Seeing Stars

When you’re grieving, a phone can become an optical instrument, turning magical thinking to magical realism

When my brother Mark died I didn’t feel like being alive anymore, but sleep was as close as I was willing to put myself to death. So I slept endlessly. When I woke up, at 2 p.m., at 4 a.m., again at 7 a.m., I’d scroll through social media until I could will myself back to sleep. Kanye would tweet something. When I woke again, people were sharing photos of his tweet printed out and hung in their office cubicles. The next time I woke up, the tweet was on cakes and T-shirts.

Celebrities and countries were fighting; the wifi at my mom’s apartment ran so slowly that things took absurdly long to load. I watched a 30-second TMZ clip of a model on a beach posing seductively before being knocked down by a wave as it slowly buffered over 10 minutes. A week later, someone finally restarted the router.

When I left the apartment, the world felt too harsh — fast and bright and no longer mine. People reached out but I spent most of my time alone, wearing Mark’s clothes, sleeping in the room that had been mine and then his and was now mine again.

Some days, I worked frantically on making a memorial service that would feel true to someone who wore flip-flops everywhere and died only a few months after turning 21. Some days I couldn’t do more than order Seamless from Mark’s account. “Hi, Mark,” Seamless said. Often I missed daylight entirely, catching up later on my phone. Each year-end roundup made me furious. I didn’t want the last year Mark was alive to end and I definitely didn’t want a new one to start without him.

Some days I couldn’t do more than order Seamless from Mark’s account. “Hi, Mark,” Seamless said

In January, a few days after the memorial, David Bowie died. I scrolled through hundreds of tweets and Instagram posts. What about Mark? I thought, stewing in my bed. Why didn’t the whole entire world stop when he died? Then Snape died. Then Céline Dion’s husband. Everyone kept calling it tragic; he was 73! I wanted to shout. People were tweeting and penning Facebook posts; everyone was “devastated” and “heartbroken.” But I knew that after clicking tweet or post or share most people carried right along with their days. They’d listen to Bowie on the subway home from work. But when they turned the key in the lock, they left their grief behind.

Grief was my entire world — it crowded my thoughts and clouded everything I did. But I clung to it too. A friend of Mark’s, who had lost her mother, told me grief is like a wound. Slowly, it’ll heal. You’ll still have the scar, but it won’t hurt as much. She meant this as a comfort; I took it as a threat. I didn’t want the pain to go away because it would take me further from Mark. I’d lost him and I wasn’t willing to give up anything else. What would I be left with if I could overcome the loss of my brother?

Grieving is knowing something to be true without fully accepting it. My phone proved a necessary distraction. I played endless rounds of solitaire, placing a jack on a queen, moving a six here, putting an ace up, unfurling new cards. Shockingly soon, a trophy popped up on my screen. I’d played 1,000 games.

On one of these endlessly long days, someone retweeted a photo of stars beneath a series of coordinates. The image was crowded with pinpricks of light and I clicked to @AndromedaBot. Some guy named Joe had created it to explore Hubble’s largest photo “a little bit at a time.” The full photo offers the clearest picture of the Andromeda galaxy. Apparently, you’d need 600 HD TVs to display the entire thing. There are over 100 million stars visible, but no indication at what point someone stopped counting.

Between tweets covering the most mundane details of celebrities’ lives, the celestial began to appear regularly in my feed. Each photo segment was dramatically different from the one that preceded it. Sometimes, it looked like spilled glitter. Sometimes there was only blackness with a smattering of planets and stars, one much bigger than the rest. The photos varied from purplish to puce to a speckled black. A little bit at a time made a lot of sense.

“Alex saw an astronomer!” my mom said to my brother Robert after I’d told her. “Astrologer,” I corrected her, wincing. Robert is many things and one of them is someone who studied astronomy in college. He rolled his eyes and grabbed a seltzer. “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “It’s just a way of looking at things,” I responded, defensively, before adding, “You can get something out of it even if you don’t believe in it.” He rifled through the fancy baked goods people were still sending us, mostly ignoring me. “I can learn something about Mark from a novel, even if I know it’s not real,” I said, but by then he was already gone, down the hall.

I’d agreed to go to my friend Grace’s astrologer even though I did not want to be one of those people who look for something in nothing. After Mark’s death, I was wary of anything that promised comfort, afraid I might slide uncontrollably into becoming the kind of person who finds messages in burnt toast. On the day of my appointment, I almost feigned a migraine, but I knew everyone would know I was lying. Instead, I put a coat over the sweatpants I’d been wearing for days, and went to see Jeane, to whom I’d already given the date, location, and time of my birth, plus Mark’s.

Jeane opened the door wearing a bright orange baseball cap with nothing on it. It looked absurd, but in a good way. Okay, I thought. I can do this. We sat across from each other at her dining room table and she offered me snacks. Since I don’t know anything about astrology, she would point to something on the chart, say what it was, and then tell me what that told her.

