light years

On the drive through Albany last night, the air is crisp and the sky is so clear, it glitters with stars. I look up the names of the constellations.

I read: “On a clear, moonless night, thousands of stars can be visible.”

Big Dipper, Ursa Major
Cassiopeia, mythical queen
Castor and Pollux, twins of Troy
Perseus, the hero

I have no eye for the shapes, find it difficult to see the forms and patterns called for. I cannot see the bear, the figures of standing men. I see only the individual points of light.

I am pregnant with my son when I take Z. and her friend to the science museum in Boston. There is a line drawn on the lobby floor that represents the border between Rhode Island and Massachusetts and I take photos of the girls jumping across it.

We stumble into an exhibit about childbirth, and the girls watch video footage of a child being born in a distant place I cannot immediately recognize. They are outside, in a clearing. The woman sits in a low tub half-filled with water. A cluster of women stand around her, patting her head, holding her hands, caressing her face and arms.

Z. emerges from the viewing booth with her eyes wide. “Do you have any questions about what you saw?” I ask. She shakes her head. “Not yet,” she says, “maybe some other time.”

On the ride, M. asks me about people we know in common, and I fill him in where I can.

I tell him about the man who found his mother weeks after she had died. This is something I cannot stop thinking about. She had lived her whole life thousands of miles away, then a few years ago, moved to a town twenty minutes from where he lives.

How he goes out to the cemetery where she is buried. Stands in front of her grave, this woman he has never known. “I wanted to feel something,” he says. “I willed myself to stay there until I could feel something.” 

“And then I remembered,” he says, “that I have been mourning for her my whole life.” Forty-five years of grieving.

“And so I place three coins on her grave – safe passage for the dead – and leave her to her rest.”

“Nothing has changed,” he says. “It’s just that now, I have seen where her journey ends.”

“What do you think happens when you die?” my sister had asked, while we were talking about faith, about God.

“I think we just die,” I said. For me, this offers its own kind of comfort, its own kind of closure. But this is not enough for everyone. She is talking about heaven, of course, about reunion with those who have died before us. About a kind of celebration where we are all together as we were in life except eternally beautiful and joyful, in paradise. Perhaps this story is simply too much for me to accept. Perhaps it is simply that my small heart cannot accommodate that kind of joy. My imagination lacks the necessary expansiveness.

At my mother’s funeral service, the priest spoke of God as a kind of artisan. A metal worker, and that we, his children are his work. That he spends our lifetimes shaping us, molding us, fashioning us into his own image, which is perfection. And it is only when we gleam, when we shine with his image, when he can see his own reflection in us, that he calls us home.

I have never before or since found such comfort in a notion of God. But that morning, as I knelt there in the cemetery chapel, I wanted so desperately to think that there was meaning to be made of chaos. I found myself nodding, as the priest spoke. And for those moments, I allowed myself to believe that it was in fact, my mother’s reward, to be called home.

In the van, the boy sleeps, his mouth open, his head back. My daughter in the back seat, her face illuminated by her laptop screen. M. is listening to a radio show about the nature of time.

I drift in and out of sleep as we approach the exit. We are nearly there. 

Orion the hunter
Taurus the bull.
And the Hyades, the five daughters of Atlas – hundreds of light years away.