all of the selves we Have ever been
“Mom, I hear her!”
At the insistence of my seven-year-old son, we follow the laughter into the next aisle. But it is not her. It could not have been. She was murdered a few weeks before—a teenage girl with a life full of promise and a chest full of gunshot. A paranoid and obsessed boyfriend took her down in her own apartment. Her parents heard the news on the car radio while driving to work.
And yet, here she is--a niece, a cousin--in Wal-Mart, aisle four. Attention shoppers! For a moment, she returns to us in notes of laughter, a song that should have been hers but wasn’t. Feelings of unreality, yearning, and hope unite with memory. Does she message us from heaven?
I busy myself at my desk, peering intently into a computer screen. Suddenly, I smell her. “Sita? Is that you?” I follow the scent into the kitchen. But it is not her. It could not have been. She died 57 years ago from complications of diabetes. Three thousand miles away, my family got the call.
And yet, here she is—a beloved grandmother—in my tiny galley kitchen. For a moment, she returns to me in the scent of lentils simmering on the stove. Lentils--a food we ate so often in her home that they became the eternal fragrance of her flesh. Is this comfort in a pandemic?
It is midnight. We are watching Johnny Carson when the bells clang at the village church nearby. Across the living room, I see my aunt sit up straight in the recliner chair. Her body stiffens. “Can it be?” I follow her to the front door. We look outside. Never have I heard these church bells ring. My aunt tells me that the ringing ceased when World War II ended. With no more casualties of war to report, the bells went silent.
And yet, here we are—in a town where families still grieve over soldiers lost, remains unreturned. On this dark, still night, is a son reaching back from the ashes of war to say I am found?
Are they here? Or are these experiences sensory tricks played on suggestible minds? Are the heightened emotions and tensed muscles products of overactive imaginations?
If so, explain that to the preschool child in foster care who collapses in grief at the smell of baking bread. He carries a burden of grief for a mother he can no longer name, a face he cannot recognize. And yet, her love reaches out to him through an oven door.
No, these occurrences are not imaginings. They are more than the prosthetic memories produced by cell phones and machines, more than Hollywood special effects. They are not images distinct from our own beings.
These special occasions are rememberings. Through a cosmic miracle, the remembered are present, a presence that is real though invisible in the same way that a giant sequoia is fully present inside a tiny seed. In these moments of remembering we are equally present and engaged with those we have loved. In his book, Remembering, Edward Casey wrote that remembering happens both WITH and IN the lived body.
“…we come back to the things that matter.” Casey describes his own nostalgia for these experiences: “it is insofar as they are unrepeatable that these remembered times beckon so movingly and powerfully to me in the present.”
In my own moments of remembering, I understand why the ancients believed in spirits and an afterlife and why those beliefs have persisted for thousands of years. The words of the Old Testament tell us that the giants of those Bible stories were “gathered to their people” when they died.
I am grateful for rememberings--
when my people gather here for me.