This week brings with it some auspicious dates: December 21st is the Winter Solstice – the year’s shortest day and longest night, when the sun hits its southernmost point in the sky – and, according to some, the end of the world. (Unfortunately, quite a few people worldwide, even in Russia – my people! – are succumbing to this unfounded panic; the world is not ending, just this one of many Mayan calendars.) This time of year does, however, signify winter’s barrenness, and death. But also buried are the seeds, the energy, of new life to come, quickening in the frozen ground.
December 20 marks the 31st anniversary of my father’s death, which came suddenly. I was so young then, a teenager, and was so shocked by his passing I felt robbed, for years, of his presence. Now, though, having just lost my mother two months ago after an extended decline – her death expected for a long time – I find myself utterly at a loss. Or rather, alternating between that and gratitude for the loving time I did have with both of them and most especially, with my mom.
Physicist and writer Alan Lightman just published an essay in Harper’s magazine – from which I take this post’s title – in which he quotes Newton’s Principia, on that ancient scientist’s calculation of our distance from the farthest stars. Lightman also writes of humans’ ultimate insignificance in the universe, and subsequently our need, even at our most introverted and private like my mother, to seek out one another, to connect. I thought of this as B. and I walked out the back door of our new place, to watch the year’s most spectacular meteor shower – the Geminids – made sublime by the absence of the moon’s light. As the Earth passed through this brilliant stream of cosmic debris and Orion tipped ever closer to the horizon, I was overcome by emotion. No longer able to share such wonders with my mother, I thought of how she, gone from this life on Earth, is now everywhere, her atoms joining those of my father, and mingling with the joyous noise of our universe.