It’s Summer, nighttime, late, and hot. Off in the dark somewhere some store’s burglar alarm has been ringing nonstop for the last half-hour and no one seems to care. I get up and pace the hallway, peer out the bathroom window, pull aside a wrinkled curtain (where is that ringing coming from) and jiggle the toilet in hopes its dripping will finally let up. Back into the bedroom, I open the window wide. There is no breeze, only some child across the way screaming as it’s shook. Humidity muffles but does not mute entirely. I look up at the sky — no stars, only clouds. Tomorrow it will rain. I go back to bed. Not one star in the sky, only clouds, clouds somehow oddly white.
Now, why do you suppose it is that I can even see them? Clouds, whiteness. Where does their luminosity come from on a night like this? I consider physics, reflectivity, city luminescence actually a pollutant of the night, lighting the heavens from below — the heavens lit from earth, how odd. But there is no light above, not in this nighttime sky. So why can I see the clouds at night?
Another of my questions.
The psychic told me, “You say profound things that sound really stupid,” and everyone laughed. But I know what I’m about.
Where is the light that lights the night? I consider this. There’s physics in it really, and metaphysics too, and metaphors for life.
Understand just once, and you’ll know the Secret. And then you’ll turn to tell a friend, and lose it. It slips from memory, or remaining there, the words elude. But it haunts the heart, so we try again.
When I was in seventh grade my science teacher suggested that we submit all our unanswered questions; things like why is the sky blue, the grass green. Why is the sky blue? He had a ready answer to set our minds at ease. But later that same question appeared on my fourth-year chemistry exam. Explain the quantum physics of it. Give the equations of the light and atoms (worse yet, solve them, calculus long hand). The professor had laboriously explained, and it had not quite sunk in. To this day, I do not know. But I know I don’t, which is better than my science teacher. At least my ignorance is named.
I recall another day back in junior high. He wrote upon the blackboard large: DNA/RNA. He pointed to the letters lying there like some Kabbalistic mantra, then said, “This is the secret of life.”
I was electrified. “The Secret of Life.” I ran all the way home that afternoon, slamming through the screen door, yelling for my mom, “Guess what I learned today — the Secret of Life!”
“Oh, that’s nice, honey. What is it?” “ ‘DNA goes to RNA.’ ”
“What does that mean?” I had no idea.
I couldn’t explain life back to Mom, so I got out our World Book. (The “World Book,” what a marvelous name for a book of knowledge, so much better than the imperialistic smack of “Britannica.” There is no magic there.) So, there I sat with World Book upon my lap and decided to read it through from A to Z. Mom said that that was fine, in fact my father had done the same thing when he was a boy, skinny, with no friends. It was an act both commendable and odd. But I started out undaunted by complexities, and when the words got too difficult, I’d just look at the pictures, or simply hold the volume close, as if in time love and osmosis could absorb the Secret. I swam in images and visions, and a hope unspoken.
Around this time I also had a dream. It was night and Pop and I were standing in a long line of people, a beaten lot, standing silently, and every now and then moving up a bit. The sky was reddened behind us as if in the distance some battle still raged burning up the night, but we seemed not to notice. We merely continued waiting, slowly inching forward. Up ahead our destination, inevitable, appeared — a single, weathered shanty of an outhouse. People went in one by one, and never came out again.
Then I realized It.
“Pop, I know the Secret of Life.” I pulled at his arm, but he didn’t seem to care. I tugged again more adamantly.
“All we have to do is not go in there.” But he wasn’t listening and I began to panic. It meant the saving of his life, and he wasn’t listening. I began to scream and pull, hurling broken explanations, and he just went on inside. I pulled at him with all my might, trying to pull him out, trying to hold onto his life, trying to explain the simplicity of “No.” I was still pulling as he slowly did a header into the toilet’s hole and disappeared in a flushing swirl.
I awoke terrified and sweating.
Finally, now, the night begins to cool as raindrops splatter on the sidewalk. From my bed I can see the clouds. They seem even whiter now, as if they reflect a winter’s chill, or a night illumined by full moon. But neither is the case. It’s cloudy and it’s raining, and I have to wonder. If they are rain clouds, why aren’t they black? And why are rain clouds black? Water’s blue, or clear, or muddy. Why blue, why black, why white? You tell me the secret, anyway.
Red meat’s red, not from blood, but mitochondria (bacteria that got inside and now respire for us). Blood is red from hemoglobin, the iron atom (“Fe”) conjugated into place at the center of a four-sided heme moiety. Iron with two electrons free is red. Lose (or gain?) one, as the blood dries, oxidizes, and it turns to brown. In crayfish the blood is green. The heme contains a copper rather than an iron atom. In grass there is magnesium, green in that selfsame heme group. With two electrons, green; with three, it becomes yellow.
Nature’s coloring book follows twisting rules. Color is a function of atomic structure, little dots of electrons, come and count them. Then too, there are the waves, electromagnetic beams, and rays, and radiation. The entire spectrum infrared to ultraviolet, micro to gamma radiation. But it’s all physics, and too, ultimately perception. I see color and dogs don’t. You tell me the secret. Swallow vitamin B-6 and your dreams become profuse.
