Memory and Mortality

A Book Review of Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away by Ben Utecht

“Everybody needs his memories,” author Saul Bellow wrote in his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet. “They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” In truth, memories keep away the wolf of nothingness, whether in the form of oblivion or death. Memory is closely linked to mortality. People who survive near-death experiences describe seeing their lives flash before their eyes. Ethicists encourage us to lead lives worthy of remembering as we lie on our death beds. Fond memories of youth accentuate the distress of aging and anxiety about death. And at every moment, memories of the past allow us to believe we exist beyond the present.

Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away by Ben Utecht, a memoir of memory lossThe connection between memory and mortality explains why memory loss can be so devastating. Lost memories are not just a practical difficulty; their absence threatens personal identity and relationships. Forgetting past experiences erodes the story of one’s life. Losing memories of past choices and their consequences undercuts personal values. Forgetting loved ones obliterates relationships for both the amnesiac and the subjects of those vanished memories. For former NFL tight end Ben Utecht, the life he chose threatened to erase the life he remembered.

In his memoir, Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away: A Love Letter to My Family, Utecht traces his football career back to learning to play the game with his father, a Methodist pastor. Utecht’s talent soon became apparent, earning him an athletic scholarship to the University of Minnesota. However, despite moments of brilliance, multiple injuries marred Utecht’s college career. The Indianapolis Colts signed him as an undrafted free agent out of college and allowed him to sit out a year to recover from a sports hernia. During his tenure with the Colts, he suffered his third and fourth documented concussions. He also played on the Colts’ 2006 Super Bowl XLI champion team. He became a free agent in 2008 and signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.

In 2009, Utecht suffered a concussion in practice that would ultimately end his football career. For three weeks following that concussion, he experienced frequent headaches and lightheadedness and often forgot his thoughts midsentence. Shortly thereafter, he experienced his first instance of total memory loss when he forgot a visit from two friends during the previous year. Having grown up singing in church choirs, Utecht transitioned to a career in music but eventually reined in his touring schedule to spend more time with his family. As his memory issues worsened, he feared he might forget his family and penned a song and this memoir to memorialize his love for them. Today, Utecht practices brain training weekly and plans to continue for the rest of his life. In an interview, he told me, “My memory is stronger now than ever before!”

Utecht’s life has all the makings of a great story: a likable central character, a celebrated career, a fulfilling love and family life, and one significant challenge that threatens to destroy the previous three elements. That Utecht realized the importance of his story just as the football community was beginning to understand the severity of head injuries makes this book all the more significant. “My dad always reminded me the hardest metals are forged in the hottest fires,” he said of his journey.

“We all face trials of many kinds but it’s how we respond to them that gives us refreshed purpose.”

Unlike the grim outcomes of many CTE sufferers, Utecht’s life story seems headed for a happier ending. When I asked him if he was ever concerned he might act violently against himself or others, he responded, “The cognitive challenges I faced did cause impatience and frustration but thankfully because of my brain training success my life has been restored in many ways.” He added, “We all face trials of many kinds but it’s how we respond to them that gives us refreshed purpose. … My life priorities have always been faith, family, friends, then football. I have always felt well-balanced when I kept the priorities in check in my own life.” Given the significant media attention that always attaches to the more tragic aspects of any issue, Utecht’s affirmation of resilience and strong personal values in the face of life-changing adversity offers a refreshing counterpoint.

As a whole, Utecht breathes further animation into what is already a captivating life story. Though his lack of experience as a prose writer occasionally breaks through, these moments make the book seem especially genuine. As an honest, unsensationalized account of traumatic brain injury and memory loss, Counting the Days succeeds. Utecht consistently reminds readers of the fragile connections between memory, identity and mortality. He needs his memories—as we all do—the way he needs his family, his faith and his life’s passions, because they all define his very existence.

Rating: 4/5 Stars