Psalm

 

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“Surely you must be mistaken,” he said. “No one could possibly remember the moment of his or her birth.”

“Well, for me, it wasn’t exactly a singular moment. More like an all-day affair,” she said, sipping her coffee. “And I remember it clearly, but in snatches, like stop-motion flashes in time. Sort of like a surreal film where certain frames are paused for dramatic effect.”

“But how could that be?” he asked. “Human beings aren’t equipped with that type of memory. A newborn doesn’t have the capacity to assess perceptions and store them. This has been proven.”

“Proven by who? A team of neurologists? A psychologist somewhere?” They continued to stroll through the neighborhood and the late morning shine submitted to a dull gray winter afternoon. Her gloved hands held the cup of coffee like a promise. Cars smashed together on the nearby highway, a violent resonance of shattered glass and twisted metal off in the distance.

“And even if it were true that newborn babies have at best only a slight ability to remember things,” she said, “are you saying that in this vast universe of strange occurrences and scientific anomalies, that it would be impossible for at least one child to win the memory lottery? How can you know anything as an absolute? Certainly you can entertain the idea that exceptions are always made.”

He didn’t say anything. They walked shoulder to shoulder beneath the giant elms, their eyes focused downward, stealing truths lying in the cracked pavement.

“I mean, come on. You’re smarter than that.”

“What makes you so sure you’re remembering your birth?” he asked. “How certain are you that these things you’re experiencing aren’t simply mental constructions, fabrications, some sort of cognitive detritus, equally as true as any other memory you have? Our memories change over time, they become distorted with the added stimuli of our lives. How can you be sure that what you think is a memory is not just a mish-mash of subconscious pieces, a mental scrapbook of all the dreams you’ve ever had?”

They walked past a small pond, the surface glazed and brittle with ice. Geese walked about in the frigid air, their nostrils emitting tiny plumes of steam. A large house beyond the pond leapt into flames, orange and blue fingers reaching upward past a black curtain of smoke. Alarms sounded.

“I can’t. But that holds true with every memory I have. It’s the same with you. How can you be sure the memory you have of playing basketball in grade school really ever happened? You can’t. The actual moments we remember are gone forever, never to be true again, their facsimiles suspended in time by our ability to process and store them as separate events. All we have are archives, broken timelines, sensory input with specific associations. It’s a chain of associations. Our mind finds patterns, and if there are no patterns, the mind makes up its own. Obviously, my mind has associated something with my day of birth, and I’ve been the recipient of some strange sensory phenomenon of late.”

“That still falls quite short of a valid explanation.” He took his hands from his coat pockets and held them in front of him, trying to shape his words with them. “The human brain isn’t mature enough at birth to make associations, to store data. This must be an absolute. I can easily consider the idea of an adult having a flash of nightmarish clarity from their past, maybe even as early as the birth process. But it couldn’t possibly be more than that. To remember the entire birth event would be to ingest tremendous amounts of data, incomprehensible amounts to a newborn human being. Imagine the rush of stimuli a baby encounters as they exit the womb. Imagine how rapidly the brain is working to analyze the sudden flood of data, the light, the sounds. Imagine everything you’ve ever experienced suddenly radically changed. That’s what being born would feel like. It would feel like becoming something entirely different in a totally strange and chaotic environment.”

Exactly,” she said, looking at him, her eyes wide. “That’s exactly how I remember it. The world as a five-dimensional cubic sphere. Sensory overload. Madness.”

Children ran after each other and screeched playfully in the schoolyard to their left. A large jet broke apart in the gray sky above and began a wide-arching fiery descent to the earth.

“I’m not calling you a liar,” he said, looking at her. “But I just don’t see how it’s possible. I mean, that’s a pretty impressive feat, being the one human in history who can remember the moment of their birth.”

“Like I said, I wouldn’t encapsulate it into just one moment,” she said, their stroll leading them to the frozen banks of a creek. They paused and stared at the soft rushing water, listening to the dripping flow. Snow and ice collected in the crooks of the water. An old woman with deep recessed circles around her eyes sat on the far bank, bleeding from her nose, staring up at the sky.

