That night the stars kept me awake. I couldn’t sleep, so I went to the open window facing the ocean. A green light flashed on the horizon beyond the cloaked meadow and trees. Looking up, I saw more stars than I ever remembered, brilliant, gleaming and twinkling. Elated, I felt my whole being inhaling the ebony sky teeming with star life. I stood there in awe for moments, minutes, or hours. I don't know how long, but when I returned to my bed, I still couldn’t sleep, but not because of the mad convergence of memories, desires and fears that had been crowding in on me before those bright sparks against the black sky appeared to me. My mind was clear and pure, with only the imagination of gems in the dark velvet hemisphere. I wasn’t drawn back to look again, however compelling the stars' presence. Rather, I allowed them to live in and expand in me—as they always were and always will be. I lay in the neutrality of that quiet wakefulness for a long time.
But not long enough. As the first light dawned, an awareness also edged in of the contrast between my own smallness and the expanse of the grandeur I witnessed. I attempted to remain in that blessed state, like one holding on to a fading dream. But my habitual, chaotic thoughts began pressing in on me once more—the absurdity of being human, the perpetual dirge sounding beneath the surface of mundane reality. I felt it within me—an impending void, and I needed to fill it with the beauty and mystery of what I had seen and felt. “Out there and in here, as above, so below, on earth as in heaven,” these words, like pearls, strung themselves on the strand of my desire to remain as I had been all through the night, but it was not to be.
That was the night the stars kept me awake.
Since then I haven’t been the same, but I was determined to get myself back to that state of grace. No matter the effort, though, I could not again experience the sky in that same way I did that night, or be awake without distraction. During the day, I went about my routine, but the other half of my life (the night) was my obsession. I slept only fitfully for an hour or two at a time since that night. I would wander to the window to see if stars and sky were as they had been. They never were.
There had to be a way to relax, to be still. I began trying everything and anything to diminish my agitated condition. I tried to clear my mind through meditation, reading about it and practiced it every day, but to no avail. I bought a bunch of self-help books; signed up for Yoga classes; devoured natural aides for sleep, anxiety and depression. I also started seeing a therapist, which I had meant to do when I came back from my travels several years ago. I began to look for anything written about stars to find some articulation of my own experience. I found many expressions influenced by stars and written about the starry sky, but this one in came closest to my obsession:
And now,each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted
I count the holes they leave.
I was desperate to find peace, so a last-ditch effort, I asked my therapist to prescribe something to help me sleep. About a week after I started taking the meds, this happened: While I was asleep, I got up, went outside and walked into my next door neighbor’s house, opened the refrigerator, ate a bowl of cold pasta and took the dog out for a walk. Eventually, I returned with the dog, wandered back to my place and into my bed, all of which my neighbor, Dana, witnessed. When she came over the next morning to tell me of my strange adventure, I didn’t believe her—that is not until she showed me the video. She heard me come in, watched me in amazement and followed me around with her phone, ready to call 911 in case things got even more crazy. Boy, did I feel like an idiot.
Okay, so I scratched off the sleeping pills from my long list of potential remedies.
Dana and I took a walk on the beach that afternoon, which was sunny and warm for late October, and the sea was all lapis lazuli and silver wrinkles under a clear sky. We talked as we walked away from the sun into our elongated shadows. Until then, I hadn’t thought I knew her very well, but realized I probably felt closer to her than to anyone else. Even though I was embarrassed by the incident the night before, I felt safe with her, maybe because she had told me more than once that I reminded her of her daughter. I hadn't met her daughter yet, but she had recently come back home after years away.
I started to feel like Dana could see right through to the real me, (though I wasn’t sure there was a real me). I didn’t resent it though; at least that would have meant someone knew me. I told her about the night the stars kept me awake, and she didn’t think it was crazy. The thing was, I had never confided in her before, or anyone else for that matter, not even my therapist, not really. I even told her about the poetry.
