Lesley L. Smith
My best friend Shaundra stepped into my office at the university where we both worked. "Hey, Carina. How are you holding up?" She wore a look of concern along with her white doctor's lab coat. I'd broken the news last night I had cancer, and we'd had a long heart-to-heart.
I sank down on the chair in front of my computer. "I don't want to talk about it anymore. I want to forget about it as long as I can." I wanted to forget the results of my biopsy and I really, really wanted to forget the words 'Stage IV'.
"How's your family holding up?" she asked. "What did Miguel say?"
He didn't say anything because I didn't have the heart to tell him his wife was going to die. "Let's talk about something else," I said. "Anything else."
"Okay. What's new with you, besides you-know?" She came and sat next to me. "Do you have anything else going on?"
I hesitated. "I do have some news. But I'm not sure it's the right time..."
"Please," she said. "We need a distraction."
She was right about that. "As you know my last research project wasn't too successful. But, I got that new grant I applied for," I said. The trick to getting funding was to go ahead and start working on the project so you could include preliminary results in the proposal.
"You go, girl," Shaundra said. "What was it again? You're going to look for other universes?"
"Yes. Experimental Cosmology." I smiled. "We're going to test the hypothesis that there are a whole bunch of pocket universes in the megaverse."
"Wow, I didn't understand any of that but it sure sounds good," she said.
"Yeah," I said. "My team has already started working on everything over in the lab." There was no time to waste.
"I have some good news, too. I'm going to be the new Dean of Medicine."
"That is awesome. Congratulations, Shaundra. You rock. When do you start?"
"In about six months, next summer," she said.
I doubted I'd be alive to see it.
She looked at me for a few moments as if reading my mind and started tearing up. There'd been a lot of tears last night.
"So, anyway, I should get back to work." I stood up. "Awesome news."
"Keep in touch, honey. Call me anytime, day or night if you want to talk." As she headed for the door, she called out to me, "I love you, Carina. I'm here for you."
I debated how and when to tell Miguel and Jose about my diagnosis. Should I tell them right away or wait? Or maybe Miguel and I should hold off telling Jose until I got a little sicker?
As we sat down to dinner that night, I hadn't come to any conclusions.
Miguel brought the enchiladas to the table and said, "A little bird told me you have some news."
My heart fell to the floor. Who told him I had cancer? I looked into his warm brown eyes - his laugh lines all crinkled up - and recognized he didn't look upset.
Jose looked at me across the table with an aura of expectation.
"Uh? News? What news would that be?" I said, carefully placing some enchiladas on my plate. I'd cut them up and move them around on my plate and hopefully manage to get a couple bites down.
"The new grant, Carina!" Miguel said. "Why didn't you tell us? It's fabuloso!" He stood up from the table and went to the refrigerator. "I got some champagne to celebrate."
"Congratulations, Mom," Jose said, grinning. "Can I have some champagne, too?"
As I took in Jose's sweet smile, I realized this might be my only chance to drink champagne with him. "Thanks for the good wishes, guys. Yeah, Jose, it's okay with me if it's okay with your dad."
Jose promptly turned to Miguel who was busy pouring the champagne into the two flutes we got long ago as wedding presents and never used. "Can I Dad?"
Miguel shot me an amused look. "I guess so. You'll have to use a juice glass though, we don't have any more champagne flutes."
"That's cool," Jose said. "Thanks."
A couple minutes later, Miguel and Jose held up their glasses and said, "To Carina" or "To Mom." We all clinked glasses.
Choking up from their kindness, I took a quick sip to cover my emotions. Would this be our last happy occasion as a family? Clearly now wasn't the time for my bad news. "Thanks, guys. Now, let's eat before it gets cold."
As he dug in, Miguel asked, "So, what's this new project of yours? Something about universes?"
Miguel knew I enjoyed talking science; in particular I was always looking for an excuse to explain stuff to Jose. "Our universe is one of a bunch of universes," I said and smiled.
