The first thing that struck me about Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, when I first read it in 2017, was the heart-stopping dedication from Carl to his wife Ann Druyan.
“For Ann Druyan,” said the dedication. “In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie.”
The words seemed to fill the page, enveloping the book and the reader in their embrace – in the intensity of love conveyed in a single line.
Last week - nearly three years later – I came across a post on Facebook, no doubt a popular post but one that I’d never seen before, containing the words of Ann Druyan.
Ann’s thoughts about Carl.
“When my husband died,” she said, “because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me-it still sometimes happens-and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
Let me take a moment here to catch my breath and repeat.
‘We found each other in the cosmos and that was wonderful.’
I’m not an atheist. Never have been. Spent all my years believing in the afterlife, believing in something being present beyond the here and now. But I’m also a curious, inquisitive person, and I like to look at things from various angles. And therefore, over the years several times I have tried to consciously imagine what my life would be like if I were an atheist. If I stopped believing in the things that moulded and formed my life right now, would I live any differently?
And the answer has always been that other than the prayers and community rituals, nothing would really change in my life. I’d be the same person I am now, because human values are universal.
But then, following this chain of thought I’d slowly come to the aspect of afterlife: of life after life, life beyond life. And every time I tried to imagine a world that ends here, ends definitively on this earth, my imagination would bound back with a jolt, the kind of jolt one gets from a high voltage electric fence, throwing you back with unprecedented force. Every time I tried to imagine this being the end, my mind rebelled. For one reason: my father.
I had gone through life, one day at a time, imagining him around me, beside me, asking him questions and listening to his answers. I had gone through life waiting for that moment when I would see him again, in the fathomless beyond. Every time I tried to imagine there being nothing beyond, my mind reared high like an aggressive insolent stallion, refusing to comply. And that would be the end of my atheist imaginings.
Until Ann’s words moved me to tears and I wept for a long moment. “I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
This was the first time that something different gave me solace, something other than the thought of the afterlife, of seeing my father again.
I saw him. We saw each other.
He was my father and I knew him for 9 years. In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, how beautiful it was that I had him as my father – a man like him, so ahead of his times, so full of energy and vitality, brimming with joy and cheer, and yet steeped in profound philosophy, in poetry, in spirituality – in sync with the rhythm of the universe. It was my joy to share a planet and an epoch with him, to know him and to learn from him, if only for a little while. We found each other in the cosmos and that was wonderful.
This was the first explanation that soothed me, without promising life beyond life. I tried to turn the thought over and over in my mind, absorbing it from various angles.
And then I thought of little Hasan.
My sensitive, philosophical 7 year old, who already reflects so much on life and death, on life after death. And even more than that, cries for his grandfather whom he never met. My astonishing little boy who sheds actual tears for a man he never knew, never saw, never spoke to. He cries for my father because “Why did I never meet my Nana?”
And this is where Ann Druyan’s words fall short. For me, perhaps, her words may work. I saw him. We saw each other.
But what of Hasan? His grandfather never saw him. He never saw his grandfather. They did not have a chance to spend years together. They did not find the opportunity to share a planet and an epoch together, at the same time. What of that?
I think then, that we – Hasan and I — we’ll have to hold on to the idea of afterlife a little longer. To feel and to know that my father – his grandfather – is still there, and even though Hasan did not see him, he sees Hasan. He watches over him, guides him, and answers his questions, like he has answered mine for twenty years now.
We will wait then, I think.
Wait for the time when we can find each other in the cosmos again – for the cosmos is not merely the parts that you can see, is it?
Every person you ever truly loved will find you again. In the vastness of space and the immensity of time; vastness that stretches far beyond human imagination.