Memory and Imagination

Whenever I hear Matt Redman’s “Blessed be Your Name” I am on I-84 headed east through the Columbia Gorge, past the giant windmills, towards our favorite eastern Oregon camping spot. Our kids are all small, all strapped to booster seats, all packed in with snacks and blankets and books. Though the drive is excruciatingly long, these are the best of times. 

That song is a soundtrack to a memory. 

Our youngest son wasn’t on those trips. Born almost four years after his nearest sibling, he missed out on some of the memory-making of those summers when we camped a lot. We try to be careful when we remember. Sensitive. 

None of us have memories specific to his first year and a half of life. He spent them in an orphanage in India, surrounded by other babies and rotating staff. A great deal of that time he also spent in the hospital with recurring bronchial infections and pneumonia. Our first sighting of him was on a DVD, narrated by a lovely woman who gave us the phrase, “Shashwat is feeling sleepy” in her heavily accented english, and who told us Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star was his favorite song. 

But he came with no birth story, minimal history, and no shared memories from 17 months of his life. 

IMG_9498.jpg

Memories are so pliable. My husband and I both have stories from childhood that we remember a certain way, while those around us have a differing version. Grievances can seem larger and punishments more harsh than they were in reality—we've learned this from our own children's memories. Likewise, the joys of certain events can grow over time and repetition, making a small act of kindness or privilege seem like an extravagance in our minds. This is the power we have, in shaping memories.

Our solution has been to make memories for our son, using our own experiences of India and its culture, and threading in the emotions and trauma common to any young woman giving birth. We tell him how loved he was by his tummy mom, how hard it must have been to give birth at sixteen in a tiny hut in a tiny village, and how, for eight days, she and his grandma struggled to keep him alive. He was tiny and frail when he arrived at the orphanage. We tell him how so many people worked to sustain him and get him healthy. 

We tell him he was wanted, because there are ways to “do without” a pregnancy, and we pray for his tummy mom together on Mother’s Day and on random nights when questions arise. They are hard questions—ones we can’t answer without imagination—and we tell the best and truest version we can. 

Some might call this lying. I prefer to call it Imaginative Redemption, because remembering is redemption, and the past lives in the stories we tell about it. We can tell any kind of story, avoid all kinds of truth, or settle for answering all the questions with “I don’t know"—but a child needs to know. We’ve chosen to make the best memories we can imagine for our son. 

God commanded Israel to set up memorial stones and called them to imagine a day when their children would ask, “What do these stones mean to you?”—a day when they would be far removed from the crossing of the Jordan and they would help their children imagine all the ways God cares and will care for them, by remembering all the ways he’d done so in the past. He unites curiosity with remembering, giving us an open-door for telling a good story.

I don’t remember anyone ever warning us about the questions our son would have when we were in the cumbersome process of adopting. I’m sure it came up in our training classes or our home visits, in the reams of paperwork we read and videos we watched; but until you are in the thick of the moment, until you have context for something, you don’t fully grasp it. We tell his story and answer his questions with all the redemption we honestly can. We try to create the healthiest memories for each of our children by telling them the truth—bad things have happened, mistakes have been and will continue to be made. But here is the redemptive imagination that keeps us going: God slipped on skin and flesh to buy back your memories and do more than you could ever ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20). When circumstances are beyond any we can control, God asks Is anything too hard for the LORD? and then delights in blowing our minds. 

A "true story”—which is not always the one we tell ourselves—roots us in a past experience of God’s goodness, because he is always behind, and gives us an imagination of his future goodness, because he is always ahead. We live in the moment with these memories and this imagination, and for every pleasure remembered, every memory forgotten, every blank space in a life we know was full of goodness, there is a redemptive story to be told.  Our kids will develop their own soundtrack to their memories and they'll exaggerate the stories and miss some details, but we hope a redemptive imagination will help them with the lyrics.