The Shadow Men

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Religion and Spirituality  |  House: Booksie Classic
A man trying to come to terms with the death of his only child and break-up of his marriage looks to the great unanswered mysteries of science in a search for answers.

Submitted: July 02, 2014

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 02, 2014



“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” – Albert Einstein

* * *

The kid wasn’t sleeping. The kid wasn’t playing. The kid was dead. And he was my kid. My son, my only child. Our only child. Eyes open, but rolled into the back of his head. No pupils, just those white empty eyes. A blue and purple face with an open, gaping mouth. Like an image from a bad horror movie, but this was Stephen. Stevie. Little Stevie. Our Stevie. Now a blue corpse with white eyes. An inescapable horrific image that would haunt my dreams and waking moments for years to come.

They tell me it was a one-in-a-million event. That no-one in over forty years had fallen through that ice. Decades of brutal winters followed by cold, short summers had made the ice several feet thick. Countless people skate on it every year. How a small, light seven-year old boy managed to fall through, was unthinkable – beyond understanding. It was like a miracle, but a miracle in a bad way. A miracle gone wrong. Or as my mother put it, an act of the devil.

My wife, Anja, ex-wife now, used to be a faithful Protestant – what some would call a good, Christian woman. Used to carry a small, wooden cross around her neck. She doesn’t wear it anymore though. I remember a friend asking her once, sometime after Stephen’s death, whether she still believed in God. “Yes”, she answered, “and I hate the fucker”. But I think, in her quiet moments, and hours of darkest despair, she still calls on Jesus. The hope that she will see Stephen in heaven one day is what holds her together – keeps her sane. But it’s not only her faith that has become tainted. The person she once was drowned with Stephen in the ice water that day. Once an engaged and lively person – she now was withdrawn and distant.

As for myself, I was never a religious man to start with. I see no divine creation in the world. No divine intervention in human affairs. No grand design or ultimate destiny. I have witnessed no miracles, seen no super natural events. I see only people sharing lives, going about their affairs and living through unrelated occurrences. It has always struck me as odd that people can be such rational, critical thinkers about most things, but so short-sighted and narrow-minded when it comes to religion. Yet, I have come to understand that facing one’s mortality and accepting that there is perhaps no afterlife is a giant leap to take, and it requires a certain type of courage to do so. Certainly, it is something that most people are not capable of.



* * *

Believing from my perspective as I do, that there is no life after death, I find other ways to deal with Stephen’s death. I find comfort in physics, as strange as it sounds, and scientific theory. For instance, an increasing number of physicists today believe that the Big Bang was not a singular event, but that Big Bangs occur all the time spawning from them an infinite number of universes. This is called the “Multiverse theory”.

According to this theory, most Big Bangs will create universes with laws of physics very alien to our own. Most of these universes will not be capable of supporting life. For instance, they might have too much or too little hydrogen - or gravity might be too strong or too weak. In fact, a significant number of variables need to come together in absolute perfect conditions and sequence in order to create a universe capable of supporting life. It is even harder to have the right set of conditions to harbour intelligent life.

So, for every universe capable of supporting complex, intelligent life – there are a billion dead ones. Yet, since Big Bangs occur all the time, in infinite numbers, it also means that there are an infinite number of universes – some of which, will no-doubt have intelligent life.

Human minds have difficulty grasping the concept of infinity, even more so understanding the implications of infinite universes. Most people reject the notion almost instinctively. But one of the most significant implications is that somewhere, amongst those infinite number of universes, must be one that is almost identical to our own in virtually every respect – down to the very last, minute detail. As impossible as this sounds statistically, with infinity this is not only possible, but very probable.

And so I have come to believe, that in some other universe, there is a Stevie that never fell through the ice. Subsequently, Anja and I never divorced. Somewhere the three of us are having burgers and fries at a shopping mall or having ice cream on the beach. Anja is complaining about getting older, Stevie is complaining about school, and I am the happiest son-of-a-bitch in the world.

