A Rough Guide to Astronomy
The day that we scattered my father’s ashes, Mars was closer to Earth than it had been in 60,000 years. When the sun went down that night, Mars rose up above the high mountain lake, throwing orange spears at us through 34 million miles of space, stabbing us with the taste of its dust and the silence of its landscape. My breaths came shallow under this astronomical certainty that seemed so improbable. This other planet.
My dad was the one who first told me about Mars and the stars. At night when we could see them, when we were alone with them on some cold mountainside. We sat bundled up in jeans and long johns, wool socks and down coats, back before polartec and the ubiquity of fleece. We were bundled tightly—I in particular because my skin always seemed so thin. He told all of us—me, mom, Doug—about the night lights, but I think I was the only one who curled up between his lips. It was me that my dad blew to the stars on his breath, me he hurled across the universe to be caught by the wonder, by the cold palm of space, and I’d run back to my dad, to the one who could warm it in his hands
The night that we scattered my father’s ashes, I had to stand alone. Maybe Mars had known all along that I would be so forlorn on this night, and had journeyed across an ancient calculation of planetary orbits, to reach me as best it could. To remind me of the universe.
When those of us of my dad’s regular backpacking crew could all get together, we packed in to the clump of lakes he most visited, arguably his favorite. Everything about this trip was perfect.
The weather was iffy, often cloudy, sometimes rainy, always cold, threatening worse—we’d heard rumors of snow before we left. Jerry—as everyone and I called my dad—shined best in situations less than ideal. He had no pity for anyone in such a minor predicament as inclement weather. His optimism and good cheer could part the clouds. This is true: He walked always in sunshine, even if sometimes it was shining on his back alone. In 29 years of backpacking together there were only two times we came back early because of the weather. Once was from here, after it had rained until we had standing puddles in our tents and we had no cloth or fabric of any kind that was dry, and we’d been running along bare mountain ridges in violent lightning storms. We had been trying to impress Jerry’s brother, Morris, and his family with the fun of backpacking. We spoke of that often, this weekend of the ashes. The misery is now to us hilarious.
There were no other people at the lakes—we had all three of them completely to ourselves all weekend. Jerry was moved by solitude in the wilderness as by nothing else. The best trips were those where we never encountered other people. He died in the remote wilderness 70 miles upriver from any living human besides his brother, and much further from any community. I don’t think his consciousness picked that spot to die, but I’m quite sure his heart had it all planned out.
We had a lovely sort of ceremony among the lakes, which for me was the real funeral. This was all I had wanted to mark his passing. Even the crisis on the last night. I don’t know … Somehow it, too, belonged.
The group hiked up in several rounds. Jerry’s brothers hiked in a day before everyone else. My husband and I, my mom and my cousins hiked in together in the morning. My brother, Doug, and his wife started up last, but caught up to us before we’d reached the lakes as we sat in the fog eating lunch at the top of the pass. “Isn’t it here we cut up the mountain side to shortcut the pass?” my cousin had asked me earlier on the trail. “Surely not,” I said. “We haven’t hiked that far yet.”
I’d been there so many times, and yet it was a new place to me. The beaver pond, sure it was familiar. And the old gold mine above the miner’s cabin. Those are anchors in my memory. But they were painfully new. They’re in a world now where my dad doesn’t exist. It was, I believe, the only time we didn’t climb up to the mine, peer into the earth, and ski down the slope of tailings. Because it was impossibly distant. We couldn’t possibly cover that kind of ground. It looked like it was right above us, but its light had only just reached us from years in the past.
“How far away are they?” I asked my dad about the things in the sky. All four of us and the dog would sit around the campfire and watch satellites cross the sky, and I yearned to understand how something Jerry said was so close was no brighter than the things he said were so far away. I thought satellites must have lights on them like airplanes, monstrous lights, because reflection didn’t yet make sense. In fact, hardly anything did. So I glued my hand to his. Kind of like a slumber party practical joke—he woke up unable to pry me off his palm.
The low-orbit satellites are in the ballpark of 700 kilometers above our heads. The closest star system to ours is 4.3 light-years away, which means it would take 4.3 years of traveling at a velocity of roughly 186,000 miles per second to reach the Alpha Centauri system. The fifth closest star to the sun is our friend, Sirius, at 8.5 light-years distant. The well-known heel of Orion, the star Rigel, is 775 light-years from us. It might as well be the old mine.
