Agnes, Kol, Sully and I stood in the doorway of Silke’s house, hats on, jackets zipped. “We ready?” I asked, reaching for the knob. They nodded their heads quietly, chewed the last few bites of raisin bread, and moved to the door. I turned out the light and ushered us outside.
Silke was away for the night, but we had come up anyway, her enchanting house being a great excuse for a walk. That afternoon, during the walk up, Silke had passed us in her car. It was sunny and warm and we smiled gaily at her from the side of the road. “Have fun,” she said with a knowing smile, then drove away. The wheels of her car scraped noisily against the dirt road. The kids turned and ran. But now it was dark, with no moon and no street lights, not so much as a sidewalk or a paved road for miles.
“…Sully? Agnes? We out the door?” I turned left and right to get a glimpse of the children, but my eyes had not had time to adjust. I closed the door gently and listened to the latch click. Well, it sure is dark, I thought, then smiled. I moved forward, feeling for the kids, and recalled an image of the entryway, wood post over here, stacked logs over there…
“Skeratch, krish…donk, donk…” came the sound, like nylon on twigs, then falling wood. “What was that?” I asked. “Oh,” came Kol’s voice out of the darkness, “I just bonked into something.” She spoke calmly, so I assumed she was fine. Probably that new sign, I thought, recalling the wood plank Silke had recently leaned against the wood pile. I considered feeling for it on the ground, in order to replace it, but it was so dark and I decided it wasn’t worth it. In another ten feet we would be in the driveway, then the road, a wide lane with no obstacles for miles.
“Let’s hold hands,” I said, groping for jackets and arms nearby, then trailing down to warm fingers. I began to see an outline of Agnes’s head. “I’m scared,” said Sully, reaching his hand into mine. “Me too,” said Kol, crumbs of bread dusting her sweaty palm.
I remember the first time I saw the night sky for what it really is. I was sixteen and a friend’s mother had invited me to accompany them on a family vacation to Mackinac Island in Michigan. The island, less than twenty square miles, has five-hundred permanent residents, though plenty of seasonal visitors. But what makes it unique is the lack of cars. Spring, summer, winter and fall, folks get around by foot, bicycle, or, as the prevalent odor indicates, horse.
It was an accident really, my friend and I walking home after our first night of teenage revelry. Glancing at the sky, still quite tipsy from the rum we had snuck into his suitcase, I looked up at something so startlingly real, yet so unfamiliar, that I hardly believed my half-drunk eyes. I had been to a planetarium before, but it’s illuminated ceiling had, I thought, been like taking stars from all over the earth and placing them together, as if laying a map of Asia on top of the Americas. But this was no map. This was the night sky, the real night sky, and the stars…there were so many of them.
In high school and middle school I had had the chance to hear an occasional poem in which the author, searching for a lasting metaphor, stated something along the lines of, “…as countless as the stars in the sky.” Sounds nice, I thought. But it always confused me. What do mean? There’s like fifteen of them…? I knew there were more, of course, but it wasn’t until I stood half-drunk in the streets of Mackinac that I realized one could actually see them. All at once. It was an epiphany of remarkable proportion, because not only did I realize for the first time that the stars were as ineffable as the love God had for Abraham, but it dawned on me just how great an impact people like me had had on the earth. Holy shit, I thought, look what we’ve done.
Then I threw up.
Crunch, crunch, crunch. Our feet made a raucous sound in the gravel as we walked down Silke’s drive, something I always enjoy. I had Kol in my right hand, Sully in my left, with Agnes tethered to Sully. After some disappointment at my lack of hands, we had settled on this arrangement with the promise that we would take turns, each child getting a chance to hold my hand directly. Fear was creeping in.
It had taken us an hour to walk up that afternoon, it being about a mile and a half between New Buffalo, the community in which we live, and Silke’s house. But we had meandered. If we made good time we might get home before eight, just in time for bed. I knew I was taking a risk, even when we left New Buffalo that afternoon. But the worst that could happen was tired legs or a frumpy heart, and if it came to that I could carry one of the kids. Two if I had to. Plus, I had a secret weapon.
“Wow, look at that,” I said, spying the haze of the Milky Way, “you never grow tired of that. Yikes.” The sound of a friendly voice, I knew, can hold a child in much the same way as hands and arms. “It’s kind of cool to walk at night,” I said, speaking in a calm, whimsical tone, “because you get to see all kinds of things.”
“Yeah,” said Kol, plain and matter of fact.
“Yeah,” said Sully, a little uncertain.
