I just found an article that ran several years ago in the London Telegraph entitled “The Man Who Keeps Falling In Love With His Wife.” Here are the basics of this crazy love story: a married man contracts a virus that destroys the hippocampus, the memory center of his brain. He is a perpetual amnesiac with a memory span of seven to thirty seconds, although his considerable intelligence is preserved. He still recognizes his wife and knows he’s married to her, although as with all other events, he has no memory of the ceremony. Every time he sees her enter the room is occasion for a tearful, clinging reunion scene, even if she only left for a moment.
She is heartbroken by all he has lost, and after several years she decides to get on with her life. She arranges for him to receive the best of care, then divorces him and moves to another country. Still, she cares about him and wants to see him. On one visit, she realizes she’s missed him so much that she feels like a tearful, clinging reunion. Somewhat after that, on a phone call to a friend one night (as she parenthetically mentions in her recounting of events) she finds God. She remarries her husband, and the ceremony is an amazing moment for both of them, although it’s a moment he cannot keep in his mind. He continues to live apart from her, under caretakers, but yearns constantly for a visit from her. “Come at dawn,” he urges, even as she’s just left. “Come at the speed of light.”
What I love about this story is that it’s a dramatic reflection of a universal (or at least very common) story, which it also completely transcends. Many of us will live long enough to lose our memories, to a smaller or greater degree depending on heredity and other factors that are less well understood. This will not be a comfortable process. For those of us who have put great stock in our mental processes and our intellectual prowess, it will be even less comfortable. I consider this very good for me to reflect on after having made the decision to go to graduate school: learning is a good thing, but it is a good thing that ultimately, I probably won’t be able to keep.
But there is something more permanent, something that’s worth trying to possess. Having lost his memory completely, this man’s life was not a waste, among other things because of his great love for his wife. His effusive, gregarious affection for her is evident throughout every interaction with her cited in the article. Though his wife says he has not been immune from bouts of rage and frustration over his condition, when speaking of her he seems self-forgetful, not at all self-pitying, simply because he can be in her presence and enjoy her. Though their marriage lacks much and will always carry an element of loss, in the important ways it is immensely healthy and vital.
I can only hope that, should the time come when I lose my mind, the fragile consciousness on which I’ve pinned so many hopes, that love would shine through so brightly for me. There’s a strong streak of dementia in my family, and an even stronger one of mental illness of many types, including schizophrenia. I’m completely aware that only by the grace of God and the mysterious balance of brain chemistry does my reality hold together. And yet, I know that if my spirit is strong, none of these things would be able to diminish it. I, too, could be known for my love, a love capable of shining through disease and decline and decay. It’s something to which I hope I can be wise enough to aspire.
Scripture speaks of “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” May my continual desire be for the only beauty, intelligence, accomplishment that lasts: compassionate love. Without it, my greatest achievement wasn’t worth the effort. With it, even the most tragic thing that happens to me holds the promise of immense worth.