When does existence begin?

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By Kelly Dolejsi

Everyone has his or her very earliest memories. Author Augusten Burroughs purports to remember lying in his crib, a helpless and anxious infant. But for most of us, life seems to have begun when we were toddlers.

Before age 2 or 3, I remember nothing. I could have been asleep.

I could have been dead. My mother disagrees, but I know that “I” was not there.

I didn’t exist until one very bright moment when I was sitting in the very back of my mom’s Ford Mustang.

I didn’t know it was a Mustang. I didn’t know we were driving through Arizona on something called a highway. I had no idea what a car seat was, or whether I had one.

I was just sitting on my little travel potty while looking through the car’s broad rear window at the man driving the car behind us.

I don’t know what it says about me that my first memory is that of going to the bathroom in public. Probably the reason is pretty benign. Using the potty was likely one of the first things I was really proud of learning and I might remember this particular usage because I was showing off for a stranger.

“Hey!” I might have been saying in my head. “Top this!”

I think I waved at him. But this could be a flourish I’ve added in the 30 or so years and countless distortions since. I also think he could see me, all of me – that the Mustang was a hatchback with the backseat flipped down to form a nice-sized floor, large enough for a little girl, a potty and lots of toys. But it’s also just as possible I was looking out over the top of the backseat, my goings-on completely obscured and relatively private.

Anyhow, in my next memory I was fully dressed.

This was not the most comfortable way to be, as anyone who’s ever been fully dressed knows. But this day, or this moment at least, would have been an especially good one to take off one’s clothes. Every place I went, it was raining, the drops coming down from the top of the world to the bottom and extending without end from side to side.

I think I was in a parking lot outside our apartment building. I think my grandma and my mom were with me. But I know for sure that this was the first time it had ever rained.

This memory takes place sometime soon after what I’ll call the Mustang memory. We were still in Arizona, in Phoenix specifically and because I hadn’t existed before this move, neither had rain. Yet, I knew what it was and I knew something else, too: It was not unusual for rain to fall from the sky, but it was unusual for said rain to land in Phoenix. The most distinct part of this memory is not visual, or even the tactile sensation caused by the rain. It’s me yelling, “It’s raining in Arid-zona!”

These are, as far as I can recall, my first words. They also represent my first mispronunciation or possibly, my first attempt at word play.

These two memories are vague in plenty of ways. I can’t answer some of the most obvious questions associated with them, such as whether the rain felt cold or how I was able to get my pants back on in a moving car.

But they are both perfectly vivid in their limited ways. Without a doubt, I remember seeing the stranger and going to the bathroom.

Likewise, I remember verbatim what I yelled in the rain.

After that, my memories become more indistinct but also more fluid. Instead of singular, choppy scenes, I remember short series of events, some lasting as long as five minutes.

For instance, the night before we moved from the rainy apartments I remember climbing into my grandmother’s bed (mine had already been packed or sold), her warning me not to mess up her sheets and my mom settling in to sleep on the floor. I was worried about my mother because I thought there were roaches on the floor and that they would eat her.

In another, even fuzzier memory, I made friends with another little girl in the playground (I believe at that same apartment complex but it could have been the next one) and when we went to her apartment, her mother forbid her from playing with me. I remember feeling looked over and judged – that the girl’s mother had decided I was too dirty or my hair too unbrushed.

These brief, recollected scenes eventually start to overlap and although I have far more memories as I got older, they never had the surreal magic of those super-early memories, the ones that continue to hold my interest even now that I’ve grown up, despite the fact that they’re not that interesting.

These first glimpses of my own consciousness are, ironically, more like dreams than anything else and just as with dreams, I keep looking for meaning that might not be there. Either they are random pictures that just happen to be among the first my brain was capable of keeping, or they are existential: the first times I saw myself as an individual, worthy of being watched and of witnessing impossible events like rain.