The First Law of Thermodynamics

First Snow

Thanksgiving passed with light and food and joy and sadness as well, augmented by another death – this one of my brother-in-law’s mom, who had come to the end of her time with little quality of life, but so soon after her son, and on the Thanksgiving holiday as well is another brutal knife in that family.

This year, we are all winding more tightly together as a result for the holidays. Every candle in the window, light on the porches, and tradition that can be upheld will be. Every hug of our people is another candle lit.

Eli and I were fortunate enough to have a day out to do some small-business holiday shopping and even go out to dinner in an actual restaurant for the first time in ages. Of course, we woke up to headlines about the Omicron variant the next day, so it might be the last time in a while. While I don’t miss all the things of the before-times, before Covid-19, I do miss some. Restaurants are one of them, mostly because it often symbolized a too-rare evening out with my husband.

I miss my brother too, with a grief that is sometimes so deep I need an extension ladder to climb out and back into the world. Saturday morning was particularly tough. I woke up too early again, and prepared to go for a walk with my neighbor and friend, Melissa. I wasn’t feeling it, sad and unmotivated, but I had postponed enough times that I knew I was out of excuses, although she would have understood. There was an ever-so-tiny bit of snow on the ground, and the wind was biting. All too many excuses to stay home were there.

But.

I saw something oddly pink in the stark landscape as I stepped off the porch.

A Rose in Winter

Melissa describes the process of grief as much like the book ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ and I’d add to that the ever-pervasive pandemic as well.

You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You can’t go around it. You have to go through it.

By the end of the walk I was warm through from talking and smiling. And I kept returning in my thoughts to that one rose which really shouldn’t be blooming on a day like yesterday. It was too cold, too grey, too out of season, too-all-the-things. But bloom it did, if only for a day. By the time we got home from a lovely dinner at my parents that night, it had started to crumple and die, as all things must, leaving behind a photograph, and my memory.

Even though it only stayed for less than a day, it was enough to remind me that there is always magic here, and that nothing ever truly leaves us, that energy is neither created nor destroyed.

“You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen. Aaron Freeman, via NPR


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