Last Thursday, one of those gray, fall days when the starlings gather up and string between the elms around here, my children’s mother–dead 10 years–walked into a pastry shop where I was buttering a croissant. She ignored me, which she always does, ordered a plain bagel and an almond latte, picked up her food and, without a glance at me, walked out. The starlings chittered, the day frowned and I went back to buttering my croissant.
Just after her suicide, I saw this woman often–in towns where she never lived, walking her Airedales in the park, eating poached eggs at Joe’s Cafe, sweeping grass clippings from her walk on Myrtle Street, stepping off the Sixteenth Street bus. We get together less often now. But when we do, like this morning, her image is as vivid as it ever was–her dark eyes as bright, her odd smile just as annoying.
I’m not crazy.
I know it isn’t her, this woman I see. After all, she’s dead, and I myself gave her ashes to my son. So it is another, a stranger, transformed by some old film still flickering through the projector inside my head. I know that. But every time I see her, it takes all that I have to stay in my chair or my car, to hold onto myself and not run after her calling out her name.
Some of this I understand. When something or someone is suddenly stripped from us, it seems only natural that our minds would try to compensate. Minds do that. If they didn’t, we might be sucked into the vortex ourselves. That part, I grasp. I’d have thought, though, that in a year or two, the films in my mind would fade and break, and the tear in my life would scar and close like any other wound. And I expected, as the fissure closed, that my first wife would disappear.
I was wrong.
* * * * *
All the pieces of human bodies fit (more or less) into 11 systems–endocrine, musculo- skeletal, cardiovascular, hematologic, pulmonary, urinary, reproductive, gastrointestinal, integumentary, nervous and immune. So there are a limited number of places where someone could hide something inside a human body. And so far as we know, only two of the body’s systems, immune and nervous, store memories–fourth birthdays or former wives. That narrows it even further.
* * * * *
Most of us don’t for a moment associate immune systems with hopes and fears, emotions and recollections, we don’t imagine that anything other than lymph–the pale liquid gathered from the blood–is stored inside of thymuses, spleens and lymph nodes. The business of immune systems is, after all, not hope, but immunity–protection against things like measles, mumps, whooping cough, typhus, cholera, plague, African green monkey virus, you name it.
But immune systems do remember things, intricate things that the rest of the body has forgotten. And the memories stored inside our immune systems can come back, like my first wife, at unexpected moments, with sometimes startling consequences.
My grandmother had a penchant for saving things. She had grown up in a very poor family and believed nothing should be wasted. On the plywood shelves of her closets, Mason jars that once held apple butter or pickled tomatoes were filled with buttons, snaps, paperclips and strips of cloth, sea shells, rubber bands, pebbles, bobby pins and cheap, shiny buckles–everything she’d ever come across that she thought might be useful someday.
Immune systems do that, too–believe that most everything they come across will be useful again someday. Grandmother used Mason jars, immune systems use lymph nodes. Immune systems collect bacteria, parasites and fungi, proteins, fats, sugars and viruses–the stuff that falls through the cracks in our skin.
Human skin is like nothing else in this universe. It tastes of sea salt and the iron inside of men and women. Its touch arouses us. Skin is cream, sand, teak, smoke and stone. But mostly, skin is what keeps us apart from everything else on this planet, especially everything that might infect, infest, pollute, putrefy and possess us. First and foremost, it is our skin that allows us to be here as individual men and women in a hungry world. Skin keeps things out–things that would eat us for lunch. And skin keeps things in–things we couldn’t live without.
But skin can break down, get punctured by knives and needles or scraped off by tree limbs and tarmac. When that happens, we’d die without our immune systems–abruptly. Immune systems deal with the things that crawl through the holes in our skin. They label the intruders as dangerous, round them up and destroy them. And immune systems never forget the things they’ve seen beneath our skin because they believe that one day those things will be back.
