The holiday season is a time for all sorts of memories, some joyful and some acutely sad. The numbness that comes with our regular, everyday routines is disrupted by festive activities, and feelings of nostalgia and loss can creep in no matter how forcefully we try to resist. My mother told me earlier this year about her experience on the night my grandfather left us. This was mine, which I’ve never told her. Sometimes, gifts come shaped like memories, even if they don’t feel like gifts at the time.
I had stayed home from work that day making Christmas preparations. Christmas, we knew, would be whenever my mom returned from her journey to Durant. My grandfather was very ill, and we feared that it would be the last time mom saw him alive. I feared she would return to us weak and heartbroken, but in any case, I had braved the storm to make the necessary purchases. By evening, the storm had passed, and I returned home as the day grew old. Night was coming on, and the wind was picking up again. Icy branches could be heard scraping walls and roofs, and passersby were reporting power outages all over the city.
My heart sank as I pulled into my driveway. The porch was dark, and the streetlights had not come on. “How long has it been off?” I wondered, picking my way carefully up the slick, dark steps and fumbling for the key. My phone buzzed in my pocket as I turned the lock and stumbled into the house. “Hello?” I answered without checking the display.
“Hey honey,” said my mom quietly on the other end. “Your dad said he hadn’t heard from you, so I just wanted to see if you made it through the storm okay.”
“Hi Mom,” I closed the door and stared around my dark living room. The cat ran to me, crying for food. I could see my breath floating in the air. “Yeah, I made it through just fine. I’ve just been out, so I hadn’t called.” Mom’s a “check-in-just-in-case”-er. I’m a “They’ll -call – if – something’s – wrong”-er.
“Not very good, honey.”
“Do you want me to come down?”
She paused for a moment. “No. I’d worry about you driving on these icy roads.” She sounded tired.
“Mom, I’d really like to come if it would help.”
“No. There’s nothing you can do. Really, it might be too late by the time you got here anyway.”
I sank onto the cold, lumpy sofa. “Okay. Well, I love you.” I wanted to put my arms around her so much.
“I love you, too.”
“Will you call me if…” I didn’t know how to finish.
“I’ll call you when.”
“Okay.” It would be tonight. “I love you, mom,” I said again. I wanted her to know.
“Love you too, sweetie.”
“Bye bye.” I held the phone in my hand until the line went dead. For some reason, I didn’t want to hang up first, just in case. I clutched the phone until the screen went black, sucking all the light out of the room.
Shivering, I fed the cat and turned back the covers to make a warm, cushiony place on the bed for him. I piled up the blankets, creating a deep hollow spot. “That should keep him warm.” He sniffed, and pawed, and even laid there for a few minutes so I wouldn’t feel that my effort had been wasted before he scurried over and burrowed himself deep into the closet. Clearly, his plan was better. I shouldn’t have worried. It’s hard to out-cat a cat.
I, however, needed to get somewhere warm, but I didn’t want to go to my parents’ house. Dad was talking to mom, and he might tell her I had lost power. Casey was equally likely to slip. It wouldn’t have mattered, but my mom is a detail person. She sweats the small stuff, and I couldn’t stand it if she was worried about me. The last thing she needed was to think, “I’d better call Jessica and be sure she remembered to leave the water on to drip so her pipes don’t burst.” She had too much to think about already.
Suddenly I remembered the “couch room” at the office. It was a well- insulated interior room with a broad comfortable couch and a tv with cable. That would be perfect if the power was on. I picked up the phone and called Michelle, my boss and my very dear friend. I was relieved when she picked up. “Hey JP, what’s up?”
“Hey, do you know if power’s on at the office?”
“Yes, I think it is. Do you need something there?”
“Well, I was going to see if I could stay there overnight until my power comes back on. Would it be ok if I took some blankets and set up in the couch room tonight?”
“No, don’t do that. That won’t be comfortable. Come to my house instead. I’m just warning you, it’s messy.”
That sounded great, but I didn’t want her to feel obligated. “That is so nice, but that wasn’t why I called. Are you sure you want company? I would really be just fine at the office.”
“Of course. Get your overnight stuff and come over here. You can stay in the guest room.”
“Ok, I’ll see you in about 15 minutes. Thanks.” I hung up, relieved, and threw together a bag with warm clothes, toiletries. I left the faucets to drip, poured a little extra food for the cat, and bolted for the door. The cold wind blazed through my clothes as I stepped outside and into the car.
When I arrived at Michelle’s, I felt much safer. The streetlights were on, Christmas lights lined the bushes, and a soft pink glow was coming from the living room. Michelle met me at the door, and welcomed me inside. Her home was cozy, a bit cluttered, and felt like a home. She was preparing food that smelled delicious. I wanted to cry.
“Here, I’ll put your things back here on the futon and you just sit down there in the living room. We can watch a show until the food gets done.” She handed me a blanket and indicated for me to sit in a cushy recliner nearby.
“Thank you so much.”
“Please,” she scoffed. “I enjoy having you here. You’re welcome here anytime you need a place to stay.”
