Mum and I part ways at the airport security checkpoint.
She hugs me hard and says, “I’ll text you when I land.”
She knows something’s wrong and leaves me with the same marching orders as before. Test my iron levels. Ask my doctor to print out the results. Read them to her over the phone. I promise her I will because I don’t have it in me to say I already did. My iron’s so low the doctor isn’t sure the reading is accurate. I need an abdominal ultrasound. It will show anything suspicious or missing. Maybe nothing. Maybe something.
It feels like I’m marooned on the Moon. Everyone else is back on Earth living their own lives and I can only watch from across the void. My mum calls me every second night and I stare at the lab results tucked behind my copy of Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight. This moment is billions of years in the making, but it’s too big and I’m too small. Every time I think about broaching the subject is like exposing myself to vacuum. The air is sucked out of my lungs. I try to hold on to the last breath while moisture in my eyes and mouth boils off.
Space has always been an interest of mine. My apartment has books about black holes, the solar system, and astrophotography. Most are old and outdated, featuring discarded hypotheses on how reality is put together and how it will come apart. Pluto is still a planet and Russia is still the U.S.S.R. There are a lot of artistic interpretations of planets, stars, and nebulae. In newer books, many of these paintings are replaced by photographs.
One of my favourites is a quasar called the Einstein Cross. Quasars are like blowtorches ignited by powerful frictional and electromagnetic forces (such as those around a black hole.) In the photograph, there are five points that connect into the shape of a cross. There’s only one quasar, but it sits directly behind a galaxy. The galaxy bends its light like an old spoon so a single object looks like five. This is called gravitational lensing. Each point emits bright blue light—my favourite colour. We tend to associate blue with the cold here on Earth, but it’s one of the hottest, most high-energy colours in the universe.
The funny thing about light is that it travels at a finite speed. We don’t notice it much here. Light from the sun is eight and a half minutes old. Every sunset you and I ever see is from eight and a half minutes in the past. The farther we look into space, the more outdated the images become. Like looking at older and older books about the same subject. Since quasars are one of the brightest, most distant objects in the visible universe, their light is some of the oldest we ever see. The Einstein Cross is about eight billion light years away. It’s a peek at something from eight billion years in the past.
We never see things as they are, only as they were. But that’s the solace of space. Somewhere out there, an epitaph of light is racing across the cosmos carrying our image. We’re already ghosts locked inside a pocket of time.
It gives my life stability. It’s better than living out a maybe. I’m learning to hate the word maybe. It bounces inside the cramped hollow of my skull. To quiet it, I make a foray onto the internet, which has precisely the opposite effect. I now see a multiverse of malignancies. Maybe it’s severe anaemia secondary to celiac disease. Maybe it’s PCOS. Maybe it’s stress. Maybe it’s diabetes. Maybe it’s cancer. That puts a chill up my legs. The only thing worse than having a disease is maybe having it. There’s no fighting a maybe. There’s no confiding in others about it. Maybe rests on the back of my neck like a stranger’s hand.
Then tests start coming back. Negative for celiac disease and diabetes. That leaves PCOS and the maybe. I’m defined by a void and must now learn how to live inside it. ‘Ultrasound’ starts to fight for space at the edge of my every thought. That means knowing. And that means telling my mum. There’s no one else I trust on this side of the Atlantic, but it’s difficult enough dealing with my own feelings. I don’t know if I can handle hers, too.
On days when maybe is ready to sweat out of my pores, I watch videos of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. They describe a philosophy of interrelatedness and a brand of immortality. Rewind just over 14 billion years to the beginning of time. It’s not a nice place to be. Like most family gatherings, things are uncomfortable, they’re complicated, and they’re messy. The organic hodgepodge of nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen necessary to create our bodies doesn’t exist yet.
The first stars live fast and die young. When they burn, their cores eventually create iron. This is a byproduct. A deadly one quietly growing and metastasizing out of sight. Once iron is fused inside its heart, the star’s energy starts to flag. The delicate balance between thermonuclear fusion and gravity tips toward gravity. The star collapses on itself, then explodes. But such deaths accomplish one important thing: they create heavy elements. The beautiful supernovae we see at night are the remnants of the same interstellar wreckage. They enable a future for the next generations of stars like our sun, which are relatively sedate and slow-burning. The dust orbiting around them slowly solidifies into planets, at least one of which has the right ingredients for life.
