What are memories made of? Are they truly just electrical charges in the brain, triggered by some neurochemical or other at odd moments? Are they only the echoes left by old events and emotions, or do they have more substance, more weight than that?
When a memory sweeps over me, filled with sights, sounds, tastes and textures, charged with all of the emotions of that long ago moment, I have no doubt at all that the memory is real, it is alive. It is more than the afterimage of a moment in life. It is the moment itself, brought back for one more look, one more touch, one more wave of fear or joy or love.
Why do my most vivid and living memories flare up in the dark of night, like distant fires seen through the woods? Why do they hit me with such force at those moments when I am least able to keep myself rooted in now?
Some of these lost moments come back with a gentle hand; they are tender and sweet, and bring me only a feeling of joy. The other night, at 3:12 AM, I suddenly pictured my little boy, Matty, at the age of 9 months. He had been sick, with a fever for some reason. We’d been up all night, and it was now midday of the next day. Paul had taken Katie out on a visit, I think. Matt and I were home alone. The house was warm and sunny, and we were side by side on the old pull-out couch. He was asleep, turned away from me, and I looked at his smooth, naked back. His hair was blond, and fine, and lay like gold on his neck. His skin was perfect, pink and clear and unmarked, tapering down to the little diaper that marked the point where his body curled up as he raised his knees toward his chest. The sun hit him through the window, and lit up every pore, as if he had filled with light. I lay beside him, my left hand under my cheek, in awe at his perfection and beauty. In that moment, I simply could not believe that anything on earth could be so lovely and so fragile. I didn’t dare to breathe, for fear of disturbing that tiny moment.
And as I lived that moment again, I could smell the sheets on the bed. I could hear his even breathing, and the sound of birds outside the open window. I saw every dust mote in the sunlight. And I felt how intensely I loved that baby boy, and how intensely I feared anything in the world that might hurt him.
Not all of my memories are so easy to relive, of course. Most nights, when a moment sweeps me away again, it is filled with the total recall of every second of an action taken, or a word spoken that caused someone else pain, or embarrassment. I can hear and see, with the same clarity with which I see my sleeping baby, every single time that I lost my temper with the kids. Every time I yelled, or slammed a door, or, worse, so much worse, hit one of them. Those memories bring back the sweat, the heart pounding, the shame. Those moments replay themselves for hours.
And they leave me wondering; what are memories? If they are only brain chemicals and electrical impulses, why are they more real some days than the road under my feet?