The Lost Mariner

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all…. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing…. (I can only wait for the final amnesia, the one that can erase an entire life, as it did my mother’s….)

Luis Buñuel

This moving and frightening segment in Buñuel’s recently translated memoirs raises fundamental questions—clinical, practical, existential, philosophical: what sort of a life (if any), what sort of a world, what sort of a self, can be preserved in a man who has lost the greater part of his memory, and, with this, his past, and his moorings in time?

It immediately made me think of a patient of mine in whom these questions are precisely exemplified: charming, intelligent, memoryless Jimmie R., who was admitted to our Home for the Aged near New York City early in 1975, with a cryptic transfer note saying, “Helpless, demented, confused and disoriented.”

Jimmie was a fine-looking man, with a curly bush of gray hair, a healthy and handsome forty-nine-year-old. He was cheerful, friendly, and warm.

“Hiya, Doc!” he said. “Nice morning! Do I take this chair here?” He was a genial soul, very ready to talk and to answer any questions I asked him. He told me his name and birth date, and the name of the little town in Pennsylvania where he was born. He described it in affectionate detail, even drew me a map. He spoke of the houses where his family had lived—he remembered their phone numbers still. He spoke of school and school days, the friends he’d had, and his special fondness for mathematics and science. He talked with enthusiasm of his days in the navy—he was seventeen, had just graduated from high school when he was drafted in 1943. With his good engineering mind he was a “natural” for radio and electronics, and after a crash course in Texas found himself assistant radio operator on a submarine. He remembered the names of various submarines on which he had served, their missions, where they were stationed, the names of his shipmates. He remembered Morse code, and was still fluent in Morse tapping and touch-typing.

A full and interesting early life, remembered vividly, in detail, with affection. But there, for some reason, his reminiscences stopped. He recalled, and almost relived, his war days and service, the end of the war, and his thoughts for the future. He had come to love the navy, thought he might stay in it. But with the GI Bill, and support, he felt he might do best to go to college. His older brother was in dental school and engaged to a girl, a “real beauty,” from California.

With recalling, reliving, Jimmie was full of animation; he did not seem to be speaking of the past but of the present, and I…

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