775 is actually bigger in a way than a million or a billion—which are the numbers more generally associated with astronomy—because it’s tangible. The stars our telescopes spy billions of light-years away are such an old memory, from our infancy, that we can hardly claim to recognize it. But just maybe we could find a way to travel 775 of something, just three digits. Maybe if we could travel 775 neural-units of some kind, we could go back to the old world, dock inside that memory so it’s the real world again, and Jerry’s holding my hand as we’re yelling down the slope from the mine, our boots filling with rock.
How long to get to Mars? Well, it would depend on our technology, Jerry would muse. Mars is about 50 million miles away, but it seemed like this fantastical planet was somewhere closer than crazy. Less than a light-year. And lying between me and Mars was my dad, reaching like the Golden Gate Bridge with his internal eyes, and I, and all of us, have walked the length of his optic nerve as far as the moon. But he was looking at Mars.
I visited Kennedy Space Center down in Florida a few years ago and had dinner on Coco Beach. As I walked down the beach after dinner and looked up at the moon, I saw it in an entirely new way. Looking at the moon from Coco Beach was to realize that men in the past who looked at the moon from this spot, and from no other, knew they were going to travel there and set foot on that celestial body. The moon from Coco Beach was not a phenomenon of astronomy, but a destination. The moon became much more profound there; it transcended its rocky material, its physical effects on tides, and shone in the light of humanity and its phenomenon of dreams.
And on the faded, threadbare pillowcases in my mother’s linen closet, and nowhere else, a man lay awake in the moonlight and knew he would lead the project to propel those astronauts through all the layers of our terrestrial experience into a blackness never known. From the cradle of those particular squares of fabric, the moon was the last number in an equation in which Earth was the first. The moon lay in an inky pool of Jerry’s sci-fi imagination and chemical training.
I adore the photo of my brother and me with my dad where he worked at Rocketdyne. Jerry’s holding my hand and pointing upward toward something, mid-sentence about its function. For all I know he’s pointing at a faint mid-day moon and telling me that’s where they’re going.
He always felt bad about an early rocket fuel he designed that turned out to be too volatile for use in the Saturn engines. It was therefore contained and stored somewhere, I’m not sure where. Years later, two men handling the fuel were blown to bits. A reverent creature, my dad choked on this container of his chemistry; it lodged stubbornly in his throat.
But his eyes are moon craters. We wonder at his amazing strength near the diseased end of his life. Maybe he stole something from those Saturn rockets, which he had mapped out in every detail and fed with his fuel. He seemed to walk with one-sixth the gravity of the rest of us as if the moon was in his blood.
No one knows how to land on the moon anymore. The knowledge has been lost with the people who had perpetuated it. So it shines again on us now as something fierce and worthy of our arrows, shafted with twine as though we are primitive. And we’re laid low by its brilliance, shooting from scrubby brush. When Jerry was alive, the knowledge was tame; it had a cage and a gentle mouth. Now it’s monumental because it’s unrecoverable. Reconstructable, perhaps, but that’s not the same. The old knowledge shines from the distance in front of us that reveals what’s behind us in time. Perhaps we are slightly confused as we sit filling our quivers.
The last time I had hiked in to the lakes, they were still frozen and under snow. It was June, the snow was softening. So we sank in to our knees and hips, and there was no trail. I couldn’t believe it when Jerry said he was too tired to continue. Absurd. We camped randomly near the river. It was absurd, and Jerry didn’t seem to notice, as if it was perfectly natural that he should be tired, that he should utter such a foreign word. I spent the next few days accepting this. So then on the way back, when we got to the river, I said, conversationally, that either way it would suck: to cross the fresh snow melt in bare feet or leave my boots on and walk in water all day. Jerry said, “Take your pack off and I’ll carry you across the river and come back for it.” He held out his hands for the pack of his 30-year old daughter in complete oblivion to the absurdity.
