Are we not our memories?

By | Sunday, August 09, 2015 1 comment


Five or six years ago my neighbor Bill suffered a very unusual stroke. The stroke destroyed his ability to form new memories. I am told that this is extremely rare. I don’t know how long he is able to remember anything, but it appears to be no more than a couple of minutes. Interacting with Bill is very strange.

A while back Bill visited with me for a couple of hours. At the time I did not know about his condition. It was disconcerting as Bill told me the same stories from his life over and over again. He told me about the salon where he works (or, as I later learned, "worked") as a hairdresser. As soon as he finished describing the salon, he started over again telling me about the salon and his job. He told me about his kids, then about the salon, then about his kids, then about his first wife, then his kids, then the salon, then the salon again, then his first wife again… and on and on. On the first couple of repetitions I was completely confused. I wasn’t sure if he was repeating himself for emphasis, or if it was some sort of a peculiar joke, or the world’s worst case of egotism. Eventually I realized that there was some pathology involved. It was later that I learned from another neighbor about Bill’s stroke.

On another occasion I was in my garden when Bill came up and asked if he could use my phone. He told me that his car was at the local gas station being repaired. He wanted to call them to ask when his car would be ready, but his phone wasn't working. Of course I invited him in to use the phone. He called a number that he had written down on a piece of paper, but the number was wrong – God knows how old the piece of paper may have been or what that phone number really was. I helped him look up the correct number for the nearby gas station. When we reached them, they told him that his car had been done and delivered the day before. They said he would find his car in his garage. Fortunately they must have been aware of Bill's condition, so they took it in stride. I wondered how Bill remembered having his car serviced at all, or if he brought his car to them years earlier and now calls them every day to check on its status. After hanging up the phone, Bill thanked me and went home. I watched him walk back towards his house desperately hoping that he would forget about his car completely. I would hate to think of him trying to drive.

I see Bill walking around my neighborhood several times a day with a care-giver. Sometimes they are walking side-by-side chatting, sometimes the care-giver is trailing behind. Every time I see Bill I have the peculiar experience of deciding whether or not I feel like bothering to interact with him. After all, we’ll just have the same conversations over again, and he won’t remember that we’ve ever met. I could be nice to him, or I could call him insulting names, or I could just walk right past as though he was a total stranger. As far as Bill is concerned, a minute later it would make no difference.

The other day I was walking my dog when I ran into Bill. I said, “Hi Bill, how are you doing?” Of course he didn’t recognize me, so I introduced myself and pointed out that I lived in the house around the corner. We talked a bit.

I said to him, “Wow, Bill. You really do walk a lot. I see you walking around the block all the time.”

“No, you must be mistaken,” he replied, “I only walk once in the morning and once in the evening.”

Of course it was he who was mistaken. He just didn’t remember that he does his morning walk three or four times, and his evening walk three or four times.

As strange as it is to experience Bill from the outside, I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to be Bill. What must it be like to wake up each morning and look in the mirror to discover that you are much older than you thought? How shocking it must be to brush your teeth, shower, shave, and dress to get ready for work, then learn that you haven’t worked for years. I can’t imagine the conversation that must ensue each day as a total stranger enters Bill’s home and explains that he is the care-giver, that he has been taking care of Bill for years, and that the last half decade of his life is effectively gone.

What are we if not our memories? Bill has all of his memories from before the stroke. He seems quite happy and he is in excellent health (no doubt from all the walking.) He joyfully recalls his memories from the first 60-some years of his life. But, from a purely philosophical standpoint, I find myself wondering what it means to be alive if you cannot create new memories? In some abstract sense, is Bill alive?

This is the strange imponderable that I am pondering this morning. I have no idea what it means. If I should happen to come up with an answer, I can only hope that I remember it.
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