My mother has been fainting without warning, for no apparent reason. She falls and briefly disconnects, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes only a few seconds. When she comes to, she can’t remember what’s happened. The moment is tucked away in some hidden corner of her brain. It upsets her not to be able to remember what happened in these spatiotemporal lapses.
I understand my mother. I believe that we’re made up of our everyday memories – the way we wake up, what we have for breakfast, a walk down the street, an unexpected downpour, some annoyance, a surprise in the middle of the day, a story in the paper, a phone call, a song on the radio, the preparation of a meal, the smell from the pot, a complaint filed, a scream heard. Each day and each night lived, year after year, with its full complement of activity and inactivity, upheavals and routines – continuous storing of all this is what translates into personal history. Our archive of memories is the closest thing we have to a record of identity – it’s the only clue to ourselves, the only way to figure ourselves out.
On the hospital room monitor I can see my mother’s brain activity. As she conjures some unspoken memory, a group of neurons lights up. It looks like a starscape – an imaginary chorus of stars twinkling softly in my mother’s brain, soothing her, steadying her nerves during this test. A network stitching together familiar and comforting sensory details – smells, tastes, colors, textures, temperatures, emotions.
I remember a crazy theory my mother came up with when I was little – that way up there in the night sky little people were trying to send messages with mirrors. A kind of luminous Morse code, relayed in flashes. I assumed the messages sent by those little people in the sky were to say hello and assure us they were there, despite the distance and the darkness. Hello, here we are, the little people, don’t forget us.
In my life I never had I was a brave cosmonaut and I navigated the stars I’d always watched curiously. In this life I plunged into strange galaxies, witnessed the explosion of supernovas, escaped from black holes, and crossed entire nebulae; I was surprised by the dance of comets, the streaking passage of tens of meteorites, the presence of white dwarfs and red giants. I saw hundreds of stars as yet unnamed twinkling around me; I yearned to hear their dead voices, heed their cries for help.
Inside my mother’s brain, stars constellate under the name of the fond memory that lights them up. But what memory is it? What piece of her broken mirror are we talking about?
Epilepsy is what’s causing my mother’s disconnects. After this test and the many others that preceded it, the neurologist gives us his final diagnosis. Now I know that she’s carrying the whole cosmos on her shoulders – an electrical pattern as complex as the vast fabric of the cosmos that knits itself mysteriously over our heads.
I tell her about the electrical patterns of her neurons, the glow of her memory, the constellation that lit up the moment she summoned it, the luminescent reflection of her own past. She smiles and says she was remembering the moment I was born. My life’s first scene is a constellation in my mother’s brain – hello, we’re the little people; here we are, don’t forget us; the Southern Cross showing me the way home.
My mother’s brain is an incredible thing – a complex system that can store memories and summon them at will. It is an archive of identity that speaks for us and reveals us in disjointed fragments – a pile of mirror shards, a heap of the past. It is like a starscape – a fabric of light from distant galaxies that illuminates our present and helps us make sense of our lives.