That’s how we get to be adults–immunological memory. That’s also how vaccines work. Until a few years ago, children in this country were regularly injected with cowpox, also know as vaccinia virus. Vaccinia virus is very similar to the virus that causes smallpox, with one important exception. Vaccinia virus doesn’t cause the disfigurement, illness and often death caused by smallpox. But as Edward Jenner discovered in the 1700s, people (in Jenner’s case, milkmaids) who have been infected with cowpox don’t get smallpox. A miracle. Immunity to cowpox protects a child from smallpox. That’s because, even though their personalities are very different, smallpox virus and vaccinia virus have a lot of physical features in common. Immune systems that have learned to recognize and destroy cowpox virus also recognize and destroy the look-alike smallpox virus before it can do harm.
And immune systems remember. They remember each and every miracle, and remember them for a lifetime. A child vaccinated against smallpox virus will make a much more rapid and specific response on a second encounter with that virus than will an unvaccinated child. And the rapidity and specificity of that second response is what saves the vaccinated child’s life.
Immunological memory is a simple memory of a tiny virus, but a memory powerful enough to have ended the devastating disease of smallpox on this planet. In essence it is no different from the memory that pulls our hand from the flame a little faster the second time, the memory that guides the cleaver beyond the scars on our knuckles or the memory of a first love lost.
The way immune systems do this is extraordinary. Lymph nodes are little filtering stations strung throughout the human body. Lymph nodes monitor the fluids of the body–mainly lymph and plasma–for infections. When something out of the ordinary is detected, it is usually the lymph nodes that remember and initiate an immune response.
Every time we are infected, a little of the bacteria or virus that infected us is saved in the lymph node where it first arrived. By the time we’re adults, lymph nodes are filled with a bit of most everything we’ve ever been infected by; our lymph nodes are the repositories of our infectious histories. Just like my Grandmother’s jars but our immune systems sort this growing mass of memorabilia and remind themselves of what they’ve seen before, what they are likely to see again and what they mustn’t forget.
Mustn’t forget, but mustn’t hold too close to the surface, either. Because, just like some of the memories lurking in our brains, an inappropriate recollection can hurt or blind us, sometimes even kill us. Those things we suppress.
Some viruses and bacteria stored inside our bodies are intact and alive. The only thing keeping us from having the same diseases all over again is the constant vigilance of our immune systems. Through that vigilance, all of those things hanging around inside us are kept in check, are suppressed to the point where they can help us remember, but they cannot cause disease. Memory with a mission, selective recollection and suppression.
Lots of things can distract immune systems though–drugs, malnutrition, stress, age, infection. When these things happen, immune systems can forget for a moment all those deadly things packed away inside of us. Then like minds in panic, immune systems can become confused, forget which memory to recall, which memory to suppress, and the past can flare inside of us. When that happens, our very survival depends on our ability to regain our balance, to enhance some recollections and suppress others. A particularly pernicious example of this is shingles – a severe chickenpox-like rash that usually appears across the ribs beneath the arms, but may also grow in the eyes and lungs. It is most commonly a disease of the elderly.
People can’t get shingles if they weren’t infected with chickenpox, usually as children. Shingles and chickenpox are caused by the same virus–varicella zoster virus. When we get chickenpox, our immune systems and (interestingly) our nervous systems store a few leftover varicella zoster viruses for future reference. Later when age or illness or depression distracts our immune systems, the virus begins to multiply again. Then, the virus may blind us, may even kill us. This is shingles–a blazing memory of chickenpox, a childhood disease–a thing we wish we could forget.
So immune systems, like minds, are filled with memories–vivid, painful, sometimes fatal memories. The fragments of a life lived, bits and pieces of the past. And sometimes immune systems lose control of this smoldering wreckage and old flames flare anew.
Within me, then, is there a woman living in this ruin, a woman who walks and speaks exactly like my first wife? It is, of course, impossible to answer that question. No one understands nearly enough about wives and immune systems. But it isn’t, as it might seem, an entirely stupid question. Among the things we regularly trade with our wives (and the rest of our families for that matter) are viruses–colds, flus, cold sores, to mention only a few.
