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If you only had thirty-seconds...

From marriage to memory to identity, the unlikely story of a remarkable couple, writes Ami Dalal

india Updated: Feb 24, 2006 12:45 IST

Reader, I had meant to segue into my next article on love versus arranged marriage with an anecdote relating the extraordinary union between Clive and Deborah Wearing. But the questions it began to raise in my mind as I re-read interviews, book excerpts, and television transcripts went farther than current opinion on marriage customs and dating partners. However, let me first introduce the story:

On the evening of March 27, 1985 Deborah Wearing returned home to their flat in West London. She had left her husband, Clive, that morning with a temperature of 104F and a bottle of sleeping pills. She walked into the bedroom, found the bed empty, and Clive's pajamas crumpled in the middle of the sheets. Deborah screamed; she knew something bad had happened.

A taxi driver found Clive wandering the streets, and a policeman traced his address from his credit card. Eleven hours later, at St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington, the doctors told Deborah their diagnosis. Struck down by a common virus that usually goes to the mouth but had lost its way to the brain, Clive, 44, had one of the worst-documented cases of amnesia in the world. Formerly a renowned British conductor and musician, Clive Wearing was left with a memory span of 30 seconds.

Married for only a year, Deborah, 25, had met Clive six years earlier as a singer in his choir. In those first days after the illness, he was unable to remember his name or where he was, but Clive somehow remembered Deborah. He would tell her over and over again: "I love you".

Whenever Deborah left the room, Clive would have no recollection of her having been there. She would return after a trip to the bathroom or a word with a nurse, and Clive would run to her, as if seeing her for the first time, sobbing, or swinging her around in joy.

"You're beautiful," he whispers to Deborah on a frosty January afternoon, "Absolutely gorgeous. I adore everything about you. I could kiss you all day." He twirls her around and she laughs in delight. It would seem to the casual observer that they were newly-weds. In fact, they were married twenty years ago but, for Clive, every time he sees Deborah, it is for the very first time.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, renowned neurologist and author, describes the couple: "They are still very much in love. Now if he just sees his wife walk past, he won't recognize her. But he recognizes her footsteps, he recognizes her voice, he recognizes her gestures, her approach, and, above all, he recognizes her kisses."

I came upon the story of Deborah and Clive Wearing as I tried to address the questions we face as we grow-out of our homes and, as our parents hope, grow-into ones of our own. Do we find our own life partners, or should our parents help us to arrange it?

Though I knew that the subject of marriage is pertinent to people my age, in the back of my mind, I felt that discussing it was silly. Who cares how you meet the person? Whichever way it is, and however they enter your life, you just get a feeling, and that's that: till death do you part. Over-simplified, you say? I would have begged to differ. With the indisputable example of Clive and Deborah Wearing.

Clive Wearing has no conscious memory of the last twenty years, and Deborah struggles with loving a man in "a marriage where only a 30-second moment counts." In a television interview, Deborah explained why she left Clive after seven years only to return soon after to renew their wedding vows. "I came to understand that there was nothing more important than love," Deborah said, "We found out that the brain isn't everything. We are more than our minds."

That was it. Love is love is love. It is undeniable, incorruptible, uncontainable. Deborah Wearing has her marriage re-set every 30-seconds. She leaves the room and Clive does not recognize her when she returns. Yet she still says: "We're closer. We understand each other and I love him more."

Even though Clive Wearing cannot remember people he's known all of his life, he cannot forget that Deborah is his wife. When asked why, Deborah answered that some things "are just sealed in to our minds and our hearts, some feelings are just sealed in and they're not open to corruption." Love can triumph over science, even. It supersedes severed neurons, misfiring synapses, and permanent memory loss.

I wanted to explain to you, Reader, that all theories and debates on courtship, engagement, and marriage are thrown out of the window in the face of this unlikely story. It is like hearing that you only have six months to live -- that's when you get to the heart of living. Knowing that you have only 30-seconds of marriage to work with -- that's when you get to the heart of loving.

First Published: Feb 24, 2006 12:28 IST