How could I say what it was like—this insane quest? Waiting for the new moon and cloudless sky, going down to the ocean’s edge to star gaze in the “mystical moist night air” (another line from a poem I read). Even though, yes, the heavens were beautiful each time, there was nothing to catch me off guard like on that night.
That was it! I was always on guard. Why am I always on guard? I asked myself, to which I had no answer.
My therapist said I did have the answer, and he would help me find it. Part of me thought it was all bullshit. “All” meaning his reassurance, my obsession, my strategies, my remedies, my question: What would be involved in coming to terms with the answer (as if there were one)? Still, I continued with therapy and all the rest of it (except the sleeping pills). Why? Because I wanted to get back to perfection (distraction from myself), the feeling of the stars living in me. Poetry was really the only thing that could catch me off guard—revealing ideas and feelings I had never consciously thought about before, but understood the moment I read them—the truth of them. I found myself more at ease at those moments and a little less desperate.
A couple of weeks after Dana and I had walked together, she called me and suggested we meet for dinner soon. Her invitation made me feel good—comforting somehow to think of being with her again. She said she had a gift for me, and I got the impression she also wanted to tell me something. I figured she was worried about me ever since the sleep walking incident. We agreed on a place and time, and I looked forward to our meeting. I decided that when we met, I would confide in her even more—tell her things and ask her things. I sensed a wisdom about her, and I respected her. I would let down my guard, intentionally this time, and spill my guts (poor Dana). Maybe I would hear myself say something that would surprise even me, like when I read poetry.
A few days before our dinner date, I was driving back from one of my therapy sessions, thinking I would stop going. The therapist started bringing up stuff I didn’t want to think about, which I guess would have been good, if I really wanted to get to the bottom of things? But it didn’t feel good, and besides, I already was at the bottom—of something. As I passed Dana’s house, I saw a woman outside with Dana's dog. It was a damp and raw November evening. Something was wrong; she was wearing a nightgown and was pacing up and down the sidewalk, looking like she was in a daze. I knew it must be Dana’s daughter. I pulled up next to her and rolled down the window.
"Are you okay? You're Dana's daughter, Linney, right?” She was crying, so I could hardly make out what she was saying.
She didn't answer my question and kept saying, "Mom, why? What am I going to do? Why, why did you do this to me?"
I practically had to carry her to the car to bring her back to my place. I cleared a spot on the sofa and made her some hot tea. Between her sobs, I found out what happened.
“My mother’s dead.”
“What? No….!” I interrupted her. “That could not be; no, we were supposed to…
“She was sick for a while, but she didn't tell me. I went into her room to ask her something, calling her name, but she didn't answer. At first I thought she was asleep, but she looked funny and didn't wake up when I shook her. I called the ambulance and stayed with her until...until the end. It was horrible, and I, I…."
I didn't want to press her, so let her just go on and get it all out. When the sobs subsided, she told me that in the hospital a doctor revealed Dana's condition: Leukemia, end stages, terminal, not coming home. At least they were able to say their goodbyes. That's when Dana told Linney that she had left things for her, to go through them and to keep them. You would think it would have been something for her to hold on to, but maybe that's harder—holding on to things when the person who left them for you isn’t coming back.
“I am not going to do it. I don't want to see anything—whatever she left. I...I can’t; I won’t. Anyway, she hated me and...”
I stopped her right there and tried to assure her, "That's not true! Your mom did not hate you; she talked about you a lot. She wanted the best for you and loved you.” Although I wasn't entirely sure about their relationship, I did know Dana worried about her.
“No, no she didn’t,” Linney whispered then starting sobbing again.
I saw that Linney was not much younger than me and was quite a beauty (so, my reminding Dana of Linney had nothing to do with our looking alike). She had her own funky style, and was a lot smaller and thinner than me (I tried to ignore the sharp twinge of that fact). She had the kind of looks, no doubt, that turned a lot of heads, opened a lot of doors, and maybe kept her from seeing herself as she really was, or could be.
