It was a Sunday morning when everything changed. The Gagnons were getting ready for church, just as they had done on most Sundays over their 32 years of marriage. Howard was making breakfast and Mona wanted to relax in her comfy tan recliner as he cooked. When she made her way into the living room, she fell — half on the chair, half on the floor.

Howard rushed in to help his wife. She was OK, she said. She just lost her balance. He told her to be careful. She said that she would.

But when she went to the bathroom to take a shower, she fell again.

“What’s happening to me?” Mona called out. “What’s going on with me?”

Howard quickly called his daughter, who lives next door, and then an ambulance.

He got her into a chair in the kitchen, but she continued to panic, asking, “What’s going on? What’s going on with me?”

Soon, their daughter, and then the paramedics were in the kitchen too. Howard watched as they strapped his wife onto a gurney and moved her out of the house. But as they lifted her up into the ambulance, she had a convulsion. She was shaking everywhere. And then, she keeled over.

The ambulance raced away, and Howard and his daughter followed. They got to the hospital and found Mona; she was awake.

She looked at her daughter, and she looked at her husband, and she asked, “Who are you guys?”

There are moments in our lives that many of us would choose to forget: the death of a loved one or a time we hurt someone we loved; a time we failed to do the right thing or a time we just failed; the first time our hearts were really broken or when we had to watch someone we loved be with someone else; a time we did something hateful or a time we hated ourselves. If we could wave a magic wand and erase the pain, heartache and suffering from our memories, we would.

For Mona Gagnon, that’s reality. She doesn’t have those memories anymore. Poof, they’re gone.

But with the bad, also gone are the good. She has no memory of her parents, her childhood or growing up with her sisters. She doesn’t remember meeting Howard or the life they built together. She has no memory of raising her kids, or the day her grandson was born — even though she was in the room.

Mona woke up in the hospital on that Sunday, March 30, 2014, with no memory at all. She had no clue as to who she was or where she was. She had no knowledge of the world or how anything worked.

It was as though, on that day, Mona was born anew.

It took some time before her doctor was able to figure out what happened. He took her off all of her medication for a few days, and then, little by little, began to reintroduce them in order to determine which one, if any, caused the episode. Soon, he found the culprit: it was a medication that had been increased by another doctor just three days before. A dosage increase of just one pill set off a chemical imbalance, causing brain damage.

It wasn’t apparent that she would never recover her memory until three months after the incident. The neurologist she was seeing told Howard that those memories were likely gone for good; that they would have to make new ones.

“I’ve lost all my life. I lost everything due to that pill,” Mona told me in an interview on a recent afternoon at her house in Waterville.

She rocked in her recliner as she told me her story. Howard sat on the couch, filling in the gaps where Mona’s memory couldn’t reach.

When Mona looks back on the first couple days at the hospital, she remembers being afraid. When the doctors and nurses told her who she was, she didn’t believe them.

“I was scared that I don’t know who these people are,” Mona said of meeting Howard and her daughter at the hospital. “They tell me that they are my husband and my daughter, but really, who are you? And what is a ‘husband’ and what is a ‘daughter?'”

A picture of Howard and Mona Gagnon on their wedding day stands on a table July 7 in the family room at their Gilman Street residence in Waterville. The two renewed their vows after Mona suffered memory loss. Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

After two weeks of tests, Mona was told she would be discharged and sent to live with Howard, a man who at that time was not her husband of 32 years, but just a stranger.

Mona didn’t know what to expect when she arrived at their home on Gilman Street. More importantly, she didn’t know what he expected of her. She didn’t know what a wife was supposed to do or how she was supposed to act.

“Sometimes when he wasn’t around, I would ask the girls, what does a wife do?”

When they walked through the door for the first time, she told Howard, “We’re not sleeping in the same bed.” He told her she would have her bed, and he would have the couch.

“I slept on the couch for eight months,” Howard said.

The first few months after Mona’s injury were challenging. She didn’t know how to read, write or drive anymore. Even smaller tasks such as folding clothes or washing the dishes she had to re-learn. And then, in November, she had two strokes three days apart. She needed more therapy, and experienced difficulty moving the left side of her body. A lot of the progress she made in the interim was wiped out.

