Sometimes conversations that start out light-hearted and innocuous wend their way towards places both poignant and profound, stirring emotions that you probably weren’t looking to stir, but what are you going to do, it goes where it goes. This is how it went between me and Kathy tonight. The bouncing ball started at TV themes and ended at the time when both of us are dead and gone.
Here’s how the improbable sequence went. We were sitting there watching TV. This isn’t a mindless exercise. It’s the best part of the day. When Kathy comes home from her long stressful day at the law office, we sit together on the couch and watch whatever TV programs she likes, and take the opportunity to talk, and laugh, and bask in the warmth of our marriage, me hitting the “pause” button often, the better to converse, until she becomes drowsy and close to going off to bed.
At that point I scroll through the day’s recorded programs on the PVR and play “Hockey Night in Canada”. That’s our little joke. When Kathy was a kid, whenever the family watched the hockey game on TV, on those weekend nights when all of us watched a hockey game on TV, the sound of the play-by-play would put her right off to sleep. The famous Hockey Night In Canada theme music provoked an almost Pavlovian response, and by the time Danny Gallivan was narrating the action, saying something like “…Cournyer dumps it into the corner… and now Lemaire and Orr fight for it…” she’d have nodded off to sleep. These days, when she’s on the cusp, I start watching my political shows, recorded each night from MSNBC, starting with All In with Chris Hayes, and the effect is similar. The All In theme just about knocks her unconscious. So we refer to All In as “Hockey Night in Canada”.
Tonight, as I was asking her whether it was time to launch “Hockey Night in Canada”, Kathy began to sing the iconic theme music that every Canadian of my generation has seared into the cortex, you know, the one that goes “da da da dat DAAAA! – da da da dat DAAA- AH-AAA!”, but then she lurched into the highly similar theme for the movie Magnificent Seven, which goes “Dat da DA da dat – da da da DA da dat”. Loving film music, as I do, I knew in my geeky way that the score for Magnificent Seven was written by Elmer Bernstein, one of the great Hollywood score composers (borrowing liberally, I hastened to add, from Aaron Copland), and then the conversation moved on to other movie score composers I admired, Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. I remembered that both of them, and Elmer Bernstein too, were now dead.
“We’ll be dead soon too”, Kathy said. “We need to, you know, have some fun while we can.”
So the talk turned to bucket lists, and I thought about a time back when I was in university, young, strong, and full of promise, when I was blessed to have been accepted into the tight-knit crew of university friends that my older brother Mark belonged to. They were such lovely, wonderful people. I was younger, and not at all cool, but they didn’t care, and let me tag along. I was thus part of the gang one summer evening when they decided in the spur of the moment to pile into a van, and go to one of those great Nova Scotia beaches to have a little party, a place magical in my memory, now, named Crystal Crescent. We arrived as the Sun was going down, and when it became dark, it was really dark, not like it is at night back in the city where everything is bathed in the light pollution emitted by thousands of buildings and street lights, but pitch black. The stars twinkled brightly overhead, more stars than I’d ever seen, and stretching all across the sky was something fantastic, a great ribbon of light I’d read about, but had never clapped eyes on before: the Milky Way.
I can see it all, now, in my mind’s eye. I can almost feel it on my skin. It was a beautiful, temperate night, maybe July, maybe August. The waves were making that wonderfully soothing sound as they pounded against the shore. Mark, Anne, Leonard, Laurie, and Harry were talking and laughing, and a ways down the beach another group had a fire going. I stood there, cooled by the gentle ocean breeze, and looked up at the Milky Way. For a second I didn’t know what it was, but then I connected real world observation with book knowledge. It was the rim of a whole galaxy, hanging in the sky above. Our galaxy.
Here in the light-polluted city, you can’t make out that awesome sight. I’ve often thought how sad it is that we modern city folk, privileged with the hard-won knowledge, only recently gained, of what it actually is up there, can barely see stars at all, and almost never glimpse the Milky Way. For thousands of centuries, humans, and doubtless the hominid ancestors who preceded us, gazed up in wonder and had no idea what they were looking at, or how it was that all those points of light were shining, and seemed to be able to shine forever. We had our myths and fairy tales, but we didn’t have a clue. The Pharaohs of Egypt couldn’t have told you the real story, and neither could Queen Victoria, nor Isaac Newton, for that matter. Yet now I can, an inconsequential nobody who’s never discovered or figured out anything important, by drawing upon the knowledge of greater people who went before, standing on the shoulders of giants, as Newton once put it. Incredibly, I’m now in the position to really understand what those who gaze up at the stars above are actually looking at. I could explain it. But I look up and see nothing.
It was only about a century ago that we began to grasp the physics of atomic fusion, and understood how stars give off such tremendous light and energy. It was more recently still when we discovered the most amazing fact of all, that the Milky Way was just one galaxy amid millions, even billions, not the whole Universe. Until just after the First World War, when telescopes of sufficient power began to be built, we thought the Milky Way was all there was. Objects we now know to be other galaxies could just barely be discerned, but were indistinct, fuzzy, and looked like clouds of interstellar gas. We called them “nebulae”, from the Latin word for cloud.
There are genuine clouds of gas up there too, but in 1920 or so, using the new Mt. Wilson telescope with its 100 inch mirror, Edwin Hubble photographed the nebula in Andromeda and saw that it wasn’t a fuzzy cloud at all, but a vast collection of stars. Other nebulae resolved down to great clusters of stars too, when the more powerful optics of subsequent telescopes, like the 200 inch Hale Observatory, came on line. For a while, it was such a freaky idea that there could be anything else out there, distinct from the Milky Way, that we called the newly-discovered galaxies “island universes”. We soon discovered that the Universe is not only jam-packed with such things, but far, far larger than we ever dreamed.
The breadth of the Milky Way galaxy has recently been measured at approximately 200,000 light years (some sources say 250,000). A light year is a long, long way, the distance light can travel in a year, as it whips along at 186,000 miles per second, which comes out to almost six trillion miles. The Milky way is at least 200,000 of those. It’s a spiral galaxy, shaped like a pin wheel, and our Solar System is out near the edge of one of the spiral arms. When you look up at night in the countryside and see an apparent river of stars crossing the sky, like I saw that night at Crystal Crescent, you’re looking through one of the spiral arms of what we now know to be a rather ordinary collection of stars where we happen to reside. We share the local neighbourhood with about 300 billion other stars, give or take, and there are, we think, about 100 billion other such neighbourhoods up there, spread over a distance so vast that the light from our closest companion, the Andomeda galaxy that Hubble first identified, takes about two and a half million years to reach us. Try to wrap your mind around that: at the blistering speed of light it takes well over two thousand thousand years for it to reach us from the nearest galaxy to our own.
You think about things like that when you first see the Milky Way.
The ancient Egyptians conceived of stars as gods and the spirits of dead kings, and thought of the Milky Way as a heavenly counterpart to the Nile. The bushmen of the South African Kalahari saw it differently, and even more poetically; to them, the Milky Way was “the backbone of night”.
We were talking about dying, and bucket lists, Kathy and I. I can’t bear the thought of a world existing without her, but when you’re as good at compartmentalizing as I am, you can still put such horrors in a box and think about what you’d like to do before your own departure. Here, then, is an item for the bucket list. I want to go back to Crystal Crescent, on a clear summer’s night. I want to look up again and see the rim of an entire galaxy. Even if only one more time, I want to return, this time with Kathy, and stand together in awe of the backbone of night.