Dana told me that once Linney said, “I’m starving,” and Dana knew it was literally true! So, she somehow persuaded her to go out to lunch. "She ordered crudités," Dana told me "which sounds much better than 'raw vegetables.' They would have tasted much better, too, with the accompanying crab and cheddar dip." Dana had recounted how Linney was frantic to move the vegetables away from the dip, “as if she was afraid they were going to jump into it by themselves. That dip should have come on a ten-foot pole,” was what Dana had said. She could be funny like that, but it was sad too, partly because I could relate to that fear big time.
I knew Linney had been away for a few years “traveling,” a nicer way of saying, “wandering” (which I also related to). She had come to stay, Dana had said, “until she sorted things out and got her life back on track."
I tried to calm Linney, but didn’t know how. “You can stay with me tonight,” I heard myself offer, but hoped she wouldn’t take me up on it (until she didn't). That’s when I felt a dark and heavy weight of grief looming and about to crash down on me, and I didn’t want to be alone. For some reason, she wanted to sleep in her mother’s bed, so I walked back with her and got her settled in with the dog.
The next morning I checked in on her. Linney cried off and on, but didn’t say much about Dana's sudden "disappearance," mostly avoided eye-contact, and kept repeating," I don't want to live in this house. I gotta get away from here. I can't stay, and I am not going to go through those things, I'm not! I am going to go away. I’m not going to look at anything.”
Okay, okay already, what a big baby! I thought, but said, “Your mom must have had her reasons leaving things of you, don’t you think? Aren’t you even curious? She seemed like a wise person,” I innocently offered, but I Linney looked stunned when I said that.
"My mom? No, she was a crazy person! You didn't know her—not really. She did crazy things, like not telling me she was dying!"
"That's what I mean, she had her reasons. Yeah, sure…I guess I didn't know her the way you did, but from what she told me it sounded like she kinda looked out for you, and I think she knew a lot more than she let on. I was realizing, too, that Linney didn't know Dana the way I did or that she had also looked out for me. I remembered that we were supposed to meet in a couple of days when I planned to learn more about her, but what I was most looking forward to was learning more about myself (everything really).
“What are you talking about? Linney whined. “She wasn’t looking out for me. We didn't get along at all, especially since I came back home!”
“She never mentioned anything like that to me, only good things about you,” I told her. But I didn't want to hear any more about it, and certainly wasn't going convince Linney of anything. I was also trying to rebound from how surprised I was at feeling so protective of Dana and her memory, and at how resentful I felt toward Linney for being so closed off.
I was blindsided when she begged me to go with her to make funeral arrangements. I wanted to say, “Oh, no, now you are the crazy one, not your mother. I couldn’t possibly.“ Instead I said, “Yeah, sure.” I mean, she had no one else.
When I got home, I was exhausted and hungry, but didn’t eat anything and stayed up until midnight. When I finally did flop on the bed, I tried to relax, using my techniques: visualizations, exercises, and everything else that never worked, so I ended up staring at the ceiling until about 3:00 am. Finally, I picked up one of the poetry books scattered on my bed. When I was able to unwind a bit, I started to “hear” the last few lines I had just read, chanting themselves in the dark, like an unwanted mantra. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I closed my eyes trying to re-imagine the starlit night when I had been caught unguarded for a short time—outside the fortress walls.
Somehow, I got through helping Linney with the funeral arrangements. The memorial service and burial took place on the day Dana and I were supposed to meet, the day I thought I was going to find out everything I always wanted to know, but was afraid to ask. The strange thing was, that night I slept through for the first time in months. I told myself that maybe my desperation was reaching Dana (wherever she was), and she that took pity on me again. I don’t believe in magic or miracles, but I don't entirely disbelieve in them either. Maybe she could sense the things I was going to ask her and tell her, which I still didn’t even know myself.
I was surprised at feeling such a sense of loss and my dwelling on the finality of death, becoming suddenly aware of the certainty of my own death one day, which was something I had never thought about before.
A month passed and I hadn’t see Linney, though I called her several times, offering to help with anything she needed.
"Thanks," she said, "but I'm okay. I don't need anything.”
