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Seeing Stars
First place, Eugene England Personal Essay Contest, 2011

I. Descent

It’s an hour or so from sunset when we pile into the jeep—me and my roommate Stacey, her friend Dave, his friend Tim, and a couple whose names I can’t remember, who Stacey and I squeeze next to in the back seat. It’s the beginning of my sophomore year at BYU, early September, 1990—a few weeks since I met Reed, the man who becomes my husband eighteen months later. I’d rather be with him on this Friday night and I regret promising Stacey that I’d come along for a caving trip west of Utah Lake. Tim starts the jeep and I search in vain for a seat belt.

The warm air pushes against my cheeks as we pull onto I-15 south and Tim accelerates to freeway speed. He pops in a cassette tape and Led Zeppelin blasts from the stereo speaker, reminding me of humid East coast nights after high school graduation. I first heard the music years ago, vibrating through my brother’s bedroom door; I stole his cassette tapes and listened to them lying on my bed, using a battered Walkman with foamy earphones. The tapes came with me to Provo, where I sat under a tree next to the freshman dorms with my Walkman blaring “Whole Lotta Love,” wondering if I’d ever find my place in the high Mormon desert. A long year later, I’m finally catching glimpses. When we hit Santaquin and leave the freeway for Route 6, I boost myself to sit above the jeep’s backseat, knees over the headrest, hands gripping the black foam padding of the roll bar, hair whipping in the wind.

The western horizon glows rose pink as we leave Route 6 for Highway 68, driving north to Elberta. After the 7-mile turnoff there are gravel roads and cattle gates, then the rise of Blowhole Hill, which houses Nutty Putty Cave. When Stacey told me about the cave I pictured an arched hole in the side of a mountain, with damp passages leading past formations of stalactites and stalagmites, icicles of rock formed by dripping water. But when the jeep stops we’re nowhere near a mountain. The hilltop is barren with dead scrub brush and croppings of broken rock. I have no clue where the cave might be, but I’m too cool to ask. Tim leads the way toward what looks like a moon crater ahead, and as we approach I see a black hole in its middle. The cave opening. Apparently, going in means going down.

Dave and Tim go first, lowering themselves from boulder to boulder into the darkness split by flashlight beams from above. They spot the rest of us as we climb down, and as I descend I feel the thin, dry air of the hilltop swell with moisture, which soon dampens my lungs like a swampy Maryland night. Once we’re all inside Tim points the way forward; ducking our heads, we follow him through a tight passageway that narrows to an opening barely big enough for an average-sized college kid to trespass. We get down on our stomachs and wriggle through the opening in a long-forgotten primeval motion, and I’m surprised by the ripped piece of carpeting that pads the bottom of the tightest place, evidence of the modern world we’ve left behind.

We emerge into a more manageable space known as the “Big Slide,” a sloping cavern studded with boulders that we scramble over on our way down, grateful for thick jeans and long shirtsleeves that shield our tender flesh. The cavern walls are close enough to touch with both hands and we move single-file, feet first, pulled by gravity deeper and deeper into the earth. Fifty yards ahead, the cavern widens into a pocket of space, the “Big Room,” where we sit and rest on the bedrock. The damp air makes the flashlight beams opaque. At one point Tim and Dave turn off their flashlights and we plunge into utter darkness, thick as ink. I can’t see my hand in front of my face—I’m not sure it even exists. I would doubt that I existed at all, that anything existed, were it not for my voice bouncing off the rock walls and returning to the twisting cavern of my inner ear. I tamp down my panic and crack jokes as a way of whistling in the dark.

But even when the flashlights snap on again, I can’t shake the uneasy knowledge that I’m so far below ground that light cannot reach me. We retrace our steps up the Big Slide, breathing the thicker, hotter air as we crouch and then crawl and then squirm our way back toward the cave entrance. Night has fallen since our descent, and when we reach the cave mouth I’m disoriented, unable to see the way out. Tim and Dave climb up and shine their lights through the opening, and when my turn comes I follow the yellow beam up to the surface and out into the hilltop air, shockingly cool and thin in my gulping lungs. As I move out of the light, I look up, and my mouth gapes wide:

Stars.

I’ve seen stars before, of course. As a child I spotted the Big Dipper on Brownie camping trips, and slept beneath a twinkling sky on our family sailboat, and saw scattered white glimmers over the night-black Atlantic during our yearly trips to the shore. But even when far removed from the ambient light of the cities and the suburban sprawl, I never saw anything like this. I have never seen this inverted bowl of blackness pricked by a billion points of blue-white light. I have never seen heavenly bodies flowing in currents like a brilliant river, the milkiest of ways. And if I hadn’t followed Tim down into the cave I wouldn’t be seeing it now, either. Something similar, yes. And still impressive. But only to one emerging from the dank bowels of the earth could the world be this vast, this clear, this fresh and bright and wild.

What shocks me most is realizing the stars were already there when we descended into the cave. They were there as we drove along Highway 68 and Route 6 and I-15. They were there when the sun peaked at noon and when it peeked at dawn. As I continue to stare, the gears of the universe shift and the earth slowly rotates, making the stars whirl around and above my head, like a diamond kaleidoscope spun by the hand of God.

