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Starting over

SARAH SCANTLIN, 38, of Hutchinson, Kan., has begun reconnecting with her life after lying in a nursing home bed, unable to speak, for 20 years. Her family and doctors say she emerged from her long unresponsive state thinking it was still the 1980s. She had been struck by a drunken driver in 1984 at age 18.

Omar Beidari, 21, of Greensboro, N.C., gained consciousness in a snow bank on a Mattapan street last month, remembering nothing of his life before Jan. 12, when he was apparently pushed from a car and suffered head injuries that caused amnesia. Spotted by a brother this month after appearing on the television show ''The Big Story Weekend with Rita Cosby," he was taken back home to re--acquaint himself with the face in the mirror.

The stories are riveting on two levels: the joy of families reuniting and the pain of people trying to emerge from black holes where memory has been erased, or where knowledge has never been recorded.

Where would one start telling Scantlin about the past two decades? In 1984 Ronald Reagan was about to be elected to his second term. The economic bubble had not yet swelled and popped. The Berlin Wall was still intact, and apartheid still ruled South Africa. The words ''Tiananmen Square" were not synonymous with ''massacre," and the date Sept. 11 did not make people cry.

Starting small with family matters could be just as jolting, given the births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and shifts in a familial landscape that can occur in 20 years.

For Beidari -- who called himself ''Tee" before learning his real name from his brother --the trip back to Greensboro could feel like somebody else's home movie. In Boston he got only glimpses of himself, drawn to basketball but not knowing why, discovering a taste for pork fried rice, an aversion to fish.

He calls to mind the 1960s Evan Hunter novel ''Buddwing," in which a man finds himself on a park bench in New York City without a clue as to who he is. A stranger offering coffee asks the simple question: How do you take it? But he doesn't know.

Not knowing is like being invisible in today's culture of branding and self-absorption. People have everything from their colors to their love lives analyzed and labeled. They know the intricacies of their astrological signs and their Myers-Briggs personality ratings. They fashion T-shirts, buttons, bracelets, bumper stickers, cellphone rings, and voice mail recordings to encapsulate exactly who they are.

Scantlin and Beidari do not have that tenacious grip on details. Were it not for their hardship, that might be refreshing. They are focused mainly in the present, poised for discovery, holding few preconceptions -- and that's a healthy way for anyone to meet the world. 

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