Lucinda Cummings is a writer and clinical psychologist who lives in Minneapolis with her husband and a rescue dog named after a famous jazz musician. Her essays have appeared in Hippocampus, The Woven Tale Press, Mutha, Snapdragon, Glassworks, and other publications. One of her essays was nominated recently for a Pushcart Prize. You can visit her website at lucindathewriter.com.
A Question of Molecules
“Love is time and space measured by the heart.”
- Marcel Proust
The Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe begins with nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago. No matter, no energy, no light or space, and no time yet existed. First came the singularity: an infinitesimally small, infinitely hot, infinitely dense primordial something, inside the core of a black hole. The Big Bang was not an explosion, but an expansion: in a tiny fraction of a second, the singularity grew larger, and began to cool, as it has continued to do ever since. This was the birth of everything that now exists, from stars to planets, molecules to atoms and much smaller particles, like photons, quarks, neutrinos, and Higgs bosun particles. Cosmic microwaves make up the constant background temperature of the universe, forming the “afterglow” of the Big Bang. Objects in the universe are moving farther and farther apart on trajectories created by the Big Bang; the speed at which they move apart is called the Hubble constant. This rate of expansion, thought to be driven by dark energy, is accelerating over time.
One long-ago warm summer evening, faint breezes rippling the curtains at the open windows, bedtime came for a little blonde boy who needed stories to settle into sleep. Benjamin, my three-year-old son, lay in his twin bed, clutching the three picture books he’d chosen for our nightly reading, blue eyes wide above chubby cheeks.
“C’mon, Mom, let’s read,” he said, scooting toward the wall so I could lie down next to him. He smiled as I climbed in, my tired body sinking into the restful cuddling I’d looked forward to all day. My boy was always on the go: doing, making, building, and posing endless questions about the world he was getting to know. Quiet time was precious.
Benjamin handed me the first book, The Story of the Universe, its pages filled with photos of planets and stars, telling the tale of the Big Bang and the place of Earth in the cosmos. Currently in one of his nonfiction reading phases, Benjamin’s passion centered around space. Every night, we read books about space travel, galaxies, planets, and the births and deaths of stars. He never tired of learning about our solar system, the ages of stars, black holes, the question of whether we humans are alone in the universe.
As I opened the book, my son placed his small hand on my forearm, holding it there while I read aloud to him, the wheels turning in his mind. His legs wiggled and shifted under the sheet, but his warm hand stayed put and his attention never wavered as we made our way through three space books and the questions they evoked, moving from space to time. How long was a light year? How long was a regular year? What was a second? A minute? What were the names of all the months, and how were they different from each other? What were we going to do tomorrow? Next month?
Gradually a nightly ritual developed. After three stories, Benjamin would ask me to “do the mumps (months) and days.” This involved reciting together the names of the months, in order, naming the major holidays in each month, then considering the days of the week, where we were in relation to the weekend (no preschool, parents at home), and what was scheduled for the next few days. Perhaps this repetition soothed some anxiety for Benjamin, who always felt more secure when he knew what to expect. But his fascination with time went beyond that, as he wondered about his life before he was born, and once explained to Bob and me that he’d been “waiting up in heaven until you were ready to be parents,” or “until personal computers were invented.” We practiced the time ritual for months, until Benjamin felt more grounded in the flow of time in this life.
I treasured these bedtimes. The warmth of my son’s small body next to mine, the quiet night enveloping our home, the soft glow of the lamp next to his bed, the privilege of watching his young mind at work as he tried to understand his place in space and time, the sweetness of saying goodnight.
The atoms created by the Big Bang are still with us, never disappearing. They change their identities by combining with and splitting away from other atoms of the same or different types. A molecule is two or more atoms held together by a chemical bond.