In a parallel universe, I imagine that, as time goes by Anja and I fall only deeper in love and our relationship flourishes. I see us vacationing in Italy. I see us buying that house we always dreamed of. I see us going to dinner to celebrate her promotion. I see us having a barbeque with friends.

In this alternate reality, I see Stephen growing into the man I always knew he would become. He is a kind-hearted man, with a friendly smile. He has a wit about him and a sense-of-humour. He is successful in his job and filled with ambition. He is a charming man, and well loved by the ladies. He marries a girl, they are good for each other. They have their own children, and come to visit grandpa and grandma. Now Anja and I are just two old farts laughing at our old bodies, looking forward to Sunday after next, when Stevie and his family are coming to dinner.

This is the man I imagine Stephen will be. This is the life I imagine Anja and I will lead. But this is a man that I will never get to know. This is a life that I will never lead. Somewhere, in one of those universes, this is all happening. But it’s not my Stevie, and not my Anja. My Stevie has drowned in the ice water. And my Anja is a broken woman, ever looking for the splintered fragments of her heart.

* * *

Some days I still cannot believe that Anja I got divorced. A few years ago, the notion of a divorce would have seemed unthinkable to me – we were so content with our lives and each other. It is not uncommon for parents who lose a child to get divorced, they tell me. And having gone through the experience, I would say understandably so.

You would think that the bond between you would be stronger – but in reality your partner reminds you of the child you lost and that can make the healing process harder. It certainly seemed to be the case for me and Anja. The more we tried to support each other, the more we resented each other. You blame the other person for taking too long to heal, or not healing fast enough. There is a degree of blame and guilt. It was Anja’s suggestion that we go ice skating, but it was me who allowed Stevie to remain on the ice after we had already gotten off. You try not to find fault, but it sits in your sub-conscience, and you can’t escape it.

We use to be the wind beneath each other’s wings. Now to each other – we were chains and shackles – unable to move forward long as we were connected.

* * *

Some nights, I dream I’m drowning in ice water, trying to find my way to the surface, and though I can see sun and faces looking down at me, I cannot escape - trapped in ice and water. I relive Stevie’s last hellish moments, and I wonder if really my mother was right and there is a devil. I see a figure swimming towards me, hidden in darkness, a shadowy spectre – reaching out for me. I think he wants to help me get to the surface, but when he takes my hand, I’m pulled only deeper into the watery depths.

Usually this is where I wake up.

But these are not the worse of my dreams. Often I dream Stevie and I are playing in the garden, or we’ve gone out to eat his favourite hot dogs, or we’re playing TV games together. He never drowned, it was some other kid. It was all a horrible misunderstanding. We play and laugh like old times. Then I wake up and it takes me a moment or two to realise that really Stevie did drown – and that the dream was just a dream and my life is the nightmare.

It is in these waking moments, when despair swallows me – that I allow myself to hope that perhaps it is in some way possible that we go on living after we die – that perhaps there are more to us than just our brains being kept alive by our bodies – that perhaps, an electro-magnetic blueprint of our brain’s circuitry survives – a shadow consciousness in some shape or form. 

I sit in my bed and think about these things. I find myself in a dark bedroom filled with shadows. As the branches by my window are caught in the wind, the moonlight becomes a director of a theatrical play – and as actors the shadows orchestrate a dance harmoniously against my bedroom ceiling and walls – they perform their midnight dance for their audience of one.

When I myself was a boy, there was a time when I feared these midnight shadows. But my own father told me a story about them. He said that the midnight shadows are really people – people from a magical land. This land is filled with untold wonders beyond our wildest imaginings. Like Alice through the looking glass, we can see this world of marvel and splendour and its’ people – only as moving shadows – a pale reflection on tainted glass. Yet one day, if you are good, they will come and call you – to join them in their wonderland, to dance and play with them, and you shall be happy for all your days. But be careful, for when you pass through the looking glass, you can never come back.

