Stars are born in a cloud of gas and dust. Hydrogen gas is pulled together and begins to spin, eventually accelerating fast enough to warm the gas to 15 million degrees. The cloud glows, contracts, and stabilizes as nuclear fusion generates heat at the star’s core. Born out of rubble, raised by gravity, fed by fusion.
The first birthday gift Aaron remembers receiving was a telescope. His mom smiled as he unwrapped the package that was roughly as tall as him. They set it up in their front yard on cloudless nights, and she stood behind him, her hands guiding his as she showed him the universe. He idolized her—the woman who knew the planets, the stars, the galaxies, and the empty black space in between that’s not actually empty. They lay on their backs and she named the constellations, explaining that the stars weren’t just a spatter of dots in the sky like a Jackson Pollock artwork but an intricate painting of light.
You’re my universe, she would whisper, tickling him until his cheeks hurt and his eyes teared up. He didn’t care when the dry grass painted his shins with hives or when he woke up with too many mosquito bites. He wrapped himself in the safety of her presence, in the joy of their laughter. Her love was patient and kind like the Bible promised even when he ran inside to play Wii while she packed up the telescope.
The hydrogen supply is finite, however, and soon the core becomes unstable, unable to generate heat. The outer shell expands and cools, emitting an angry red glow, as if showing its sidereal neighbors the frustration of growing old.
Over the years Aaron and his mom began to drift apart. He grew older, trading Fisher Price for Apple, first grade for freshman year, nights under the stars for nights out with friends. She got busier, staying out late while he lay in bed waiting to see her headlights scan the driveway and hear the comforting click of the lock downstairs. She claimed it was for work but one night she came home with a boyfriend and everything made a lot more sense. She still kissed him goodnight even though his eyes were already closed and his shower-damp hair had already soaked through his pillow case.
Sometimes on clear nights they would take the telescope out to the front yard like the old days but it was always too quiet like they didn’t have anything to talk about anymore. Sometimes she would bring her boyfriend, Eric, a name which Aaron pointed out sounded a lot like his own, and she just said it’s because I wanted another of you while Aaron wondered why one universe wasn’t enough.
Eric would always fiddle with the magnification, saying he bet they could see Neptune with this kinda lens, even though Neptune was on the other side of the sun which he would have known if he cared even a little. Aaron shot his mom a look that said can you believe this guy? but she was too busy looking at Eric, so he just grabbed his Nikes and headed inside. His mom tossed a goodnight! into the air between them but he didn’t turn around.
Sometimes, even when Eric wasn’t around, he would be tired and she would be too and they would fight about the little things like dishes or curfew or the B on his English paper and sometimes it would end with go to your room but sometimes it would end with why are you so angry? and that hurt a lot more.
Once these large stars, ones that make our sun look like an insignificant yellow seed rather than an 865,370 mile-wide sphere, become red giants, their core heats up as helium atoms fuse to form carbon. Carbon atoms are pulled closer and fusion strikes again, forming oxygen. Oxygen becomes nitrogen and nitrogen becomes iron and the star becomes heavier and heavier. A bloated red giant, weighed down by its core, the star is reaching the end of its life.
Aaron didn’t know why he was so angry. Maybe it was because he was tired. Tired from staying up late watching the stars that were so many light years away they were probably already dead and they just didn’t realize it yet. Tired from staying up late waiting for the headlights to scan the driveway and to hear the lock click when, really, his mom forgot to tell him she was staying at Eric’s for the night and wouldn’t be home until morning.
But she was tired too. Tired of working too hard for someone who appreciated her too little. Tired of closed doors and quiet dinner tables and the telescope by the front door that stared at her under its blanket of dust. Tired of trying so hard to please everyone that she forgot to think of herself.
After carbon tumbles through fusion to eventually form iron, further fusion no longer produces energy, but requires it. The star, after tens of millions of years, teeters as its energy runs out. It’s exhausted. In less than a second, relief: it enters gravitational collapse. Iron atoms are crushed together in the core at 100 billion degrees, but the repulsive force between the atoms soon defeats gravity. In another second, the core is ripped out from the heart of the star: a supernova explosion.
They didn’t argue much but they talked less. She went to work; he went to school. She stayed late and he left dinner on the stove.
Late shift tn—need me to pick anything up?
no thanks but we should look at the stars sometime soon. just like the old days
Ok, ok, I won’t invite Eric. It’ll just be the two of us
He smiled, albeit a little guiltily, and fell asleep before he saw the headlights, before he heard the lock.
Aaron woke up not to his alarm, but to the home phone. He pulled a pillow over his head, waiting for his mom to pick up until the ringing stopped. The phone rang again and he groaned, stretched, shuffled over to his desk. Hello? Ok thanks I’ll be there soon. He was already half-dressed by the time he pressed ‘end’, grabbed his keys, and went to unlock the door to leave but it wasn’t locked.
A yellowing moon hung low in the starry sky, watching over him as he drove too quickly down 202 and turned left at the red emergency sign that he usually just passed and prayed. The nurse took him down a starchy hallway and the air left a bad taste in his mouth, metallic, like he was still three years old and stuck pennies in his mouth while his mom chased him around the kitchen.
She’s in here. He pinched himself but he didn’t wake up when the nurse opened the door, he just saw his mom lying there, weakly smiling at him. He cried in front of her for the first time since he was a toddler.
I’ll be fine. It wasn’t a bad accident. But the tears didn’t stop and neither did the voice in his head asking What if it had been?
Supernovae are the end of an individual star’s life cycle, but the debris they expel can lead to new star birth. Born out of rubble, they return to rubble and offer themselves up, though unwillingly and unknowingly, for new life. Even though the stars we see in the night sky might have collapsed in on themselves, exploding into a fantastic cloud of light and dust and gas, they are not lost forever. Instead, they are breeding grounds for hundreds of new stars to paint the sky with light, to start the cycle over again.