Although I try not to take it personally, it seems lately that the universe has turned against me. The year that came with so many milestones – my fiftieth birthday, the 100th anniversary of the building of my house – has turned dark, jagged and bitterly cold with a hierarchy of losses to be dealt with, and body blows to absorb. My mother died, a family member is behaving badly, my sister in law is facing the second loss in her own immediate family, and my father’s grieving manifests mainly in a series of worries that break my heart and fill my days. I promised my mother that I would take care of him.
Last night, reeling from a day that started out well enough but ended on a bleak, hard note, I read that the Orionid meteor shower would peak early this morning. I read about how it would be visible from anyplace in the world, and that it was caused by earth’s passage through debris from Halley’s Comet. Centered mostly around the star Betelgeuse in Orion’s belt, the shower was likely to show us a “shooting star” about every four minutes.
I understand what is really happening during a meteor shower, but to me it has always, really, been magic. As a small child I spent hours in the back yard with my father looking at a wheeled gadget that showed what we should see in the night sky above our location at any given time. He taught me to find The North Star, The Big Dipper, Orion, The Pleiades and other stars and constellations, always telling me how it was that people thousands of years earlier had come to see the hunter Orion with his belt of stars, or the seven sisters that comprised the Pleiades.
In August, my father, my mother, my brother and I watched the Perseids fall bright through the sky, wherever we were. Once we watched lying on our backs on a dock in Maine, turning occasionally to see the streaks of light reflected in the still surface of the lake. More often we lay in our own backyard on blankets, thrilled to be outside late at night, hearing nothing but the cicadas and the voice of someone we loved telling us to “look! There’s one right there!”
So at 1:00 this morning when I found that I couldn’t sleep, I put on my slippers and my coat and went outside to see what I could see. The house is surrounded by trees, and finding a patch of sky to monitor took some time. I could hear the college students who populate this town; many were still out, still walking in groups, still calling to one another about rides and bars and plans that stretched on into the next day. I tried to shut out the noise, tried to ignore the electrical wires and telephone wires and street lights, pleading with the universe to show me something for my troubles.
I bargained, as I often do when I am looking for sea glass on the beach: let me find just one piece, one good piece and it will be a sign and I’ll be happy and I’ll stop hunting and just enjoy the sky and the sea and the sand. Just one. The stakes were higher than they had ever been; I had never felt so strongly that I needed, irrationally, pathetically to know that the world had not really turned against me. I saw something then, maybe a streak of light beneath a heavy cloud cover, but it was not the brilliant and breathtaking spectacle I had waited for. I was cold. I was tired. I went back into the dark house and climbed into bed.
This morning I awoke while it was still dark. I remembered that the article I had read about the meteor shower said it would peak just before dawn. Again I put on my coat and slippers, and again I trundled into the dark, this time with two cats who were keenly interested in my activities. I went into the side yard, hearing nothing but the crunch of fallen leaves under my feet and the occasional soft landing of an acorn falling onto the street. I looked up through the tangle of branches and wires to see dark sky with a few bright stars. It was not the open, easy night sky of my childhood, a sky waiting to delight me with belted hunters, water dippers and breathtaking streaks of silvery light. This sky was in pieces, it required more vigilance to monitor the odd triangles of darkness between obstructions.
The sky was lightening, the stars were fading a bit, and I was not begging, bargaining or even expecting anything much. It was good to be outside in the quiet, and I thought of all the people who had watched the night sky in the history of time, and how amazing it was even to have the possibility of seeing debris from a 100-year-old comet. It was continuity. No matter what we invented, polluted, changed forever, we were still looking at the same sky that inspired the ancient Greeks to name the constellations, the same sky that’s provided a backdrop for Halley’s Comet every 75 years for millennia. The people looking up at that sky all lived, and died and suffered and rejoiced as we do. Their mothers died, their family member behaved badly, their fathers grieved, their hearts broke, and healed and broke again.
Teddy the cat was watching me from the top of the fence, looking wise and indulgent. I walked over to stroke his dear gray head and looked up to see a point of light moving rapidly across the sky.
I wanted to see more, to see some of the one-every-four-minutes that the universe owed me. I would wait, even though my neck was sore, my feet were cold, and the sky was growing lighter as I watched. Then somebody, maybe Teddy, maybe my mother, maybe my own voice said “it’s enough. It’s good enough.”
And it was.