My father was the one who taught me to look at the sky — through the naked eye, through a telescope, through smoked glasses to see an eclipse. While I have an app on my phone to help me identify the constellations he named for me so many years ago, it is meteor showers that have always transported me to another dimension in space and time. The last shower we watched together was the great Leonid storm of 2002. From his hilltop home in New Hampshire, we watched fireballs race across the sky and then fall as if being extinguished in Newfound Lake in the valley far below.
My father died nine years ago. I have continued meteor watching without him. Last year, though, during the annual Perseid display, enchantment eluded me. I went outside and lay down flat on a lounge chair. Within a minute, condensed moisture made my back wet and skin clammy. After 30 seconds, I realized I had left too many lights on in the house. I got up to turn them off so the darkness of the sky would be better illuminated. I lay down again, but decided that I should shift the chair so I was facing the quadrant of the sky where the “shooting stars” were most likely to appear. When I lay down again, the chair was damper so I went to get a blanket to wrap myself in. Settled once more, I looked up. I was too close to the house. How could I leave this dimension if I am faced with the existing one? I moved again.
Finally ready, I waited. I swatted away the mosquitos nagging at my ears, tried to banish the image of a skunk or raccoon sniffing around in the dark and climbing on my chair, felt my dogs just inside the door wondering when I would come in so we could all go to sleep.
Instead of the vast space above me opening a new world, the Milky Way, which I had always viewed as lace, became a dense weight of dust and stars and, and gas, and dark matter. I knew meteors were finicky. I waited 10 minutes. The sky was quiet. I knew a burst of activity could happen at any moment, but I had no patience. So what if I saw them? I was chilled and bitten and tired. I wanted my bed. I went inside.
I used to be much better at sitting, whether to read a book or meditate or eat a meal. The only time I seem able to focus on what’s happening in the space around me is when I’m writing, like right now. I am watching a carpenter bee outside my window, the tall grasses wave in the breeze, leaves from a locust tree fall to the ground, a spider spins a web in the corner of the room. I’m pretty sure this is called avoidance behavior. Isn’t it easier to list what you see and hear rather than what you feel?
I feel restless, but I don’t know why.
The fidgets have followed me to the beach. It used to be that I went with my towel, which I spread out on the sand and anchored with stones and then squiggled my body around to make the proper indentations in the sand. I lay on my back and let the sun warm my bones after a long swim. Sometimes I slept. I rolled onto my stomach when I wanted to read, to get an even tan, or watch the grains of sand and imagine them as the rocks and boulders they used to be.
Now, though, I am like a child on a long car trip. I spread my towel out, lie down, pop my head up to look around, lie down again, do some more squiggling. I roll onto my stomach but propping myself on my arms makes my ribs hurt and lying down gives me a stiff neck. I sit up and watch the waves. I am lucky to live within walking distance of the beach so I take one more swim and go home.
I thought sitting in a chair would solve what I saw as my problem. I could be comfortable, read as long as I wanted, view my surroundings. But I’ve never been able to last more than an hour.
Why can’t I sit still anymore?
My father had infinite patience. A physical presence that was calm. But, even when he wasn’t moving, he was hardly still. He was a scientist, always asking questions, always solving equations and mysteries. Every moment was an opportunity to learn, and a great deal of knowledge can be gleaned from observation. Time with my father meant discovering the habits of the beavers in the pond near his house, recognizing signs of bears on tree bark, figuring out how to put things together without reading the instructions.
In my house, I have assumed my father’s role. I answer questions about bird species, how the tides work, the best way to get rid of a snake in the house. I am the one who notices whales and seals and dolphins and calls everyone outside to see.
I wonder, though, whether I have lost my sense of curiosity. Do I really think there is nothing else I can discover in the sky or the sea? How can I be a writer without asking questions? I would have nothing else to say.
When my father was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease, he never stopped moving. He could no longer be curious or solve mysteries. He no longer had anything to say, and his body erupted.
I have a mind that can still solve mysteries, except for what happened to my father after he died. Perhaps he has been returned to stardust. I guess that’s as good a reason as any to start looking at the sky again.