Check Your Head: Jonathan McMurray, the “Man with No Memory”

In 1995, Jonathan was thrown from a vehicle travelling 120kms per hour. His head met the pavement first, and while he was lucky enough to survive and even go on to thrive after the accident, he lost every memory he had of the first 22 years of his life. His brain injury also left him with a condition called visual agnosia, or “face blindness.” In his day to day, this means Jonathan will always have to make a mental note of what colour shirts his boys are wearing when he drops them off for school so that he knows which boys spilling off the bus at the end of the day are his. He must always mark where he’s parked his car because if he doesn’t he has no idea what it looks like or where to start looking for it. And so on.

And while the title ‘The Man With no Memory’ is super catchy and interesting as a story lead, what makes Jonathan McMurray the man so interesting is his wry sense of humour and his passion for music. Good music. It’s in the way he loves and devotes himself to his family; it’s in his cancer survival story. It’s in how he grieves his dad and supports his mom who now has Alzheimer’s. It’s in his volunteer work and the way he’s grateful and checks his own head to keep perspective. Here is our conversation:

I read your book, Mind the Gap, and I just want to say how much I enjoyed it. I’m wondering if you find yourself as you go through different things in your life, relating to your story differently?

I think that the book is a fair reflection of where my head was at the time. It’s the truth. I just really like the truth because I don’t have a memory so I won’t remember if I told you one thing and someone else another so that’s why I just shoot straight. I tell the truth because, well, it’s the thing you should do in life in general, you know, and it’s just something that is necessary for me.

When were you diagnosed with cancer?

Here’s good set of events, I mean not ‘good’ but it sets the stage: so, my dad died August of 2014. Like in his La-Zy-Boy recliner watching sports. I mean, that’s good for him – he loved sports and he was comfortable – so I’m glad he got that.

Then I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer in the fall. The story goes that I actually went to my wife’s cottage in St. Joseph’s on Lake Huron. I wanted to just watch waves and get my head around the fact that my dad died. Like, I can’t have that conversation with my dad anymore, or go look at Christmas lights with my dad or watch March Madness basketball with my dad… And that’s where my wife saw a lump on my neck and told me to go get it checked out.

I didn’t think much of it but thought, Okay, I’ll go. The doctor referred me for some tests. They called shortly after and asked that I come back for results. My wife, Allison, knew something was up and said she was coming with me to the appointment.

And then we went in and he said, “I just want to tell you that the test came back cancerous.” Because of the fact of my brain injury and the erasing of the first 22 years of my life, and I’m still getting over my dad, and now I’m being told I’ve got cancer. In my memory of that moment, I started laughing and looking around for the hidden cameras, like, C’mon, man. Really? This can’t be real. I’m a nice person! I do my best to be as nice to people as I can, you know, good vibrations and try to be friendly. I’m that guy…what the heck?

But in fact, Allison told me that I didn’t laugh, that I was shocked and started to cry. I guess I got really quiet. Further tests were required after which they confirmed stage 3.

I had surgery November 1st, 2014 and chemo started Dec 1st, 2014. So, during that period of cancer and grieving my dad and the bedlam in my mind, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Good lord!

Yeah, so I was again looking out for the camera…who is the host of this show? And, what a terrible show! Yikes.

But I just got a positive report card from Credit Valley – they did a scan and some blood work and stuff and I got a good report and now I only have to check back in a year.

What kind of cancer was it?

I had stage 3 testicular cancer – it metastasized to the lymph nodes and to my aorta. They had to remove one of my testicles – I know, I’ve got way better vocal range, you wouldn’t believe it–

Waaay above middle C now, are you?

Oh for sure. The surgeon was like, “I never want to see you again.” And I thought that was such a weird thing to say and then he said, “Let me explain. You have a mass of cancer behind your aorta. If the chemotherapy doesn’t get rid of it within this cycle, you have to come back for a dangerous surgery and I just don’t want to do it. So, let’s hope the chemo works.”

Wow. Okay, obviously you have a great sense of humour and a supportive family, but what’s going through your mind at this point?

