Matthew Salesses | Longreads | April 2019 | 11 minutes (2,630 words)
I have been reading books about time: theoretical physics, evolution, parallel universes. Recently I realized that I was reading them because I wanted one to tell me how to go back in time — to before my wife died of cancer.
In The Order of Time, physicist Carlo Rovelli challenges our concept of time. Time passes more quickly the closer one is to a gravitational mass (like a planet or a star or a black hole). This fact is popular in science fiction. A space traveler might return to Earth to find that her friends and family have aged more than she has. Even at different altitudes on Earth, time is different. Rovelli writes that if identical twins separate early in life and live one in the mountains and one below sea level, then they will find in old age that the one below sea level has aged more, being closer to the center of the planet.
Time, Rovelli claims, is not linear. It is a gravitational field. If he is right, time is like everything else in the universe and must be made up of extremely tiny particles. There is no past or future; we only experience it this way.
So why, my grief asks, can’t we change times simply by changing our perceptions? Rovelli suggests that our linear experience of time is due to thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics dictates that the total amount of entropy in the universe can never decrease, only increase. For us, or at least in our section of the universe, time operates in only one direction.
As consolation, Rovelli offers the mind as a time machine — we travel via memory. This is a disappointing compromise. In mourning, memory is only another cause for mourning. It does not change time, only reminds one that time has passed.
I was adopted from Korea when I was 2. As an adoptee I grew up with a constant awareness of two times: one in which I lived and another in which I would have lived if not for my adoption. The latter time was always with me — people often reminded me that I was living a borrowed life. Either they told me to “go back to my country” or they demanded my gratitude for sharing theirs.
Recently I realized that I was reading books about time because I wanted one to tell me how to go back in time — to before my wife died of cancer.
I had been told that my birth mother was likely a prostitute, and that in my non-adopted life I would be poor and hungry and likely a prostitute too. As a child I tried to imagine myself in this second scenario, not because it seemed better, but because I wanted to belong. I imagined a me the same age as I was, whose birth mother had kept him even if it made her life more difficult. I doubt I knew what a prostitute was — I knew only how people looked at me when they said the word, like I should be afraid of myself.
In the worst fights with my parents, I would threaten to return to Korea to my “real” family. I was really asking for reassurance that I had one. My parents would tell me to try it, to go back if I wanted to. They knew I could not. It wasn’t like going to a friend’s house — I didn’t know where my birth parents were in Korea, or even who they were, or how to speak to them.
This summer, when my wife died in her Korean hometown, I held her lifeless hand and thought: Let me go back just one minute. I thought: Don’t leave me yet. Stay here. To touch her still body, completely different and yet barely changed, was to be aware that a moment is all that stands between life and death. Time was the only distance; life felt close by. It seemed as if the only reason I couldn’t go back in time was that I didn’t know where time was.
After the funeral, I would play with our kids in the apartment we’d rented, and feel her presence in the other room. I would be about to call out to her when I would remember who I was now. What I mean is: I didn’t remember that she was dead, I remembered that I was alone.
In a way, a marriage is two people living in a single time. You learn each other’s schedules, when to call, when to eat together, who picks up the kids on which day, who has an appointment when. Strangers constantly ask you to tell the story of how you met, so that the past becomes the time in which you didn’t know each other.
When my wife died, my life was thrown out of time. My past didn’t seem to connect to my present. How had the last 13 years turned me into an only parent of two young children, owner of a house in the suburbs of a Midwestern city with a job that paid too little to send the kids to child care? It didn’t seem possible that I’d made those choices. I would never have made them alone. My life only made sense if my wife was alive.
Memory is essential to storytelling because stories exist in time. If one were to read a novel random page by random page, the novel would not have its intended effect. The effect comes from the order in which you read its words: a reader must remember what she has read before and make connections to what she reads next.
Without memory the sentence you are reading now would not make sense. By the time you got to the word sense, if you did not remember the words before it, you wouldn’t know what sense referred to.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Our linear experience of time, combined with our selective memory, means that as we live, humans construct ongoing stories about who we are. That is: our memories influence our present actions (you don’t stick your hand in the fire twice) and likewise our present actions influence our memories (sticking my hand in the fire was not in vain: it taught me something).
Each recollection of a memory — a process called reconstruction or sometimes reconsolidation — changes that memory. In her book Reconsolidation, Janice Lee writes about the risks of remembering her deceased mother: “The emotional or psychological state you are in when you recall [a] memory will inevitably influence the reconsolidated memory. Recalling a memory during these stages of inadequacy, repentance, sought-after impossibilities . . . may be dangerous.”
When your beloved dies, your memory is at risk. Your past no longer fits your story of who you are. In order to change your story, you must change either time or memory.
At first, when my wife died, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the ways I had failed her. Failure was a logical story that led from my married past straight to my widowed present. How did I get here? I asked my wife to move to America, where we don’t screen for stomach cancer. I taught her that hospital visits are expensive and to go only in clear emergencies. I mistook her cancer symptoms for morning sickness. I caused stress that exacerbated her illness.
Freud’s idea of healthy grief (mourning, as opposed to melancholy) is the process of removing your desire from a lost object and reinvesting that desire in something/someone else. This definition suggests that to grieve your beloved healthily is to change your love for her. Grief often causes survivors to forget the face of the dead. That face belongs to a shared time that is lost when the beloved is lost.
To remember is not to time-travel; it is to alter how time feels.
The feeling that your life is not your life is the premise of many stories — Total Recall, Atmospheric Disturbances, ME, The Doppelgänger. Why does this feeling occur?