We watched tv, ate good food, and laughed, and I nearly forgot about my cold, creepy house and my dying grandfather. The sky was dark and the dim glow of the lamp and the fireplace were mesmerizing. I was startled when my phone rang again.
“Hello,” I stood and walked into the dining room.
“Mom?” my heart sank. “How is he?”
“Poppa’s gone, honey.” Her voice was heavy, exhausted.
I felt the tears pushing into my eyes, , but I held them off. “Mom, I’m so sorry. I wish I could be there with you.”
“I wish you were here too.” Her voice was wavering.
“Mom, you know I love you, right? You know I’ll come.”
“No. There’s nothing we can do now. I’m going back to your Aunt Karen’s to spend the night, and I’ll probably come home tomorrow. For Christmas.”
Again, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to comfort her from far away. I wished I was there to wrap my arms around her. “Okay. Well, I love you.” It was all I could say, over and over again.
“I love you too.”
There was a long pause. “Bye,” she finally breathed. Again, I waited for her to hang up. The screen faded to black again and the tears slid down my cheeks. I quickly wiped my eyes, and I felt Michelle’s arms grasping me in a hug.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That must have been your grandpa, right?”
“Yes. He’s gone.” I struggled to keep the tears at bay. “We knew it wouldn’t be long.”
“I know, but we’re never prepared.” She held onto me, but I forced my sobs back into my chest and dried my eyes. It was almost more than I could stand. All I wanted was to hold my mother. I wasn’t in the habit of thinking that I needed someone to hug me, too.
“I think I’ll go to bed.” My throat clenched, threatening to betray me. All I had wanted all day was to be with other people, and now, overpowered, I only wanted to be alone. I couldn’t hold back the tears much longer.
“That’s a good idea,” she said kindly, and lead me into the guest room. I laid down quickly and turned to look at the wall. “Goodnight,” she said.
“Goodnight.” As she turned the doorknob, I whispered, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I heard from the other side of the door.
The room was dark and quiet, warm, but not as warm as the den. I hadn’t realized until that moment how all of the ugly inconveniences in my day had conspired to drive me to that place at that time. The solitude of that quiet, unfamiliar room was exactly what I needed. Nobody could see me here, and I burrowed deep in the coarse blankets and sobbed silently into the pillow. This would be my time for grief. It was mine. Nobody else would be hurt if I cried. Nobody would feel sorry, or worry. Tomorrow, and every day after that must be about my mother and my family, but tonight, I was alone in a vacuum with only grief.
When my eyes were swollen and dry, I turned over and stared out the window on the opposite wall. The sky had cleared and the stars were brighter than usual. From my curled position on the futon, I could see above the rooftops and out into open sky. I gazed at the tiny bright stars, usually hidden under the soft blanket of ambient city light. The starry points blazed in my watery eyes, and I silently gave thanks for the pure, cold light made possible by the city-wide power failures. There were so many…there – I was staring right at the milky way. The pathway of souls.
The story flooded into my brain, bringing with it a wave of emotion. I had forgotten it long ago, and might never have remembered but for tonight. But for everything about tonight. It had been part of a childhood astronomy lesson, a joint effort with the school district’s Indian Education program. It was a supplemental piece of starlore I had made note of, wondering idly if my own ancestors had known it. It had only been “enrichment,” an effort to “make science fun” that had never really mattered…until it did. I sat up and scooted closer to the window, tracing the pathway with my eyes. I found Sirius, and I followed the path toward Beta canis majoris. These, I was told during the lesson at school, were two large dogs. In the story we were told, the souls of our departed travel down the Path of the Souls (the Milky Way) on their way to the land of the dead. To reach the path, they must cross a bridge guarded by the two dogs. The soul must take two portions of meat on the journey, one for each dog. He must feed the first dog in order to pass onto the bridge, but must be certain to save some meat for the second dog. If a soul forgets to save some meat, the second dog will not let him pass. In this way, it is possible to become trapped on the bridge between the two dogs, and forced to wander back and forth. This is why the bridge is so full of stars.
When both dogs have been appeased, the soul may continue on its journey down the Path of Souls to its own place in the sky. All of the stars we see are the souls of departed people. They are the souls of our ancestors and our relatives.They dance in a circle around us, waiting to be reborn on the earth. In this way, our loved ones are never far away. They never leave us to go to a faraway heaven. They are all around us, always. Their bones are in the earth, their souls are in the dark skies, and their memories are in our hearts.
The story must have stuck without my realizing it. I had always enjoyed hearing the old stories, but I only remembered a few. I hugged my legs to me, feeling strangely comforted, and said another silent “thank you” for the sudden reappearance of this forgotten memory. I wished I could tell my mom. I wished she could be here with me, but maybe it would have been different then. I don’t know. Most of all, I wished she could look out her window and see Poppa and all of the others just right outside making their way past the dogs, down the shimmering Path of Souls, and out into the great dance in the inky black sky. My grief had subsided, replaced only by idle emptiness and a strange feeling that everything was exactly as it was supposed to be. I laid back on the bed, no longer suffering, only staring blankly at the icy stars until sleep came.