It sounds pretentious, but it’s real. The atoms in my pinkie may come from a star like Vega. Or maybe they’re spat out the arse-end of a black hole. Everything is related and recycled. Hundreds of people have taken the same breath of air that I’m taking now. The water in my body is on a nonstop journey between the bottom of the ocean and the edge of the atmosphere. Living on Earth means constantly exchanging molecules with everything else on the planet. Even the planet itself. The whole solar system melts into a single lineage of light and fire that’s banked inside our bodies.
By the time July rolls around, my hair is noticeably thinner. When I start straightening it, I see grey glints like silver ore veining through granite. Okay. I’m 28 years old. It’s not unheard of. Nothing a cut and dye can’t solve. But when I start picking out the hairs, they’re not entirely grey. They’re translucent, too. Each strand has bands of oscillating stripes down its shaft. From clear to grey to red to light brown to mouse fur. When the body is short on protein, it can’t grow and pigment hair properly.
It feels like a betrayal. I’m doing everything the doctors tell me to. There’s never been a time when my body doesn’t do what it’s told. After days of sulking, I wonder if this is a positive thing. My body’s clearly having difficulty absorbing nutrients. It’s a classic symptom of celiac disease. The anaemia, the vitamin deficiencies, and sudden changes in hair can all be explained. Maybe the rest is unrelated. It’s rare that a test comes back with a false negative, but it’s not impossible. Maybe I’m the exception. All that I would have to do is avoid gluten and wait for the villi in my intestines to heal. I’ll never have to have that conversation with my mum. This will be an unpleasant few months that I can set aside.
I say as much to my doctor.
“We should do an ultrasound,” she says and prints out another lab form.
Steve MacLean works alongside the International Space Station at 29,000 km per hour. Few human beings leave the planet. Even fewer have the privilege to make a spacewalk outside the International Space Station. He’s one of three Canadians to ever do so. The Canadarm2 hangs over him like a crane. He’s difficult to spot in the photograph. His spacesuit is the same colour as the station’s trusses. A deep blue ocean slides above him. It looks like a sunny day. There are hardly any clouds. Just a few wisps of cirrus. Beach weather.
Many astronauts say that photographs never quite capture what they see in orbit. Some essential nuance is lost. But when MacLean describes the experience of his spacewalk, it sticks with me.
“I inhaled the beauty of Earth.”
Light glitters across the water during the next sunrise, which happens every 90 minutes. Every detail on its surface as small and finely sculpted as a newborn’s hands. Perhaps they watch continents roll by while wrapped in the silence of their spacesuits. One pinch of stardust looking down at another. How does someone say good-bye to that?
The planet seems vast and immovable while I’m on it. But in my books, the sky is as thin as skin. Everything is suspended like motes against a black tarp. This is the first step back into the universe. We’re compelled to return home like salmon, swimming upstream one rocket at a time. Even now, people are working in space. It’s reassuring. Life goes on. We come by this urge honestly. Most of the human body is manufactured in the core of stars. My body—sweaty palms, thudding heart, faulty innards—is celestial in origin.
I take 100 mg of ferrous fumarate every morning. The pill is red and slightly rounded like a Smartie. It slew a sun, once. I pop it into my mouth, then take a gulp of water. There’s a certain poetry to it. A cycle. Maybe I’m destined for a slow burn. Maybe I’m almost out of fuel. Maybe something dark and heavy is growing in my core, too. Only time will tell. I spend days agonizing over possible scenarios.
I wouldn’t know how to say good-bye. Not to Earth or any of the people living on it or the life I have. That’s the problem. I’m 28 years old. I’m brief for a human being. That’s half a heartbeat in the life of a star. A blip of thought that glowed for a moment, then went quiet. When our sun goes out, it will be unremarkable. I don’t want to be condemned to the same fate. Reluctantly shedding layer after layer of myself until I’m nothing but a cooling lump shrouded in darkness.
The ultrasound is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity dictates that time, by its very nature, is elastic. Like light, it bends. It’s malleable. When something exerts enough gravity or achieves enough speed, time slows down. If you can hit the speed of light, time will stand still. You’ll stay as you are now. Maybe that’s all dying is. You keep moving forward; it’s everything else that stops.
The nature of time, like the speed of light, is not something I encounter on a daily basis. But on the day of my ultrasound, as I pull into the parkade, it’s all I can think about. I look down at my phone. It’s fully charged. The clock moves forward, but the intervals between each minute feel taut. Once the results are in, I’ll call my mum. This may be the last moment I have as myself and not as a perpetual patient. I wonder how I’ll feel weeks from now. What will I know about myself, then?
There’s nothing else for it. I step out of my car and inhale.