Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Mystery of Memory

Some nights ago, I received a frantic call from the daughter of a friend. "Daddy has lost his memory," she sobbed. "What?" I stammered into the phone. "Daddy has lost his memory," she repeated.

As I rushed my friend to the hospital, he seemed normal. "How was your day" he asked. A minute later, he asked, "How was your day?" I had a good day, I said. He nodded, then repeated the question. After the fifth time, I gave up counting and focused on getting to the emergency ward safely. The streetlights were getting blurry.

It was close to midnight but the waiting room was full. Afflictions know no time. A doctor - an elderly man with an assuring smile - took my friend's hand and led him through a double door into the machine-infested beyond.

I began my tense wait. My friend was in his mid-fifties, a widower. Apparently he had started talking incoherently several hours earlier. His high-school daughter thought it would pass but when he stared at her as if she were a stranger, she became frightened and called me, the nearest neighbor.

I looked around. A woman sat dejected in a corner, her shoulders slumped, her eyes without light. A baby slept in her lap. A boy and a girl - siblings - kept their eyes locked on the double door, expecting someone to walk out at any moment and relieve them of their pain. A family of four held hands and mumbled silent prayers. There were whisperings and hushed tones, broken by the impersonal voice of someone announcing over the sound system that the prescription was ready for number 322.

I wondered what it was like to lose memory, even if temporarily. Was the slate wiped clean? Where did those bits go, the ones that held life's snapshot in the mysterious folds of billions of neurons, to be summoned when needed? Could the archive be restored if it once vanished? Would it be possible to live without memory, to live only in the present, to know only the flux of now and never be burdened with the imprint of yesterday and the inkling of tomorrow?

About two hours later, the kind physician informed me that my friend would make a full recovery in a week or so. By then, another neighbor had arrived with my friend's daughter, as well as my friend's sister who lived in another city, a physician herself. We hugged. The sister gave me warm tea. They would keep vigil for the rest of the night and would take my friend home in the morning.

The streets were deserted but I drove slowly. Once home, I looked at my sleeping wife and son. What if I didn't recognize them tomorrow? What if a stray cosmic ray zapped a critical cell in my brain and my world became a mystery, my loved ones no different to me from strangers I see in malls and theaters? Would I still be me, or would I be someone else looking in from outside, seeing nothing but a jumbled mess of half-formed thoughts and a fierce yearning fighting to break free?

Outside, stars were shining with abandon and not a thing seemed out of place in the universe.

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