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Location: Kentucky, United States

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

An Incomplete Thought

Today I met a man who has no memory prior to 1993. He is seventy-years-old. Diagnosed with a frontal lobe brain tumor he had only a ten percent chance of surviving the surgery. They told him at the time that even if he survived he could be paralyzed or lose his memory. Sixty years of his life just vanished.

Imagine waking up tomorrow, reborn. You don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are, you can’t walk, you can’t talk, and you don’t recognize anyone around you. There are two adults standing beside your bed. Someone tells you these are your children. They tell you their names, but they are still strangers. Later they tell you your name, but you are a stranger to yourself.

You are taught to walk and talk and feed yourself. You do not know which foods you like and which foods you don’t. You are taught to read, and every book is new to you. There are no reruns for you on TV. You have no job. You have no training for a job. In fact, you have never been to grade school. You have never been a child.

Who are you?

In the movie Regarding Henry, Harrison Ford plays a lawyer who receives a brain injury and loses all memory of himself. In the movie, he has to learn all over again who he is. He decides that he doesn’t like the same foods that he used to like. Then he decides that he doesn’t like the man he used to be.

How much of who we are, is actually our remembered experiences? Is the man I met today really the same person he was?

My wife’s father, Jay, at the age of twenty-two, was a construction worker. He was on a team building bridges in the Appalachian Mountains. One day a huge pillar broke loose and struck Jay in the head. His skull was shattered. This happened in a backwoods area that had no hospital. He was taken by hearse on an eight-hour ride over the mountains to the closest medical facility. He was not breathing, so some one had to hand bag him the entire way. He should not have lived.

Jay was in a coma for months. When he woke up, he had forgotten he had a daughter. He did recognize some of his relatives but he had the relationships all messed up. He did not know how to walk and had to be taught again the basic functions we all take for granted.

Beverle’s mother says that after the accident, Jay’s personality changed. Where before he had been easy going, and “nothing ever got to him”, afterwards he was easily angered and agitated. This is not to say he was abusive, but that he was “just not the same person.” Beverle was very young when this happened, she says she accepts the idea that the man she knew as her father was different from the man who fathered her.

What if we could selectively cut the threads of our memory? What if something happened in your past that shaped you in a way that you regret? If given the chance would you erase the memory?

When I was sixteen-years-old, someone very close to me attempted suicide by taking an overdose. It was a very traumatic time in our family. However, I have no memory of what happened in the days following the initial event. It is as if an entire chapter is missing out of a book I was reading, and when I search for it, I come up blank.

Beverle tells me there are issues here I need to work out. Maybe she is right. I am going to talk with my brother to see what he remembers of that time, and maybe he can bring some of it back. Then again, what if I have subconsciously cut a thread of memory to protect myself? What if I am who I am because I chose not to remember? What if I am better off not knowing?

You have probably heard the agnostic/atheist question, “If God is all powerful, can He make a rock so big He can not lift it?” I have a scriptural answer for that question. Yes, God can make a rock so big that He cannot lift it. How can I say that you ask? The Bible says that He can throw our sins into the “sea of forgetfulness”, meaning He can chose Not to remember. Only God can be consciously self-limiting. By choosing not to remember our sins He erases, or cuts a thread of memory that would be detrimental to our relationship with Him.

Therefore, that leaves us with this: who am I? Who are you? How much of me is memory, and can I believe those memories? I think most people if asked would say the man who lost his memory from the brain tumor is still, somewhere inside, the same man as before. However, I think as he looks through scrapbooks of himself and all he lost, he would tell us that the man in the pictures is dead, and only he remains.

I have no answers.

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