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A Memory of Light

A Memory of Light
Art credit: Photo by John Leahy

Salt to the Sea

By Ceili Leahy

[Editor’s note: Ceili Leahy was 17 in the fall of 2014 when she started at the University of Virginia, three months after completing chemotherapy for metastatic Ewings sarcoma. She took a course in American Environmental Literature that first semester, and in November 2014 was assigned to write an essay in the style of one of the authors. Ceili—an Irish name, pronounced Kay-Lee–chose Annie Dillard because she so loved Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “By using [Annie Dillard’s] technique of posing rhetorical questions and incorporating language that is more colloquial than literary, I created a similar voice,” Ceili wrote in a note accompanying the assignment. “My exploration of the human memory builds off Dillard’s treatment of consciousness and self-consciousness and their pertinence to the ‘great door to the present.’” On January 27, 2016, a year and a half after writing this essay, Ceili, then 19, died from acute myeloid leukemia at Children’s National Hospital. She had stopped treatment a few months earlier so that she could “live vividly” through her last days.]

At the height of the summer [of 2014] I left the east coast and headed west, past California to Catalina, the little island a few miles out into the Pacific where Californians go to fish, drink, and dive in the cerulean blue water. Crippling drought put a strain on the locals that year, and the landscape was like a thing already dead: brown and barren against the cavernous sky. But underwater the island was alive, with the ocean still dancing, heart beating against the rocky sands, still gloriously young and wet with the blood life. They told me the water was especially clear that summer because of the drought, since many of the livestock that roamed the island, pushing silt into the sea with their multitudes, were dead. Things work like that sometimes. Sometimes death is cleansing. Whenever I have encountered death since that summer, I’ve tried to be open to it, tried to see the cleansing.

I remember my first plunge into that clear blue water, being first surprised by the sharpness, the iciness of it, even in July, then succumbing to awe at the clarity, at the sheer light that shot through the water. No color was muted. It all demanded to be seen. And even now, even today, even two thousand miles away, I feel the bite of cold water on my stinging cheeks and feel the ocean turning me over in her palm. Time recedes to let me live the day again as I look up from my mind’s muddy river, the bog of trivia and trash. I acknowledge it, but instead fix my gaze onto the realm of the real where that lovely day in the icy Pacific waters rests purely. And I launch into the deep, completely and totally. Immersed and swallowed whole.

Light swirls around my body, dilating my pupils even through the thick lenses of my snorkel mask. Golden fragments of it shatter against the sand below me, but I have no shadow. The light comes from too many directions to cast something as one-dimensional as a shadow. I stretch my arms out in front of me to see the diaphanous, sheer shards of light shimmer across my skin in brilliant, fluid projections. My nails are white and I know the water is icy, but for now the numbness of my skin lets me forget. My body is not tethered to my mind, and I hope to never lose amazement at this glorious fact.

I’m endlessly fascinated by the power of the human mind, specifically the power of human memory. In remembering an event, your brain literally reconstructs the moment, firing neurons just so to recreate your past, so that, depending on the soundness of your memory, you can delve back to a time and a place, like these sunny waters in Catalina, not just remembering but practically re-experiencing. But when we draw from our memory, we aren’t just remembering. We’re creating, with every false perception and amplification of one detail over another, tying the past to the present. So, what does that mean for memory? Is all memory doomed to be lies?

To answer this, I look to evolution, for in this sense memory and evolution work in much the same way. See, our brains take an input and reproduce it for us, but it’s never an exact replica, just as the offspring of an organism (excluding asexual-reproducing organisms of course) is never an exact replica of the parent. As years go by and the memory evolves, so does the species, perhaps growing a shade darker or doing away with a redundant toe. So, I’d have to argue that memory is in fact not inherently a lie. It’s merely a more succinct, impressionistic representation of reality. Efficient. Even now, with the intense clarity of the water, I must ask myself whether what I see—what I perceive—is a just representation of reality rather than an impression my brain has invented. But it must be reality, for what is reality if not what we perceive, the impressions it leaves us with, and the marrow of the truth?