It was comforting to hear a stranger echo back minor details of Mark’s life. “His [something] is in the [something],” she said, “and to me, that indicates a reluctant interest in fashion.” I laughed and told her that Mark had been model scouted on the subway, walking twice in New York Fashion Week. He’d been nonchalant about it, but he was clearly proud, especially when they asked him to return for a second show. “Mark,” she said, jovially, “Mark! If you’re here, we know you loved it.”

I thought of helping him cut his jeans into jorts. I thought of all the times he’d knocked on my door to show me a weird sweatshirt he’d bought at a thrift store with Caroline. I thought of the summer before, when his shirt and shorts clashed so much someone asked if it was laundry day with a knowing smile and we had laughed because it wasn’t.

Something rising somewhere indicated an interest in the arts, visual maybe. Mark had kept a list of all the movies he wanted to watch, crossing out those he’d seen. He took beautiful portraits of his friends and family; he loved photography so deeply.

Between tweets covering the most mundane details of celebrities’ lives, the celestial began to appear regularly in my feed. Sometimes, it looked like spilled glitter

Jeane showed me a line on his chart that indicated the pain he’d experienced. Another line crossed that one, there was a moon rising somewhere, and this meant he’d been a leader. “There are two types of leaders,” Jeane said. “There are those that come down from the mountain insisting they know the answers and then there’s the kind of quiet leadership that comes from within.” Mark, she said, was the latter. “The people that most received his message were his peers.”

I thought of Mark’s friends and the night they came over after he died. We were in the kitchen and they all trooped in, the dogs barking, the boys ever taller than before, the girls following behind. Usually, they’d come in laughing and joking, usually Mark would be somewhere in the bunch. My eyes had traveled over all of them until the last one entered, because I wanted to see Mark there, Mark here, Mark pulling open the fridge door and grabbing a seltzer.

“It’s strange,” I said, “He was in immense pain, he struggled so much, but he wasn’t really the picture of a depressed person. He was joyful and funny and so much fun to be around. Sometimes it was really confusing.”

Then Jeane said something I still carry with me. “Think about what photography is — it’s about turning darkness into light. That’s not a metaphor, that’s literally what it is. Sometimes you see that in people too. There’s something really beautiful about a person who can turn their own pain and their own darkness into light for others.”

I found Jeane’s method hard to believe in, but what she said I knew to be true. Mark was a leader, a light, a person whose life was marked by suffering and profound happiness, isolatingly untranslatable pain and also the warmth of community. But his death by suicide raised endless questions about responsibility, inevitability, and choice that I wrestled with constantly.

The stars and planets don’t stop just because someone’s life does, Jeane said; she could continue to read his chart even though he had died. There would be, according to Jeane, a period of nearness for several years, based on the alignment of astronomical things I can’t remember. Then, Jeane said, there would be a change. “I don’t want you to take that to mean that in seven years Mark is coming back,” she said. “Maybe it just means you guys find a new way of living with his loss, a new way of remembering him.”

Jeane clearly had wisdom, but she didn’t pretend to have all the answers. I wanted to know how Mark could possibly be here if he was no longer living, I needed to know where to find him and what to look for. I was grateful that Jeane didn’t offer certainty she didn’t have, but I also wanted it so badly.

“He’s in your heart,” people would say, but that was not enough. I wanted him alive, and if not alive, I wanted him here still in some real, quantifiable way. I wanted an explanation that I could have relayed to Mark without him raising his eyes suggestively while making the exaggeratedly spooky noises from Scooby Doo and then cracking up.

We do not come from a religious household, even though my dad was once a Catholic altar boy. Growing up, religion was largely the domain of our grandmothers, who’d wear crosses around their necks (one Catholic, one Protestant) and go to church on Sundays. They believed in things like heaven and angels but never tried to push that on us, except for the time my great aunt got so worried that my older brother Andrew and I might die and rot in purgatory that she led our little selves into the bathroom, locked the door, and performed her own baptism in the bathtub.

The idea of the spirit or the soul felt false; instead, I clung to the idea of energy, which seemed more rigorously provable. He’s dead, but he is not gone, I’d insist to myself. The energy he was made of is still here. He’s not turning into a tree, that’s fine, but there’s probably some of him in this room. That’s just science. I didn’t really know much about energy beyond the whole “can neither be created nor destroyed” thing, but I thought maybe the body let go of any unused energy at death. I liked to picture him around us. Mostly I imagined that energy just loosely close and there when we needed it, Mark nearby but not watching us pee or anything like that.

I googled it. “Quick note: If you’re presently grieving, don’t read this,” said the first result. Of course, I ignored the warning. A lot of energy, it turns out, goes toward decomposition and is then expelled as heat. It’s true that the waves and particles and protons that made him my living, breathing brother are still here… somewhere. But as I read more, I realized that I’d only focused on the second half of the energy law. All that energy passed through him, but it didn’t really come from him.