The distance between us began to yawn. The whole while, the universe is expanding and accelerating, and our contact becomes increasingly telescopic. We’re pulling out our eyes with more and more links until we have to cement ourselves in bedrock, and still we’re farther and farther apart. There’s no way to combat dark energy, this force we don’t know, this mystery of cosmology that denies gravity in its repellant nature, pushing rather than pulling, driving the universe apart, creating neither light nor heat nor magnetism, but rather space and distance, creating time along this length, continuing the space-time continuum. We can’t withstand the dark energy we know as death that presses at our backs and pushes the life out of us, right out of our bodies, and separates us beyond vision, beyond knowledge. Can we ever breach such distance, can we run faster than destiny?
The distance comes right away. We’re inside two people, then we’re joined—even then at that meeting we’ve already separated ourselves, and we grow, and every experience separates us further. As the universe expands, we expand in our experiences so the gulf between us is enormous. We’re spread out so our lives are completely different and we lie light years from each other in the human cosmos, and we continue inexorably separating.
The first person to see my dad besides his parents was an old Indian woman. The first to see me was a hospital nurse. Jerry’s poignant childhood dreams were frightening ones of snakes because he had nearly stuck his hand into a nest of them in his parents’ barn. Mine were of my mom forgetting to pick me up from dance class. Jerry had to convince his dad, of a third grade education, to let him quit the farm and become a chemical engineer. My college education was a foregone conclusion and I subscribed to the major I graduated with only after four years of aimlessness. Jerry participated in man’s greatest vision, working with other fine people to put man on the moon. I sit alone at my desk. He came to revel in optimism, I in pessimism. And it goes on. And now he’s dead, accelerated beyond my vision, beyond anything I know.
He’s gone, heralding the end. I’m left standing, lonely sentinel, at the gates of destiny, as though hope has evaded me. The gates, if I have to provide coordinates, are somewhere beyond the reach of the Hubble on the farthest edge of the universe, on the edge of that which has no center. I wonder if perhaps I am the only one with a destiny, or perhaps only Jerry. Or perhaps, yet, I am alone without one, victim to chance at every turn, becoming disfigured and skewed in the undulating waves of probability that pull me into populated pockets and push me down virgin paths.
Ten of us walked a similar path that weekend of the ashes, at times holding hands, at times isolated from one another. Erik and I walked the perimeter of each of the lakes. My husband had never been there before, and I regaled him with the many tales. If I wanted to, I could have made some symbolism out of the fact that the last time I was there, when Jerry was so diseased, it was very different in its heavy mantle of snow. And I had cast my little black grub out onto ice and reeled it back in until it fell into the crevice of open water near the shore.
Doug and Jenni fished the lakes. Mom stayed with them and watched. I didn’t bring a pole. The only reason I ever fished was to be with my dad. Just to walk around the lake with him. It was his excitement whenever I caught one that made it fun. “Hey!” The whole time I’m reeling it in I’m thinking how I’m going to have to grab its cold and slimy body and dig the hook out and burn the smell off my hands over the campfire. And there’s Jerry cheering, “Come on! Oooo, he’s a nice one!” But now I have no one to infect me with the belief that it’s all great and fun. I realized this back in my dad’s shop, before we even left for the lakes, when Mom asked if I wanted to take a pole.
Erik and I eventually came across them fishing. We laughed as Jenni tried to pull in a squirming, thrashing fish. It was funny, but I laughed only to cover up the gross surrealism of the situation. Us there fishing at a funeral. Jerry only a memory, like the days I spent playing at the little sand beach at the other end of the lake. Events, sure, they become memories, but somehow an entire person disappearing into recollection is much more bizarre.
There would be a nice bounty of trout for dinner. But it turned out that we forgot to bring the foil. Jerry had always brought it. The fish had to lay naked on the coals.
When it came time to do what we’d come there to do, we found a lovely spot in which to erect a small plaque that said "In Memory of Jerry." You can look out from that spot and see all three lakes below you. We spent some amount of time fixing the plaque in place on a sheltered rock face. It was a strangely secular activity. When it was done, we had nothing else with which to occupy ourselves and procrastinate. It was time to mourn. To feel.
At intervals, teary words were said. But mostly our tears fell unaccompanied. I played two wistful airs on my pennywhistle. They were the only words I spoke, the only thing at all I could think or want to say—a melody. Mostly it was silence. Stillness. Ten of us in our own quiet orbits around my dad.
