In quantum field theory, in my imperfect understanding of it, gleaned from YouTube, a physicist can make an atom vibrate on one level, like a violin string, as well as a neutrino on another level, and so forth and so on. But apparently, Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle with no mass whatsoever, moves everywhere, on all levels; fluid, like a body of water, like a river, appearing and disappearing. This is why it’s called the God particle. It’s omniscient and omnipresent. It doesn’t move through time, it is time itself.
Scientists say the temporal lobe connects the past and the present so that we are able to construct a continuous sense of self. It is our temple of emotions, our history, and how we, I believe, maintain homeostasis — a divine state of internal equilibrium. Biologically speaking, homeostasis means able to maintain a stable and constant environment; blood pressure, temperature, glucose levels, hormones, among other functions. It is like a set of interdependent mechanisms all assuring the viability of the organism. It is also a self-correcting system, much like a driver at the steering wheel of a car, constantly adjusting the wheel to the right or to the left to maintain a smooth trajectory.
But what happens when tragedy strikes — an out of order death in the family, or another kind of trauma, and our equilibrium is disrupted? How do we course correct? What if nobody is at the wheel of the car and it crashes? Debi, my cousin, and my brothers, Mark and Johnny, died within a two year period between 2014-2016. They are gone, they are ghosts, but I still love them. But, do they still love me? Does their love for me survive their death? Or is that space empty? Because not only was my sense of time disrupted but my sense of self as well. It was as if my brain was broken. I just wasn’t the same person anymore, and that made it very difficult to care about any kind of homeostasis, divine or biological. What exactly was I supposed to do with the emptiness, the hole in my life, where they used to live?
Fifteen years ago, I’m at Toad Hall, a bar in Tribeca, on Grand Street which was narrow, dark, and kind of magical because it was so quiet. The tourists and the movie stars hadn’t found it yet. Inside, the place is packed with writers, actors and artists. I’m surrounded by friends. Someone passes around a one hit packed with cannabis disguised as a cigarette. I’m drinking vodka and tonic. Much later, I leave alone. I am so in love with the early morning hour, the faint smudge of violet on the eastern horizon, and so in love with my solitude, and my autonomy. My sense of myself, as a woman, a writer, as a New Yorker is strong and powerful. I am at the exact center of the universe. I am in homeostasis.
My youngest brother, Johnny, has box seats at Yankee Stadium for my birthday. I come up from the 4 train, next to the Starbucks on 85th Street, on Lexington Avenue. I’m hungry and it’s hot. I’m also early. I step into the Starbucks, order an iced venti something, and 30 minutes later, I see him crossing Lex at the northeast corner. Through the plate glass windows, I mouth, Hey brother! He walks with the grace of a cyclist, a dancer, blonde curly hair, dark Ray Bans. Confident in khakis and sneakers. I dash out of the cafe, and the moment we say hello from across the street feels fated, but at the time, I didn’t know why. The world shifts a bit, and I’m thrown off balance. What is disrupting my sense of myself in that moment? A prescient, nagging thought, this doesn’t last forever.
Angie, Mark’s 17 year old daughter, and I ascend up from the 4 train at Astor Place in the East Village. We meet Johnny and Mark, my oldest brother, at the Cube. I say to them, “All I need is a hard back chair and a drink,” because earlier in the week, I’d thrown my back out, and I knew these two things helped with the pain. They crack up and repeat this phrase over and over. We end up at an Irish pub on 2nd Avenue. Mark and Johnny order tall glasses of dark, sweet ale. We eat cheeseburgers. In a picture that exists somewhere, I’m sitting next to Angie with my balayage hair, and pink lipsticked smile. I’m arrogant, happy, because I believe this is a moment that will be reproduced many times over and in fact, it’s not.
Two years ago, 2016, late November, Debi drives from Chicago to Bronxville where I briefly lived after leaving the city. Johnny had just died, and Mark had been gone for two years. It’s a miracle she’s here with me, it’s a miracle I can wrap my arms around her. She texts, I’m outside! I run onto Pondfield Road. The streets are covered in yellow leaves. She looks the same, a bit wan, a little thinner; the same spiky hair, 10 fingers glittering with 11 rings. We sit at my kitchen table and roll a joint. Then we go out for lunch at a restaurant on Palmer Avenue, two blocks away. Debi orders the wrap with chicken. I get a peach bellini and lamb chops. When she leaves town, two days later, I never see her again.
About a week ago, I got a text from my middle brother, Stevie, who had just landed at Ft. Lauderdale International Airport. He remembered the last time he was there. Mark was picking him up, in his patrol car. It had to be the mid-1980s. Stevie laughed, he wrote, when he thought of Mark in uniform, young and strong, but it also made him sad. I sent him a picture of Mark’s grandson, Myles, dressed like Kermit the Frog on Halloween. I wrote, we go on. And he replied, yes, we do. In that moment, for me, the world shifted and a small measure of balance returned.
The heart is the exact opposite of the brain, it is a dynamic, not static, organ, but it only has one function. The brain connects us to our past, via the temporal lobe, but the heart puts us squarely in the present. Much like the God particle, the brain is a paradox and a mystery. According to Hae-Jeong Park and Karl Friston in Science Magazine, “despite a fixed anatomy…its functional repertoire is vast.” We think all this goes on forever — young and wandering and out late — all those bright, brittle days. But it doesn’t. It’s yet another mystery of how time moves through us, changes us, disrupts homeostasis. But, at this stage of my life, I’m convinced time is primarily measured by the people we love.
We go on.
Those images, those particular memories of Johnny, Mark and Debi, still appear and disappear with haunting regularly. And while they contain no mass whatsoever, they carry the past, via the temporal lobe, wherever I go. Out my living room window, on the dark horizon, a barge drifts by, guided by a tugboat. The lights slowly move across the still water of the Hudson. Last Sunday after a bout of late night rain, as the sun rose over the Palisades, half of a rainbow, tinted the sky pink and orange, for just a few seconds. We go on. Sometimes it’s that simple. Yes, we are changed, down to the molecular level, but as humans, we are self-correcting, and always filled with and moving through a sea of Higgs Boson, the God particle.