The stars shine for no one at all and the bot tweets endlessly to an unknown audience, going on and on without us

And so energy wasn’t the answer, but maybe light could give me some comfort. I thought about the light that illuminated our lives — the days and weeks and months and years in which all four of us were alive. I imagined that light radiating endlessly outward into the universe. It was comforting to think that when we look into the sky we’re seeing the past, since that’s where I wanted to be. After some googling, I determined that if you traveled two light years away from earth, you’d see the planet as it was when me and my three brothers all lived. You’d have to go 12 trillion miles.

If you went further, so far I can’t even understand what the number of miles is, you could turn and you’d see the planet as it was when I only had two brothers, but Mark wouldn’t be dead, he just wouldn’t be born yet. Further still and I’d ruin Andrew’s only-child status. Back further and the Ronan kids would mean my dad and his siblings, not me and mine.

Mark was dead, but that light of our lives wouldn’t stop traveling. What we had together isn’t over; it’s just moving away, I told myself. Then it occurred to me that the earth is a planet, not a star. I asked my boyfriend Greg how you could see the earth from light years away if it wasn’t producing light. When he explained, I burst into tears. To double check, I emailed my friend Raillan, who knows more than anyone else about how these things work. I didn’t tell him why I needed to know. Raillan wrote back quickly and didn’t ask why I was suddenly interested in exosolar planets. He talked about interstellar smog smothering luminosity. He acknowledged that the earth is emitting light, but only a little, and mostly from reflected sunlight. Atmospheric dust and interstellar smog did not fit into what I’d imagined. I was devastated.

Sometimes I tried to take part in my own life. I saw friends; I started working again. I knew I seemed okay for a girl whose brother died, but I also knew I was irreparably broken and I didn’t want to be fixed. I still used my phone whenever I needed to not think about anything. I got up to level 82 in TwoDots before deleting it entirely.

I continued collecting memories and stories and details about Mark. I came across a song called “I Love You, But Goodbye” that made me sob uncontrollably for an hour. If not directly from him, the words felt of him. I sent it to Caroline and she wrote back to say that Mark loved the band. I had no idea. It felt like the most precious gift.

I wish I believed that Mark was watching from somewhere, offering me this comfort from afar. I don’t exactly believe all that, but he did live and love and share his life with a lot of people, so it’s also true in a way, that these comforts come from him. His energy, or what’s left of it, may not surround us, but his influence does, and that was born of the days and nights he spent here, all the energy he put into being alive.

I wonder what it was like to be him, to live with a brain that works constantly against you. I wish that something could have helped him. Some things did, but not enough and now he’s gone.

I keep the star charts Jeane drew in a drawer — Mark’s, mine, the one we shared. Every day, as soon as I get home, I crawl back into bed. The world still moves too fast for me, and celebrity minutiae feels more like my speed. A tabloid tells me that Selena Gomez got a coffee. Then, later: How to get Selena’s coffee casual look. Later still, I click one that went something like “Sipping Coffee and Sending Texts: Ten Theories On Who Selena Is Talking To (Hint: It’s Not Justin).”

Between those, the Andromeda bot appears in my feed, spitting out stars. The bot offers a look at the physical universe, something that is, no matter what meaning we ascribe to it. The expansiveness that each tweet communicates makes me feel tiny. Even though the pain of losing Mark feels bigger than anything else, the photos remind me that something bigger is everywhere around. The stars shine for no one at all and the bot tweets endlessly to an unknown audience. We look to the stars for meaning, we make the bots that go on and on without us. Grieving or not, we place ourselves and try to find our place.

I signed up for the Hubble press newsletter and now the stars come to my inbox. I get an embargoed photo of what I agree looks like “a gigantic cosmic soap bubble” and learn that the Hubble telescope now has two million Facebook friends. They’re always finding new things. A few weeks ago it was three potentially habitable worlds near some dwarf star. Before that, a comet with fragments from Earth’s formation returned after billions of years in something called cold storage. It may offer clues about the beginning of our solar system. It may not. I’m sure they’ll let me know.

These days, I don’t take much comfort in ideas about energy. I don’t entirely know how light works, except that it doesn’t work in the way I want it to. I don’t look at the stars and imagine the heavens; when I look at the stars, I think of what Mark’s friend Lizzy said: “He could find the Big Dipper even if the sky was cloudy.” I think of the things Mark taught me and I wonder what he knew about the sky.

When people ask how we are, I usually say, “Every day seems impossible, but then it is over.” I mean that I don’t know how to live without him. I mean that I don’t want to have to figure it out, but that I will, largely because the days keep coming, but also because I know Mark wouldn’t want it another way.

I carry him in my heart, of course, and he’s alive in our memories. Sometimes I even see Mark in my dreams. It’s so painful to be here without him, but when I look up at the stars, when I’m feeling too sad to do anything but refresh my Twitter feed, and the @AndromedaBot pops up, I just feel lucky. Mark isn’t here, but he was. Of all the galaxies, we both ended up in this one, right on this planet, at the same time. We were here together, and that’s not nothing.

Alex Ronan is a writer living in Berlin, mostly. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Dwell, and elsewhere.