Pop decided to become a chemist when as a fatherless boy living in his mother’s boarding house he was marvelously impressed by the hairy arms of their chemist boarder. His choice was reconfirmed when after graduation he couldn’t find a job in the Depression. So he stayed in school, thanks to a rich aunt, and got his Ph.D.
He found that he liked going to the lab each morning to discover that overnight his solution had crystalized into new white powder never seen on Earth before. Eventually, he became a research director, but as a kid I thought he was a “Search Director.” I figured that each day he went to work to look for something lost, just what or who I did not know. But, there was that implication. It seems a child’s simplicity now, but in a way that’s what scientists really do. They look and look for what it is they’ve lost, though they consider it “discovery” rather than “recovery.” Steel trap minds delineate and formulate, until lost hearts must break. But it is in our hearts that the true searching’s done. And I have to wonder, in this age of science, who of us can entirely escape this being scientific.
Secrets, Dreams, and Fathers. Can you see the pattern?
All this is The Secret — along with facts like:
I’ve left the stove light on tonight so the roaches won’t come out and, hopefully, will instead go and infest the neighbors; Louis L’Amour sells serialized sets of Old West novels on late night UHF now, a yee-haw ole boy in leather chaps replacing Vegematic ads; and my swollen glands/sore throat appear to be allergically induced. This is no summer cold that I struggle with.
The Secret of Life? It’s not in physics, nor in psyche, but in the mixing. I still cannot spell the words without a pause. All the p’s and y’s and s’s and h’s. The words are the same, just the letters rearranged. Physics, metaphysics, and metaphor. Comprehend on level after level until the solid dissolves away, then wayless and weightless, flow into solidity again.
The Secret of Life? Understand just one thing perfectly, completely. See the outside, know the inside. Do this simply once in Creation, with a stem of grass, a grain of sand, the sky above, one event of history, one phenomenon of mind, one thing that is and then simply isn’t. The on and off, the linear repetition becomes a cycle — Life’s evolving spiral.
Understand just once, and you’ll know the Secret. And then you’ll turn to tell a friend, and lose it. It slips from memory, or remaining there, the words elude. But it haunts the heart, so we try again. That is why sex is so popular, and why we like to be alone. Search and research. Finding everything in anything, anything in everything. My fingernails grow four and one half times as quickly as my toenails, as if the life force rushes skyward, sweeping nutrients away.
I was seventeen and didn’t know that Jennifer Blyler’s grandmother was about to die in front of me. I’d entered eagerly, one of the privileged few. This was my first chance to see a cardiac arrest. It never once occurred to me that it might go badly. I was seventeen. My world knew only happy endings. Besides, the hospital administrators encouraged participation, observation, and the Dartmouth boy, my high school’s ex-football captain and student council president, had invited me himself. He’d stopped me all excited in the hallway, as I walked on my way to the pharmacy to watch them count out pills. “Hey, there is a Doctor Blue. I’m going, want to come?”
We crept in and stood against the wall, out of the way. The oscilloscope bleeped straight, and they pounded on her chest. They took a four-inch needle and stuck it past her sternum, adrenalin directly to the heart. They ventilated her, then electroshocked her once, and then again. I began to wonder. It couldn’t happen, could it? I backed further into the corner and began to tremble.
Then they simply quit. “It’s too bad, she was a nice lady,” the doctor said. Then there was only silence and the respirator rasping. The doctors rolled down their sleeves, buttoned their cuffs, gathered up their jackets, and walked out. The crash cart was repacked. The respirator rolled out. But no one seemed to notice the body or looked after it.
It just lay there on the bed. The sheets wrinkled round the blue-white legs, her breasts thin pools upon her chest, ribs lined like a carcass. “It’s just a slab of meat,” I thought. I stared at the incongruity, the fine line between “human” and “dead body.” Somehow life seemed like mere intention — as long as they were trying, she was still “alive.” Then they simply quit. Now, her death did not register — a side of beef you’d see hanging in a butcher’s locker. This was no human being.
Then I saw why it was that way. She had been waiting for the outcome just as I had been. She was just the slightest shimmering of spirit there above the body, watching. And just as I had, she came to the same conclusion — it was over. With that recognition her luminescence drifted up through the ceiling and was gone.
I stood there trembling awhile longer, waiting for the last of the technicians to finish up, then turned to Doug. “Do you want to get some lunch?” and as we walked to the cafeteria, I thought it strange that I would order hamburger.
That night I lay down with Pop. Those were the years we were best friends. We liked to lie in bed and talk. I would scratch his back and he would tell me about electron orbits, organic chemistry — methane, ethane, propane, butane, alkanes, alkenes, or about the serendipitous discovery in his lab that promised a breakthrough in lithography, or about the curvature of space and relativity, or his synthesis of morphine. Or sometimes we’d just lie quietly, with me trying new patterns on his back, or working my hand up the nape of his neck, into the short, thick hair which bent, I thought, like fields of wheat before the revolving harvester of my fingers, and Pop would let out a long quiet groan.
That night, after a while, he asked if anything interesting had happened that day at work. I said, “I saw a woman die.”
He listened without a word, even when I finished. So I continued to harvest on in silence, waiting. Finally, came his gentle Virginia drawl, “You know, she might have stayed put, and we are the ones who dropped away.”
On that I could not comment, but now it makes me laugh.