The Empty Space: Sasha Sagan on Losing Her Father
Some changes are lightning fast. Others take a long time to fully reveal themselves. When a star dies, the darkness left by its absence ripples through the universe at the speed of light, which may seem impossibly fast—but over the great distances of space, even that isn't fast enough. The dead stars appear to shine, but in reality they're long gone.
The defining change of my life was the death of my father. I was 14. For years I would dream he'd returned with an elaborate explanation for where he'd been, then I'd wake up crushed. The loss of his light—the full impact of his absence—took years to reach me.
Sixteen years after his death from a long illness, I sat in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan hotel with my husband-to-be, our wedding planner, and the lead singer of our wedding band.
"Are you doing a father-daughter dance?" the bandleader asked.
I felt a fresh ripple of grief. "No, my dad passed away," I said.
The singer flinched, then smiled. "Your father will be watching over you on your special day," she said.
The sentiment was kind, but I don't believe in an afterlife. I—like my late father, the astronomer Carl Sagan—believe only in what can be proved. Jon, my fiancé, squeezed my hand. I made a noncommittal sound and steered the conversation toward Kanye West's "Homecoming"—could the band learn it in time?
I miss my dad at every birthday and Thanksgiving, every graduation and send-off, every achievement and failure—every day. But there was something about a wedding, about my wedding, that made the longing worse. However antiquated the reason, weddings center on the father-daughter relationship. He walks you down the aisle, leads you in that first dance, gives you away to the man who will love you in his place.
Jon and I grew up together in Ithaca, New York. For many years we were acquaintances, then friends, then lovers. Early in our relationship we went to a friend's wedding, where the bride's father described how much he loved his daughter, how precious their relationship was. I was heartsick. I was jealous. I wept in the ladies' room. When my time came, a wedding without my dad would be too awful to face. Why invite everyone I knew to come stare at the hole in my life? Later that night Jon and I sat in Central Park, and for the first time I let him see the depth of my grief. Jon didn't tell me a happy lie, didn't tell me that everything would be okay. He just held me, tears streaming down his own face. My dad wrote a book that contains the line, "For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love." For that and a million other reasons, there was no question about my answer when Jon knelt in the garden of our favorite restaurant and asked me to be his wife.
My father couldn't walk me down the aisle, no matter how much I wanted him to, but I knew I had to somehow feel his presence at our wedding. I decided we should get married somewhere he and I had been together. I didn't believe his spirit would be there, but I knew my memories of him would be.
Then on a trip home to Ithaca, Jon and I visited the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, a modernist structure on the Cornell campus. When I was small, my father would take me there to see a famous Giacometti sculpture and the Japanese scrolls. It was the site of his memorial service in 1996. But that day Jon and I saw something new. On the ceiling of a massive open-air room that juts out from the museum, the artist Leo Villareal had used a framework of thousands of lights to create a constantly morphing, whooshing depiction of deep space. He called the piece Cosmos—a tribute to my father's work and to the grandeur of what dad called "all that is or ever was or ever will be."
That autumn, my mother and grandfather walked me down the aisle on the top floor of the museum, which overlooks our beloved town. After cocktails and speeches, the band played, and Jon and I danced under Villareal's ever-changing tableau, before our friends and family put us in chairs and lifted us skyward. Looking at the beautiful and good man I married, and looking up at the legacy of the beautiful and good man I lost, I was happy in a way I hadn't believed possible. There is no refuge from change in the cosmos, or from the heartbreak those changes can bring. But in the midst of all that is, was, or ever will be, there is a light that keeps shining, reaching us from far away.