My father died around 3:00 on August 12, 2013. He was 61 years old. He lived more in those six decades than most men could in twelve. If life is measured by brightness and intensity – with weak men an ember smoldering on a stick of incense and great men a blaze feeding on a forest – my father was a supernova.
As his light faded, liver and kidneys unable to hold the battlements against the three year siege from Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia, he saw things. Things that some may attribute to heightened brain activity near death, or hallucinations caused by elevated ammonia levels, or delusion caused by prolonged time in the ICU. Things that others may attribute to gods, or the God, or that shining pre-glimpse of the afterlife pointing the way to the next world.
Some of what he saw scared him. Monsters snarling over his head. Some of what he saw angered him. A mocking, morphing clock. Some of what he saw comforted him. His whole family standing next to him, holding his hands.
But the last thing he saw, that he pointed to with bright eyes, his brown shifting from my blue to the empty space behind me in the sterile sadness of the ICU, is what will twinkle in my memory forever.
He saw stars. Galaxies. A whole universe inside of a tiny room.
The first law of thermodynamics says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred. As we reassured him that he could rest and his pain was over, there came a moment where he ceased to be my father, and became only the body my father had inhabited. The energy of his body will return to the Earth, continuing the cycle of growth and decay, forever part of the beauty that blooms and incredulity of the natural world. But if energy cannot be destroyed, where did his mind go? Where is that brilliant soul so full of passion and compassion that was so much more than the sum of his skin and hair and organs?
My wife and I have discussed the “spark” – the flash in the eyes of someone alive and proud and rhapsodic – and what happens to that energy when it “leaves” a dying body. I’m sure that Heaven or Nirvana or perhaps even Valhalla are popular destinations for the purest of spirits, but I’ve never been the religious type. My love of science and tangible empiricism are directly inherited from my father.
Carl Sagan is often quoted for his nod to the idea of cosmic cohesion: “We are made of star stuff.” He meant that our basic elements – the hydrogen and oxygen and carbon – are the same as those found in the sprawling void. But I take it to mean that we’re all connected to each other in ways we might not understand, that our energies echo on in explicit physical ways, imbued in the things we touch and love, on paths that aren’t necessarily visible or measurable by what we currently know but exist in our reality all the same.
The same day he passed, and all that energy dissipated into unknown space, a new shining spot of light appeared in a previously dark area of space. Just north of the constellation Delphinus, just west of the star Altair, a nova burst into life, flaring with such intensity that it can be seen with the naked eye if you look to the northeast on a clear night.
I’d like to think that his energy was the final push this little binary system needed to blast its light across the limitless distance down into our eyes, into our minds.
I’d like to think he’s forever there, winking and smiling, part of a massive power that while impossibly distant, is right there for me to look at every night.
I’d like to think that the best people go on to be more, their energy taken in death, to be reused in birth.
(A full article about the nova can be found here)