"Really, Mom?" Jose asked with his mouth full.
"Yes. The idea is there are a bunch of other universes," I said, "each with different values of fundamental parameters like the strength of the electromagnetic force."
"Huh?" Jose interrupted. "Why the heck would there be other universes? I don't get it."
"It's called the Anthropic Principle," I said. "The values of physical parameters are perfect for human beings to exist here in our universe."
Miguel cleared his throat. "I must admit, I don't get that either. Clearly we exist. What's the big deal?"
"I said perfect," I added. "If the values were different, humans couldn't exist. And we're talking like twenty-five free parameters, the strength of the electromagnetic force, and how atoms hold together, everything. If they had other values, we wouldn't be here. We couldn't be."
"Wow," Jose said. "But what does that have to do with other universes?"
"The idea is there are these other universes and each one has different values of the parameters - we just live in the one that works for us," I said. "And now my group is going to try to find some of those other universes."
Jose stopped eating for a minute. "I can't believe it. My old mom has blown my mind. You're actually kind of cool, Mom. Wait 'til I tell my friends."
I couldn't help feeling a little wave of pride at his kind words. He got his thoughtfulness from Miguel.
Miguel pointed his fork at Jose. "You'll have to remember it, buddy, to tell them."
I grinned. "Oh, don't worry. He will." Jose got his determination from me. He was a chip off the old block in more ways than one.
The next morning, Shaundra stopped by my office again.
"Hey, chica," I said. "I know the Health Center is only a few buildings away, but what brings you here? Again." This was getting to be a habit.
She leaned on a chair. "So, how did Miguel and Jose take the news?"
"I haven't told them yet." I pictured the three of us sitting around the kitchen table and instead of smiling and toasting, their eyes would fill with tears. "It wasn't the right time."
"You have to tell them, honey," she said.
"I know." It wasn't bad enough that I had cancer, I had to break the hearts of the family I loved, too.
She stared at me for a few moments as if she was going to say something more about it, but then said, "What did happen to your old project anyways? That proton thing?"
I appreciated her changing the subject from cancer. She was a good friend. I shrugged. "Not much. According to my calculations, we should have been seeing proton decay, but we don't. I don't get it."
"Any theories why it didn't work?" she asked.
"The most obvious reason would be that the Grand Unified Theory is wrong, but I don't think that's it."
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because the Grand Unified Theory is elegant - it unites gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak force into one 'grand' force. It's too beautiful not to be true." I walked over to a poster on the wall and pointed at it. "It's this Grand Force that makes the protons decay. All I can figure is we don't have a big enough detector. Here's a diagram of our detector. You'd think 80,000 tons of ultra-purified water would be enough, but apparently not."
Shaundra asked, "What would proton decay look like?"
"When a proton decays in our detector, energy is released, and the sensors pick it up. At least that's what's supposed to happen. A proton decay looks like a burst of energy."
"That's the end product." I shrugged. "Specifically, the proton decays to a positron and a neutral pion. Then the pion decays into photons."
She looked confused.
"Positrons are just anti-electrons, and photons are energy particles."
"I know that," she said. "I've been hanging around with you long enough to know that. I was just reminded of something Morrison said: one hypothesis about cancer causation is radiation. Aren't energy particles the same thing as radiation?"
"Yes." My mind was racing. People were basically water. Lots of people seemed to be getting cancer and no one knew why. Could radiation from proton decay be causing cancer? There was no way ...was there? Would I even be thinking this if I didn't have cancer on my mind?
A little later, after she left, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that the population of homo sapiens was approximately 300 million tons of essentially-water. Now that would be a big detector.
Could it be so simple? Proton decay was causing cancer? Instead of our detector sensors picking up the radiation from proton decay, cells in the human body were being damaged by it?
Could the universe be so cruel?
I worked late in the lab. I couldn't face Miguel and Jose. I felt guilty for not telling them about my cancer and at the same time I felt guilty for what they'd go through when they knew about it.