Then Agnes, addressing Kol and Sully, stated proudly, “My dad walks at night all the time.” Which is true.
“Yeah, and you know what?” I asked.
“It’s perfectly safe. In fact, there’s fewer people and cars. And…!” I was using a stage voice, an almost singsong technique of inflection and tone, to hold their attention. I wanted to keep their imaginations with me, and my warm hands, not roving alone out over the mesa. We were outside. We were in the dark, but we were enveloped within a womb of sound.
“What?” they asked, listening to my dangling tones.
“Well, guess what? You can see cars from so far away that you don’t even have to think about them.”
“Yeah,” Sully echoed, “far away.” Then he caught himself and squeezed my hand. “I’m scared,” he said.
“Yeah, I get that,” I said sympathetically, “but I am an expert at this kind of thing…” and here I puffed myself up, speaking as though I were a brave knight, about to lead us into certain victory. “If cars come, we can see their headlights from so far away that we have plenty of time to move out of the way. It’s so eeeasy…”
“…even easier than during the day! So, we have all the time in the world to walk and look at the stars, and la-la-la…” I dangled my arms lackadaisically. “And if someone comes by…” I repeated, sinking in the rhythm and content of safety, “we just move out of the way.” I shrugged, as if it was no big deal.
A child’s mind is not remarkably different from that of an adult. In fact, in many ways it’s sharper. Fill it with images of health and security, and it tends to revolve around that. We’re strong. We’re capable. But if I, the adult, am scared, or merely uncertain, fear can consume us in seconds and our actions become unskillful. This is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from the children – bravado is a very real and potent thing. It holds us like a mother’s arms. If you believe you’re brave and strong, nine times out of ten you’re right. But if you believe you’re weak and inferior, you’re still right. For whatever reason, I made it through my own adolescence with the confidence of a lion, something that shows its faults from time to time, but by and large is an enormous asset. One of my deepest desires is to pass this kind of confidence on to the kids. We can do it! And that’s partly why we were walking that night. The tricky part is recognizing that one time out of ten, when you’re confident and wrong, but more about that later.
“Daddy, what’s that?” Agnes asked. Our eyes had adjusted well by now, so that I could see her arm pointing skyward. I could even see the basic shape of the road, the stones and dips, edges and ruts. And my goodness, the stars. Countless thousands of them, and these kids get to take that for granted as their one true and real experience.
“What?” I answered.
“That, right there,” Agnes said.
“I don’t know, pup,” I said, following her hand to the stars. “That’s a funny thing about the sky. It’s hard to tell what each of us is looking at. Do you mean that star over there?”
“No, the moving thing.”
“Oh, um…” I searched about, but couldn’t tell what she was looking at. “Agnes, I’m not sure. It could be a plane, or a satellite. Is it moving fast? Or…is it gone? Could have been a shooting star.”
“I think it was a satellite.”
“I saw a satellite!” Sully shouted, eager to be included.
We were coming to the end of the first road, where one dirt road gives way to another, a place the children would easily recognize in the middle of the day. “Do you guys see the end of the road?” I asked.
“Isn’t that interesting?” I said. “When we left the house, we could hardly see two feet in front of our faces. Kol even bonked into that sign. But look, now we can see the end of the road…at least sort of.”
“Yeah,” said Sully, “but why is it dark over there?” He pointed with his free hand to the side of the road. Agnes must be walking alone, I realized.
“Over where the sage is?” I asked.
“Well, that’s not an easy one. The road is a little brighter. You can see that, right? You can kind of tell where the road ends and where the sage begins… I guess the sage is a little darker… it must absorb more light…”
“Yeah,” said Agnes, “you can see the road goes over there.” And we could. The children knew exactly where to turn.
“And the mountains!” Sully shouted. In the distance, the distinct black line of the high ridges lay against the blue-black sky.
“…and the mountains,” I repeated softly, shaking my head in slow delight.
Last summer, Agnes and I found ourselves in a pinch, that one time out of ten when confidence led us astray. Having walked into a familiar side canyon during the late evening, we didn’t leave until dark and I didn’t have so much as a bottle of water, not to mention a flashlight. There was no moon that night either, and the path, which is hardly more than a deer path, was impossible to follow. We only had a couple hundred yards to go, but it was littered with boulders and cactus, and steep cliffs. Our progress was achingly slow, and after half an hour I realized we were lost. Not lost in the greater sense – I knew exactly where we were – but lost in a very ironic and precise way. In daylight it would have taken us a matter of minutes to cover that kind of ground, but in the absolute darkness that enveloped us I could not make out the local landmarks that I took for granted.
