The universe is old. Scientists estimate that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, which is approximately 4.35 X 1017 seconds. The first galaxy formed a brief 600 million years after the big bang, with countless primordial stars collapsing into hot young stars, the epicenters of solar systems, and worlds beyond counting forming in the dust orbiting the new stars. There were stars of all sizes, some a little larger than Jupiter and others nearly two thousand times the size of our sun.
Light shining from those stars, like a beacon in the vast emptiness of the expanding universe, does not die. It will travel for an eternity at approximately 3 x 105 kilometers per second, in a straight line from its birth, bent only by strong fields of gravity, until it is absorbed by an object. Light, which has traveled for 13.8 billion years, dies when it excites sensors on telescopes. Light, which has traveled unimaginable distances, dies to tell us about its parent star.
hose stars must surely be dead. Died in a supernova; their ejecta giving birth to new stars and new planets. Or they died from gravity, consumed by a growing black hole lurking in the heart. Or they died from a lack of fuel, doomed to remain an eternal corpse. And with their deaths, the planets have died. They ceased to exist when a supernova consumed their bodies in their entirety; they died with their stars, crushed into nothing by gravity. Or they became ghosts to haunt the star’s corpse. Millions, perhaps billions of planets mournfully orbiting a dead star, unable to escape habits from the past.
As small as a star is compared to a galaxy, biological cells are just as microscopic compared to a body. Scientists estimate there are 1.0 x 1013 cells inside the human body. Each cell has a nucleus to protect the chromosomes, and numerous other structures inside the cytoplasm zipping around forming proteins, the basis of life. All 10 trillion cells working together. Heart cells busy beating, muscles cells busy moving, nerve cells busy sending messages, blood cells busy carrying oxygen, and the list continues for the hundred different cell types in a human body.
Many types of cells replicate in a child. Each cell becomes two, and two become four until the child becomes an adult. Then the energy of youth slackens, leaving the cells to languish in cellular life. Some will continue to replicate, replacing themselves before dying, keeping the body whole. But not the heart.
When the heart stops beating, blood stops circulating. Neurons will begin to die in seconds after blood stops delivering oxygen and sugar. Other cells, not needing energy in such vast torrents as neurons, die slower. But almost all cells will have died after 70 hours – white blood cells being the last. Though the body is dead, bones will remain for hundreds of years – a dense remnant of the body. And if the body is buried in the right circumstances, it may transform into a fossil to exist for millions of years. Or billions of years like the earliest cyanobacteria discovered.
I wonder what the oldest galaxy is like at the moment I am typing these words. If I could magically take a photograph of the galaxy, what would it look like? Would there still be stars shining brightly, or would the galaxy be a soft glow cast by the dead stars, or has a black hole consumed all? While they lived, they shone brightly for millions or a few billion years. If they were too small to explode in a supernova, they became white dwarfs, slowly radiating heat for hundreds of billions of years. In a few hundred billion years, they will become black dwarfs, fossils of their former selves, existing forever.
Billions of galaxies moving away from each other at millions of miles per hour. Trillions of solar systems orbiting the galaxy at nearly 500,000 miles per hour. Planets more numerous than cells in all living humans orbiting their stars in a choreographed dance. Each planet rotating from hundreds to thousands of miles per hour. Yet I feel none of this as I sit still in this chair looking at a photograph.
I am in love.
The girl in the photograph whom I loved passionately. The girl in the photograph smiling at the photographer is from a billion years ago. The girl whom I haven’t seen in twenty-five years, what is she like now, living in Seattle? I have heard that she married and birthed two children. If I could take a photograph of her, would the luster in her hair have faded? Would her skin have begun to sag, pulled by gravity to the earth? Surely, her cells have begun to err in replication, causing blemishes on her skin, in her organs, or in her hair. Certainly, there are cancerous cells ready to explode into a supernova of disease.
As surely as I would not recognize the distant galaxy that is seen in its youth through telescopes, I would not recognize the girl whom I loved if I happened to walk past her in a grocery store aisle. The girl I have not seen in twenty-five years, the girl who lives only in my memory. The girl whose face shines in this photograph I hold in my hands will continue to be loved by me, the love circling its star long after it has spent its energy.
A girl that never existed, only imagined. For neurons have died, and new paths created, distorting memories, creating new stars that attract the mind. Were her lips as soft and moist as remembered? Did we spend the day at Saltair, the hydrogen sulfate infused mud clinging to our clothes? And did I drive her every day to school after working a graveyard shift, both of us singing along with the Smiths? Did we playfully argue when holding hands, both of us preferring our thumb on top? Was my love as bright as the first galaxy in the blackness of the expanding universe?