It was advantageous for me to ‘grow up again’ with this sequel second life in ’95 in a hospital after the accident. There was this guy in my room who was the Dalai Lama of the room. He was an electrician who had been electrocuted and brought back to life and he was in a wheelchair. He was the happiest guy; he had the best attitude. I’d be angry sometimes and take off my earphones and say, “This is bullshit. How am I going to get better if no one’s here?” And he’d say in his Maritime accent, “Oh no, don’t worry, buddy. It’s going to be okay.”

He had such a great attitude which would make me think, Okay, he’s in a wheelchair and things aren’t going to get much better for him and he’s got such a great attitude. And I’m here walking around… I can see, hear, taste – I’ve got everything minus the memory, so who am I to be miserable?

I mean, I have a terrible memory and I have a lot of issues related to the accident, but I’m still here. Life’s good, you know?

I do. A beautiful woman wanted to marry you –

Oh, I know!

Like, she’s gorgeous!

She’s going to catch on soon. I’m fearful ‘cause one day she’s going to be like, “Wait a minute…”

This might be the interview that does it.

Exactly.

Have you ever struggled with feeling like a liability to people?

Absolutely. I felt like a huge liability to my family. They never made me feel like a liability, they were always very supportive, but it was more internal for me. When I would be alone at night listening to records I would think, I’m a lot of work; I’m high maintenance and I don’t know how much I’m giving back.

I think that that might have been beneficial in that it pushed me; it was the driving force to realize what a pain in the ass this must be for them. I decided that I was going to finish my university degree and I was going to prove all the neurologists wrong who said, “You’re son will never have a job. Your son will never have a relationship. That’s it. It’s over.”

And so I decided I was going to have all those things and used that as my gas to fight back. And that was one of my driving forces was to NOT be a liability –I didn’t want to be just ‘take and take’.

That’s what I say to my kids: you give and take. Take and take is a lonely person, right? I was kind of the take and take guy and I was like, ugh, I need to change this.

When Allison describes in the W5 feature about you how you lost all your memories of being parented, I wanted to ask what guides you as you’re raising your boys?

Fake it ‘til you make it?

I think being a good person is being a good person. What I’m doing is making my boys very aware through a lot of volunteer stuff and as we do they learn more about me and my character.

I’ve done one speech at the school that I went to in Georgetown. I did a presentation around the theme “Check Your Head” by the Beastie Boys. It’s not often, but I do have to tell my boys, “Check your head. You don’t like what you’re having for dinner? Not just in 3rd world countries but within this community there are people who did. not. eat. today. Not that they didn’t eat because they didn’t like what they were given. They did not eat food today.”

Gratitude and perspective are huge for me. [Parenting is] scary, but I’ll do my part with my kids and that’s all I can do. I’m going to make sure there’s 2 properly raised, conscious humans coming to the world from this address.

What was your main message to the school kids you spoke to?

Check Your Head. That was my spiel. I told them a little bit of what I’d been through – 22 years of my life erased, my dad died, I’ve had cancer, my mom’s got Alzheimer’s and so your iPhone case got nicked or you don’t like it as much as someone else’s – you just gotta back up and take a bigger view of the world. I said, “I know this is kind of your scene now, but when you start complaining – check your head. Honestly. Check it.”

That’s the gist of the talk. And it’s a good record, too.

Have we missed anything you might like to talk about?

Just for perspective on how the struggle continues daily, and you push on because that’s the only option: February 2017. I took Jack, my son, to a birthday party at a movie theatre. The other parents were there and then we were all going to meet back at the boy’s house and play video games and eat snacks. This is a big theatre and I didn’t make note of where I parked and I just looked around and it felt like I was in the middle of the ocean with no energy and weights on my feet and I was just getting pulled down. We walked around and around, I’m trying to honk my horn, we’re walking around, cars are starting to clear out, more cars come in.

It’s definitely in the top 10 worst things that has happened to me was when Jack looked at me and said, “We should call Mom.” And that just killed me because for the sake of my wife, I want to be the 100% proper dad. For my kids too. I want to go down in the history books as The Dad. I don’t want to be the let’s-call-Mom.

I made note of that event to show that you can get through all the stuff I’ve been through but it’s not over. It’s never over. I might lose my car today. And that’s never going to end, but oh, well, what do you do? It could always be worse.

I wish you all could hear the smile I heard in Jon’s voice as he spoke that last sentence. Thank you again, Jon, for letting Unsinkable readers have a look into your uniquely challenging, and good, life.