At last Doug picked up his small pouch. He, Mom and I each had one, strangely heavy and dense. Below the plaque, two trees grew up as if from one root. On the ground between the two trunks, Doug knelt and spread the ashes. Like a figure in a dream. Mom went over and spread hers. After a time, I stood up and let the ashes from my pouch fall in the same place. I held the pouch up high because I wanted some of the ashes to blow away on the wind.
We sat in more silence looking out over the lake, over trees and mountain ridges, into sky. Spinning on our own axes, held together in formation by one common gravity, we sat in something deep, some kind of infinitude. Morris, who rowed with Jerry into the heart of the wilderness that waited to claim him, Morris stood and yelled into the infinitude, “Jerry Sinor!”
Now we wait and see what happens to us ... if we grow cold and sterile.
Planets are a coalescence of interstellar dust and debris. They’re the flotsam booted out by the stars as they die, and recollected around new stars. They’re compelled into orbits by the star’s gravity, some orbits round, others wildly elliptical like children flinging themselves to and from their parents’ arms in their spectrum of emotions. The only way we can see planets is by their reflection of the light of the sun they orbit. And I wonder if we’ll all be able to see each other next year, when we said we’d come back to the lakes. Will we assemble at the trailhead thinking we are alone, and then have to run around like circus clowns until we bump into each other?
The last night as we each straggled into camp, we came to find my uncle Keith sitting beside a nice fire, attentively poking at it. We rummaged through the forest for more fuel and settled in beside him and the welcome heat. We didn’t know he’d been peeing blood all afternoon.
Ten of us drew together in a loose circle around the fire. We all anticipated an evening of reminiscing—the stories of Jerry: trying to reproduce the sun or some kind of surrogate, by fusing our thoughts—several individual memories or insights of Jerry colliding into one single, transformed memory, lighter for its purity and sovereignty; and by virtue of its shedding mass, creating energy through thermonuclear fusion: a star powered by memory. If there is conservation of thought, like there is of matter, being neither created nor destroyed, only changing form, then any change in mass will produce energy, and the older we get and the more our memory fades from some kind of mass in our brain, the more energy will be produced through this loss, and contrary to the intuition that lost memories mean people lost in some nameless void, actually this fuels something even brighter.
When four hydrogen nuclei fuse into one helium nucleus in the core of a sun, the loss in mass is only one percent. This one percent loss is what creates the phenomenal amounts of energy that can shine across hundreds of light years to our naked eyes and across millions to our telescopes. Doesn’t this seem hopeful? That such a small amount of something can have such drastic consequences?
We warmed ourselves by the small campfire and turned our backs on the sun. An amazing thing, it seems to me, that we can turn our backs on something so bright. That we can look the other way, cross a plane of darkness, that we can harbor secrets from something so big and brilliant. What if one day while our back was turned we rearranged ourselves, hung trees in the air and flew kites under water? When we came back around, would the sun think it had lost its mind?
I remember how startled I was to find out from my dad that our sun was a star—the same thing as the tiny, white lights that shone when our sun didn’t. I turned, that night of the ashes, away from the fire with deliberateness, to face the other suns, the other spinning solar systems. Where, out there, was the star we’re constructing for Jerry? I walked to the lake shore to find solitude in which to confide in my dad. I still thought then that somehow he could hear me, that he was out there with god-like powers able to access the things I said inside my head. "Jerry, where are you?" "Are you out there?" The way he called to me when we were separated in the woods.
And in a gesture of perfection, Mars. Mars like fire in the firmament, like war, like omen, like my dad had gone and changed the night sky for me. There was nothing more for us to say to each other. Mars stripped us of everything. There I stood naked, naked as the day I was born. I was dust; it was loss; we were the same calculation as Jerry. We were some kind of trinity there at the edge of the lake, at the very center of the centerless universe. Brilliant. So close to each other in a moment so large we fell out of it.
So I turned back toward camp. Along the spine of the sky, the Milky Way showed her belly. Stars splayed out randomly as if the universe had broken, all the fusion and mass breaching imagination.