In a farmer’s field, raw unpicked cotton is made of pure cellulose, a long chain of glucose molecules that originate from the combination of a seed, organic compounds in the earth, sunlight, and water. Once picked, the raw cotton changes forms as it’s processed and spun into thread, and again as it’s woven into fabric, sewn into a garment. But the original glucose molecules remain as part of the fabric. When the worn-out garment’s owner discards it, a landfill becomes its home, where it decomposes and is recycled by the earth, the glucose molecules metabolized into carbon dioxide. Perhaps they are reborn as part of a new plant, but the original atoms continue to exist.
Six-year-old Benjamin struggled with learning to read. He sat next to me with a picture book on his lap, trying to fulfill the nightly 15-minute reading requirement, deep frustration darkening his face. The words he knew by sight were tiny islands dotting the long flow of unfamiliar words he tried to sound out, his attention wavering more and more as the effort exhausted him. “Just concentrate,” I begged him one night. With tears in his eyes, he looked right into my face and shook his head. “I can’t concentrate,” he replied, then cast his eyes downward into hopelessness.
I knew how much Benjamin loved books, how he longed for the joy of reading to himself whenever he wanted. I saw how the books I read to him opened magical doors to the learning he sought and loved. His frustration was an ache in my heart that finally eased after he started medication that helped him focus, and learned to read with the help of a gifted teacher and books about Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins. We celebrated together as he progressed from simple readers to chapter books and beyond.
Becoming a constant reader, Benjamin’s curiosity led him through many books about cosmology, physics, string theory, and the search for a “theory of everything.” Physicists Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking were favored authors. His interests expanded to include topics like Taoism, how computers work, programming, jazz, human consciousness, and philosophy of science. I marveled at the force of his curiosity, admired his wonder and wide embrace of the world of knowledge.
The average human body is made up of an incomprehensible number of atoms: 7 followed by 27 zeroes. Our bodies are 99% hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon atoms. I try to imagine the journey of these atoms, through space and time, from the Big Bang to the surface of our particular planet, through millions of years of evolution, to rest inside the cells of one singular human being, out of the billions who inhabit Earth.
Benjamin’s origins lay in the longings of my heart, and in my husband Bob’s. Our germ cells united and grew into a fetus, nurtured by the food and air molecules I took in during pregnancy. Blood molecules flowed back and forth through the umbilical cord that connected my son and me. After birth, he fed on the milk my body created. The molecules of my body were forever altered by the presence of his.
Turning 13, Benjamin celebrated his bar mitzvah, the culmination of years of learning to read and recite prayers and the Torah in Hebrew. Wearing his new gray suit, and the silk prayer shawl he’d chosen, he stood on the bimah to deliver his d’var Torah, a speech based on the portion of the Torah he had just chanted. His Torah portion was Bereshit, the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the story of how God created the universe. Benjamin’s speech melded the language of the Torah with that of modern physicists like Arno Penzias and Roger Penrose: the “darkness upon the deep” juxtaposed with the singularity. He spoke of the Big Bang, the sometimes-conflicted relationship between science and religion, and the controversy over teaching evolution in schools. He concluded that science answers “how” questions, and religion answers “why” questions. Science might tell us how a fetus develops into a newborn baby, while religion could explore why God created humans. As I listened from the pews, pride lit up my face, along with the memory of three-year-old Benjamin and his space books, his warm hand on my arm.
All the matter we have ever seen, from the face of our beloved to the stars in the night sky, makes up less than 5% of the universe. The rest is what cosmologists call dark energy and dark matter, and neither is understood well by scientists. Some have even postulated the existence of multiple universes.
Benjamin loved math. As a child, he enjoyed teaching math to his younger brother Sam, delighted in thinking about the meaning of infinity, and liked to use the word “googleplex.” He earned a mathematics degree in college, in addition to his economics degree, “just for fun.” Doing math research with a professor was his favorite part of college. After graduation, he developed a passion for literature, reading all of the Russian masters and then turning to Marcel Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. As he made his way through each volume, he liked to share with me his favorite passages of Proust’s meditations on the past, involuntary memory, grief, and the fleeting nature of life. Marcel Proust died before he could finish editing the last three volumes, which were published posthumously by his son.