A tiny garibaldi flickers past me, its neon orange scales still speckled with electric blue—a mark of its youth. Even in murky waters garibaldi glow, and here in these sun-lit shallows they almost emanate their own light. They stand out, a pop of color against the backdrop of black perch and kelp bass. Even the parrotfish are dull in comparison, and meek, hanging back while the garibaldi charge me before darting swiftly away to the kelp forest. Their energy is tangible, and I can’t help but feel its effects. I’m giddy in the water, drunk on the light that seems to spill from every atom.

Light, fluttering streams of electromagnetic waves, immaterial matter—“antimatter,” if you would—rolls over my body likes the waves of the ocean. Photons collide with the scales of the garibaldi, exciting them to a heightened level of energy. Eventually the atom decays, releasing a photon visible to the human eye, and the burst of aggressive red-orange of the scales results. The entire process takes an impossibly minute chunk of time, shorter than your and my brains can comprehend, and this process never stops so long as there is light.

Many a night I have pondered time and its relativity in our memories, and I’ve found that once I reach a certain point in my debate with myself I almost invariably conclude that time does not—cannot—exist. Of course, this could be an effect of the late hour, but nevertheless it baffles me even when I’ve awakened. I mean, here we are in the present, but are we ever truly in the present? Even now, I float in a memory. Does the memory now become the present because I have taken myself to it? And if it is in fact now a part of the present, does the past exist at all, or are we just the surf, waves rolling and crashing against the beach but never going anywhere, never progressing, merely changing and continuing in an interminable process?

A swell carries me towards the kelp forest, and as the sandy floor recedes, the tangled tendrils of Macrocystis pyrifera, Catalina’s giant kelp, reach up to me, straining against their tethers. The kelp dances and sways with the movement of the ocean in the same rhythm that my body moves up and down, floating on the surface. We are synchronized, these golden-green beings and I. The movement of the water connects us, acts as the medium for communication between us just as memory is our medium for connection to the past. The magnitude of this leaves me dizzy, that I, a single unit adrift in the vastness of the Pacific, am part of it—part of the living, breathing organism that is the ocean.

These waves are not detached, isolated occurrences; they are the effect of a distant function, perhaps the traces of twenty-foot wave swells in the North Pacific, or the result of the movement of a 200-ton, 100-year-old blue whale as it propels itself through the icy bowels of the ocean. And as a fresh swell carries me deeper into the kelp forest, I release my muscles, making my body perfectly limp and imagining that every sensation is a message from the ocean, that every hair follicle on my body, every patch of skin that erupts with goose bumps, understands this strange language. And I heave my legs in the strongest kick I can summon, imagining that I am communicating back.

I smile a grimace with my teeth clenched around my mouthpiece, envisioning myself small and fragile drifting alongside the gargantuan blue whale, but the contortion of my face breaks the suction seal of my mask and saltwater rushes in, blinding me temporarily with stinging bitterness. I burst to the surface, disoriented and suddenly conscious of myself. The breeze is bitter cold against my skin, and my hair is tangled in the straps of my mask. My nose runs. The moment fades from brilliant gold to dull yellow, and the line of communication between the ocean and myself snaps.

I’m only able to be disappointed for a moment, however, as I’m quickly distracted by the electric blue of the cloudless sky. I peel off my mask and flip over to float on my back. You could drown in the sky on a day like today with the color so deep. It challenges me, pure and unflinching without a single wisp of a cloud. A bird soars alone high above me. For a moment, I think I can hear its cries, but I realize that my ears are still submerged and that the muffled sound I hear is simply the noise that water makes—that strange slithery hissing sound—when your ears are clogged with it. There is no silence here. It’s strange; the tiniest sounds are amplified, so that a heartbeat is deafening, but all the sounds from above the surface, the racket of humans and machines, are muffled and dulled, strangled.

Two small tears slip from the corners of my still burning eyes into the ocean, and my salt merges with the salt of the Pacific. These are basal tears, tears that exist to lubricate my eyes. I remember seeing photographs of different kinds of tears under a microscope. Basal tears looked almost like a root system, or shattered glass, and many of the other types of tears, such as tears from laughter and tears from grief, shared similar characteristics, though none were exactly alike. It was the tears of change that stuck out to me. The slide was darker than the rest, and while the others had shapes with sharp edges in the images, the shape in this one was softer, with a melted look, and the bubbles all around it made it look as though it were stranded in a sea of boiling water. There was something deeply mournful about it, though I don’t expect I’ll ever understand why. Perhaps there’s something to the fact that tears of grief and tears of laughter are wrought from very direct emotions, emotions we can understand. Tears of change, on the other hand, are much more complex than that, as they express everything from sadness to elation. Change makes us nostalgic, and nostalgia is beautiful. Change is beautiful, and I think our tears somehow reflect that.

