During the last ten years of her life, my mother gradually lost her memory. When I went to see her in Saragossa, where she lived with my brothers, I watched the way she read magazines, turning the pages carefully, one by one, from the first to the last. When she finished, I’d take the magazine from her, then give it back, only to see her leaf through it again, slowly, page by page.
She was in perfect physical health and remarkably agile for her age, but in the end she no longer recognized her children. She didn’t know who we were, or who she was. I’d walk into her room, kiss her, sit with her awhile. Sometimes, I’d leave, then turn around and walk back in again. She greeted me with the same smile and invited me to sit down—as if she were seeing me for the first time. She didn’t remember my name.
… As time goes by, we don’t give a second thought to all the memories we so unconsciously accumulate, until suddenly, one day, we can’t think of the name of a good friend or relative. It’s simply gone; we’ve forgotten … I search and search, but it’s futile, and I can only wait for the final amnesia, the one that can erase an entire life, as it did my mothers’.
So far I’ve managed to keep this final darkness at bay. From my distant past, I can still conjure up countless names and faces; and when I forget one, I remain calm. I know it’s sure to surface suddenly, via one of those accidents of the unconscious. On the other hand, I’m overwhelmed by anxiety when I can’t remember a recent event, or the name of someone I’ve meet during the last few months. Or the name of a familiar object. I feel as if my whole personality has suddenly disintegrated; I become obsessed; I can’t think about anything else; and yet all my efforts and my rage get my nowhere. Am I going to disappear all together? The obligation to find a metaphor to describe “table” is a monstrous feeling, but I console myself with the fact that there is something even worse—to be alive and yet not recognize yourself, not know anymore who you are.
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. Memory can be omnipotent and indispensable, but it’s also terribly fragile. The menace is everywhere, not only from its traditional enemy, forgetfulness, but from false memories … our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; we end up transforming our lies into truths. Of course, fantasy and reality are equally personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance … I am the sum of my errors and doubts as well as my certainties … the portrait I’ve drawn is wholly mine—with my affirmations, my hesitations, my repetitions and lapses. My truths and my lies.”
—Luis Buñuel, from My Last Sigh (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983)