Though the story was meant to comfort me, as a boy it only intensified my terror of the night. The thought of shadowy figures pulling me through a magic mirror to some unknown dark world from where I can never escape, no matter how marvellous and splendid it might be – did not aid in better sleeping. Subsequently, it is a story I never shared with Stevie.

Yet, as I grew older, the story found more appeal with me. As I grew into adulthood – the world of a child with its’ bright colours and endless possibilities faded and settled into a more mundane, colourless world full or hardships and struggles. The concept of leaving it for a better world became more and more appealing. And the shadows over-time, became not icons of fear but of hope – hope of more wondrous possibilities.

To this day, I am uncertain whether my father was merely trying to put a crying child to sleep, or whether he was aware of some secret truths and hidden knowledge that to me remained unknown. He had hardly any interest in science, but as for myself when I first heard that physicists had coined the term “dark matter”, it is of my father’s shadow world that I first thought.

* * *

Virtually all reputable physicists and astronomers today agree that more than 95% of all the universe is made up of “dark energy” and “dark matter”. Why they believe this to be the case, is too cumbersome to explore here, suffice it to say that calculations about the movements and formations of galaxies were not adding up, amongst other things.

Yet the underlying principle is that everything we see and observe about the universe – all known matters – people, cars, animals, gasses, liquids, atoms, clouds, in short – all known matter make up only 4.6% of what the universe actually consists of. We have no idea what the hell the other 95.4% is. Our scientific equipment cannot detect it – our human senses are unaware of it. Yet, we know it must be there. This is why it’s called “dark” – because we cannot describe it.

Is it therefore possible that inside this shadow reality of dark matter and energy – there are shadow objects, shadow galaxies and even shadow people? Most scientists don’t think so. They believe dark matter consists mainly of WIMPs (weakly interactive massive particles). It is believed that because dark matter will exhibit qualities different to that of normal matter and do not seem to bind to normal matter – it is most likely of such a nature that it cannot bind to form complex structures – and remain largely disconnected massive particles or sub-particles.

Yet, so little is known about dark matter and energy – the truth is, we simply do not know. Perhaps the notion of my father’s shadow men and shadow world is not so impossible after all.

And if they exist – what else might be possible? Is a piece of us made out of dark matter, and does that piece survive on after we die?

* * *

I thought I’d wait till Stephen got older before I’d tell him about dark matter and dark energy and other things, like the multiverse. I always hoped that he would grow up to be interested in science, like his old man. I looked forward to telling him about the marvels of the Universe, like the Big Bang, about time being relative based on speed, about the possibility of worm holes that could transport you from one point to another point a million light years away in an instant, about the eleven dimensions of string theory, about black holes and exploding super nova’s. I imagined all the conversations we would have – about sharing Scientific American magazines and watching Discovery channel together.

Of course, Stephen was far too young to appreciate much of science. At the age of seven, the world of magic is where you want your mind to find its’ summer, not in dusty old science books. Nonetheless, I did try to nourish a curiosity in science from an early age, disguising it as magic.

I once gave him a sealed white box. “What’s in the box, daddy?” I explained to him that as long as the box was sealed, there could be anything in there, anything at all – no matter how impossible it might be. There could be inside a unicorn, fairies, dreams of dwarves, rainbow children – in fact, inside the box could be a whole universe. It was a magic box, as long as it was closed, there was no telling what could be in it.

But when you open it, it loses its’ magic. All possibilities collapse into one, and what you find to be in the box, whatever item it is, it can then never be any other item again – that thing that it is, that is the thing that it will always remain.

I thought being seven years old, the kid wouldn’t be able to resist opening the box. His curiosity would overcome it, and no matter how magical a closed box might be – there must be something really cool inside. Yet, he never did open it. He was a very special kid that way. I have the box still, still unopened.

His curiosity did nag him though, and from time to time he would ask me about the contents of the box. Again, I would explain that it was magical and the contents were unknown. “One day”, I said, “I shall tell you a story of a cat in a box”.

“Do you mean a cat in a hat, daddy?”