The next morning, Shaundra stopped by my office yet again. "You don't look so good," she said. "You're not getting the flu or something on top of everything else, are you?"
"I didn't get much sleep last night." Because I'd been turning my cancer idea over and over in my mind. "I wish I was getting the flu."
"Why would you say something like that, Car?" she said. "What's going on with you?"
"I have a new hypothesis." I paused. "And it's bad." I was getting depressed, just talking about it. "Can I run it by you?"
She sat down next to me. "Lay it on me, sister."
"I think I've observed a proton decay signal in me." I looked her in the eyes.
She squinted at me. "What? Are you talking about that stuff we discussed yesterday? Radiation and cancer? That's crazy. Right?" She stretched her lips into an unconvincing facsimile of a smile. "Right?"
"I couldn't sleep last night, so I came in at dawn and computed the likelihood of proton decay particles interacting with particles in the world population of homo sapiens. I get a 100% probability."
She gaped for a few moments. Then she said, "Say what now?"
"Protons are supposed to decay," I said. "Virtually all physicists thinkg protons should decay. I think protons are decaying. Protons are decaying inside people."
She stared at me.
Finally she said, "No. I don't believe it. If that were true, wouldn't every single person be in danger of getting cancer?"
"Yes." I nodded. Apparently, the universe was cruel.
She arched her eyebrows. "What can we do?"
"I don't know." I sighed. "Protons formed when the universe formed. If they have a finite lifetime I don't see how we can extend that lifetime."
"Well, bummer." Shandra sighed, too. "It you think of anything, let me know."
I pondered the matter all day. "Protons formed when the universe formed." There was something important there...
Then it hit me: according to my new grant, our universe wasn't the only universe.
What if we could interact with a universe that didn't have this proton decay problem? What if we could somehow import longer lived protons into our universe?
There was definitely a chance that another universe wouldn't have this issue.
Was there a chance I could save myself?
Was there a chance I could save thousands or millions of other people from getting cancer?
At dinnertime that night, Miguel and Jose showed up at the lab with a pizza.
"You didn't make it home last night until very late," Miguel said, "and you left so early this morning."
Jose shuffled back and forth on the big feet he hadn't quite grown into yet. "That's not like you, Mom. What about your 'always eat dinner together' rule?"
"And you never told us what happened at the doctor's the other day." Miguel stared into my eyes. I could tell he already knew it was bad. "What's up?" he added.
I didn't want to tell them, but I had to. "Sit down." I waved at some lab stools. "The doctor said..."
They leaned toward me.
I gritted my teeth and plunged ahead. "The doctor said I have stomach cancer."
Miguel nodded like he'd expected it.
Jose looked like someone had murdered his puppy. Finally he sputtered and said, "What? Are they sure?"
"Get one of those second opinion things," Jose said.
"Mi amor," Miguel asked softly, "how long do we have left to cherish you?"
I was so choked up for a moment I couldn't speak. I tried again. "Maybe six months."
Jose jumped up and started pacing around the room. "That's crazy! You're not dying in six months! No way! It's some kind of mistake."
Miguel held out his arms to me and I gratefully collapsed into them. His warmth enveloped me and my eyes filled.
We both jerked as we heard a crash.
Jose had kicked over a stool.
I stepped away from Miguel. "I'm so sorry, Jose. I know it's not fair." I held out my arms for a hug.
Jose scowled and kicked over another stool. "No way. Fuck this!"
"Jose!" Miguel said.
Jose turned and stormed out of the room.
Miguel and I both took a step after him.
Miguel put his hand on my arm. "Let me go."
Since I couldn't think of anything to say that would make Jose feel better, I nodded.
Miguel tracked down Jose and the three of us got into the car and started home. I didn't know what the two of them talked about before they got in the car.
Jose was fuming quietly as he picked at the seat upholstery but at least he wasn't cussing or kicking things.