"Sure, sure, well…but let me know if you do, okay?” After that, I saw her only a couple of times outside and waved.
Out of the blue, she called me tonight, just as I came in the door. She sounded frantic. “You have to come over right now!”
“Okay, be right over,” and I broke out into a cold sweat at the prospect.
It was getting dark and icy cold. I could hear the ocean roaring, maybe churning up for a nor’easter. I walked over to Dana’s house and went in through the kitchen door—the one I had wandered into the night of the sleeping pill adventure. Dana had always kept her house as if it were a display of warmth, light and color for a photo shoot. You could tell what season it was by little touches here and there—autumn leaves in the fall, tulips in the spring, seashells and feathers in the summer. I liked that, but now it looked more like my place: not at all inviting, no frills, dark and messy. I noticed flower arrangements left from the funeral on the countertop and kitchen table, all wilted and dried up.
“In here,” Linney called from the little room off the kitchen, lamplight spilling over the doorway. The room looked exactly as I had remembered it. It felt like Dana had just walked out of it, and would be "back in a sec,” as she would say. It was probably the single welcoming, orderly, and bright spot in the house now. Looking up, Linney said, “I made myself come in here early this morning." I assume she had stayed in there until she called me just a few minutes ago.
“I finally got the courage. I never wanted to, but I had this dream last night," she said. "My mom was calling me, but I couldn’t find her. I was wandering all over the house, but it was kinda like I was outside too, trying to get in. You know how dreams are like that? The wind kept pushing me back, but I could see inside the house. There were waves crashing against the windows from the inside—weird! When I woke up, it was still dark, but I could see the light coming from this room. I kept Mom’s desk lamp on ever since…that night.
I feel like I am still in a dream now, or...” she hesitated, “or awake for the first time—not sure which.”
I braced myself when she said that—Me too! I noticed Linney looked different, still sad, but softer, more composed, and, yes, somehow more "awake." The glow in the room shone on her long hair and on the gold trim at the collar and cuffs of her nightshirt. I kept my gaze on her and tried to focus as she spoke about and then began to show me some of the things Dana had left for her.
Linney opened a picture album. ”These are pictures of us, of me, when I was a little, when Dad was still alive." She showed me a photo of her in a pine tree, taken from the ground up. The branches looked like a feathery green staircase with her looking down and waving. There was another one of Dana holding a little Linney up with one hand under a white beach umbrella with little blue fish swimming around it.
"I didn't know. I didn't know so many things,” she whispered, as if I weren't even there. She picked up a worn, white journal. “I didn’t know Mom wrote in this when I was growing up.”
"Maybe you didn't need to know, until now.”
There were other papers and pictures all over the desk and in its open drawers. She pointed to a letter. “I’ve been reading this over and over." She didn’t read it to me, but I could tell it must have broken a silence, shattered some walls and filled a void of some kind.
Linney opened another small book. It had a black leather cover all embossed with tiny silver stars. She held it out to me. On the first page was the date of Dana’s diagnosis, a description of her treatment plan and a note about her wish to keep her illness from her daughter. She turned a page here, a page there, reading some of the entries to me. Her fingers traced the words that spoke of hope like, “a thing with feathers, which perches on the soul”; and of faith, like the moon, ”faithful even as it fades from fullness, becoming that last curving and impossible sliver of light before the final darkness." There was mention of a “year of miracles,” of gratitude, and of joy for the last days spent with her daughter at home, but also of crazy sorrow.
She asked me to read the last entry. I felt lightheaded and disoriented when I looked at the lines Dana had written in her beautiful handwriting. I heard my barely audible voice, which sounded strange and far away as I read, “Pain has an element of blank. It cannot recollect when it began, or if there were a day when it was not,” and continued, “The heart asks pleasure first, and then excuse from pain, and then those little anodynes that deaden suffering.”
Linney handed me a small package wrapped in dark blue tissue, tied with silver ribbons. "She left this for you.” It was a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson with a card: For Stella, From Dana.
When I walked out into the night air, there was no sound. There were no stars, and sea fog was drifting in.