Can We Strengthen Our Memories?
The train whistle blew in the distance. I wasn’t sure I heard it right, so I held my breath and listened. Our little cottage in Santa Barbara in the tree-lined avenues was absolutely silent. There it was again, it was clear. It’s more of a whistle than a low-rumble horn like a foghorn. It pushes out the sound, strong and authoritative, “I’m coming!” it screams.
I turned my head and looked over at my 9-year old boy, lying in bed next to me. We were both reading our books. He looked at me and gave me a little smile. A little smile that said so much: we had a little secret, we had experienced things together, we knew what the train meant to us and there it was again, a reminder of our mutual bond.
“De trein,” he said. [The train, in Dutch.]
“Ja, leuk hè?” I replied. [Yeah, cool huh?]
I looked at the clock, I’m not sure why, and it was 9:43 PM. A solid two hours after normal bed time for my little guy, but we were on vacation–and we were having a grand time of it. I looked back and him and he was still looking at me. Not waiting for me to say anything, but maybe waiting for another shriek of the train whistle. We waited, but it didn’t come. We just stared into each other’s eyes for a few moments, listening. 9-year olds can be good at that. Silence.
A warmth rose up in me, from my belly up through my throat and then to the scalp of my head. It tingled a little. I smiled inside and it leaked out and made a brief appearance at my lips. In the silence of the night and in just the span of a few seconds, I relived the past two days, it went through my mind like those flashbacks in the movies: a huge cup of yogurt at the frozen yogurt place on State Street, watching the turtles in the botanical gardens, climbing the rope at the playground, getting the race track set up and racing for 50 laps (he won), holding hands on the way home from my friend’s office, playing soccer with the large piece of tree bark in the park, breakfast of pancakes where we ran into friends, listening to all of his questions at Kristen’s commercial kitchen, playing FIFA soccer on the iPad on the train down the coast, seeing the bones of the cattle along the tracks in the meadow, the salt mountains in the south of the bay, feeling the cold as we walked to the tram stop to start our adventure.
The train whistle was almost a little too much, a little too perfect, a little too Hollywood script. But the silence after and the few seconds waiting for the next one and the speed at which our brains can process all of these memories gave me enough time–because we only need a few seconds–to realize that I needed to remember this moment. I needed to somehow burn it into my memory so that I could remember the good times with my son, the time when he was 9 and we went to Santa Barbara on the train. The time when it was really late and we lay in bed and heard the distant call of the whistle.
“Ik ben heel blij dat je hier bij mij bent,” I said. [I’m very happy that you’re here with me.]
“Ik ook,” he said. [Me too.]
If we consciously think through events, can we remember them better?
We turned back to our books and read some more, but I couldn’t really kick the joy I felt and I also didn’t want to kick it. It was slow time. It was quiet time, even silent time and it was moving at a leisurely pace. The events of the previous days now rolled more slowly through me and I tried to keep each one in mind. I know I’ll forget them, but I thought that if I think of them, go through them even gently, they’ll maybe stick around a little longer.
The pure, true, and unconditional love I felt towards my son at that moment was greater than an emotion I knew I had. If I could harness it, I could run an air conditioner for a month. But I would be happy to just remember this time more clearly, to keep it in the plus column of life, to at the very least not forget it. I hope that by, after he put down his book and his breathing became regular, taking a few quick notes on the same paper towel I was blowing my nose in, I could hold onto it for the future, to shift the balance of the good and the bad to a strong one for the good side. That I could even bring back these words I write this morning and read them back to him when he’s 19, in 10 years, and see what he–and what I–remember of our few seconds of the train whistle in the silence of the night.