“Okay, so it was a lasting event,” he said. “In any case, that makes you a pretty special human being. Did I ever tell you about my friend Georgia? The woman with the artificial heart?”

She shook her head.

“Well, Georgia was born with a rare heart condition. She almost died at birth and surely would have, were it not for the ingenuity of her delivery doctor. She told me his name and I can’t remember it now, but he was apparently an amazing man. Georgia was born and her heart was failing and this doctor immediately turned the delivery room into an impromptu surgery ward. He actually performed the procedure himself.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. So anyway, this doctor practically saved Georgia’s life right as she was born. He got her heart in working order so that her parents could take her home after a few months, but her health was still very delicate and she was under strict hospital supervision throughout her infancy. She wasn’t given a decent chance to survive into adolescence without some sort of miracle procedure or something.” He paused and stared into the current. A parade of screaming emergency vehicles sped past them and disappeared up the highway ramp. He watched them and waited for the commotion to settle. They began walking again.

“When Georgia was ten, her heart started failing her. She had rigorous therapy sessions to try and strengthen the heart, but it was just too weak. Her parents went broke enlisting the help of these world-renowned specialists that couldn’t do anything for Georgia other than recommend experimental and dangerous procedures, one of which was this project a few graduate students at MIT had been working on, a project called, “Project Athena,” obviously named after the Greek goddess. These MIT students had basically created this artificial heart which functioned primarily as a computer, telling itself how to adapt to whatever circumstances the body commanded. It was really an amazing invention, and should have won the Nobel Prize that year, but that’s another story.

“Anyway, Georgia was dying and her parents were desperate and they enlisted the help of these MIT students and succumbed to the mercy of Project Athena. They had little hope, but somehow Georgia survived the three-day procedure. Her body actually took to the digital device, didn’t reject it. She recovered, and the whole thing was ruled a medical miracle.”

They walked through the concrete tunnel beneath the highway, cars and trucks thundering past above their heads. A nearby explosion rumbled the ground, the walls of the tunnel trembling. They watched specks of dust shake loose from the cracks in the tunnel wall and fall to the ground.

“So the idea is, this little girl who wasn’t even supposed to survive birth has somehow defeated the odds yet again. Georgia ended up living into middle age, the little computer in her chest still ticking away like new. It’s really an amazing story.”

She doesn’t say anything, waiting for him to connect the analogy.

“When she almost died as a girl, she had these visions,” he says. “She said she could see a bright light, but it wasn’t exactly white. At least that’s how she remembered it. She said the light was too bright to be white, or any other color for that matter. She said the whole experience was like being born, even though she couldn’t really say what being born was actually like.”

“Interesting,” she said, discarding her empty paper cup into a waste basket overflowing with identical cups. “Death as birth. How Eastern.”

“That’s what I thought, but Georgia said I was missing the point. She said it wasn’t about birth or death, or even life. It was about the transitory nature of our souls, like the idea of moving to different cities, but instead of cities, we’re moving into different realms of consciousness, of cognitive existence.”

“Weird,” she said. “Is Georgia still alive?”

“No,” he said. “She died in a car accident three years ago. Killed by a drunk driver.”

“Damn,” she said, and they were back at campus now, skateboarders and bicyclists stopped eerily still and lining the curbs, their heads tilted back, eyes held vacantly upward. Automobiles sat empty in the middle of the street, their owners standing in the open mouths of their car doors, looking toward the heavens. A giant red mushroom cloud swelled in the sky above them all, a luminous, foreboding and entirely beautiful phenomenon.

“I’ll see you later?” she said.

“Okay,” he said, and walked away from her, smiling, feeling somehow nourished by her presence, as if he would encounter the remainder of the day as nothing more than a simple passing rush of stimuli, the details superfluous and redundant.

3 thoughts on “Psalm

  1. “She said it wasn’t about birth or death, or even life. It was about the transitory nature of our souls.”

    WOW. This is amazing. The writing, the story, the flow. It is natural and illuminating. Beautiful.

    Personally, birth has always fascinated me more than death.

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