This weekend, an email landed in the Glow in the Woods inbox.
Please help us, it said.
36 hours after, all any of us can muster is a instinctual scream. He can’t yet formulate the questions that he needs to ask in order to start patching together the narrative he will need to survive. He’s a long way from that. But I feel crushingly humbled by the call to respond. What is ‘help’ the day after a baby dies?
I had been walking through the aisles of a grocery store just before Christmas thinking nutmeg; pastry flour; pecans. My phone vibrated. I stopped.
Please help us
(Please bring him back
Please wake me up
Please rewind time
Please make this not true)
I know. I know. I’m so sorry. I can’t.
"To fall into a black hole is a one-way trip. The escape velocity is so high that light can’t even get out. But you don’t just disappear. The gravity at your feet becomes rapidly greater than the gravity at your head. Your feet start falling faster than your head does. This is a bad situation to be in. We all stretch when we wake up—initially, it’s cosmic yoga. But that stretch continues, and the force becomes so great that it exceeds the molecular forces that bind your flesh. So you snap into two pieces at the base of your spine. Now, you are two pieces. Since there are no vital organs below your waist, your torso will stay alive for a little while. These two pieces then stretch and snap into two pieces and then eight and sixteen and you bifurcate your way down until you are a stream of atoms descending towards the abyss. The fabric of space and time is a funnel. As you are stretched and split, you are squeezed, extruded like toothpaste through a tube. We have a word for that: ‘spaghettification’, invented for just this purpose." —Neil Degrasse Tyson, author of Death by Black Hole & Other Cosmic Quandries
The audience chuckles throughout, delighted and rapt as if they’re in a sort of church. The astrophysicist sermonizes about the wondrousness of the physical world, and we call back. His speculations are theoretically sound, but they’re implausible enough for us to giggle from the safety of solid ground.
Walking through the dairy section, my mind fixed on Jersey City, I thought about black holes.
The baby dies and you split, and split again.
Inside the black hole, you are not able to contemplate the nature of black holes, or where you might go next, or what will happen to your consciousness. You can only stretch and split and continue stretching and splitting as this pain happens to you. You might wish for a passing spaceship or the infinite improbability drive from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—you push the button, and you turn into a teacup that is then rescued by a houseplant. Normality returns at a safer point in hyperspace. But contemplation? No. This loss eats all the light, pulling limbs off your body, and gravity is everything.
You say Please help us
And I don’t say:
There is no such thing as an infinite improbability drive
Or a DeLorean with a flux capacitor
Or a kindly alien with eight legs who can swallow you up, all of you, and shelter you in her gullet as she swims backwards through space-time to the moment where everything was still okay
I wish there were
There is only the black hole. I see you, but you are a million light years away.
You can’t say to someone who has just been sucked in that they will reconstitute. You just can’t. It is impossible. Everything is. I see the clothes that still carry his warmth, the pile of dirty laundry that still carries his spit-up. I see your frantic family on a plane. I see the two of you clinging to each other.
You say Please help us
I can only watch from a million light years away.
We are strangers to each other. You arrived to me through a website in a series of zeroes and ones. But we are space travellers connected forever by shared astrophysics.
I was once pulled apart into a drifting cloud of atoms and molecules. Like oil in a dish, my specks magnetically drew to one another over what felt like millennia until there were enough atoms and molecules for an arm, a kidney, an ear, until I was myself again, sort of.
If there is a god, she is Time. She passes. She is the only interventionist, and she works on an exquisitely fine scale. You feel abandoned by her until the point you realize that she has been doing her work all along.
The black hole is yours to endure now. But I can see you. This is parallelism. Mother Nature sees you too, and Time. The ancient ones. Atoms and molecules, the cosmos. Your son made a little flutter, and they all noticed.
Is she lactating? I said.
Yes, he replied. It is hell.
I sent him to the Glow library for how to stop the milk but there’s not much else, is there? Other than So you have found yourself in this black hole. I make sure he knows that I have been there, too. I am speaking to him from the other side, reconstituted, though that's not relevant right now. The day after his baby died, he cannot consider life. He is still in the death. He is still in shock, stretching and splitting exponentially.
That is the black hole. I am so sorry that you are in it.
Readers, please time-travel for me. Please comment and leave something here for those who find us in the immediate aftermath: not just a condolence, but a memory or a bit of communion from your first days and weeks and months after loss. What would ‘help’ have felt like, for you? What did you need to hear?