And she died. At that moment, there were 3,147,740,103,497,276,498,750,208,327 atoms in her body. Of her total mass, 63.7 percent was oxygen, 21.0 percent carbon, 10.1 percent hydrogen, 2.6 percent nitrogen, 1.4 percent calcium, 1.1 percent phosphorous, plus a smattering of the ninety-odd other chemical elements created in stars.
In the cremation, her
water evaporated. Her carbon and nitrogen combined with oxygen to make gaseous
carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which floated skyward and mingled with the
air. Most of her calcium and phosphorous baked into a reddish brown residue and
scattered in soil and in wind.
Released from their
temporary confinement, her atoms slowly spread out and diffused through the
atmosphere. In sixty days' time, they could be found in every handful of air on
the planet. In one hundred days, some of her atoms, the vaporous water, had
condensed into liquid and returned to the surface as rain, to be drunk and
ingested by animals and plants. Some of her atoms were absorbed by light-utilizing
organisms and transformed into tissues and tubules and leaves. Some were
breathed in by oxygen creatures, incorporated into organs and bone.
Pregnant women ate animals
and plants made of her atoms. A year later, babies contained some of her atoms.
Not that her atoms had identification labels. But they were certainly her
atoms, there is no doubt about that. I knew which ones. I could count them.
Here, and here, and here. Several years after her death, millions of children
contained some of her atoms. And their children would contain some of her atoms
as well. Their minds contained part of her mind.
Will these millions of
children, for generations upon future generations, know that some of their
atoms cycled through this woman? It is not likely. Will they feel what she felt
in her life, will their memories have flickering strokes of her memories, will
they recall that moment long ago when she stood by the window, guilt ridden and
confused, and watched as the tadr bird circled the cistern? No, it is not
possible. Will they have some faint sense of her glimpse of the Void? No, it is
not possible. It is not possible. But I will let them have their own brief
glimpse of the Void, just at the moment they pass from living to dead, from
animate to inanimate, from consciousness to that which has no consciousness.
For a moment ' they will understand infinity.
And the individual atoms,
cycled through her body and then cycled through wind and water and soil, cycled
through generations and generations of living creatures and minds, will repeat
and connect and make a whole out of parts. Although without memory, they make a
memory. Although impermanent, they make a permanence. Although scattered, they
make a totality.
"Mr. g" by Alan Lightman