Mon 29 Nov 2010
six years ago today was a Monday, just like today.
i lived halfway around the world then, in a little dot on the South Korean map that housed a million people. the end of November is crisp, there, too, though it was not snowy. the andoul – the in-floor heat that races under the linoleum to warm toes and keep life closer to the ground – was pumping. i think i wore Dave’s coat when i slipped out that morning, around the corner, but i cannot for the life of me remember which coat it might have been.
i woke up early, which was memorable in and of itself back then. my years in Korea were far more bohemian than the almost-year Dave and i eked out in Eastern Europe. we lived a life of poetry readings and ashtrays and 3ams in the Hermit Kingdom, punctuated by twenty-hour work weeks and vacations in Thailand. it was mundane and decadent, both. yet i had been keening for two years for roots, for belonging. we were six weeks away from a plane ticket home for good.
i slid out from under the quilt, off the two-inch thick mat that was our bed. i padded across the warm floor into the kitchen, then into the tiled box – replete with toilet and a shower head – of our bathroom. i slipped on yesterday’s jeans and Dave’s coat and closed the door gently behind me.
we lived on the third floor. when i emerged onto the street, a fruit truck, laden with persimmons and blaring a prerecorded barrage of fruit salesmanship and tinny organ music, inched its way loudly past. i smiled at it. i smiled at everything. i was brimming.
the yak was only next door, on the corner. it was a spartan place, nothing like the drugstores here, with their soaps and hair products and trashy magazines. the yak was more like an apothecary shop of old, particularly for an illiterate like me. a thousand products lined against the walls, in minimalist packaging. no aisles, only open space. i played mime with the girl behind the counter, then waited, patiently, while she fetched the mysterious box. i took it home, hoping it came with picture instructions.
i remember noting that it was the 29th of November, my father’s birthday.
i chewed my lip, feeling silly for even making a production out of what my rational mind told me was ridiculous. it was our first month trying. i was only a few days late…a week at most. i was usually a few days late. and yet…i woke Dave up, shyly wielding a freshly dipped pregnancy test.
you haven’t lived until you’ve waved a plastic stick soaked with your urine in front of your partner’s face. i figured he was the one who took up with a thirty-something worried about her aging eggs.
pregnancy tests in Korea turn blue, not pink. we waited the full requisite two minutes before turning it over.
two bright stripes, unmistakable. i blinked and beamed.
the ancient Greeks and Romans valued memory. for most of human history, ideas and knowledge and experience could only be catalogued through painstaking hand-work, and only by the rare and privileged literate. the information overload in which we swim, we citizens of Google and Wikipedia, is so new in human history that the fact we navigate it at all is a marvel.
the ancients constructed memory palaces to hold what they needed to know. a system called method of loci saw the best of them able to file hundreds of items in detailed order in their minds, using familar locations and detailed visualization. they could then traipse through the halls of memory and the wisdom of the ages would pop right out at them like the scary bits on a haunted spook ride.
i grew up before Facebook kindly took over the task of remembering people’s birthdays for me. and as an only child with a family divided, it fell on me, largely, to remember and honour the special days of the people i loved. i accidentally developed a memory palace built on the calendar.
on any given morning, if i happen across the date, a mechanism in the back of my brain will churn and suddenly blam! out pops a visual reminder of the numerical date, and with it, the useful realization that the girl who sat behind me in eighth grade math is, say, 40 today. handy, no? well, increasingly, erm, no. but there they are, the numbers, the dates. a giant 13; an italic 22; today, 29. and then, trailing along like mittens on string, the birthday list and its addenda, all those events of my own life that have fallen, mostly unrelatedly, on the birthdays of people i know.
my cerebrum is a wonderland.
i don’t know that it serves any purpose to remember, today, that this is the anniversary of the day i first found out i was pregnant. it feels strange to memorialize something so embodied as peeing on a stick. i do not remember the date i got my first period…or my last, for that matter, and may god bless vasectomies for that delightful peace of mind.
but pregnancy is far more than a physical thing. it is also a watershed, an identity experience. whether wanted or not, a positive pregnancy test forces you to look in the mirror, to confront who you are and want to be.
i wanted to be. oh, how i wanted. i couldn’t believe my luck, that morning halfway around the world, on a Monday with the same date six years ago today. it was the easiness of it all that blew me away.
you know how the story ends, and that it was not easy. five months later to the day, at 26 weeks and a little wee bit, i delivered Finn. and eleven hours later, i held him as he died. and it has taken a long time in the interim for anything to seem easy again.
but here’s the thing. the memory palace is a gift in its compartmentalization. because in the moment this morning, when i thought, the 29th of November and i remembered my father’s birthday and then that other morning in what seems like another life and yesterday all at once, there i was in that yellow room with the warm floor under me and that magic plastic stick in my hand. and it was the sheer surprise that flooded back, the metallic tang of hope, the quiet joy. i know the rest. but the memory palace does not, and i am glad for the way it plucks each day out, vivid and unto itself.
i looked in the mirror that day, and saw in myself, for the first time, someone’s mother.
for all that happened, i started this journey far more easily than many. for all that happened, i did not begin broken. i began early on a Monday morning, shy and eager and brimming, full of grace.
i can’t not remember. method of loci remembers for me, and i just hold on to the ride and nod at the ghosts.