A few months ago, I had a dream that led me down a very interesting path. I became mildly obsessed with searching online for information on a person I hadn’t seen in well over forty years. Let me explain. I’m going to change some names, for the sake of privacy.
In order to explain this dream, I have to start with the very beginning of my life. When I was born, I lived in a small coal mining town, we’ll call it Loganville. My father was pastor of two churches, one in Loganville and the other a few miles away. We were a young family, my parents, my younger sister, and me. There was a family in one of the churches, the Doyles. While we were there, the Doyles had two daughters, about the same age as my sister and me. Our families became friends, and perhaps my closest friend in those days was Lauren Doyle, the older daughter. Lauren and I were almost exactly a year apart – her birthday was three days after mine, but she was a year older. We used to celebrate birthdays together.
Or so I am told. I have virtually no memories of that part of my life. One or two images, perhaps. I have memories of looking at photo albums that include Lauren and her younger sister Ellen. But my family moved when I was four and a half, to a rural hamlet outside Hazleton. I started kindergarten there, made new friends, and for all intents and purposes forgot all about Lauren. That’s where I grew up. I remember that town. I remember those friends. That’s where I lived when I first fell in love. When I first tried to kill myself. When I began to learn who I was, and dream about what I might do with my life. That was my home.
Not Loganville. That was just a name. The name of a place I supposedly came from. Pretty much everything I knew about Loganville was hearsay, mostly from my parents.
So – the dream I had. I dreamed that I was back at the church outside Loganville, the “other” one my father pastored back in the seventies. I wasn’t a child in the dream – I was my current age – but I was there for Vacation Bible School. The rest of the dream is very hazy in my memory, and honestly, would be terrifyingly dull to read about. Plus, it would serve no purpose. The point is what the dream did to me – it got me thinking about that church.
The next day, I was intrigued by thoughts of that church, and I decided to look it up online. I knew it was a very small congregation, and they might not have a website. I found some photos, and not too much more. One thing I did find in my search was a bunch of obituaries, of people who had been members of that church and whose funerals were held there. One of them captured my attention: the obituary for Ellen Doyle, Lauren’s younger sister. She had died a few years ago, in her thirties. I remembered that my parents had mentioned that to me when it happened – I suppose they’re still in touch with Ellen and Lauren’s parents. When they told me that, I was only mildly interested – it was sad to hear about someone dying so young, but honestly, I had no memory of her, so it didn’t hit home.
But the day I found her obituary, something inside me shook. I think it was the moment when I read that Ellen was the “best-friend and cherished sister of Lauren.” And I said, out loud, “I’m so sorry. I should have been there for you!” I was saying this to Lauren – I felt in that moment that I had been a terrible friend. I should have reached out to her! I should have been a shoulder to cry on! I should have supported my oldest friend in her time of grief.
The guilt I felt was not related to when I learned about Ellen’s death from my parents – it wasn’t that I regretted not looking Lauren up then. After all, she and I really wouldn’t have known each other from Adam if I had. No, the guilt I felt was much older – I felt guilty that I’d lost track of her in the first place. If only I’d have stayed in Loganville. Or if only we had kept in touch after I moved. If only I’d have held onto the first friend I had.
Now these regrets were irrational, of course. It wasn’t my fault that my family moved. I’m pretty confident that my parents didn’t allow me to have much input into that decision. And the thought of keeping in touch after we moved? What, a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old as pen pals? Not something I should feel bad about.
But it stuck with me, and I decided to look Lauren up online. I don’t know what exactly I was looking for. If all I wanted was to contact her, that could have been much easier. My parents could have contacted her parents, and she and I could be communicating within the day (if she were interested, anyway). But that wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I wanted to see if she was okay. I wanted to see where she was. I wanted to just see. That might sound creepy. Maybe it was. But it’s not like I hired a private investigator or anything – just searches on Facebook and Google. Everything I found was public, after all.
I really didn’t find all that much. She isn’t on Facebook, as best I can tell. I think I tracked down a current address for her, and her current job, but I can’t be positive. For weeks, I toyed with reaching out to her. I even wrote a letter, which I didn’t intend to send. I wrote it to try to figure out what all this was about. Why was I thinking about her so much? Why was she so much on my mind for so long?
I think I figured it out. I think that Lauren Doyle represents to me a lost part of my past. I think she represents to me my childhood amnesia. Childhood amnesia refers to the inability of adults to remember anything from their first few years, and the counterintuitive dearth of memories over the first ten years of life. We all have it – researchers have come up with multiple theories as to its purpose or its origin – but none of us are able to remember much from our early childhood, or in fact anything from our very early childhood. That’s part of how the human brain works, for whatever reason. In my case, the end of my childhood amnesia roughly corresponds to my family’s move from Loganville. Which makes it interesting for me – looking back, it seems to me as though there is a clear line demarcating my “memorable” life from my “prehistoric” life. The four and a half years I spent in Loganville, the four and a half years I spent with Lauren as a friend, are forever lost to me.
And I think that’s what I was looking for. That’s why I tried to find information out about her, but didn’t really want to contact her. Because I knew that the real Lauren wouldn’t fulfill what I was missing. The real Lauren is a real person who has led a life with joys and struggles, who has found her own path, and who has no memory of me at all either. She won’t help me find the lost years of my life.
But the symbolic Lauren is my past. What I was really looking for was my own mysterious early years. My own missing pieces. Hoping that by finding it, I’d find a clue to the emptiness. “A man is the sum of his memories,” someone said. I’m someone who constantly finds myself looking back on my own memories, digging through them to find meaning. And it is difficult to know that there’s a section of my own past that is forever off-limits to me. Sure, I can ask my parents about what it was like. But I’ll never be able to see it again from my own perspective. What was I thinking? What was I feeling? What did my friendship with Lauren feel like? Who was I? And what does that mean for me today?
Childhood amnesia is weird. I don’t like it much.