In memory of Neil Armstrong … our hero.
As a child, the most magical moments of my life were experienced lying flat on my back in the middle of a concrete road.
It was always pitch black, the night air cool, but you could still feel the warmth of the afternoon’s summer sun radiating from the asphalt below. I used to think the road soaked in the rays of sunlight during the day and held tightly to them until I spread out on its surface, and then offered up that heat to counteract the nip of nighttime air.
I’d bunch my hair behind my head, attempting a makeshift pillow so I could roll around comfortably on the gravely floor beneath me. Even so, after a moment or two, nothing short of someone wrenching an arm out of my socket in an effort to save me from becoming road pizza would bring me back to the present moment; that of four kids and their dad stargazing through the soft, magic nights of a Wisconsin summer.
Mapping out the constellations, spotting faraway planets and staring slack-jawed at the aurora borealis, we swore we felt the earth spin and convinced ourselves how easy it could be to slide off and find our bodies propelled into the dizzy mess of twinkling stars.
I grew up with a thirst for the stories behind those skies: the tales of a fierce warrior chasing sisters across a width of space he would never lessen, a deadly scorpion hot on his heels, a great bear seeking revenge, a dragon wrapped around the celestial north pole—forever spinning, addled and delirious, and a horrifying hydra, snaking its way through the heavens.
It’s one thing to be the child, bewitched and wide-eyed with little knowledge to draw from, but an entirely unexpected feeling to be the adult, still in awe, but from the truth rather than mythology. As alluring as my world of made-up fable and folklore is, my own daughter—drawn by an unquenchable thirst for answers—is determined to pull the thin veil from my fiction to reveal the facts.
At times, it’s been easy to resist, as attempting to wrap my head around the concept of dark matter, bits about space/time continuum, or even something as basic as gravity has made my head spin and sucked the joy from learning. Although, I will admit there have been moments when I was caught up in the heart-swelling, soul-stirring splendor of seeing the birth of new stars or solar systems caught on camera by the type of paparazzi that come complete with PhDs in astrophysics or aeronautical engineering.
I can’t even pretend to follow my daughter when she begins waxing lyrical about the transit photometry program she’s involved in and will sheepishly admit she lost me on the first sentence of her explanation somewhere just after the word The. And when she grabs my hand and drags me out into the dark, insisting that we can’t miss the August Perseid display, I feel relief wash over me after she points to the heavens and alters her words to “meteor shower.”
As we lie on our backs and wait for the unearthly concert to begin, the soft chirp of crickets is a constant murmur like an audience rustling their programs and shuffling their feet. The waiting is similar to holding your breath under water and viewing the liquid world; so foreign and seductive, but temporary because you must resurface. Likewise, while stargazing, one can only go so long searching and studying before you absolutely must blink.
And a blink can be the entire lifespan of a meteor.
We lie side by side, quiet, but expectant. I hear her breathe and wonder if she’s counting the minutes until she, too, can join the rest of her people—those who have long ago figured out the secrets of their home and have grown tired of living there. Like a pining teen who longs for the sweet taste of independence, this teen’s first solo abode would be elsewhere in the universe rather than elsewhere in a university. It’s the same, but different.
I treasure those moments of unfettered joy when a streak of light with a tail half the length of the sky shoots past us; a snowball in space determined to break new records for both speed and allure. I am bereft of speech and look to my daughter. There are no words to describe such visions.
Except the ones that come to her easily. Like stumbling upon a book of illusions, the secrets are exposed with revealing illustrations and strip you of future goose bumps. I try to see the science as she does: a language sweet as poetry to her ears. But I miss my warriors, my dragons and sisters.
The two of us view the same stars, the same sky, the same vast and wondrous world.
It’s the same, but different. And beautiful.