I’ve always loved abstract art but I can’t seem to wrap my head around meanings and all that. It’s more about instinct for most people, I guess, something in your gut that ties you up in it. Perhaps the art triggers something from your past, makes a connection with a memory that you subconsciously cling to. But how remarkable that these tears seem to have been created with such intent—the intent of an artist. Of course, there was deliberateness in the slide of tears, but whose? I refuse to believe that all the beauty of the world, in the sky at dusk, in the slope of the deer’s hind legs, in the almost impressionistic slide of a tear beneath a microscope, is mere coincidence. We are deliberate, created with intent. We—the human race, everything living, even the pebbles buried beneath me and invisible electromagnetic waves bouncing, refracting, and careening from every surface around me—we are art, a myriad of spider web strands woven and laced into a web of connectivity. I am the ocean and the ocean is me, and together we dance with the kelp amidst flashes of garibaldi and squinty-eyed kelp bass. I am a part of her, this vast host of life, the Pacific, though I hesitate to call her living now, remembering that all living things must die.

It is the force of gravity, I suppose, that if our Creator, our Artist, deigns to give us something so powerful as life that he or she—or it—must eventually take it away as well. To give immortality would be to destroy. But water and the immortality that it holds is something different. It does not have life but gives life, and recycles that life infinitely. Why, the same water particles in the tears that slipped from my eyes could very well have been stagnating in the veins of the last dead Plesiosaur 66 million years ago. The water goes on, surpassing all barriers and communicating with the world through its network of cohesion.

Eons fade into the haze of memory, the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic ages whiz by like the flash of a garibaldi darting from the kelp, and the water goes on through its various stages, sometimes staying in place for millions of years, sometimes passing through the atmosphere briefly before storming down upon the Earth in the fury of a hurricane. It is both the Creator and the Destroyer. And when I imagine all the history and memory that comprises me in the most basic of molecules of my being, I’m overwhelmed. We are cohesive, the earth and all its inhabitants and I. We have the ultimate bond.

I’m gazing directly beneath me at the kelp and the fishes when the kelp parts and I see the iridescent glimmer of an abalone shell. Even from fifteen feet up I can tell that it’s massive, at least the size of my hand. I take a deep breath and plunge down, forcing myself five, ten feet down against the buoyancy of my wetsuit. The kelp is all around me. My eardrums scream in agony at the mounting pressure, and when the abalone shell is finally within reaching distance, I stretch to pluck it from the sandy bottom. The exterior side of it is rough and cold in my hand. I was right about the size; it’s larger than my palm. In its lifetime my abalone shell released hundreds of millions of eggs into the coastal waters of Catalina, and something like ninety-nine percent of those eggs never survived to be reproducing adults, either because they never settled in a safe enough environment or because they were eaten while still in the larval stage. But one percent of a hundred million is enough to keep the species going, at least for today.

The moment I get hold of the abalone, I stop pushing to keep myself under water, and I immediately am dragged towards the surface. My lungs strain, my head throbs, and I exhale a slow trail of bubbles as I ascend towards the light. The kelp dances around me, embraces me, and when I look up, the backlight of the sun has made the leaves glow golden. My bubbles chase one another to the surface, catching the light and glittering like diamonds. My heart swells. It’s too beautiful. I look at the abalone in my hand, rub my thumb over the smooth interior of the shell, and the iridescence shimmers like liquid. It doesn’t belong out of the water, and I can already picture its muted colors, bland in the dry air. I smile then, and in the last few feet before we emerge, I let it slip from my fingers. It doesn’t just sink; it spirals, and I don’t break my gaze until the kelp swallows it entirely. Even then, I leave my eyes fixed upon the place it disappeared, where now all that can be seen is the golden-green kelp, a flash of garibaldi, and glorious, unrivaled art.

*** 

For more about Ceili, you can go to the website for the Ceili Leahy Day of Service, a nonprofit founded by her parents https://clserviceproject.org/dayofservice/.

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Ceili Leahy in treatment at Children’s National Hospital. Photo by John Leahy