Ages ago, someone told me that we replace all of the cells in our bodies every seven years. Every single one. That idea has haunted me since. It seems to mean that I am literally no longer the same person I was seven years ago. Even though I have memories of things that go way further back, they are not the memories of the me of today.
That’s not a completely alien idea; it’s like copying files from an old computer to a new one or making a new printing of an old story. The information is the same but the vessel is new. But somehow when it comes to the cells that make me up, this has always felt different. Because I think of me as this me, this couple of hundred pounds of meat and skin, these scars, this reflection in the mirror. I don’t usually think of myself as a concept, a construction, or as data that can be re-recorded on a new cassette.
I woke up with idea in my head again and as I write this, I’m starting to realize why. The first and most obvious reason is that I am in the middle of organizing all the data files for Sketchbook Skool, 16 terabytes of data stored on a big stack of hard drives. Part of my archiving process is to make clones of each drive so we have backups in case anything goes wrong with the originals. I put an empty drive into a slot in the dock, put the original in the other slot, push a button, lights flash, and soon every byte has been duplicated and I have two identical drives. All those hours of footage, all those conversations, and drawing demos are now in two places.
And somehow, as I do this, my body is doing the same thing. As I watch the blinking on the front of the dock, my old cells, the old me is slowly being copied and then deleted. Old cells are being cast off, exfoliated, dropping onto my pillow, blowing around my apartment with mites of dust, sluicing down the shower drain, peeing into the bowl, crapping out with my digested burrito.
Me shitting me out.
The other reason this popped into my conscious predawn today is that in less than two months, I will slough off the last cell that ever saw Patti first-hand. The last cells that ever talked to her, held her, kissed her goodbye. Soon every part of me will be a fresh clone with no personal experience of her.
In December, Jack and I took Patti’s ashes out of the cookie jar that has contained them since March 18, 2010, and put them in their final resting place. We went to one of her favorite places, just after sunset, and we put her ashes in a place we can always come back to, a private place in a public spot, one she went to every day, where we know she would be happy to be, no matter where we are.
Her ashes are not Patti. They are just dead cells that were burned and preserved, not in amber but in a heavy-duty plastic bag, which we kept in that cookie jar, on a shelf where I could see it every day and gaze at when memories of her became intense. They stood for her but now they no longer need to do that. For she is in us.
The process of burying Pattia was not sad. It was actually slightly comic as Jack and I bumbled our way through it, making a couple of clumsy errors that were pure Patti, pure Hoofy. I don’t think either of us felt sad as we did it. Rather, we felt that she was with us still, that the pain of losing her was a faded memory, and that this was the final thing the three of us would ever do together and that it should be light and silly just as our best times as a family always were.
Patti’s cells are now forever in that one place. Jack’s are now in Los Angeles, three thousand miles away. And mine are here, being replaced with new cells, new cells that look older, more wrinkled and grey.
Many of the hair cells were not replaced. Some of the brain cells did not replicate with all the memories in place. Other cells have less resiliency and vim than their predecessors. And yet they are all still me, they all still bear the weathering of the years, the experiences, joys and traumas that made me and still do.
My memories of Patti have changed with these cells. Some are lost forever. And those that used to take precedence because they were at the front of the line, have stepped back into the mists. I am no longer haunted by thoughts of Patti at the window, of the policemen, of the visit to the coroner’s office. I no longer think of Patti as a woman of fifty, increasingly limited by her disabilities, who didn’t want to grow old in a wheelchair.
Now when I think of her, I rummage through my huge archive of snapshots. I see her in a Polaroid, pregnant with Jack. I see her in a soft focussed, black and white picture dressed up to go to a party, I see her laughing in a bar with friends I haven’t heard from in years, I see her smiling through her freshly cut bob, I see her holding our first dog Frank like a big baby, his long legs sticking up in the air, both of them grinning. I see her looking at me like she did on our first date, saying ‘Mommy’, the gap between her front teeth.
As I think of these memories, I feel old tears well up in my new eye cells. These new cells are never overwhelmed by the tsunami of grief that used to seize me but it’s good to know that those old memories can still effect them, even though I am happy, happy with my new cells, my new kitchen, my new job, my new love, my new wife, my new wife. My new cells make up a new me with all the best bits of the old.