In Atmospheric Disturbances, the narrator is convinced that the woman who claims to be his wife is not really his wife, that his real wife has gone missing. The belief that a loved one has been replaced by an imposter is called Capgras delusion. It was first identified in 1923, when a psychiatric patient claimed her husband and children were “the object of substitutions.” In Atmospheric Disturbances, the narrator’s search for his wife results in his entanglement (or his belief in his entanglement) in a secret society that fights wars in parallel universes.
In our quantum world, the multiverse is a natural leap from Capgras delusion. To think you have entered a parallel universe is a tidy solution to the problem of your missing reality. One of the most interesting aspects of Capgras delusion is the element of love. Usually it is not a stranger who has been replaced, but a beloved. In the 1990s, psychologist Haydn Ellis and others theorized that Capgras delusion is the result of your mind recognizing a face without feeling the love that you normally associate with that face.
Love is how we know we are in the right time.
Capgras delusion is like an extreme mirror to imposter syndrome, which is the feeling that everyone else sees you as an imposter. (They don’t believe you’re a physical replacement, only that you do not belong where they are.) In imposter syndrome, the subject himself is the one in question. The subject himself does not feel loved.
This kind of perceived inadequacy often comes up in my Asian American Studies course, especially when my students of color talk about their mostly white school. I understand imposter syndrome as a professor of color — and as an adoptee. The more you feel that you are an imposter, the more that feeling affects your behavior. As a child I became good at math because I was told that real Asians were supposed to be good at math.
In Asian American Studies, my students talk about imposter syndrome as dangerous to their sense of self. If an Asian American kid is supposed to get perfect grades, for example, it becomes a failure of self to get a B. You build your story of who you are around the story of who you are supposed to be.
As a kid, the boy I saw each day in the mirror was white, not Korean — I couldn’t have described my actual facial features. I wasn’t looking in the mirror for something I recognized. I was looking for something that belonged in my life. I knew that I was supposed to look like my parents and friends.
An image, like a memory, is not about accuracy; it is about value. We fill up an image with what we believe is important about it. If that image appears without its value, as in Capgras delusion, we can’t recognize it. It doesn’t fit our story: it is out of time.
An adoptee like me can look in the mirror and see not the image he sees, but the image he wants other people to see when they look at him. Viewing himself as an imposter, he can fill up his image with imposter values. He might be able to love himself only by replacing his image of himself with the image of other people’s love.
But, as my Asian American Studies students say, it is dangerous to think of yourself as someone you are not. When the cops show up, you have to remember what you look like.
The stress of multiple stories is the stress of living in two times at once. A psychologist friend does her research in a “time lab,” studying how bilingual people experience time differently from monolinguals. Bilinguals, she says, are often late. It takes a bilingual person more time to process information. “You can’t turn off language,” she tells me, and the language(s) you speak impacts your internal “clock.”
In order to understand any symbol you have to recall its associated value. In order to understand a word you have to recall what the word means. The example my friend gives me is the word “peacock.” When you read “peacock,” it takes longer to process than when you read “man,” since you have fewer episodic experiences with the word “peacock.” For a bilingual person, those episodic experiences are split between two languages.
Each and every word, each and every symbol and image, has to be processed through memory and so has a small effect on your sense of time. Why are bilinguals often late? Their time ticks away little by little. When they live and work among monolinguals, bilingual people also have to keep track of other people’s time, which means more processing. It sounds exhausting.
When you are young the future stretches endlessly before you, full of possibilities. Now I am 37, with two kids, and the thought of the future exhausts me.
Our memories are supposed to fade. We are supposed to forget. There are some people whose memories never seem to weaken — like Jill Price, who describes the condition as “maddening.” In 2017 Price told The Guardian it was “like living with a split screen: on the left side is the present, on the right is a constantly rolling reel of memories.” For sufferers of perfect memory, the past is not recalled — it seems to play out alongside the present. The cost, for Price, is that painful events from the past continue to torment her. In some interviews she says she wishes to be normal and in others she says she wouldn’t trade her memory for anything.
Once in a novel I wrote that my 22-year-old protagonist wanted more than anything to be old, to look back at his life and know everything had worked out. When you are young the future stretches endlessly before you, full of possibilities. Now I am 37, with two kids, and the thought of the future exhausts me. Every day I want to quit the time I am in and join my wife. Every day I want to rest.
Maybe if I were older, or younger, my body could accept the situation more easily. At night, thinking about everything I should have done, I can barely sleep. In the morning my body aches as if it held someone all night.
The first thing I bought after my wife’s funeral was a massage chair.
When I was 23, I went back to Korea for the first time since my adoption. I took a job teaching English. I flew in before a major holiday (I didn’t know this at the time) and everything was closed for days. The school housed me in a love motel, where the TV got two channels, both soft-core porn. I wanted to give up, I wanted to go back to knowing what to eat and how to communicate: I wanted to return to America. It seemed clear, at last, that I belonged 14 hours to the west.
And then I showed up for my first day of work and met the woman I would eventually marry.
Marriage is what allowed me to live in one time, rather than one time in which I was never adopted and one time in which I was. I married a Korean woman, as I might have done had I never left Korea. Yet I met her while teaching English, which I could do because I had grown up in America. We made a shared life, a Korean American life, and now that shared life is the time I carry.
In my dreams, I go to that other time. I dream that my wife is still in the middle of cancer treatments, that it is still conceivable she will come out of them okay. I don’t dream of a time that has never existed — I don’t dream of her recovery. I dream of taking care of her. I dream that our shared time has simply gone on.
Then I open my eyes, and the present is pain. I keep my other time close for as long as I can before I forget my dreams.
* * *
Editor: Sari Botton
* * *
Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
An Introduction to Death
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest