that —
Did you feel got out in some way when he said that?
I felt like it made it look like I was hiding something from him. And it really hadn’t been the intention.
And he didn’t act like he’d caught me in some sort of lie or — he wanted to know why we had broken up.
Did he ask you that directly?
He said, why did we break up?
But at that point —
What a hard question to be asked — why did we break up? How do you — how did you respond to that?
I said, you fell out of love with me, because that’s the truth of it. And he asked why.
I wanted him to know that he had made a choice that was right for him at that time. And also, if I’m going to be completely honest, there’s a part of you that feels glad that somebody can’t imagine falling out of love with you.
It’s like, I know, you did.
(PLAYFULLY) How dare you.
There definitely is most definitely a small part of me that felt — I think the main thing is it was just incredibly confusing. It was hard not to imagine what was happening between us. And —
It’s hard not to imagine what? Continue that sentence.
It was hard not to imagine an ending where we got back together.
[SOFT MUSIC PLAYING]
Is this what I want? Like, would this be what I want? Am I hoping for this? Is this a daydream? Or is this just, like, my mind playing out this idea of this incredibly romantic — this accident that happened to somebody, where your relationship reconciles? I mean, it really is the —
It’s kind of Disney a little bit.
It’s a movie, yeah.
There’s a romcom about it out there, for sure.
It was hard not to daydream about that. We’d had that date just before — or, you know, I shouldn’t call it a “date.” We’d had that coffee just before.
Yeah, that coffee date that was very confusing right before his accident, where you’d felt a little spark.
Yeah. And there had been this question of whether or not this was going to happen.
That question hadn’t been fully answered anyway.
So there was a part of me that was wondering whether or not this was going to be how this turned out. And with him trying to get his head around why we would possibly break up, that only kind of added to that narrative.
Did you see Sam after you had this conversation about breaking up? Did you see him again in the hospital?
Yes. I kept going to visit.
But those visits were more complicated?
They happened less and less.
And then he got out of hospital. And we were seeing each other regularly after he got out.
Mm-hmm. And was he totally better? Like, had he regained all of his memories at that point?
There were still some things missing. So it sort of got to that point by that stage where you wouldn’t have known necessarily when chatting to him.
So after he got out of hospital, a couple of months afterwards, I was at a party at our friend’s bar. And a friend comes up to me and asked me how I’m doing. And I said, I’m OK. And she said, it must be really hard now that Sam has a new girlfriend.
Wow. A new girlfriend?
Yeah. I ran out of the bar in tears. It hit me really hard. I was completely blindsided by it.
They had started seeing each other after he got out of hospital, but I assumed he would have told me. And it hurt that he hadn’t. And I realized then that I still obviously had feelings for him, and that I needed to create some distance. And I needed to move on.
So we didn’t talk for a good couple of months. And he got in touch and asked to see me. And I said, yes. And we went to a coffee shop that I had taken him to for his birthday once. And —
When you were together you had taken him?
And I asked if he remembered the tea shop. And he said that he did. And he recalled that we had got four different cakes. And —
[INAUDIBLE] to know, which I — it’s so lovely that it sort of comes full circle from the cake on the first morning and after — the first morning together, when he went and bought cake, and then this cake at the very end that we remember — and this final cake that we have together, sharing it with a cup of tea.
And it felt like a lovely sense of closure in that. And he said he was sorry that he hadn’t told me, and that he wanted me to know how important. I was to him. And I was incredibly grateful for that — for him to recognize that. I needed to hear that and to want to be in each other’s lives again.
[SOFT MUSIC PLAYING]
There’s this idea that, when you break up with someone, you say like, it didn’t work out. But I don’t think that makes any sense because not every relationship is meant to be forever. And I think what it gave me is the sense that, you know what, Sam and I did work out. It worked out exactly how it was meant to. It wasn’t meant to be any more than it was.
And as hurtful as it is to break up with somebody, we were together for exactly the right moment in our lives and for exactly the right amount of time. And I think telling the story of us back to him in that time in the hospital — I think in some ways that helped me narrate it back to myself. I got to feel how lucky we were. That was exactly enough.
It’s been 11 years since Sam’s accident. These days, Tyler and Sam still keep in touch. Tyler lives in Brooklyn with her husband. And Sam lives in London. Sam told me he’s working on his own essay about his experience regaining his memories. And Tyler says she can’t wait to read Sam’s story.
[SOFT MUSIC PLAYING]
“Modern Love” is produced by Hans Buetow, Julia Botero, Christina Djossa, and me. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. Our executive producer is Jen Poyant. This episode was mixed by Sophia Lanman. Our show is recorded by Maddy Masiello.
The “Modern Love” theme music is by Dan Powell. Original music in this episode by Pat McCusker, Dan Powell, Chelsea Daniel, and Carole Sabouraud. Digital production by Nell Gallogly. The “Modern Love” column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love Projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.