Enveloped viruses–like those that cause flu, cold sores and AIDS–are so called because they carry with them an “envelope” of lipids and proteins taken from the host cell (the cell they grew up inside of). And many viruses also carry within them a little of the host cell’s nucleic acids –DNA or RNA–the stuff of genes. Some of that DNA or DNA made from that RNA clearly gets incorporated into our chromosomes and begins to work inside of us. That means that each time we are infected with one of these viruses, we also acquire a little of the person who infected us, a little piece of someone else. Infection as communication. Infection as chimerization. Infection as memorization.
Perhaps that seems trivial–a bit of envelope here, a little DNA there. But over the course of an intimate relationship, we collect a lot of pieces of someone else. And a little of each of those pieces is stored in our lymph nodes and in our chromosomes.
Until. Until the person we’ve been communicating with is gone, and we stop gathering bits of someone we love. For a few days or weeks, everything seems pretty much like it was. Then one day, a day when for no apparent reason, our defenses slip just a little, and a ghost walks through the door and orders an almond latte.
* * * * *
Nervous systems don’t appear to store memories in the same way immune systems do. Most neurologists and neurochemists believe that memory within the nervous system involves something called long-term potentiation or LTP–a means by which certain nerve pathways become preferred. Because of LTP a particular trigger–a picture of Aunt Helen–becomes likely to stimulate the same nerve circuit – the smell of cheap perfume–every time. But in general, how nervous systems store and recall memories isn’t very well understood.
Human memory has been divided into two broad categories–declarative memory (explicit, consciously accessible memory: What was the name of the cereal I had for breakfast?) and emotional memory (often subconscious and inaccessible: Why was I so frightened by that harmless snake I saw today?). But there is evidence for a third kind of memory as well, something I’ll call phantom memory, memories that come from some place beyond or beneath declarative and emotional circuits.
I’m pretty confident that declarative memory had nothing to do with my first wife walking in on me as I was buttering my croissant last Thursday. I’m less certain about emotional memory. And I am deeply intrigued by phantom memory.
People who have had arms and legs removed often experience phantom limbs–a sensation that the arm or leg is still there, sometimes a very painful sensation. This feeling is so real that people with phantom hands may try to pick up a coffee cup just as you or I would. People with phantom legs may try to stand before their declarative minds remind them they have no legs. The missing limbs seem completely real to these people and as much a part of themselves as any surviving appendage–even when the phantom limb is a foot felt to be dangling somewhere below the knee with no leg, real or phantom, between the ankle and a mid-thigh stump.
Some of those who have studied phantom-limb sensations argue that these are only recollections of sensations “remembered” from the days before amputation. But children born without limbs–children who’ve never experienced the sensations of a normal limb–experience phantom limbs. Clearly, these phantoms are not simple recollections of better days. Instead, the presence of phantom limbs in these children, suggests that some sort of prenatal image–some template of what a human should look like–is formed inside our fetal minds before our arms and legs develop, before even our nervous systems are fully formed. If at birth our bodies don’t fit this template, our minds or brains attempt to remake reality, twist it until it fits what our minds say it ought to be.
No one knows where phantom memories reside. Often, phantom limbs are exceedingly painful, so physicians have tried to locate the source of the sensations and eliminate them. Spinal chords have been severed, nerve fibers cut, portions of the brain have been removed. Some of these, sometimes, caused the pain to disappear, but it usually returned within a few months or years. And none of these treatments routinely caused phantom limbs to disappear.
Occasionally over time phantom limbs will disappear on their own, though almost never permanently. The limbs usually return–in a month or a year or a decade. And when they do, they are just as real as the day they first appeared, or disappeared.
Phantom memories aren’t always memories of limbs either. People who’ve lost their sight describe phantom visions: not recollections, but detailed images of sights they’ve never seen–buildings, burials, forests, flowers. Similarly, some people who’ve lost their hearing, Beethoven being one, are haunted by complex symphonies blaring in their ears.