I felt a pang of regret like I have rarely felt as a parent. Agnes was getting sleepy, almost lackadaisical, the way we all get when overtired. And I couldn’t tell whether our forward progress was leading toward the car, a cliff or a dead end. That long night ended with us plummeting down a steep embankment to reach the road below, which we had overshot by several hundred feet. I had placed Agnes on top of me, using my own body like a sled, but the slope was too steep. The fall was chaotic. I couldn’t control myself, much less her. We made it to the bottom covered in scrapes and bruises. Thankfully, nothing more. It was one of the worst moments of my life. Agnes erupted in terrible cries and it took a long time to console her. I won’t pretend to know the depths of her heart and mind at that moment, but for me it revealed not so much the cuts and scrapes, which healed soon enough, but how vulnerable I was as a father. That’s an important lesson, but it’s one thing to stumble upon an accident, another thing altogether to willingly walk us into a stupid situation. Never again, I vowed to myself.
So, on the way home from Silke’s I did have a headlamp with me. I also had snacks and water, and even a small blanket. I keep these things in my backpack, and I almost always have it with me, whether its school or just a walk. I’m like Batman, or mom with her big ol’ purse. And that was my other secret weapon.
“Look, do you see those lights in the distance?” I asked. The kids and I had made it near the edge of the mesa, where the road blends into another, then drops to the valley below.
“Those are headlights. See how they’re brighter than all the other lights? And they’re moving?”
“Are they coming toward us?” Sully asked, a tenor of fear in his voice.
“Hard to say until they get here. They could turn down into the valley. But let’s keep an eye out if they do.”
“I’m scared,” said Sully.
“Yeah,” I answered, speaking in calm tones, “I know…”
I understood. I walk alone at night all the time, and there is nothing like a two-ton machine erupting out of the darkness and silence to shake one’s nerves. I wanted Sully to know that I heard him, that I cared about how he felt, but also that we’d be okay. I squeezed his hand gently, then said, “We’ll watch. And if it comes near, we’ll just walk slowly to the edge of the road and into the sage. See how easy it is to see it? You could never miss one of those…”
“Yeah!” he said, smiling at the obviousness of it all, but his confidence was only momentary.
“And if it turns this way,” I repeated, “we’ll just move. We have plenty of time.”
“Yeah, Sully,” Agnes said, stepping into her role as elder, “we can just walk over there.” She spoke as if it was no big deal.
The car did turn in our direction. Now a few hundred feet ahead of us, its headlights glared in our eyes and would have blinded me if I hadn’t looked to the side.
“It’s coming!” whined Sully, scared by the bright lights as much as anything. I could feel his hand tense in mine.
“It’s okay,” I said, “we’ll just move over.” We walked to the side, stepping a few feet into the sage, and watched. I wondered what they must be thinking, a man with three young children in tow out in the dark. Maybe they’d stop and ask if we needed help.
The car approached at a snail’s pace. Little more than mud, the road here is unimproved and unmaintained. In wet seasons the ruts are knee-deep, impossible in anything other than a high-clearance truck. It was dry now, but the roadbed was a rough and tumble assortment of old ruts and narrow strips just wide enough for a balancing act.
Standing in the side of the road, not far from where we stood that afternoon when Silke stopped to say hi, we watched as the sliver gleam of headlights came directly next to us, and revealed the boxy shape of an old SUV. They didn’t stop. We listened to the groan of the car’s shocks as it bumped up and down, then slowly receded into the dark.
A couple nights after my walk with the kids, I was out with Sully’s father in the late evening. We left the house at five-thirty, just as the sun was setting on the mountains, and returned late that night. There was no moon. As we neared home, I happened to turn around. “Whoa, dude. What is that?” I asked, spying something uncommon in the night sky. “Wow,” he answered, “what is that?”
Something like a comet appeared in the southwestern sky. At first, I thought it was a spectacularly bright star illuminating a wisp of foggy clouds, but I couldn’t make out any other clouds. “It’s moving,” my friend said. Sure enough, it was. But erratically. Its predominant direction was right to left, toward the south, but its movements weren’t smooth, like one sometimes sees in an airplane at night. Besides, it was far too bright. I whipped out my camera and began recording. Our conversation, now recorded for posterity, is the picture of hilarity, two thirty-something males discussing something odd in the night sky.
“What do you think it is, dude?”
“I don’t know, man…” Chuckles and laughs, with a slightly discernible sense of discomfort.
