When I took a DNA test at Penn State in 2014, I didn’t plan to explore my family tree. I just figured I’d give my spit sample for the study and learn a little about my ethnicity while supporting the cause of science. However, landing in 23andme’s enormous database, I started hearing from various people who were still strangers to me, yet all of whom were wondering —
“How are we connected?”
This question hooks you. You could go your entire life never even knowing a particular person exists, but once you do — and you recognize that something kindred links you both, something long predating your own existence — you are driven to understand it. So, in time, I even started reaching out to strangers myself, asking the same question. It’s been a pleasure to get to know these distant cousins as we try to trace our roots. We trade stories about ancestors, aunts, uncles, and I’m humbled by the repeated realization that these people who lived long ago have so many relatives still eager to reminisce. Or maybe we didn’t even know some of them personally, but we know of them from so many fond family stories, and so we share these too. Thus, their memory stays alive.
How much love and joy must one sow in a lifetime to have that kind of impact? I hope I can do that. I hope you can too. But you know what strikes me most lately?
How, as you remember a person, as you spend time steeping in the idea of them… the feeling they created while they were alive — their energy, their spirit — suddenly takes invisible shape around you. You begin to feel as if they’re in the room. Sit with that feeling long enough, and they take you someplace. You don’t even realize it as it’s happening, but next thing you know, you’ve tripped back into time, and now you’re in their kitchen, looking at the boomerang pattern on their pink countertop, drinking a glass of Tang they mixed for you two minutes ago. Or you’re at a lake on a summer day, their big sun-browned hands on yours as they show you how to hold a fishing pole.
Memory is a state you can walk through, wander around in. It’s that dimness — or maybe that dazzling light — that you think you can’t see into at first, until with patience your senses adjust on their own, and suddenly you can not just see but touch, taste, smell, hear, kiss yesterday.
This realization isn’t entirely shocking to me, as I lived most of my life believing this kind of idea: that you can talk to anybody’s spirit, even a living person’s spirit, and they hear you, and their spirit can visit yours, and you can feel them. By “feel them,” I mean that their essence coalesces around you, unmistakable. The mood shifts. Maybe you even feel a palm on your back, a touch on your hand, a warmth on your lips, as if physically they were there.
I think we feel each other and that vast stretches of time or space are irrelevant to us all on the level of pure soul.
I’ve spent the past couple of years letting memory teach me things I didn’t realize it ever had to share. Lessons about just how closely we all connect across those phenomena we call “distances” of various kinds. But that’s another story for another time. Reeling this all back in from metaphysical musings… here’s what I keep thinking about:
We all do a lot of things while we’re puttering around here on Earth. Some of it we forget by tomorrow; some of it we remember all our lives; some of it our loved ones remember all their lives too, and that’s beautiful — but then eventually we are invisible again and we are a photo on a bedside table, a name in a newspaper, an entry in a court index, a rectangle with a blank silhouette in an online family tree.
In some cases, we might even be a name on a book cover, or in a film database, or on a street, or on a park bench.
But we are also something else. We are a collection of stories. We are the spark for a smile. We are an inspiration, an answer to someone else’s questions of “Who am I?” and “What makes me this way?” Sometimes — though this is certainly not a necessity — we are even the blood in someone else’s veins. And most important of all, we are the warmth in someone else’s heart.
The love we pour out while we are here ripples forth, and those ripples are our memory.
That feeling that you get of a person, that feeling they filled a space with whenever they were alive (or around you), and which suddenly gathers around you again when you think about them after they’re gone… that feeling is love. That’s the thing that lives on. Love is the essence of our immortality.