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Ultimate Particles

by Ann Haelan

There are 1080 particles in the Universe. Nothing more. Nothing less. After Maggie died I found solace in this curious bit of scientific trivia. Never mind that Maggie is no longer walking the earth as my dear friend; every photon of Margaret Weeks’ effervescent energy has to be somewhere in the galaxies to keep the count right.

The number remains constant, we are assured by physicist Arthur Eddington, despite the comings and goings of monsoons, locusts, hurricanes and various new and old relatives. He calculated the controversial Eddington Number by hand while on a transatlantic boat crossing in the 1920s. I imagine him gazing into the void from the deck of the ship, his view of the Milky Way undiluted by city lights bleeding into the night sky.

Maggie and I found each other again in the Vallejo, California, Home Depot after not having seen one another for more than seven years. I had found my spiritual path by getting sober, and Maggie had found her own enlightenment by dealing with her childhood wounds. I like to think that our meeting again was providential, or perhaps, caused by centrifugal forces overpowering the centripetal energy pushing us apart.

There was something about her that was distinctly different. She looked fatigued and diminutive, not like the robust Maggie I had known during our partying years. She insisted, implored me to call her. Had she not been so emphatic, I wouldn’t have bothered. We had worked for the same company years before but had not been particularly close.

When I finally did call, she told me about the lump she had found in her breast seven years before. Without doing a biopsy, her doctor had told her it was nothing, just a fibrocyst. Months later, she had gone back with her persistent worry and was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer.

Her daughter Tizzie was three and her son Philip was only an infant at the time. For a total of nine years Maggie endured multiple doses of chemotherapy, radiation treatment and surgeries. She managed to keep the enemy at bay for two years after our reunion. It was only after a body scan found metastases in her liver that she really got scared.

My relationship with Maggie was like no other. There was a cleanness and openness to our love that gets clouded when you are deluded into thinking you have tomorrow with another. I remember a “Conscious Living, Conscious Dying” workshop we attended in San Francisco right before her last chemo regimen. As we drove to the city from Napa, she instructed me not to take her death too hard.

“Yeah, right,” I replied with my usual sarcasm. We cried together that morning, many times, as Stephen and Ondrea Levine counseled us in the art of conscious living. We danced a Sufi Sema to the Pachelbel Canon in D minor and ate chocolate chip cookies on the worn stone steps of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

My heart broke a thousand times, yet somehow continued to keep beating in my chest, sending the sugar from my cookies and the salt of my tears to all the cells of my grief-wracked frame. We celebrated our rediscovered friendship that day, and capped it with an elegant dinner in Sausalito.

Yet I had to fight daily the urge to turn and run. Being with Maggie was too painful, too stark, devoid of the denial that filters and softens the harsh glare of mortality. But I was like a deer in the headlights, frozen stock-still, mesmerized by the illumination. I could not leave. She needed me, and I needed to live for once with my heart wide open. Those two years with Maggie were an exquisite agony, with the awareness of our mortality — my mortality — an unwelcome interloper, always there. She died on December 23, 1993.

The funeral chapel offered standing room only. Tizzie seemed relieved that I had arrived. I knew she expected me to eulogize her mother. Had I possessed the courage and insight that day, I would have faced that crowd of two hundred and told Tizzie that her mother was an ordinary woman who had lived her life in an extraordinary way.

Through the sheer repetition of her own example, daily, for two years, Maggie taught me four simple, yet profound tenets: show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and let go. I would have shared with Tizzie what I had read decades before: it costs so much to be a full human being that few people have the courage or the enlightenment to pay the price. I would have told her that to do so one must abandon altogether the search for security and reach out to the risk of living with both arms. One must embrace the world like a lover, accept pain as a condition of existence, and court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing.

I don’t know, of course, if Maggie has yet gathered her wandering molecules into a more solid form, but I truly did see a glint of her in the eyes of that tow-headed three-year old at the market today. Maggie may also have donated a million molecules to this tabby cat Persia who has taken up the cadence of my life, graces my heart, and is the soul of my home.

I have extrapolated the scientific verity 1080 to the nth degree. I imagine when we are dead — and so-called gone — we can join Maggie gamboling about the galaxies. We might donate a billion molecules apiece to become the first purple crocus that explodes from the cold spring loam in a New England flower bed. We can whirl a trillion particles as other countless atoms gather to form a star nebula, just waiting to be christened by an observant astronomer. We will dance the ancient dance of Shiva, ever becoming, ever dissolving.

The best particles of us will become the inspirations of poets, the tangible solace of those who grieve, and the answered prayers of the forgotten. We will have plenty of particles left to join the shifting sands of the Mojave, a drop of dew bathing a blade of grass, or a crimson swirl painted on an August sunset. We’ll carry the bark of a dog across the Burlingame Valley and echo it back.

But a good many of our particles will continue to bound about the universe, playing nip and tuck, rollicking around planets and casting a shooting star now and then, mingling, bonding, communing in pure love and being.

Nothing more, but certainly, nothing less.

Copyright © 2011 by Ann Haelan

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