 

II. Blue Boy

The kids and I are decorating Christmas gingerbread men when the phone rings. I sigh, knowing that even a few minutes’ interruption could spell disaster in a kitchen full of rowdy kids wielding tubes of frosting. I head toward the phone, snatching the sprinkles away from twelve-year-old Ben, who’s sprinkling them straight into his mouth. My mother’s name shows on the caller ID; I pick up to tell her we’re in the middle of a mess and I’ll call her back. “I need you for just a minute,” she says, and her numb voice stops me short. When I ask her what’s wrong, she clears her throat and says, “I have some bad news about your brother.”

My brother. George. He is my only blood sibling, elder by two-and-a-half years. He was my ally when our parents’ marriage ended, my witness in the troubled wake of our mother’s remarriage, and my sole partner in the subsequent dance between two families separated by divorce. On holidays we’d make our way through the maze of cheek-kissing Greek relatives crowding our Yia Yia’s living room. Together we’d survey the buffet table, snitching pieces of roast lamb and baklava from the shining silver platters. Together we’d doze in our father’s smoke-filled Oldsmobile on the long drive back to our home. Dad would drop us off across the street a half-block away from the house, because he couldn’t tolerate any closer proximity to our mother.

But we stayed close, George and I. Once a month we navigated an overnight stay at our father’s dark townhouse in Capitol Heights, where we holed up in the wood-paneled den to watch Love Boat andFantasy Island and eat Jiffy-Pop. During family vacations on the Delaware shore we spent days crashing through the green-gray Atlantic waves, popping bubbles of seaweed and poking jellyfish with sticks; in the late afternoons we’d roam the tar-creased boardwalk, buying crappy novelties from the beachfront five-and-dime and wasting hours in the arcades, where I’d faithfully stand at George’s elbow and watch him play Spy Hunter and Galaga.

Even after he outgrew family vacations he drew me to his side again and again, often sequestering me to listen to whatever music he was currently obsessed with: Rush in the early eighties, Metallica in the late; Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin throughout. I loved it all, because he loved it. Each track is a memory: “Fly By Night” is the beach house bedroom we shared, with cheap prints of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Lawrence’s Pinkie on the walls. “Brain Damage” is his deodorant’s musk-wood scent, which permeated his bedspread and drapes. “Over the Hills and Far Away” is the day he drove our mother’s blue Ford van home from an explosive family therapy session; dizzy with rage, I picked a spot on the back of George’s gingery head and stared at it, like a dancer spotting for a turn, while Robert Plant yowled poetically through the stereo speakers about following the open road.

The last time I saw George he was driving a van, a battered pea-green camper-top VW belonging to the guy riding shotgun, a deadhead with stringy black hair and vacant eyes. It was 1997, years since we’d crossed paths during one of my trips to our hometown. The depression we’d both suffered from a young age had followed us into adulthood, but while my life took a sharp upswing after leaving home, his continued its downward spiral, moving from substance use to abuse and addiction. He blew out a knee in a car accident just weeks before he was to join the army, and then blew the $60K insurance settlement that could have given him a life, leaving him broke and broken, drifting from state to state and sleeping on friends’ couches. I knew we had grown apart, but until he pulled that van into my driveway I didn’t realize just how different our lives had become: I had a house, three little kids, a stable marriage and a temple recommend. He had a rucksack of filthy clothes, a box of Grateful Dead bootleg tapes, and a pal named Jelly.

The two men stank, so when they asked if they could do some laundry I readily led them to the basement, where they stripped naked right in front of me and put on the least dirty clothes they could find in their bags and threw the rest in the washing machine; when I came back downstairs to check the cycle, the wash water draining into the utility sink was muddy brown and heavy-looking, thickened with earth. I knew they must be hungry, so I made them vegetarian sandwiches—grilled provolone on rye, my specialty—and watched them devour several each. My kids watched too, from a slight distance, shy in the company of this uncle they didn’t know. I wondered if George noticed how much two-year-old Ben looked like our father, but I didn’t get a chance to ask—as soon as the laundry was done, they hit the open road. I waved goodbye from the front porch, balancing the baby on my hip and holding Ben’s hand to keep him safe as the van pulled out of the driveway.

The crash came two years later. Nevada, fall of 1999. Two people died; a strict new DUI law held George accountable. He received two prison sentences, each two-to-twenty years. After serving his minimum four years, he was released on a writ of habeas corpus due to controversies surrounding the new law and misconduct by his attorney, who was disbarred soon after George’s trial. But now, just eighteen months later, in December of 2006, the state’s appeal has been granted and my brother has been summoned back to prison to finish his full sentence, which might last longer than his life.

But he hasn’t gone back. This is what my mother calls to tell me: instead of complying with the warrant, George has disappeared. Nobody knows where he is headed—Canada? Mexico? Nobody knows when, or if, we’ll ever hear from him again. I stand in the middle of my kitchen, hands itchy with flour and apron smeared with butter, with my children chattering in the background and the smell of cinnamon billowing from the hot oven and gobs of frosting hardening on the countertops, while my brother runs scared, over the hills and far away, looking for a cave to hide in.

