Inside a chest in my living room is a picture of my son. Not my son exactly. If it was my son exactly, today he would be upwards of 175 years old.
It is an early photograph, made well before 1900, of a man who looks like he is in his late 20s. If you saw this picture and if you knew my son, you would be absolutely certain the photo was one of those campy pictures taken at Disney World. The ones where you dress up in old fashioned clothes and with a new digital camera they take a picture of you that looks like it was made in the 1880s.
It isn’t. It really is an old picture and it is a picture of a predecessor of mine. It was in a great aunt's photo album I inherited. The picture was taken in Springfield, Illinois by a Dexter Studio. But that is all I know. I have no clue who he is and what his relationship is to me and more interestingly, to my son.
I’ve stared at this picture many times. I suppose I hope if I look closely enough all will be made clear. So far, no luck.
But I am endlessly fascinated. Was my son's doppelgänger like him in more ways than just appearance? Did he have his gentle and loving heart? His incessant and annoying habit of asking the same question over and over again, just to make sure you understood him? Was he emotional? Quick to anger, quick to diffuse and quick to show boundless affection? Did he love to endlessly discuss his varied interests, everything from Calvinism to college basketball, from politics to the true significance of the fact that Darth Vader was Luke Skywaker’s father? Did he wear his spiritual beliefs on his sleeve? Did his mother shake her head too, wondering how a child born out of her decidedly non-religious body, developed such a deep and abiding Christian faith, thankfully tempered by a strong underpinning of liberal values?
My scientific training is limited to a high school biology class and a fascination with, though not an understanding of, the physicist Richard Feynman. As an adult I get my science from writers who speak English, not science. Probably my favorite non-scientific book about science is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.
One of my favorite sections is his discussion of the atom. In it, experts tell me through him that every atom I possess has passed through several stars and millions of organisms before joining my other atoms and arranging themselves into me. And when I die, they will disassemble and move off to create other organisms - an oak leaf, a trout, an aphid or maybe another human. (If I have butchered his explanation, I sincerely apologize.)
I find this concept comforting. It is, for me, about as close to a statement of faith as I will ever come. As I look at the picture of the young man who is not my son, I think about this explanation of atoms. And I wonder if the group of atoms that arranged themselves to form this man perhaps enjoyed the experience so much, they decided to get back together at some point in the future and do it again. Voila, my son.
A silly fantasy, I realize, but this exercise brings me back around to my concept of time. I may exist right here, at this time, right now. But my atoms transcend time, existing before me, and surviving long after my death. If I am the sum of my parts, and my most elemental parts are the atoms that compose me, then as long as they exist in any fashion, don't I as well?