The word “atom” comes from the Greek word for “indivisible.” The earliest atoms created in the Big Bang were hydrogen and helium. As more diverse types of particles came to be, they condensed into stars and galaxies over 180 million years. Inside the fiery furnaces of stars, all of the other elements developed, including those that make up our solar system and our stardust bodies.
Our family was a four-atom molecule, bonded together: Benjamin, Sam, Bob, and myself. We imagined it would always be that way. When molecules split apart, do they long for their missing atoms? Does the earth long for the sun? Do the tides long for the moon?
Benjamin died when he was 23, asleep in his childhood bedroom. The unthinkable Big Bang that altered our family forever. We buried him in a simple cotton shroud and his silk prayer shawl, in a plain pine box, at the edge of Minnehaha Creek, in a South Minneapolis Jewish cemetery. Along with his body, we buried the future we’d all imagined for our son and our family.
Where are “his” molecules now? Some 8 years after his death, many have moved on to share their atoms with new molecules. But surely some remain in the earth, or perhaps form particles that blow on the wind, through the towering pines above his gravestone.
The molecules of my body long to be reunited with Benjamin’s. To be linked again as we were in the nine months when he was physically part of me, his cells steadily dividing toward separation, while my body kept him safe. Space and time now form the barrier that keeps us apart.
I wonder whether Benjamin has left some molecules behind in his bedroom, hiding between the cushions of the rocking chair where I often sit, meditating and sending him lovingkindness. Perhaps somewhere in this sunlit space, his molecules lie on the black and white quilt I made for him, on the books and papers he once touched, in the stained blue carpet…little skin molecules, hairs, air molecules he once breathed in and out, stray cells on the lip of a cup from which he once drank. Are they here in this place of emptiness?
Benjamin’s remaining molecules are evidence that my son once existed, evidence now being recycled into the wide universe, changing form but never disappearing. As I am forced into a future without him, where we no longer make new memories together, I feel him receding from me like the objects in the universe recede from one another in the vast blackness of space. This is the Hubble constant of grief: memories of our loved ones growing faint, their lives feeling more distant as time goes on. I long to gather up his molecules, hold them in my shaking hands, and cry out to the night sky: where have you gone? Where is your place in space and time now?
In grief, our very perception of time changes, morphing into strange shapes, expanding and contracting, or curving in upon itself. After my son died, my life divided itself into two distinct parts, with a dark line running down the middle: before Benjamin died, and after. Early grief pulled me back across that line, into the time when he was alive, where I wanted to stay, unwilling to move into a future that didn’t include him. Some days I can believe that years have passed since his death, and other days bring his death as close as yesterday. Eight years on, his friends have become settled adults, married and thriving, while we are painfully out-of-synch, as though we’d fallen into a black hole while everyone else went on living.
My beautiful son came from an unknown place in the universe, and he has returned to an unknown place. I am here, orbiting the nucleus of my sorrow, contemplating absence. On this summer day, I sit in the grass on Benjamin’s grave, where I come every month to tell him stories and leave behind a small stone. Indigo petunias, crimson geraniums, and feathery grasses grow in his flower box, caressed by the breeze. He is here and not here, in this place of remembrance. The sun warms my back as I read aloud the words on his granite gravestone: “Beloved son, brother, grandson, nephew, friend. Gentle soul, beautiful mind, open heart.” An iridescent turquoise dragonfly lands on the stone, planting itself just above the word “friend.” I tell my son the legend of the dragonfly, a story I learned after his death: that just as dragonflies after metamorphosis hover above the ponds where they once lived as larvae, invisible to and unable to communicate with those still under the water, so too do our lost loved ones linger unseen in our lives. I share with Benjamin my hope that some of his molecules are close by, just as I cherish everything he taught me about holding life and knowledge in a wide, loving embrace.