“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” – Carl Sagan
Even then, perhaps not.
“There is a weight I don’t know how to get out from under,” she wrote. “It hangs on me. It sits with me when I sit. It walks with me, reluctantly, when I walk. It doesn’t want to walk or to get up, but sometimes I make it. I make it get up, because I ought to go to work. I ought to live some sort of life. But the weight makes my bed more comfortable, and it likes to be surrounded by cozy blankets.
“It’s a weight that hangs on to my chest, and it’s the weight that turns a deep breath into a sigh. It feels like despair and threatens to choke me when I don’t hold it at bay.
But holding it at bay is the best I’ve been able to do lately.
“It feels like disappointment. It all feels like disappointment. I didn’t even know I had these expectations until disappointment started to crush me. And now it feels too late.”
She put down the pen.
At the foot of a bed stood a woman. Her husband, nearing the end of his 93 years, slept peacefully. He had been sick for 6 months, and he’d told her that morning that he was ready to go. She watched him now, wondering how many more breaths he would draw. A hundred? A thousand? Would he slip away in the next few minutes?
She needed to go to the bathroom. “You’ve been so good to me. Our life has been good. But it’s time for me to go,” he had told her that morning. He’d been asleep for 2 hours, and the sun’s orange rays filtered in through lace curtains; dusk approached. She slipped away to the room next door and relieved herself.
In the bathroom mirror, she touched her palms to her wrinkled face. “So this is life,” she thought to herself.
When she returned to the bedroom, he was dead.
A child sat crying in the arms of his older brother in a border town. Dirt smeared both their faces. They asked passersby for water, but, though it covers 97 percent of this spinning blue marble, none reached the crying child or his brother.
They could hear bombs exploding in the town they’d just fled. The boy’s legs were crushed, and after carrying his brother two miles, the older brother had sunk into an open door’s threshold to rest. The older boy tried to think of anything but his mother’s face, now buried beneath rubble, or his father’s chest, blown to pieces with the rest of him. He wrapped his brown arms more tightly around his small brother and wept.
A bomb fell on them shortly after.
Doctors at a major research university were puzzled. The standard midlife crisis afflicting much of the population around age 50, an affliction to which the physicians were accustomed and for which they had moderately effective treatment plans (SSRIs, sessions with psychologists, exercise regimens, and so on), had morphed. Providers weren’t sure how to code it in their insurance reimbursement claims.
In scores of patients, studies tracked so-called mid-life crises of greater intensity. Instead of the usual lethargy, melancholy, and feelings of self-doubt (“What have I done with my life? I’m turning 50 next month…”), middle-aged patients all over the country were presenting with lethargy, melancholy, feelings of self-doubt, heart palpitations, and a chest rash.
The heart palpitations and rash alarmed the researchers.
Anti-depressants performed no better than placebos. Mid-life crisis (MLC) patients far outnumbered psychologists and psychiatrists. Wait times for an intake appointment averaged 7 months. Exercise regimens went largely untackled.
Middle-aged humans stopped going to work. Their bloodwork came back normal.
When thirty-somethings began presenting with heart palpitations and chest rash, certain squawkers dismissed the phenomenon as “imitation.” “They want attention. Ignore them,” said one pundit, over and over, to his cable audience. “Young people today can’t handle anything. People are growing soft,” he scoffed.
“In my day,” he began most of his sentences.
Doctors continued prescribing anti-depressants in astronomical doses, until 6 bottles of pills were being sold per citizen. Lethargy, melancholy, and self-doubt slowed most economies to Depression-era lows.
When twenty-somethings noticed their own hearts beating funny and a red splotch on their chests, they didn’t bother seeing their doctors. They knew by now what it was. No one called it a mid-life crisis anymore. It was just “crisis.” Alcohol and cannabis sales outpaced sales for bread and milk.
Medical experts shared their findings with each other at conferences and across time zones. The bloodwork kept coming back normal.
Three years into the epidemic, teenagers began coming down with the crisis. Groups of them banded together and created suicide pacts. “This is the world you want us to stay in?” they asked aloud. “This is the life you want us to live?”
Meanwhile, women across populations had begun encountering exceptional difficulty conceiving. Sperm motility decreased, the researchers noted, and new insurance codes had to be written. Menstrual cycles lengthened; ovaries released fewer eggs. Fertility specialists prescribed hormone cocktails to their white patients; to patients of color they prescribed an experimental drug.
Conception rates dropped.
Four years into the epidemic, children began falling ill. Something shifted culturally, globally, when children’s chests began to splotch. A widely seen newscast featured a bereft father, himself unafflicted by the crisis, explaining his son’s recent diagnosis to a reporter interviewing him. “His pediatrician says they’ll probably have a cure before too long, but I don’t know how long that’ll be,” the father said. The camera widened to show the child at his father’s side. The child said, “I don’t want to stay here,” and the father’s face fell. Three billion people watched the interview.
Mild panic ensued, and tight faces were everywhere. Researchers asked for more funds to study the affliction and possible cures, but there were wars to fight and fund.
Babies, formed of comparatively slow sperm and occasionally released eggs, carried to term despite the threat of spontaneous, medically-baffling termination that ended pregnancies in droves, began to reject food. When the rash covered their chests and their hearts beat irregularly, parents who struggled to conceive them clutched them and wailed. Infants merely looked past their caretakers with blank eyes. “If this is all there is, I will go now,” their faces said. And they went.
In another equally plausible universe, a man sits on his couch. A cat and a dog, best friends, sit beside him, snuggling. The man’s small daughter sleeps in his arms. She will grow up. He feels her heart beating against his own chest.
“If this is all there is, it is more than I deserve,” he thinks.