Kara Gordon

Returnings

A fortnightly letter to the people going at 100 miles an hour, perspectives on the less glamorous parts of life that are on our minds. Subscribe here.

From Stardust to Stardust

I met Amanda her freshman year of college, another butterflyer in my lane my junior year. My first memory of her is her finding my earring at the bottom of the pool. She was a hard worker, dedicated, and obviously kind. She ended up being one of my “kids” in my swim family, sharing a bed with me on training trip, and dating one of my best friends. As my closer friends on the women’s team quit, Amanda became my closest confidant in my final two years of collegiate swimming. I asked Amanda to write this for Returnings because it’s a story that I simply have not experienced yet: the grief of losing a parent. I’m honored to share her story here.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be easier than this—I’d already done it once, and survived. But what did I know?

Like a string of Christmas lights, binary represents a sequence. In this case the lights are imperfect—some lights are on while others are off. The specific pattern of lights on and off is unique and can be extrapolated to numbers, letters, symbols that indicate meaning and tell electronics how to function. My father explained this concept to me one day when we were in the car together. I couldn’t have been older than ten or eleven.

My father was an explainer and a storyteller. I asked him questions all the time. Why is the sky blue?1 Where did he get that scar?2 What does the NanoSIMS do?3 What’s a story from his childhood?4 How do electronics work?5 My father had an exciting story to tell for them all.

The most exciting stories he told were of his research: his day-to-day activities doing cutting edge science. My parents studied small pieces of dust older than the solar system. They analyzed the composition of the grains of dust, identifying anomalous oxygen isotopes in their structure hinting at a pre-historic origin.

***

“She died of an accidental overdose.” My sister’s voice didn’t waver on the phone but is coated in anguish.

“How the fuck is that accidental?” My mother was dead, that much I understood. What didn’t make sense is how she died. Suicide, it’s got to be suicide, I thought moments earlier as my sister breaks the news.6 The reality took a few moments to process. No. It took a few months to process. No. I still haven’t processed it.

It was déjà vu. Eight years earlier, in mid-October of 2010, my mother and I were calling extended family, friends, acquaintances with unexpected news. My father had died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Since my father’s death, I have grown to become a young scientist, with publications and research abounding. Since my mother’s death, I have grown to wonder why I’ve done all this science at all. As sure they shared their science with me, I wanted to share my science with them. Now I am unable to do that.

Now all that remains of both of them are the ashes in two small urns on my bookshelf.

***

I’m flying on a plane back to St. Louis late at night. I’m 19 or 20 years old, unknowingly about halfway between my parents’ deaths. I’m lucky enough to have a window seat. There’s not much to see out the window, but I glance out in attempt to see some stars as we climb over the clouds. It’s a moonless night. The flight attendant asks if I want anything to drink, but my face is now pressed against the window, grasping for any glimmer I can get. There’s a meteor shower. I’m above the clouds and part of the atmosphere, so there are dozens. Tiny meteors streak across the sky, lighting up in flames for a brief second before they are vaporized in the atmosphere. I am in awe.

My awe for the shooting stars that night echoes back generations and generations, to when humanity sat around a campfire, exchanging oral histories. We would look up at the sky, see the Moon, the stars, the Milky Way, and occasionally even meteor showers. Of course, we didn’t understand the night sky then, but we revered the sky above us—the sky is heavenly. We saw wanderings stars,7 which we named after gods, who must be traversing the heavens. We saw patterns in the stars and made sense of them by naming them after gods, people, legends, that lived before us and now watch over us as we sleep. We used the patterns in the sky over months, seasons, and years to make sense of the stunning vastness of the heavens above us. What kind of wonderfulness could have left the heavens there for us to see? What special gift was it to stay up late and see the night sky appear as the Sun went down?

The wonder and study of the heavens never died. It’s remained active over all these millennia. With time, it has become more precise and interpretive. We measure the motions of the stars, the wandering stars, the Moon. We learn to quantify the heavens and know the mathematical properties that control their periodic habits. With arduous work and imagination that knows no bounds, we even set foot on another celestial body, the Moon. With every new mission a space agency sends to a celestial body, we explore the heavens a little more, discover a little more, and find secrets waiting to be told. The beauty of the heavens is as eternal as the universe, the wonder never ceases, the awe never subsides.

My father and mother were scientists. They paved the way for me to carve out my name in the heavens. I grieve not only for the loss of my parents, but also the science that may go undiscovered now that they are gone.

To study the heavens is to study our creator, our ancestors, our future. For me, it is to study my parents and other loved ones that have been lost along the way. The sky above us, alight with meteors, veils infinite mysteries waiting to be discovered. Like a string of Christmas lights, my ancestors made a pattern in the sky, and I too shall make patterns of familiarity in the sky.

Footnotes

1. The sky is blue because of a process called Rayleigh scattering. Water preferentially scatters longer wavelength light (blues, purples), and it absorbs shorter wavelength light (reds, oranges). So, the water droplets in the sky prefer to scatter blues and purples over other colors from the Sun. There isn’t enough purple light from the Sun to make the sky purple, but the Sun emits lots of blue light, enough that with the water in the atmosphere, the sky looks blue.
 
2. My father had acne as a teenager, and it was bad enough that it scarred his face with little pock-marks.
 
3. The NanoSIMS stands for nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometer, which means that it’s a fancy way of seeing what elements and isotopes are in a material on a very fine (nanometer) scale.
 
4. He used to visit the youth hostel that his grandparents ran as he was a child. There, his grandmother would bake streusel cake (a flat cake with some sort of filling, topped with powdered sugar crumbs) for the tenants of the hostel. Before the cake was served, it’d be sitting on a large plate and my father was allowed to eat any of the filling that leaked out of the edges of the cake. This was two-fold in purpose: one, his hunger was kept at bay and he would be too preoccupied paying attention to the cake to cause mischief, and two, the appearance of the cake would be kept tidy without the leaks at the edges. My father, clever as usual, realized that if he gently squished the center of the cake, more filling would spill out of the edges. He would squish the cake carefully, not to reveal his actions, and systematically, to ensure he got all the filling possible before his grandmother returned to serve the cake.
 
5. Electronics communicate in binary, which is basically just a system of numbers where ones and zeros are the only digits. The exact sequence of ones and zeros designate a pattern, that can be extrapolated to higher numbers, letters, and symbols. In this way, we can tell electronics how to function and complete tasks.
 
6. As I found out after my father’s passing, my mother was chronically depressed and periodically suicidal to the point of self-harm or attempts at her life. Her admissions to in-patient were regular, never more than 1-2 years apart, except for the large gap from my birth to my father’s death. It was inevitable, until it wasn’t.
 
7. Planets, or wandering stars, do not follow the path of the other stars in our sky, they travel along a line and move back and forth, wandering the heavens. 

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