From the LabLit short story series
15 June 2013
You never saw it coming, my love. None of us did, despite the warnings. How quickly it’s all unraveled
As I walk through the darkened rooms, memories flash with the heightened color of a dream; I hear conversation and laughter in a now-silent lab. I hear the whirr of a centrifuge, the hum of freezers, the low-level roar of the flow hoods where cells are cultured. I almost see you at your bench, pipette in hand.
But all that is gone. The research department has been emptying for years. Even before the latest blackout, electricity was becoming erratic, and now it’s been out for three days.
I’ve come back to save the last of the samples. I’ve come back for you.
You: the lanky new postdoc with mischief in his smile. Sandy hair and blue-grey eyes. Me: the jaded fourth-year grad student. You took the lab bench next to mine. Our projects didn’t overlap much, but we both kept late hours. You blasted retro pop music – circa 1980s – through the lab at midnight. After experiments, we went out for late-night burritos. I don’t date work colleagues, I told friends. They smirked.
Long hands. I remember your long hands – beautiful, graceful, sure. The hands of a pianist, although you didn’t play at all. I would find myself staring at them as you fiddled with a protein column in the lab, or set the table for dinner in our home.
They were halcyon days, although we didn’t see it at the time. Julia was just starting to move her lab into longevity research, and you were her first postdoc hire in the field. Money still poured in along the tracks of her industry contacts. The Eastern Seaboard was crumbling under constant hurricanes; wildfires burned in the American West. But we were ensconced in our research building of glass and steel, hundreds of miles from the growing turmoil of the coasts. FedEx shipments still came; electricity still hummed. We measured and pipetted and linked to the Internet.
You worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known. I wondered at it, even after I’d learned of your family’s history of ill-starred aging and neurodegenerative disease. I wondered at some of the things you said. It wasn’t just about treating or staving off disease for you. Did you really think you could defeat age itself? Really believe that you could extend life indefinitely?
I remember the first break-through. For nearly a year, your experiments had been failing. Unable to watch you drive yourself into the ground, I dragged you off on vacation – a rented cottage on the shores of Lake Michigan. Our first morning there, I woke to find you gone from my side. I found you on the deck, where you were scribbling figures in a notebook. The lake breeze ruffled your sunlit hair. I have it, you told me. I know exactly what’s going on…
Now nearly everything has been packed away. The transgenic mice were the first to go. And then the last few precious milligrams of the drug – the drug you’d been testing, the drug that extended rodent life beyond anything we’d ever seen. Today I ship off the last of the reagents. Plasmids, antibodies, viral vectors. Old fashioned hard-copy notebooks. I can’t guess what strings Julia pulled to arrange this transport. Or how she roused herself from her sick bed to do it.
There are only…a few things left.
My last stop: the liquid nitrogen tanks.
When I lift the lid from our tank, I’m relieved. In the glow of my flashlight, I see the familiar plume of white vapor. The samples are still cold. Somehow, the dwindling department staff have been able to keep the tanks filled.
And then I’m working quickly, retrieving boxes and shaking out vials of frozen cells into the cooler of dry ice that I’ve brought. The last box I retrieve is yours.
You never saw it coming, my love. None of us did, despite the warnings. How quickly it’s all unraveled: an overheated world, blown power grids and distribution networks, shortages of everything. I’ve rarely visited the lab this year; I’ve been in the hospital finishing my oncology training. But the medications my patients need are impossible to get. I can do nothing for them. As I could do nothing for you.
You feared dementia and ravages of age. But it was a simple bacterium that took you. Walking back from work, you were caught up in the first of last year’s riots. The scrape on your arm wasn’t deep. But within hours the sepsis set in.
Now the last of your work is going abroad. I hold one of your vials up to the light. Your cells are in here. Cells from your body, immortalized – able to proliferate indefinitely in culture. A quirk in your genomic profile led you to the experiment. Certain polymorphisms in key mitochondrial genes, a family legacy of aging-related disease. You realized that culturing your own cells offered a model, a testing ground for your hypothesis. This was the first break-through, which led to everything that came after.
Like the rest of the reagents, your cells are going abroad without me. All we have left is being shipped to collaborators overseas. But will they actually continue our work? Will anyone? You were so close. Are these frozen cells all of immortality that you will achieve?
I hold your cells a moment more. Any longer and they will start thawing. I would like to hold on, to keep them with me. But I let them fall into the dry ice with the others. Once again, you are going where I cannot follow.