Three line-graphs depict (from bottom to top): sea level rise from 1950 to 2020 and projections for future rise to 2050; an increase in National Wildlife Refuge acreage in the Northeast from 2001 to 2020; and an increase in the percentage of U.S. adults who supported policies to protect the environment from 2008 to 2019. (Painting by Jill Pelto)

Zeno’s Paradox

An arithmetic of grief and memory

MICHIGAN. A TANNINY CREEK. Brown water, greenest grasses. Me in a kayak with my son, not yet two years old. A few weeks earlier, someone asked, “What is the audio world you want to live in?” (I work in radio, so maybe that’s a normal question?) Suddenly, I’m thinking I have the answer. Right here, the purrrrling of the paddle in dark water, the steampunk flickering of dragonfly wings. But then I get greedy. I start thinking of other sounds I’d like to curl up in. My only constraint, they must be real—the splendor and psychedelia of what’s actually here:

Raindrops falling off a gutter after the rain has stopped.

The moans, beneath the crackle, of a fire.

The basily sound of dusk.

The purrrling of the paddle stops abruptly. I try to be quiet, lay the paddle flat. But it is no use; the glissando of droplets alert the creature ahead.

I’d like to but cannot include the sound of the six-foot-tall nurse rolling her gorgeous eyes when a geriatric patient tells her he wants to take her home in his pocket. Or the sound of her reply: “You better have a really big pocket.” I can’t describe the sound of her long body scraping against the limb of a crab-apple tree to make room for me, back when we were uptight kids in uptight spaces trying to climb our way out, smoking a little pot and dreaming of tattoos and men . . . who did not wear khakis.

I can’t include any of this on my list because five days ago a black SUV didn’t bother screeching, just plowed into her body beneath a waxing gibbous on a West Hollywood street.

The creature ahead in the creek is a fawn. It is standing, alone, chest deep in the water, in front of a small wooden footbridge.

I am trying to stop the kayak but can find no way to do it silently. My son is pressed against my chest. We are all, all three of us animals, frozen. Except that my son and I are gliding, rather quickly, toward the fawn. If ever there’s a moment that won’t last, it’s this one.

I drink in its every white spot, the pinks of its swiveling ears. My brain flicks off a million questions: Where is its mother? Do deer swim? Would it allow us to touch it? Is this a miracle?

Zeno’s paradox, the most famous of his paradoxes anyway, says that if you try to reach the other side by always moving halfway from where you are standing you will never reach it. Half and half and half, getting infinitesimally closer . . . but never there.

This odd mathematical thought exercise has always struck me with frustration, a peak lack of satisfaction. Until today, five days after the tall nurse’s death. As we careen toward the fawn, I wonder if any passenger ever tried applying Zeno’s paradox to their journey across the River Styx.

Half and half and half, getting infinitesimally closer . . . but never there.

If you were to stare, really stare, at the far bank: note where the black ripples slow, note the salt stains on the reeds as a likely indicator of drought. If you were to zoom in and in as you got closer and closer—at the kidney beans of moon hopping around in the current, at the duff of the approaching bank—by half, by half, by half . . . would you never get to the other side?

At her funeral, two days later, the nurse’s mother will tell me that bells of Ireland were her favorite flower. I looked up bells of Ireland tattoos. I didn’t like them much.

At her burial, a friend standing at a distance saw a green dragonfly anoint certain shoulders—her brother, her mother, Roberto—then linger near the coffin. “It was her,” the friend told me. Another friend saw the same thing. In her telling, it anointed my shoulder too.

A few days later, a friend sent me a cartoon about how grief folds itself into you like butter in a croissant. Oppressive and greasy at first but ultimately forming your succulence. I’d rather be dry.

In sound-editing software, there is this thing you can do. You can zoom in and in and in on a waveform until it gets flatter and flatter and you are, in some real way, diving into the infinity of that sound, exploring its every last corner and whirlpool. The software I use has a limit, but sound itself—if the mathematicians are right—does not.

If I could get the recording of that night and scroll to the moment before the cruel screechless sound. If I could clean up the din of the draining nightclubs and sweep away the clacks using a low-pass filter and mute the thumping bass using a high-pass filter, eliminating every last frequency (the whine of neon, the clattering of heels, the quaking of faraway stars) except for the sound of her breathing, moving my cursor to the spot right after her last inhalation, to the place where the waveform rises up for its swan song—that long exhalation like a shaggy pine tree on its side.

If I started zooming there, stretching the wisps and secrets into long flat drones, and curling up in them like the infinite blankets they supposedly are, diving deeper still to explore and notice whatever resides there, extending the waveform—by half, by half, by half . . . Would the dragonfly return to its meaningless state, when it flew free, before it had to bear the pall of her hello? Would she, and her foolishly big hands, still be here?

The fawn spooks at last. It finally overrides its impulse to freeze and alights onto the salt-stained grass of the other side.

Lulu Miller is a Peabody Award–winning science journalist, cohost of Radiolab, and cofounder of Invisibilia. She is the author of the nonfiction scientific thriller Why Fish Don’t Exist.