No one knows how much of our reality comes to us from the physical world and how much “reality” we create inside our own minds. If we were to analyze, using something like a PET scanner, of all the nervous activity occurring at any given moment inside a human body, no more than a fraction of a percent of this activity would be directly due to input from the senses. That is, only a tiny portion of what our nervous systems are occupied with, and by inference only a tiny portion of our thoughts, are direct results of what we see, hear, taste, smell or touch. The rest of it, the remainder of our mental imaging, begins and ends inside of us. How that affects our “reality” isn’t clear.
But it is clear that much of what originates within us is powerful enough to fill our mental hospitals with people who see and hear things that aren’t there. Among the sights and sounds that originate within us are our images of ourselves and our realities–our archetypes. Such images are powerful icons, nearly immutable. These are the images of our dreams, our poetry, our theaters, our psychoses.
If physical reality, the outside world, changes abruptly, it may not be within our power to so abruptly change such deep-rooted images of ourselves and our worlds. When that happens, reality itself becomes implausible. Then our only way out is through a phantom, a bit of virtual reality that reconciles our world and the real world.
Are the dead, then, living within my neurons–inside of my own pictures of me?
Images of ourselves–some, apparently, older than we are–are obviously deeply etched into the stones of our minds. Powerful things that resist change, particularly sudden change. But even these archetypal portraits of ourselves aren’t without seams or cracks. And inside those seams and between those cracks, small forces working over years can introduce change. Time, in an intimate and powerful relationship, could reshape even our images of ourselves. The changes would be little ones at first, a tiny fissure unmortared here or there, room to include in our self-portraits parts of other men or women, a first vision of ourselves as something more. Later, larger pieces of us might be lifted and replaced by whole chunks of another. Husband and wife begin to speak alike, know what the other is thinking, anticipate what the other will say, even begin to look alike. Until one day, what remains is truly and thoroughly a mosaic, a chimera–part man, part woman; part someone, part someone else.
And then, if that man or woman is amputated from us, clipped as quickly and as cleanly as a gangrenous leg, our minds are suddenly forced into a new reality–a reality without the other, a reality in which an essential piece of us is missing. At that point, our declarative minds would be at odds with our own pictures of ourselves. To rectify that, to reconcile the frames flickering inside with the darkness flaming outside, we conjure a phantom, a phantom to change our worlds. We force a bit of what is inside out there into the real world, to create someone or something that will help us slow the universe for a moment while we repaint our pictures of ourselves with a very small brush on a very large canvas.
There is a painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir which I first saw at the National
Gallery in Washington, D.C. This painting, titled “Girl with a Watering Can,”
is filled mostly with the off-whites and intense blues of the impressionist
painter. But in the girl’s hair, there is a blood-red bow. I’ve often
wondered about that bow and why Renoir put it there. I’ve imagined the bow
was a symbol of the death that begins at each of our births; I’ve imagined it
as an omen of sexual maturity – its pain and its promise; I’ve even imagined
it was nothing more than a school girl’s red bow.
But just now, I think the red bow is the other one inside of us, the red
one who is probably at first mother – physically, immunologically, and
psychologically. The one, too, who is later so many others – grandmother,
friend, severed limb, or lost wife.
Renoir placed the bow in the girl’s hair, near her brain. I don’t
imagine, though, that by that placement he intended for us to ignore all the
other spots where bits of men and women gather in us.
Today, sitting on the redwood deck behind my house, the air smells of cinnamon and rainwater. For reasons I can’t recall, those smells remind me of the Brandenburg Concertos, coffee on Sunday mornings and the intricate paths of swallows.
Somewhere inside of me, there is a woman. But where she lives and who it was that led her into that pastry shop last Thursday, I’ve no way of knowing. For one part of me, that ignorance is a gnawing blindness. For another part of me, it is enough to simply know for certain that I will see her again.