Matthew McHugh

Spring 2021


By Matthew McHugh

I owe my life to antimatter.

Specifically, to an experimental antiproton therapy that eliminated an inoperable glioblastoma when I was eight months old. You wrote in your journal that without that treatment, I wouldn't be alive. But I wouldn't be without you and Mom, either. Now that you’re in a coffin, being wheeled up the aisle of St. Agnes, I can’t tell you that I know that. I never could. But I want you to know I know.

And not just conceived, but clothed and fed and kept warm and protected from people upset by my autism.

The first time I heard that word was in the office of Gurdeep S. Vrathi, MD. His fingers were thick, shiny silver stethoscope cold on my belly, fish tank in the corner filled with blue-green marbles like little Earths. You and Dr. Vrathi talked. Mom cried. I tapped her hand to try to tell her it was OK. Nurse Jimmy gave me a red sucker twisted in wax paper. There were cartoons on the paper.

"My daughter has Autism," you would say. I thought it was the name for the stuffed rabbit I carried around.

When I got my first tablet, I looked it up. The DSM-V said it was persistent deficits in social

communication and interaction across multiple contexts, but the word just means "self." Like how "automobile" means self-moving or "autodidactic" means self-taught. Mom said people would say I was retarded. You got angry at that word and yelled. The TV was on, and the words on screen reflected on the glass coffee table where a reflection from the bookcase already was. It made me think about shadow puppets, shapes you made for others to help them think about what you're thinking. Words are like that. I tapped your leg to try to show you. You gave me Cheerios and green apple slices. They're still my favorite.

You wrote three papers saying the antiproton therapy was completely safe (Funding Disclosure: Grants provided by BaryonLabs and the National Cancer Research Network) but in your personal journal you wrote you were never free of the fear that, in pushing for the therapy, you robbed me of the world.

You never showed me your journal, but I watched you type on your computer. On my tablet, I went to Settings > Wireless > \[Esc] \[Esc] > root: > LAN > Documents > personal > login:am_schiller password:@rchimedes-p_bar (same as your bank) and found it. I like reading what you wrote, though I was sad to read Mom died six years ago.

I remember her casket was bright copper like a new penny with silver handles, cross on top with Jesus with his eyes closed. Mom gave me baths with bubbles, and I would clap and make the bubbles explode into fireworks. She would sing "Sing a Rainbow" in my room at night when it was dark except for the Moon through my window. I would tilt my head and the Moon would follow me, moving back and forth behind tree branches. White light contains the entire spectrum, and as Mom sang the color words, I could see each one in the moonlight. It was beautiful.

Your casket is different from Mom's. It's gray with silver handles, no Jesus. But I understand it means you're dead. When you were still alive, when you found out you were sick, you sent me to live with Aunt Alice. In your journal, you wrote you worried about what would happen to me, and never stopped blaming yourself. I want to tell you two important things. First, I'm OK. And second, your antiproton therapy caused my autism.

I read about it. Antiprotons are like regular protons, but opposite in charge and spin. They're a kind of antimatter, which existed at the Big Bang but is now rare in the universe. When I was a baby, you put antimatter in my head and made me the opposite of regular people. You didn't steal the world from me. You gave me one most people don’t see.

At your funeral, I was reading your journal on my tablet. It started to rain a little and made droplets on my screen. They magnified the black letters into bubbles of e's and m's, and made rainbow pearls on the white screen. And I thought everything was there, your thoughts in black and white, every color of the rainbow underneath. All you have to do is look close. I tried to show Aunt Alice, but she just patted my hand and shushed me. I patted her hand to tell her I was OK.

I read in your diary I'll be 22 years old by the time you die. I will live for 73.69 years—more if I move to Singapore or Monaco—so I have a lot of time left. Father McDonnell said we will all be reunited someday. That's true. Before the Big Bang, all mass and energy, all matter and antimatter, existed in a singularity and will do so again after the Big Crunch (I read it in one of your textbooks). Maybe then I'll be able to tell you and Mom what I see in a way that's better than just shadow-puppet words.

But, really, we are together. I have your words. I have Mom's songs. I see rows of gravestones lined up, and I know we are all just subatomic particles, aligned into different patterns, until something rearranges us. I want to tell Aunt Alice, but I know she won't understand. I pat her hand and hum "Sing a Rainbow."

Outside the car window the Moon is following me.

The Moon is following me, Dad!

I know it's just a parallax illusion created by the proximity of the trees and the distance of the Moon, but it's still beautiful.

Everything is if you look close enough.