ESSAY- Sound check: Ian Stevenson and my grandson
Every afternoon, when classes were over for the day, the conductor would stride though my commuter train out of Boston, hollering, "Wedgemere! Winchester! Wilmington! North Billerica and Lowell!"
The wheels would start their slow revolutions, and off we'd go.
I'm reminded of those days commuting from Boston's North Station when I walk into the lobby of the UVA Hospital: everyone's headed somewhere. There are people in wheelchairs, carrying armloads of flowers, on their way home. People approaching the admissions desk are headed upstairs. Somewhere out of the public eye, a body is being loaded as cargo, headed for a casket and the cemetery.
I have spent way too much time at this hospital over the past several months. Lucky for me, I've only been a visitor.
I've rolled my mother through here in a wheelchair; she's been rolled back to me, dazed and woozey, on a gurney. I've waited around in hallways, tired of standing, so I'd squat down, lean against the wall, and watch the wheels go by.
Staying overnight here as a visitor can make you crazy: I'd watch those wheels, and the theme song from the HBO show Six Feet Under would get stuck in my head– those gurney wheels from the opening credits turning to the sound of plucky strings and the upbeat tune from an oboe.
In this Grand Central Station of life and death, everyone seems to be headed somewhere, rolling all around me. An unseen conductor must be hollering, "Childbirth! Appendicitis! Car crashes! Coronary Bypass and Death!"
As I walk down the corridor, I wonder if someone's having a near-death (or for-real death) experience during surgery or whatever, and maybe his or her consciousness is brushing up against the ceiling tiles, observing as I walk past.
I glance up every now and again and resist the urge to smile and wave. Don't want to end up on the psych ward, wherever that is.
These thoughts of life and death, consciousness and perception, were swirling in my mind a few weeks ago as I was riding the elevator up to the top floor, to the maternity ward. I was there to see my daughter-in-law, Tricia, and my son, Jackson.
As I scanned the signs in the hallway, looking for the room number, I was thinking about the people who had died on the floors below, about their spirit and energy, and of the brand-new babies on this floor, drawing their first breaths.
Just four hours ago, Trish had given birth to their second child, a son: Harry Jaquith Landers.
I found Tricia and Jackson, but the baby was busy in the nursery, getting a scrub-down and a checkup.
As we waited, my thoughts turned to the recent death of a professor of perceptual studies at UVA, Ian Stevenson, who had passed away just ten days earlier.
He had devoted his professional life to studying children who claimed to recall a previous life. In many cases, the details given by the child– usually a child between the ages of 2 and 7– accurately depicted the life and death of someone who had died, and in many cases, the death occurred in a family unknown both to the child and to the child's family.
It made me wonder whether little Harry carried with him the memory of a previous life, a memory that would soon evaporate along with his other memories of infancy.
Finally, the door opened and a bassinet came rolling in, bearing our family's newest member.
As I held my newborn grandson in my arms for the first time (the weight of him– the warmth of that little body!), in a matter of seconds, a range of human expression flitted across his impossibly tiny features as he slept: the twitchy smile, the look of panic, the relief, the amusement.
That's probably his nervous system performing some kind of warm-up for life, like a sound-check before a concert. Although I can't help wondering whether he's also recalling the events of a life he shed along with a previous body.
I whispered, "What are you thinking about, little guy?"
I imagine him in a few years, a toddler telling us about his incarnation as a past-life researcher, a UVA professor who traveled to India to interview children, who collected data and analyzed it back in Charlottesville.
Because maybe it never ends. Maybe we're always either on the train, or waiting to catch the next one.