Tuesday, May 8, 2012

That's older than me!

Posted By on 05.08.12 at 12:52 PM

Chicolini, when were you born? I dont remember. I was just a little baby.
  • "Chicolini, when were you born?" "I don't remember. I was just a little baby."
When I was working with developmentally disabled adults, there was one man, whose intellectual level was around that of a five-year-old, who had trouble believing that anyone had been born before him. Last I saw him, he was 39, and the oldest he’d accept anyone else being was 32 or 33 (if you’d lived past that age, he’d give you a new one; most often it was 27). There was one instance, though, when he conceded to the facts. “My mom’s gonna be 81 this weekend,” he announced one day, his eyes as wide as if he’d witnessed a miracle. “That’s older than me!”

He made me realize that a big step in mental development is recognizing that your life has a starting point. The notion doesn’t come to us naturally: for a good stretch of childhood it’s as ungraspable as death.

I can’t recall when I became aware of life going on before my birth. But if I try hard enough, I can remember what it was like to hear other people’s stories when I was four or five or six. History, biblical passages, stories of my parents’ meeting: they all took place in the same abstract elsewhere as Harold and the Purple Crayon. It didn’t feel like they’d really happened, since I had no mental images of their time and place.

Movies helped to fill the gaps of my imagination (they still do), giving shape to what I couldn’t see on my own. At some point, though, I had gone too far: I’d accumulated so many strange memories (through movies, books, and meeting people) that my origin became abstract again. It was no longer the sharp dividing line between my experience and everyone else’s.

Sleep might prepare us for death, but what prepared us for birth? Just thinking about it gives me a clammy, uneasy feeling, the same thing I get when I hear the Marianne Faithfull song “Like Being Born.” I think I’ll defer to Marianne here: she conveys this dread much better than I can.

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