Mona Gagnon cuddles with her kitten, Lily, on July 7 at home in Waterville. Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

“I did feel like a child, and people treated me almost like a child, too. Because, number one, I couldn’t read and write. I was being talked to like a child and I didn’t like it. It was like I was in this grown-up body and felt like a child … and I didn’t want to be treated like that. … I couldn’t even take my own shower. That’s embarrassing. Everybody had to do something for me. And sometimes I would say, ‘Just let me do it. Leave me alone.'” Mona said. “It really was a struggle, though, at the beginning. I got depressed sometimes. Like, why me?”

She said there were moments when she felt as though it was too hard and she wanted to give up, but she kept going.

She made progress, recuperated, and learned about life at home — and Howard learned about life with the new Mona.

Howard said that Mona changed — a lot. For example, her taste buds were different in the beginning. For a while, she ate only chicken or cereal because everything else left a bad taste in her mouth.

“Her voice is different. Her laugh is different. She talks different,” Howard said of his wife.

He said she laughs kind of like a child, in a carefree, more genuine way. And she takes what others might see as ordinary — such as catching a glimpse of a deer or sitting on the beach and watching the waves roll in — as awe-inspiring.

“Everything is new. It surprises me. Everything that I do is, ‘Wow, wow, wow,'” Mona said. “To me it was like, this is life.”

But even though she acts differently, he said that she is still the woman he married in 1981.

For Mona, getting to know Howard was different. She didn’t have their history to fall back on.

In order to create trust between them, Howard was there when she needed him and made sure she knew he would do anything for her. He told her that he would never leave her — easing an anxiety she expressed often.

“I take my vows seriously, for better or for worse,” he said.

He told her stories about when their relationship first began in their hometown, Van Buren. He was 18. She was 16. They saw each other every day and listened to his tape of the Eagles’ greatest hits every night. They took walks around town, even when it was snowing. Mona’s mom made them matching sweaters.

One night, not long after Mona returned from the hospital, they were sitting on the porch, listening to the radio, when their song, “Just when I needed you most,” by Randy Vanwarmer, came on.

“He got up so fast I didn’t know what he was doing. He comes up and he grabs my hands, and he says, ‘May I have this dance?’ And we were dancing on the porch, a waltz,” Mona told me. “He broke my heart. He made me cry.”

One day they were looking through their old wedding album, but Mona didn’t know what it meant to be married.

“I said, ‘Do you want to know everything that goes on at a wedding?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ So I got up and knelt down and I proposed,” Howard said.

In June 2016 they renewed their vows, and just two weeks ago, they celebrated 36 years of marriage.

Howard Gagnon helps his wife, Mona, with a reading lesson at the family dining room table on Gilman Street in Waterville on July 7. Mona suffered a severe reaction to medication, which caused memory loss. Mona has had to learn how to read and write all over again. Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

Three and a half years after the brain injury, Mona is still taking in the world. She started learning how to read with the help of Literacy Volunteers Waterville Area, as reported in this newspaper in August.

She is building new relationships with old friends, her two adult daughters and her grandson. She is also reconnecting with her sisters, who were not very close before her injury but are making the effort now. She’s going to church again and has found religion to be a saving grace during her recovery.

And she’s even re-taught herself how to knit.

“We were looking in my closet and I found blankets and I asked him, ‘What’s this? He said, ‘You used to knit.’ I said, ‘I did?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you used to knit blankets.’ I said, ‘Well, there’s one that’s not finished.'”

Mona took the half-finished blanket downstairs and studied it. She thought, this might make me mad, and I might get frustrated, but I’m at least going to try. She began taking it apart and putting it back together, over and over again.

But she kept at it, discovered the pattern and finished the blanket. She even made two as Christmas gifts last year.

“It takes me awhile, though,” Mona told me. “I don’t think I’m as fast as I used to be, but I’m not in a race.”

Just like that blanket, Mona is taking her relationships, her studies, her faith and new worldview and breaking them down to the beginning, to just the single strands of yarn, and weaving them together to create a colorful tapestry that represents her life — her new life.

Emily Higginbotham, originally from Illinois, is a copy editor at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmilyHigg. Or reach her by email: [email protected]