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Special Relativity

by Rebecca Housel

Einstein had a theory...well, he had a lot of theories but this particular theory is of particular interest to me: the theory of Special Relativity. It focuses on Spacetime, and yes, the one-word spelling is correct. Spacetime says that the whole of space and time are in one "loaf" that may be "sliced" to show the now, but that all time—past, present and future—exists within the same Spacetime "loaf" simultaneously, though beyond human perception. Why is this of such particular interest to me? Outside of the obvious implications, my interest is because of recently lost a friend, Stephanie. She died at age 37 of breast cancer; the kind that only eight percent of the female population between the ages of 32 and 38 contract during, or just after, pregnancy.

Sad doesn't even begin to cover it. Stephanie died just one month before her tenth wedding anniversary to her husband, Mark, and two months before her 38th birthday. Three years earlier, Stephanie was blissfully unaware of what lay ahead of her; she hadn't even heard of Spacetime or Special Relativity, and was more worried about what to name the baby she carried inside her. She was on vacation with her two children, then five and three, and her husband. The young family was taking a much needed respite that February in 2003 before the baby was born the following August. During the vacation, Stephanie contracted a strange bout of Folliculitis, a skin rash that is actually a form of Staphylococcus Aureus, or Staph, for short. It happened after she took a dip in the hot tub. Her doctor had warned against using a hot tub while pregnant, but she was on vacation and was feeling tired, bloated and fat. It was just a 15-minute dip, but then again, nothing is ever the way it seems, not even our perception of reality, according to Einstein's theory. It was during an examination for the Folliculitis that Stephanie's doctor discovered the breast cancer.

Perspective is so interesting. Even when we think we're seeing things immediately, it's not true. It takes time for the light of an image to be received by the eyes. So, what we think is happening now, is actually already past. If Stephanie could have glimpsed her future in the Spacetime "loaf," would she have done anything differently? If, for just one moment, a mere millisecond, Stephanie saw ahead to January of 2006, learning that after a three-year battle she would be given her final prognosis, could she, would she, have done anything differently to change her fate? Unfortunately, Stephanie cannot answer these questions but I can—what would I have done differently if I could have seen her future?

The truth, the awful, unpredictable and often unbecoming truth, is that I would do nothing differently...because I did know. I knew she was going to die, not because I tasted a "slice" of future from the Spacetime "loaf" of proverbial bread, no; it was because I received an email. It was short, and not particularly interesting. In fact, it barely caught my attention at the time:

Hi, Rebecca. Just checking in. I'm on my last-hope drug. Still looking for Mark's Christmas gift. Someone anonymously sent us a $100 bill in the mail—was it you? It was a blessing; we needed it. Hope you and your family are well. How are you feeling? Have a good holiday! Stephanie

It wasn't me—the $100 bill. I wish it was, but it wasn't. Too busy writing, just like now, to think about much more than that part of the message—the meaningless part—the part that made me feel guilty. I barely noticed what was artfully placed between the greeting and the guilt: the cry for friendship, the request for support, the communication of need, and fear, and desire, and grief.

So, I did know, and still did nothing. In January 2006, after not hearing from Stephanie since her December email, I phoned to chat with her, maybe see if she was up for a visit. Her mother answered because Stephanie was busy...she was dying. At that point Stephanie could still speak, though because her brain and other organs were slowly shutting down, her speech was slurred and she could not articulate her thoughts the way she wanted.

I visited the next day, and for many days thereafter, until her death in mid-March 2006. The first visit, Stephanie recognized me. She talked to me. She told me that she was happy I came, and that with all my writing, I found the time to visit. She told me she felt like, sometimes, she was losing her mind because she knew she wasn't saying what she was thinking. She was afraid, not of dying, of going crazy. She was yellowed from continued kidney failure. There she laid, a shrunken form of who she was just two months before, the life slowly and mercilessly slipping away from her too-young body. In the background her children could be heard playing in the family room and hallway, chasing each other and making funny vroom-vroom sounds, their footsteps a soft pounding on the tiled entryway floor. It was surreal to hear such life happening at the same time as death. Stephanie was there all the while, laying in her hospital bed in the room once set up for living, now set up for dying.

Only one day later, Stephanie was barely conscious. She couldn't keep her eyes open for long and merely made unintelligible sounds in the place of words—Stephanie would continue in this state for well over a month. Stephanie's mother-in-law spoke loudly to Mark in the kitchen within ear-shot of the living room where Stephanie lay dying, "Do you think she'll make the week? She looks bad; the kids can sleep over this weekend...." Stephanie's eyes fluttered; I knew she heard it too.

Everyday for the next month, until Stephanie's death, was the same. People would come into the sick room to say goodbye, like me, hugging and crying and telling Mark, as well as Linda and Bob, Stephanie's parents, how very sorry they were. Stephanie, laying one room away, was listening, waiting, dying.

The only child of Bob and Linda, the only mother of Matthew, Katie and Michael, the only wife of Mark, and my friend, died on March 19, 2006. I'm no physicist, but that moment is fixed in time, in my memory, forever. It lives as vividly as my false perception of "now" yet with sharp clarity, as if the light from that moment was just reaching my eye. Her death, an event to some, an unspeakable grief to others, but completely unfair to all, passed uneventfully on a Sunday morning. I had made a promise to her the Thursday before, whispered softly in her ear while squeezing her warm hand, "Wait for me, I'll be back on Saturday afternoon."

I couldn't make it that Saturday, but called. I spoke to her mother-in-law; she said Stephanie was "hanging in there," and I couldn't tell if she was happy or not about that fact. And once again, I knew. I knew that Stephanie, whose blood pressure had dropped to practically nothing two days earlier, was going to die. And she did. Stephanie didn't wait for me, couldn't wait for me. The Spacetime "loaf" did not need to reveal a thing because I already knew, and though I wish I'd acted differently, been a better friend, a better listener, a better supporter, in the end, all I had time to do was watch her die from afar.

Special Relativity—it's an interesting concept. It is a human notion to want to turn back time, to improve, to succeed, to win, to lose. Spacetime doesn't allow for human perception to see all the "slices" of past, present and future moving simultaneously, but it doesn't need to. If we pay attention, we can see all we need to know, all we need to understand. If we stop, once in a while, stop our constant running, the never-ending marathon on a gerbil's wheel, we would be able to hold our friend's hand while she lived, and while she died. We would be able to send a $100 bill anonymously in the mail to a family in need. We would write a short essay to be published for the friend who now watches with wings, an angel...on earth, as it is in heaven, and every Spacetime in between.

Rebecca is a professor of medical humanities, popular culture and creative writing at Rochester Institute of Technology. She has published personal essays on illness narrative with national magazines like "Redbook," and literary journals like "Brevity: A Concise Journal of Literary Nonfiction." Her most recent book will be coming out in 2009, Women Speak Cancer, a literary journalistic approach to twelve women cancer survivors. She is also the Medical Humanities Area Chair for the American Culture Association.