“You had the biggest smile.” Dad’s final retelling of the telescope story would be the last time I smiled as a kid.
He leaned into the kitchen table, his arms straight and slightly angled to the sides. “It was an open mouth smile.” Dad pressed his chin into his chest so that his eyes almost peered over his glasses at my face which was only a few inches from his. I gave his stern look a grin.
“How would you know?” I said. “I was in your lap. Looking through your old telescope.”
“It was an expensive piece of equipment back then and it’s expensive now. And I don’t have to be right out in front of someone to know when they’re smiling.” Saliva strands hung in Dad’s mouth. The intensity in his face reminded me of our neighbor’s dog, Oakley, as it barked at me anytime I went into the backyard, scampering back and forth along their chain length fence.
My ears perked up every time he told this story. I was “barely old enough to bring my hands together to grab one of the tripod legs,” is how Dad put it. The smile came when he guided my head up to the lens. He tells of my eyes, both open of course, wide, with pupils growing so big, so fast, he thought my eyeballs would go black.
“You were dilated all day, right up until I laid you in your crib. Whatever it was that you saw, you weren’t the same after.”
Dad never saw what I saw. “When I looked it was just the same old guys in the sky. Orion, Perseus, Taurus, Leo, Virgo, and the Canis brothers.”
Dad’s telling of the story in the kitchen that morning stuck in my mind because of what happened a few hours later. There I was, my eleven year old lanky frame strutting the halls carrying a backpack on my shoulders and a ball cap on my head. I remember the cap because it was back when I had a favorite team.
I also remember the cap because that day, within the faces traveling between lockers and classroom doorways, I saw something again. Pulling my cap off was an automatic response. I had to. I wanted to see it all.
The hallway that had been filled with moving heads, arms and legs transformed into countless worlds that surrounded me, each with its own size and color. A few even orbited one another. They must have gone on forever. Some were massive and close, like colorful and perfectly round puffs of clouds about to collide within the stratosphere. Others were just specks in the distance, so dense they seemed to be the wallpaper of the Universe. And then you had all of the ones in between. I shifted my focus back and forth through the layers of spheres. My eyes couldn’t get enough.
I say they were worlds and not just planets because of the complexity of the color and shapes found within them. And movement. Somehow my eyes distinguished tiny individual objects, each moving in different directions on the surface of the worlds. So much beauty had to mean life.
It lasted a few seconds. Then it was back to faces looking past me in the school hall.
My father had me stand outside that evening and look at the sky for I don't know how long. He even brought out his telescope but all I saw were the stars.
Whole nights were spent awake, lying on my side trying to work out who or what I was. I started claiming I could fly.
“Right up there, in the clouds. I was just up there ten minutes ago.”
At first I tried to hide the smirk when I told these stories but eventually I figured it added to the mystique. My parents either had me pegged as some AMAZING freak of nature or some amazing FREAK of nature. They never told me which it was. If I could fly I wouldn’t have to guess.
Dad moved the telescope into his study. It was now a decorative item among the wood carvings and minerals sitting on their own little shelves on the wall. He even purchased some sky-high expensive mask from Africa. Those became his hobbies when he ditched astronomy shortly after I asked him if he ever spotted me in the sky with his telescope.
Mom was a big reason for him moving the telescope. “That thing, and your story about his eyes - it's why he says all that crap!” I guess she thought headphones on my head and a controller in my hand meant I couldn’t hear her in the kitchen.
One day at school I blurted out my story at recess. You know how it is. Some kid starts bragging about how they are so hot because they can do something you can’t. So I let him have it.
“When I was little I saw something in my dad’s telescope that changed my life and now I can see a bunch of planets in the hallway where only half the ceiling lights work.” The few kids who stopped to listen only stared as I finished my short rant, which was a partial lie. The hallway worlds had happened only once, despite my efforts to bring them back.
Lights. Maybe it had something to do with light. My pupil’s reaction and the hallway episode got me thinking. I stood outside for what seemed like hours, but was probably only twenty minutes, looking at the holes in the clouds. I stared at the lamp in my father’s study through the black fan he kept on his desk. My twelfth birthday I asked for a lava lamp. For Christmas I got a tiny, one double A battery powered flashlight. At night, under my covers, I tried to conjure up more than a red blotch in my vision.