“No, this is a different story”.

“Tell it now”

“You are too young to understand, perhaps when you are older”.

And though it’s not the classic Dr Seuss tale, this story is bizarre enough to give the good doctor a run for his money. This is the story of Schrödinger’s cat – the one I never got to tell Stevie. 

* * *

The world of physics are divided into two main branches of study. There is Newtonian physics – which studies everyday objects that are familiar to us and which we for the most part understand because these things behave according the common sense laws. If I throw a ball it will come back down. If I heat water it becomes vapour and if I cool it down it freezes. If a balloon is filled with helium it will rise because it’s lighter than air. If a fire has no more oxygen available to it, it dies out. These are common sense things and laws of physics that make sense to our minds. It is the world as we see and understand it.

Then there is quantum physics. This, is a whole different story. It seems closer to magic than science. It defies our common sense understandings of the world. It is the study of sub-atomic particles. An alien world with alien rules. Physicists can’t help feeling a bit like Alice looking through the rabbit hole at Wonderland. Studying Wonderland through the rabbit hole (because unlike Alice we cannot pass through it) is a vastly complex science – requiring leading edge technology and impossibly complex mathematics. And perhaps even stranger, is that it would appear that Wonderland knows when we are looking through the rabbit hole, and when we are not. And if quantum physics is Wonderland, than Schrödinger has given us our Cheshire Cat.

Our story starts in 1935. Einstein wrote, along with some other esteemed scientists of the time, an infamous paper called the EMR article. In it, he discusses the Copenhagen principle: A quantum object will be in two states simultaneously but upon observation or measurement it will at random assume either of the two states. Light is the most common example – it exists as both a wave and a particle. Yet, you can never see it on a quantum scale in both its’ states simultaneously. Measure it one way, you see a wave. Measure it another way, you see a particle. However, stop observing it, and it becomes both.

It is this nature of quantum objects, called quantum entanglement that prompted Schrödinger to propose his famous thought experiment involving a cat and a box – infamously known as “Schrödinger’s cat”. At the time, Einstein’s analysis seemed so absurd that most scientists were not willing to believe it. One of them was Erwin Schrödinger. Incredibly, Schrödinger himself was one of the main contributors to quantum research, but did not like what his own and Einstein’s research uncovered. “I don’t like it, and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it”, he famously said.

Schrödinger’s cat was originally meant as a thought experiment to underline the fallacy of his own and Einstein’s observations. Ironically, the decades of research that followed proved that they turned out to be perfectly correct in their deductions – and Schrödinger’s cat as absurd as it sounds, precisely describes the Universe as we understand it in quantum terms.

So, Schrödinger’s cat: You place a cat in a box with a poison capsule which may or may not break depending on the deterioration of a certain quantum object emitting radiation. If the object breaks down and emits radiation – the poison capsule breaks and the cat dies. If the object does not break down, the cat remains alive. So: a cat in a box with a quantum object and a poison capsule. We close the box.

Now…welcome to the world of quantum weirdness. While the box is closed, because quantum objects exist in two states simultaneously, the quantum object both emits radiation and yet at the same time does not – which is in accordance with what we understand of certain quantum objects. So, the poison capsule subsequently both breaks and does not -meaning that our cat both dies yet remains alive.

Then, we open the box. As we are now observing quantum effects, the quantum elements no longer exhibit both states, and collapse into one. So half the time when we open the box we find a dead cat, and the other half a living one.

The implications are profound: Firstly, while the box is closed two splinters realities exist or mini parallel universes are created – one with a living cat and another with a dead one. Secondly, when we observe the effects by opening the box, the quantum world responds by collapsing the two parallel realities into one. And thirdly and perhaps most profoundly – how do quantum objects know they are being measured or observed? It is as though the fabric of the Universe is somehow aware of us and what we do.

If this all strikes you as terribly odd and confusing and goes against all your common sense thinking – fear not, you are not alone in feeling so. Schrödinger’s cat has been baffling our brightest minds and greatest thinkers since the 1930s, and we still have no concrete answers to this quantum weirdness. It has been the topic of endless philosophical discussions and scientific papers for decades.