Miguel moved like he was made of glass, every motion small and deliberate. I hadn't seen him like that since his mom's funeral.
I decided more cancer talk wouldn't be productive at this point. We needed to change the subject. "So, anyway," I said, "the new research is going well. The universe search is going pretty well. We've got the equipment set up to start the search. We're going to use gravitational waves, fluctuations in the curvature of space-time, to hopefully create passageways to the other universes."
This was met with silence.
Miguel shot Jose a look and then said, "That's very interesting, Carina. Isn't it, Jose?"
Jose looked from Miguel to me and back again. Finally he said, "Is that like one of those wormhole things?"
I nodded. "Close enough."
"What's your plan to tell if you've reached another universe?" Miguel asked.
"We're going to measure the value of the cosmological constant through the passageway," I said. "If it's different, then we're going to assume it's another universe." I'd been crunching some numbers. "And if it's bigger, the universe might have no Grand Unified Force and so no proton decay."
Miguel glanced at me. "I know you. You've been working too hard. You're up to something. What's this constant thing you're talking about?"
I shrugged and said, "The cosmological constant is basically a measure of the expansion of the universe, or lack thereof, which is basically a measure of dark energy."
"What's dark energy again?" Jose asked.
"Dark energy seems to be carried by what we call virtual particles - when particles and their antiparticle partners pop into and out of existence," I said. "That means the value of the cosmological constant is a measure of what forces are at work in a universe."
Jose and Miguel both looked totally confused.
"The virtual particle stuff is quantum mechanics," I said. "It works. Don't worry about it."
"I didn't understand that gobbledygook," Miguel said, "but I did understand you didn't answer my question. What are you up to?"
I wasn't sure what to admit. I didn't want them getting their hopes up. I was also reluctant to bring the conversation back to cancer since the first foray had gone so poorly.
"I guess ...I'm trying to cure cancer," I said slowly.
Jose jerked back. "Cure cancer? I thought we were talking about physics."
"Well," I said, "it's all related."
Miguel spared me a delicate glance. I knew he wanted to ask if I could cure myself but was afraid of the answer.
I took a deep breath. "I don't know yet if what I'm doing can affect my condition."
We didn't notice we'd forgotten the pizza until we got home.
I'd been spending more and more time in the lab. The work was progressing steadily but too slowly - my condition was progressing more quickly. One night Miguel and Jose showed up again with a pizza.
"Wow. This is a surprise," I said. Especially since the last time they'd brought me a pizza things had not gone well.
"We never see you anymore," Miguel said. "It was time for drastic measures...pepperoni." He smiled and flipped open the box.
There was no way my stomach could take that. "It smells really good."
Jose reached in for a slice.
Miguel scrutinized me. "How are you feeling?"
Jose had already eaten a half a piece of pizza.
I cringed inwardly as I said, "As well as can be expected, not too bad." I'd never lied to him before. The truth was I felt horrible.
Miguel put the pizza down on the lab table without touching it. "It's time for you to stop working and come home to be with us. A little bird told me you don't have much time left. We need you." He swallowed.
I had a sneaking suspicion Shaundra was his little bird. "I hear what you're saying, Miguel. I need to spend time with you guys, too. But my work is very important." I swept my hand across the equipment.
"Yes. It's important. But we need you to come home," Miguel said. "Right, Jose?"
Jose considered us both carefully as he picked up another slice of pizza. "Is that what this is about?" He pointed his finger at the pizza. "I do want you to come home, Mom," he said, sitting down.
Miguel took a step forward. "Si, mi amor - "
"But," Jose continued, "are you still trying to cure cancer?"
I had several talks with Shaundra about this, and curing the damage after it had occurred didn't seem feasible. "Uh, not exactly."
I saw the murdered-puppy look on Jose's face and it broke my heart. "But, I think this will be a kind of cancer vaccine. I'm very close to making a breakthrough."
