Story last updated at 6/6/2012 - 2:11 pm
"If wishing makes it so
Won't you let me know
That life is eternal
And love is immortal
And death is only a horizon
Life is eternal
As we move into the light
And a horizon is nothing
Save the limit of our sight" Carly Simon, from the song Life is Eternal
Have you ever argued with a friend about a past event you couldn't remember? He or she may be so convincing that it really happened that you begin to scour your memory for the missing story. But you draw a complete blank, or at best, have a vague recollection of your shared past. Now imagine your friend is no longer around. What becomes of that memory? While neuroscientists are chasing molecules for an explanation, Rebecca Braun found her answer in the immortal power of love.
Rebecca is the publisher-editor of the Alaska Budget Report, a news source for following the intricate details and developments of the Alaska's legislature. She volunteered to talk about her elusive past at Mudrooms, an amateur storytelling event where people share a piece of their personal life with members of the community. It's structured around a different theme each month. In May it was "Secrets."
Rebecca's story began with a secret that Alder, her 3-year old son, had recently told her. But in regard to her own secrets she referred to her professional life as a reporter and publisher.
"When people tell me things off the record they stay off the record" she said. "So I thought, 'What can I say tonight?' My secrets are going to the grave. Then of course it hit me, my secrets have already gone to the grave."
That moment of "black humor," as she called it, was in reference to her husband, John Caouette, who died in a tragic accident 18 months ago.
"So much happened between us, only known by us," Braun told an audience quieted by the solemnness of her love story. "That intimacy is really the fabric of love and marriage. And when your co-keeper of memories disappears unexpectedly, those details can vanish, too."
Is there a way to recover our lost memories? Psychology would propose some answers. But as it has origins in working with people with serious mental deficiencies, the profession also has the tendency to define problems as disorders, which in turn migrates their understanding past the personal and into the broader arena of categorical diagnoses.
Then there is neuroscience, a relatively young field where scientists are working to unlock the secret of how our memories work. As explained by Ed Yong, an award-winning British science writer, the recently discovered molecule known as PKMzeta is "the engine of memory, constantly whirring to store information in our brains. Give the engine a boost, and old memories gain a new lease on life. Switch it off, and we forget things... permanently."
This is all well and good if we imagine ourselves as machines where megabytes in our memories can be recalled the same way we can use a computer database to retrieve data. But even if a scientist could help us program our brains to remember more, we're not cold hearted forms of artificial intelligence like Hal in the classic sci-fi film "2001, A Space Odyssey." Indeed, we have a heart that beats with the emotions of love. And it's love that's the essential element of Rebecca's story.
A clue to where her lost memories went rested with Alder who was just two years old when John died. How could she help him remember his father's love and affection for him? Rebecca began telling Alder some simple, but true, stories so they would be firmly planted in his memory. She described John juggling apples, making egg sandwiches and how he and his father would place coffee beans all over the floor and joke that it was "goat poop."
Then one day while wandering through the grocery store Alder asked her to buy a bag of peanuts in the shell. She didn't know if he knew what they were, but she remembered John had occasionally eaten them. So she bought some and soon after they got home Alder began shelling the peanuts and told her, "Daddy and I used to eat these."
"I never fed him that memory," Rebecca said. It was a small thing, she acknowledged, but it made her ecstatically happy and affirmed for her that there are times when "beams of light will illuminate our past. Memory ebbs and flows. And when the only other living witness to a moment is gone, that moment itself isn't gone. It happened, and we, the living, are the sum total of all that happened to us, whether or not we remember it."
There's no psychology or science in Rebecca's insight. It's the kind of answer we'd get from a philosopher, poet or dreamer. It's they who allow us to imagine that the deeper questions about life and love are best left to the heart's imagination.
Consider what Muriel Rukeyser, a 20th century American Poet, once said - "the universe is made up of stories, not of atoms." Couple that with how "dark matter" that neither emits nor absorbs light makes up more than 80 percent of the substances in the universe. Even behind the most powerful telescopes in the world it can't be seen. Could our memories and stories be among that invisible matter?
No one can remember all that's happened to us. However, if we choose, we can imagine the memories and stories we shared fill the void of space between us and those we love even after one of us has departed. The idea places love as an immortal energy that's always in the air and all over the universe. Wondering doesn't make it so, but it could alter the possibilities for our future on this light side of the dark.