You might dismiss all this as the theoretical ramblings of mad scientists. But the research Einstein and Schrödinger did in this field made much of our modern technology of today possible. Their work was used as the foundation for building the first atomic bomb and nuclear power station. Without it, the technology we use inside computer chips would be impossible. You find the fruit of their efforts in everything from super market barcode scanners to the chip in your smart phone. These very same family of equations that make so much of our technology possible – precisely predict the quantum weirdness of Schrödinger’s cat.

Now I have to think to myself, if the Universe is so weird that it is seemingly aware of us and able to create brief mini parallel realities on the fly – is there a hint of a higher power or awareness?

Curioser and curioser.

* * *

Today it’s three years since he died - the longest of my life. I thought I’d go to the iced lake where he passed, as I have done every year on the anniversary of his death, but this will be my last trip – I have to start moving on. A few hours’ drive from the city, when I finally get here – I am not surprised to see Anja here also, she normally comes too on this day. We are alone here, it was closed to the public after Stephen died.

When I see her she is gazing over the distance towards the steep icy cliffs, standing atop the eternally frozen lake. I wonder briefly if it will swallow her up as it did Stephen – of course, it does not. She turns around and notices me, I in turn notice how much she has aged in such a small amount of time and wonder if she observes the same about me.

“Hello John”

“Hello Anja”

Asking how each other have been and exchanging pleasantries seem pointless. Like two old trees that have weathered a hurricane yet still somehow remain standing – words would simply be lost in the wind – they have no meaning here.

We stand for the longest time, neither speaking not touching, yet comforted somehow by each other’s company.

Finally, I’m ready to leave but do not wish to part without words spoken. When shall I see her again? I know not.

“I see you’re wearing your crucifix again”.

“Yes John, I think that I have made my peace with God. I take it you still have not sought Him out?”

“No…God, at least in the traditional religious sense, will give me little comfort. But I am happy that you have made your peace, and if that is what you need, than I am happy that you have found it.”

“Yes I have. I cried and cried and my tears caused a great flood in which I almost drowned along with the mice and all the other poor creatures. But I found a key and a door and a place beyond that door that I can go to in my dark hours, and I found a peace of sorts when I visit, even though they tell me everyone there is mad….And how have you found peace, John? Let me know, please, so I can know that on some level, you have found a way to go on too. I think that it’s important for me to know you are okay – before I can be okay too.”

“Well…since Stephen’s death, I have entertained the notion more and more, that perhaps, in all the enigmas, mysteries and oddities of the Universe - that there might be, between the woven fabric of space and time – a God somewhere. Though, not a Creator, but an Observer. And perhaps instead of a single God, many Gods, that are perhaps much less than gods. But maybe they are enough. And maybe our existence goes deeper than we know, and a piece remains on after we die. Therein, I have found my peace.”

“It makes me very happy to hear that, John. Perhaps this is the first time I have felt happy in a very long time. You, me, here, together. It feels right somehow. Tomorrow the sun will rise. And I will be ready for it”.

Moments pass. She speaks again.

“Did you notice, darling, the sheer white cliffs that surround this frozen wonder, the unbroken clouds in the sky above and the ice beneath our feet – I feel like I’m in a giant, white box”.

“I have noticed it too. It feels like we’re in Stevie’s magic box. Like we’ve stepped into it since we first arrived here. But maybe, we’ve always been in this box. Maybe Stevie knew this”.

More time passes, until at the far end of the lake at the white cliffs – at first what seems like a reflection in the ice becomes clearer in our field of vision – two shadowy figures slowly but purposefully coming our direction. Looking like neither animal nor man – alien in their movements – yet with a dance-like grace gliding and flying over the ice.

“John, I’m scared…do you see them?”

“I do love, but don’t be scared…they are just the shadow men”.


* * *

“Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” – Albert Einstein

* * * 

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