I came back to find Doug in hushed consultation with Morris. Then the rest of us were gathered in close because Keith had asked Morris not to mention it to anyone else. Not mention that he was falling beneath a gathering pain. But now Keith lay in his tent unable to walk. And soon we could hear moaning.
It was the core of his body that was unbearable to him. The sounds of his suffering made me feel nauseous. Nobody knew what could be wrong. But it was obvious something had to be done. We had to get him out of there, and it seemed likely he’d have to be carried. Do we make a litter and try to carry him out at night? It was a couple miles shorter to cut straight down the steep mountain side than to follow the trail. Could we do that in a moonless night? Should someone hike out on their own and summon help to come in? We were camped in a pretty large clearing, could a helicopter land there? And the whole while the agonized sounds from Keith’s tent. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. Even though we didn’t know what was wrong, and what might hurt or help, I decided to offer something from my personal pharmacy. For my own various problems, I carry strong pain killers and valium. We decided on valium. I unzipped his tent to hand it to him and flinched at the sight of my uncle doubled over and thrashing, his face pinched and contorted. “It hurts so fucking bad.”
When our sun reaches the end of its life, having run out of hydrogen fuel, it will swell enormously. In its death throes, it will reach past the orbits of its closest satellites and engulf Mercury and Venus and likely Earth and possibly Mars. Atmospheres will be vaporized and the planets scorched and swallowed. Mom, of all of us, feared the proximity of this inevitability. “We can’t lose Keith, too,” she sobbed, as his orbit seemed threatened, an unavoidable consequence of the death of the sun.
When we finally formulated a plan, it came down to me and Jenni hiking out in the dark that night to summon a rescue team. In the haste of throwing together a light pack, I scarcely noticed, but Erik came to me and said my mom was beside herself. “What if you trip and fall in the dark? A bear will eat you! Will you take my bear bells? What about mountain lions?” My aunt tried to calm Mom down, but Mom knew a little bit of astronomy.
The sun will become a red giant and in its death its beauty will be unparalleled, expelling its atmosphere and blasting it with ultraviolet light, creating a planetary nebula of fantastic and unpredictable shape and color and intricacy. A solar system once consisting of individual, discreet formations ordered by gravity will become one single phenomenon, one stunning picture. But the universe lives by conservation—nothing is created or destroyed—all things, even beauty, are bought at a price.
Jenni and I started down the mountain with she in the lead. But shortly we decided to switch formation. We stopped to switch headlamps so that I would have the brightest. Then Doug came upon us. “Why don’t you guys hold up a few minutes. Keith may be feeling better.”
We came back to the campfire and waited nervously. After 10 or 15 minutes Doug went back to check on him and Keith said he was feeling a little better, he thought the valium was kicking in and could he have another. So we decided to wait it out a little longer to see what happened. We kept staying longer in little chunks, until Keith finally got up and walked to a tree. There he expelled a kidney stone.
Morris and Erik and I stayed up talking until the fire burned out, bringing the night back to Jerry. I would have stayed up all night under Mars but I was eventually cold and convinced to bed.
The next morning I climbed back up to the plaque before we left for home. Small, black ants were rummaging through the ashes. There were diamonds on the lake below. Doug stood fishing, a silhouette of his dad. I never asked him about it, but I think he was fishing for Jerry. Reaching back and throwing that rod like his arm wasn’t his own, sending that little black grub through the air like he was going to hook some kind of peace and reel it in through the diamonds.
We all went home then to wonder how we live without Jerry, how to live as orphans. I went home to resurrect my dilapidated telescope. To start measuring, charting, looking. The universe is full of stuff, but only 4.4 percent of it is matter as we know it. The rest of the mass is dark matter, something we don’t know; we only detect it by observing gravity. So it doesn’t seem implausible to me that the matter that makes up people is only a small percentage of the kind we’re familiar with, that the rest could be something dark, or something so bright and brilliant we’re utterly blinded by it.
Jerry used to plan our summer backpacking trips to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower. I’d lie next to my dad like a little fawn and make believe that actual stars were really falling all around us—careening recklessly through the universe, falling forever down and down through the deep mirror of space.
Published in Fourth Genre, nominated for Pushcart Prize