“Could it be a helicopter…?”
“Whoa!” and the voice gets louder, “what the hell is that!”
At this point the light, which had begun to move somewhat predictably to the south, trailed by a luminescent and cloud-like sphere, split into two large and bright streaks which left a lasting impression on the night sky, almost as if they were painted there. The vehicle, or whatever it was, appeared to break free of these gaseous streaks and move, with a tiny and ever-reducing glimmer, towards the southeast, until, having crossed a quarter of the night sky, it disappeared altogether.
But not the gaseous clouds, which began to balloon and form a giant luminescent shape, filling a large portion of the night sky, ten or twenty moons across. In entirety, the clouds resembled something like cells in mitosis, or a Venn diagram. But the shape of the clouds was not as bewildering as the light they gave off. They were bright white, as if they gave off light directly, or were backlit by something else. I glanced all over the night sky, of which, in the desert, we have a nearly unimpeded view. No moon. No source of light that would explain the luminescence of these clouds.
“Wow, dude. What is that?”
“I have no idea, man.”
“Could it be a rocket?” This was my friend, considerably more reasonable than I, and, as it turns out, correct. I was taking much greater leaps of imagination. “Maybe they’re testing something,” he continued, “This is New Mexico.”
“That’s true,” I answered, “That is the south. There’s an Air Force base down there, near Alamogordo.”
“Roswell…Area 51…all that stuff.”
It was a rocket. Dubbed Falcon Heavy by SpaceX, a private space company headed by Elon Musk of Tesla Motors fame, it is the most powerful rocket currently in operation, second only to the Apollo era rockets that brought astronauts to the moon. Launched at 3:45PM EST in Florida, Francis’s father and I witnessed the final thrust of Falcon Heavy’s second stage, nearly six hours later, as it blasted out of Earth’s orbit and into the solar system. On board was a Tesla Roadster, complete with a dummy in a spacesuit, which will orbit the sun forever.
The stunt, which drew massive public attention, was arranged by one of the most technologically advanced innovators in the world. Not surprisingly, lots of young men are flocking to the science, and young women to the hunky man who embodies it. Elon Musk has captured the attention of the world, and not for the first time. His fame and fortune, his technology, and his rugged good lucks have made him a household name.
I want to do for fatherhood what Elon Musk has done for technology. SpaceX’s sleek rockets and well-timed media campaigns are great. But what is a dummy orbiting the sun compared to the education and vitality of our real children? There are hundreds of books about fatherhood out there. There are speakers, workshops and community forums. Many of them are good, but by and large our image of fatherhood is still of a man with close-cropped hair, a tobacco pipe and sweater vest. It’s no wonder our young men want to be scientists and doctors and millionaires. Everyone wants to be the next Elon Musk, or Stephen Curry. I want to change that. I want to put fatherhood on the moon, and make it as sexy, sleek and cool as SpaceX’s newest rocket.
“Daddy?” Agnes asked as we brushed teeth before bed. We had made it home, having climbed off the road and down the brush-covered embankment that leads to New Buffalo. We used the headlamp at that point. After taking Sully, then Kol, back home, we returned to our little room at New Buffalo.
“Are there any people in those satellites? You know, like the one we saw?” Agnes held her hand up, as if pointing to the sky with her toothbrush.
“Sometimes,” I said, “but usually it’s just a machine with a bunch of computers and stuff.”
“But sometimes there’s people?”
“Sort of,” I said, speaking in mumbled phrases between brushstrokes. “A few people went to the moon…they even walked on it…but that hasn’t happened…in a long time…every now and then someone goes up…to a big space station…that orbits the earth.” I took the brush out of my mouth and pointed at her. “That’s sort of like a satellite.”
“Were any of them girls? I mean, women?” Agnes asked, brushing her front teeth in a pseudo-smile, “…that walked on the moon?”
“You know, I’m not sure, pup,” I said, my toothbrush hanging midair, “but I think they were all men.”
“But someday there will be?” Pema asked. She had finished brushing and handed her toothbrush to me. I stuck mine in my mouth and walked to the tiny sink in the corner.
“Women on the moon?” I asked from the side of my mouth. I turned the water on and ran her toothbrush under it, which drained into the bucket below, making a loud noise.
“Yeah,” Pema answered, climbing onto the bed.
I turned the faucet off and placed her toothbrush on the shelf, then turned and looked at her in the way I always picture her remembering me when I’m dead. “Pema,” I said, “we get to do whatever the hell we want.”