“Could we travel somewhere where we can see the northern lights?”
I needed something to happen.
Next I tried darkness. No matter what I did to shut out the light coming into my room, I could still make out the shape of the globe light above and the posters on my wall. So I squeezed my eyelids shut and waited. You can probably guess what happened.
Hanging upside down. My eyes open with my face stuck in a pinscreen. Standing spread eagle in the wind on the hill that overlooked our street. Hanging onto the vent at the bottom of the city pool. My head stuck in a storm drain. Nothing worked.
I remember spending my entire time on a horseback tour, my only time on a horse, looking for worlds in the grass, rocks, dirt and even the hoofprints on the trail. In high school I placed candles on every surface in my room. Away at college, I went camping on my own. Laying under the stars I paid no attention to any of the “guys in the sky”. I just waited. And waited.
At one point spelunking seemed promising. The skills I had developed while climbing and hiking to find the perfect camping spot paid off in a cave that went for miles into the earth. When my water ran out I dipped my thermos in the pool of a particularly large cavern. Clouds of silt stirred up from the bottom. I turned back.
After high school I moved to Suriname. My eyes found a million titillations each time I trekked into the rainforest; however no far-off worlds ever appeared. The snakes nearly ran me off but it was a giant anteater standing just outside my camp as I changed my shirt one morning that made me fall in love with South America.
The world wide web connected me to a childhood friend who had graduated from brown bear preservation in Yukon to crab-eating-fox research along the coast of Suriname. She hired me and I became an expert in tagging, releasing and tracking. I stayed out among the iguanas, ants, upside down flowers, and bright shiny eyes that stared at me at night. One trip I dragged out my time in the wilderness for so long that when I came back she had tagged and released several foxes without me. I lost my job, and our friendship.
I grew my hair long and tried to start my own research. But funding for wildlife research was more about university degrees, and less about my stories and pictures of the rainforest
The stars were brighter in Suriname but they were still just stars. I craved a warm bed in a cold climate. I wanted less than two hundred days of rain a year. A long drive, divided in half by a relatively short boat ride, brought me back to the States. Just in time to be there when Dad choked too long on a piece of pizza one evening. He looked exhausted as they loaded him into an ambulance. The brain damage from the event put him in a place where bed rest was the main attraction.
One evening Mom let me load up the telescope, which was still in his study, into the back of my truck for a trip to the nursing home. I told her it could “help jog Dad’s cognitive skills.” He stared at the stars through his window. I tried the telescope. After seeing nothing I walked to the edge of his bed. No matter how long I looked at him he kept his eyes on the window. Until something happened.
The only emotion Dad’s face would ever show was when his eyes teared up a little. Today was different. The nurse who happened to be rushing past the door somehow heard his crying. Her black, brown, tan and white dreadlock beads bounced and rolled as she sat on his bed, trying to comfort him. Both of her hands went on the sides of dad’s face. His eyes closed and mouth opened, producing no sound but saying enough.
It was then that it came to me. Out between the folded up curtains. The guys in the stars. Only I saw people I knew. Not in some weird vision but in the patterns of the stars. Instead of a hunter, a crab, a lion or a maiden, I saw Dad, Mom, my friend in Suriname, and others.
I hugged Dad until my shirt placket was almost entirely covered by his tears. His legs felt like ice underneath his sheets. As I piled on more bed coverings I noticed the look in his eyes. It once again matched my neighbor’s dog, who had been gone for several years. Only this time it wasn’t an intense stare but a face at rest, the same face that came after the over-energized canine had settled down enough to lick my finger poking through the fence.
“Let’s order pizza.” Dad spoke just as I whipped his comforter out in front of me in order to let it fall across his bed; so I wasn’t quite certain what he said. But he let out a healthy dosage of laughter.
I bent down and pressed my fists into his bed, striking the same pose he would give when leaning into the kitchen table.
“I have something to tell you,” I said. “Something I’ve never told anyone else.”
His eyes narrowed and his bottom lip lifted into a frown showing a mix of concern and amusement. Who knows what he expected next.
“You remind me of Oakley.”