This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
John Keats, "This Living Hand"
A couple of days ago, I slid a daphnia, a water flea, under a cover slip and peeked at it under the microscope. You could see its antennae sweep the water, its eyes, even its frantic heart beat through its translucent body.
After a bit of time, the heart slowed, maybe hypoxia, maybe exhaustion, time to put it back.
The daphnia came from a jug of water that has sat on the windowsill for over two years now, a jar with elodea and translucent snails and some odd jelly-like organism sticking to the side.
Daphnia reproduce every few weeks--over 20 generations have passed their lives in this bottle, their universe.
While trying to put the daphnia back in the jug, I screwed up--the daphnia stuck to the cover glass, and as I tried to coax it into the water, I squished it.
No one else noticed the death. I'm a loon--I spent hours pondering it.
I come from a clan of loons. We travel, we bark, we dance, we live. Mary Beth made friends in the Hunza Valley of Pakistan, and saw a valley of bonfires during an Ismaili Muslim celebration. John tackled a 20/20 cameraman, and got a spot on The Daily Show with John Stewart, and Marnie holds center court no matter where we go, and may be the funniest person on this planet.
I'm the wallflower, and I'm no slouch.
My mom was talented and crazy, but most of all, she was Oirish enough to remind us daily, hourly, that we are mortal. She gave up a shot at the professional stage to raise us, but we were audience enough. She loved us to death.
We live in a culture that denies it.
If a child learns anything in biology class, she ought to learn that in the end, death is as relentless as life, and life as relentless as death.
Our own death remains unknowable, of course, and I fear it in proportion to my love of life. Still, I saw both my parents finally give in to long illnesses, and both laughed, laughed, in their final moments of consciousness.
Not sarcastically, not smirkingly, not even ironically. They both laughed joyously. Neither believed in heaven, and both prayed there was no hell. Their faith was in the herenow.
Faith has no place in science class, but mystery does. Science is about pushing the borders of what we can know.
I know the daphnia I observed under the scope had some sense of awareness. I know the sun provides plant with the energy that keeps me alive. On rare, too rare, occasions I know that I will die.
And on those days I remember this, moments clarify, and joy deepens, not for what I will lose, but for what I have. In a culture that teaches children to fear their own shadows, I hope to show them the ultimate shadow, the inexplicable end that puts things in perspective.
Dozens of daphnia still dance in the windowsill jug, eating, seeing, being.
I want my students to have daphnia moments.