Oliver Sacks has an article in this week’s New Yorker about Clive Wearing. In 1985 Clive was struck by an infection in his brain that wiped out the parts of his brain that control memory. He lost completely his ability to lay down new memories, and he also suffered retrograde amnesia, wiping out all his memories after about 1965. Clive’s short term memory is so destroyed that he feels from second to second that he has “just awakened from being dead.”
He has kept for years a journal that mostly consists of this statement in various forms “May 18, 7:05 pm, I AM ALIVE for the first time! I am properly awake for the first time in years!”
This is then heavily lined through, and replaced with:
“May 18, 7:11 pm. Despite previous entry, NOW I am properly awakened and ALIVE, was dead before this moment.”
Utterly, utterly lost.
Myriad interesting facts about Clive’s life follow, his coping mechanisms developed after twenty years, his musical proficiency almost untouched, etc. When he plays music he is his old self again, conducting, living, feeling, all present and alive, but when the music stops, so does he. Lost again.
The other thing, and this is why I write about him, is that when he sees his wife, he comes alive. She is always new to him, always a revelation and a haven and his only lodestar and she has stayed with him through these twenty years of lost and sorrowful confusion. She’s written a book about it, too. But she’s stayed, and she loves him. And he loves her.
Although they don’t say it, it seems in some ways he loves her like a dog loves its master. When she’s gone, his world is erased, and when she reappears, everything comes alive again.
It is an approximation of how I feel about my own wife.
When our ship of state is swamped, I am utterly at sea. I could have money and power and success and spiritual creaminess and without her all would be ashes.
Yet I persist in my failures and my stubborn-headedness and my small heartedness and my greed and selfishness and my myriad sins against her.
For what port am I bound then?
Only the open sea and the loss of my bearings and heavy weather I am unsuited for.
She is my rock and my salvation.
I am blessed beyond all measure that she can tolerate me reasonably well.