"That's it then," Miguel said, "if there's no cure, you have to come home. We've been patient long enough."
Jose appeared to be having some kind of internal war.
"I want to come home and be with you," I said. "You have to know that. I love you with all my heart." I wanted to spend every minute with them. "But we're so close. We've measured the cosmological constant in several other universes and we think we found a universe without proton decay. When we connect with other pocket universes there's always some leakage. So we're working on making wider passageway - we just think it will take more energy-we should be able to import longer-lived protons. It'll be like a proton decay vaccine."
Jose put down the pizza and cleared his throat. "I support Mom. If she says she has to keep working, then she does."
Miguel flushed as he looked at our son. "No! I'm sorry but you just don't understand what's going on here, Jose." He took a step toward me. "You're coming home, now, Carina. This isn't open for discussion."
Jose flushed, too. "I think I do understand," he said carefully. "You and Mom have always said I should follow my dreams no matter what. This is Mom's dream, to save people from cancer. How can I be selfish..." His voice broke. "How can we be selfish and make her quit before she has a chance to save so many people?"
I'd never felt so proud in my life.
Now Miguel was having an internal war. "I hear what you're saying Jose, but - "
"What if what she's doing can save you, Dad?" Jose paused and then whispered, "...or me? Or even my kids someday?"
Both Miguel and I blinked back tears.
Finally Miguel got a hold of himself and said, "You make some good points - "
"And besides, what's to stop us from just staying here in the lab and helping her?" Jose asked.
They both looked at me. "Absolutely nothing's stopping us from doing that," I said, smiling through tears.
My stomach felt like it was full of red-hot pokers; I had to stop working for a minute. As I looked away from the equipment, I noticed the lab was dark, lit only by computer screens and equipment LEDs. When had that happened? I focused on breathing.
"Hey, there, Carina," Shaundra said. Where had she come from?
I gritted my teeth against the pain. "Hey, there, Shaundra."
"So? How are you feeling?" she asked. "Did you figure out how to stop cancer yet?"
The irony of the situation wasn't lost on me. Slowly - I could only move slowly these days - I nodded.
Miguel's voice said, "We've started importing longer-lived protons."
Jose added, "It's a cancer vaccine."
Where had they come from?
"Wow, I'm impressed," Shaundra said. "I can't believe how much progress you've made."
"I have a great team." I focused on Miguel and Jose and smiled. "And they're very motivated."
"I think you're being modest, Carina," Shaundra said.
"It's been a group effort," I said with difficulty. Besides my family, I had a bunch of post-docs and grad students, and support scientists.
Shaundra nodded. "Okay, whatever you say," she said softly. "Maybe it's time for you to ...take a break. I can bring you someplace, hospice, where they can make you feel a whole lot better." She reached for my arm.
"No!" I shrugged her hand off. "I want to finish this. I have to finish this. This is important."
"Yes. I know it is. It's important." She reached for me again. "But why don't you at least take a break? Let me give you something to help you sleep."
"I should keep working," I said.
"Just take a little break here in the lab, then," Shaundra said. I let her lead me over to the couch.
I heard voices, but I had to collect some energy before I could open my eyes.
Wait, my brain felt all fuzzy. And something was missing, something huge. Pain. The pain had faded into the background.
"...hospice. Manage her pain better," Miguel said.
"I can't believe she won't get to see the results," Shaundra said.
"I can't believe this is it," Jose said.
I forced my eyes open and tried to say 'sorry', but nothing came out.
"Mom!" Jose clutched at my hand.
"Carina." Miguel knelt by the couch and grabbed my other hand.
I tried in vain to sit up. I had to close my eyes again. I was starting to realize I wouldn't be going back to work. Moisture collected behind my closed eyelids.
I actually wasn't going to get to see the project finished. We were so close. A vaccine was in sight.
It was too late for me. But I knew they'd be successful. They would beat cancer.
As I held hands for the last time with the men I loved, I realized it was enough.
More than enough.