David Eagleman wrote a book I love called Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives. It is forty different answers to the question of what happens after we die. The book is so thought provoking that I couldn't help imagining my own.
Back when you were alive, as you left the house each morning, you would hesitate right before pulling the door closed behind you. For an anxious moment, you would hold the door ajar as you balanced your phone and a half eaten piece of toast in one hand, your other hand conducting a swift pat of down your body, reaching across your chest and your pockets, checking for essential items. Your day ahead would play through in your mind, checking off all the things you thought you might need to bring with you. The confirmation of a square lump in your back pocket and a jingle in another was usually enough to reassure you; eventually realising that your phone was in your hand the whole time was the final prompt you needed. You’d pull the door closed behind you, and go.
A few times over the years, you were asked in conversation what you would do if your house caught on fire—what items you would run back inside to save. This would set your mind on a mental scan of your bedroom, your kitchen and your lounge room, trying to imagine the things that money wouldn't be able to replace; the photos, old jewellery, family heirlooms. Though it seemed the most sentimental things were sometimes the most shameful—it seemed no use revealing to others that you’d risk the extra 10-20 seconds in a burning house to collect your childhood teddy bear and your favourite scarf.
Luckily, your house never did burn down.
Years later, in the weeks before you died, the palliative care nurses explained that in the moments before death, you would scan over your life in much the same way, revealing through a long, leaking breath what you truly cared about. Who you loved. Your fondest memories. Your deepest regrets. A metaphorical pat down of your entire life. The nurses explained how they’d gathered this hypothesis from several instances of talking with a rare breed of patient, those who had come back from the brink of death. These people had crossed life’s bridge, then wouldn’t you know it, they realised they’d left the stove on. The nurses shared a laugh like they told this joke a lot. You weren’t so amused, remarking that this sounded a lot like what you already expected death to be like; you had of course seen your fair share of popular television series’ throughout the years. Their lack of new information was of little comfort, and in all honesty, a bit of a let down.
In response, the nurses shared a curious glance. After a hushed consultation behind one of their clipboards, they decided to inform you that it might be possible for them to offer you something a bit more satisfactory. They revealed that the science of preserving the human brain was believed to be a not-too-distant reality. Several groups of scientists working towards engineering the digital regeneration of the conscious mind were collecting samples from willing participants. For an extraordinary fee, these scientists could transport your body to a state-of-the-art freezing centre immediately after you were pronounced legally dead, halting the process of decomposition. They would then extract your brain for it to be halved, divided into its segments, and (once its core temperature dipped low enough) sliced into delicately fine cards by an inventive machine. These cards were to be stored in the freezing centre in the hope that technology would one day be able to thaw, scan and upload the full deck of your brain onto a surrogate body, superimposing your entire mental state back into existence. All your thoughts, both happy and sad memories, preferences, fears, tastes, speech patterns, mannerisms and sense of humour; all alive again.
You were made aware, however, that the science was not yet complete. As digital regeneration was obviously still unproven, very few freezing centres had been erected, making storage space highly exclusive, and expensive. As such, you were not able to preserve your entire brain. The real estate market was about to screw you one last time, you thought. The scientists prescribed some essential elements of your brain that you were to keep: some cards from your cerebellum for balance, some from the left hemisphere of your cerebrum to preserve language, some of your innate cards for survival, such as the fear of physical pain. But the remaining cards, your electives, were up to you. It was explained to you that those which you discarded would be set fresh in your surrogate brain.
Of course, like most others, you chose to save the things you imagined you could not replace. Treasured memories with family and friends, your quick sense of humour (refined through the years, also from watching popular television series’), the ability to stack plastic cups into a pyramid quickly. You discarded your regular anxieties of rejection, memories of heartbreak, loss, and emotional trauma.
Eventually, science evolves, and you awake in your second life. As the antiseptic fog clears, an assistant helps you up, and steadily reacquaints you with your old sense of balance. After ticking a few boxes in some forms you don’t read (old habits die hard), you hand back the clipboard and take your first steps outside.
You don’t quite recognise where you are, but this doesn’t seem to trouble you much; you’re pleasantly distracted by your brain’s preoccupation with interpreting the sweeping range of new stimuli. You’re mesmerised by a lazy tree rocking back and forth in the distance, recalling how the Earth and sky appear intertwined by tree roots, how they talk to each other with wind and rain. You marvel at how beautiful it feels to experience such simple things again for the first time. As your neurotransmitters try and stitch together the gaps between the data of your new and retained cards, novel things like street signs and cafes start to seem familiar—probably tied to a memory of a friend’s house or a coffee date—but this restitching makes the observation of those things feel brand new. The associations once tied to every crevice of your known sensory world feel renewed with a fresh perspective, ready for your new interpretation of what it means to be alive. As you continue to wander and soak up the world again, the smell of a garden bed triggers the memory of your first wedding. You smile. The swinging front door to a bakery wafts the comfort of buttery goodness, the kind you woke up with on the weekends. In the afternoon, passing by an ice cream store and its gallery of colours loads you with dopamine. The soft green pistachio takes you back to the summer spent in Europe with your two closest friends. It feels like just yesterday. You can’t help but laugh, even shed a happy tear or two. You barely even worry about the fact that you’ll probably have to renew your passport now.
But after a while, an aching to rekindle with all the people you recall becomes apparent, and you realise that you hadn’t fully considered the unfortunate fact that most of them would no longer be around to reminisce with you. Though strangely, this isn’t what troubles you most. You can’t help but grow increasingly aware of the possibility that you’ve forgotten something, and a ballooning heaviness waits at the base of your chest as you struggle to pinpoint what it is. Was there a moment you forgot to bring? Who might you have left behind? What could still be out there, waiting for you to find?
Intermittently, you are soothed by replaying the reels of the happy memories you do have, managing to keep dormant the blank cards you were allotted to replace the memories of your fears and anxieties. Fortunately, without the burden of remembering what went wrong in your life, you no longer feel afraid of losing what you treasure, but the limitation of not knowing what else there is to remember starts to become overwhelming. The heaviness inside you doesn’t seem to be going away, and you come to realise that you’re trapped in a limbo.
In this life, you are resigned to searching for the sensory associations of memories you don’t even know exist—forever wondering if you’ve closed the front door behind you with the keys still inside.