 

 

III. Day of the Dead

When I come inside from lighting the jack-o-lanterns, the boys are waiting for me.

“When are we going to go?” Sam asks from behind the white sheet of his ghost costume.

“Yeah, let’s go,” says pirate Matt, swinging his pumpkin-shaped candy bag. He is eight and Sam is six. None of our older four kids are willing to be seen trick-or-treating with their parents. Matt and Sam would actually be pleased to have both of us tag along, but taking a long stroller ride in the dark is not our preschooler’s idea of a good time, so one of us will stay home with him while the other walks the neighborhood. I know Reed will refuse to take the boys more than a few blocks, so because I am I good mother, I volunteer. And because I am a bad mother, I bring along my iPod, placed strategically in my jacket pocket so that I can easily hit pause if the kids stop thinking about candy long enough to talk to me.

I’ve forgotten that kids can think and talk at once, and they keep up a steady stream of chatter from the moment we step off our porch. It’s a glorious not-too-cold Halloween night, with crisp autumn air and a magical indigo sky, and as soon as the boys are occupied at the neighbors’ door I scroll through the iPod menu to find the right music for the occasion. Although my tastes have mellowed as I’ve aged, I’ve been in a Led Zeppelin revival phase for the past few weeks, and they’ve got the perfect song: “The Battle of Evermore,” a delicate ballad set to impossible melodies on mandolin and Jimmy Page’s three-necked guitar.

The queen of light took her bow and then she turned to go
The prince of peace embraced the gloom and walked the night alone.
The dark Lord rides in force tonight, and time will tell us all–
Oh, throw down your plow and hoe, rest not to lock your homes;
Side by side we wait the might of the darkest of them all.

Matt and Sam scamper up to show me their loot before running off to the next house. Supposedly, the treat-begging echoes the medieval traditions of All-Hallows-Even, when cakes and wine were set outdoors as offerings for the deceased, and All Souls’ Day, or the Day of the Dead, when the cakes would be distributed to children and poor folk who went from door to door singing and praying for the deceased in purgatory. Every cake eaten represented the freeing of a soul from that limbo state between heaven and hell.

Somehow I doubt the Twizzlers and Snickers in the kids’ pumpkin bags will hold the same redemptive value, but I won’t begrudge them their annual candy fest, especially now that their oldest siblings are outgrowing the fun. Ben, now fourteen years old, no longer presides over the post-game candy trade, cutting shrewd deals and scamming the littlest players like my brother George once did. Diagnosed with clinical depression two years ago, Ben is withdrawing from our family circle more swiftly than I anticipated. He still talks to me about music and school and friends, but I can no longer hold his hand to keep him safe, as I can with Matt and Sam. Watching the two little boys gape at the full-sized candy bars handed out by one generous neighbor, I realize they will never be more open to me, more eager for my company, as they are now.

On impulse I look up at the night sky. It shows few stars due to the artificial light and pollution of the Salt Lake Valley, but I can see the telltale angles of the cup of the Big Dipper. Large trees are blocking the full view, so I change my position on the sidewalk, and Matt and Sam return from their latest candy conquest to find me peering into the distance. I try to show them what I’m looking at, but pointing doesn’t quite do the job. With the help of reference points from rooftops and tree limbs, Matt finally spots the constellation. Sam does too, or at least pretends he does. Matt’s eyes are glowing with discovery, and I’m thrilled for him. But I’m also sad that he doesn’t know how much else is up there, sad that the only Milky Way he knows is in his pumpkin bag.

I want them to see the stars. I will take my kids camping, Matt and Sam and anyone else who still looks when I point—last time we went, years ago, they were too little to stay up past dark. Better yet, I will take them to Nutty Putty Cave, where they can experience not only the vastness of the sky but the closeness of the earth, and know both through contrast. Rather than just showing them the stars, I will first give them the adventure of crawling underground like the worms and ants they study in our backyard. Then I will lead them out of the stifling narrowness into the starry brilliance of a clear night, and they will see what I saw, and know what I know.

But as I follow the boys up our street and watch them break into a run at the sight of our house, there is much I do not know. I do not know that three weeks hence, on November 24, 2009, a man named John Edward Jones, age twenty-six, a student at the University of Virginia’s medical school spending Thanksgiving with his family, will join eleven companions for a trip to Nutty Putty Cave. I do not know that the six-foot-tall, 190-pound man will separate from the group to successfully traverse a narrow cavern called the Birth Canal only to become lodged in a pinch point at its far end, a cervix eighteen inches wide and ten high. I do not know about the twenty-seven-hour rescue attempt which will follow, involving more than 130 volunteers, and that Jones will hang headfirst, 125 feet below ground and 700 feet into the cave, for more than eight hours before a rope-pulley system will ease him free and lift him to an upright position. I do not know that a failure in the rope system will soon drop him back into the pinch point, where he will slowly suffocate from pressure to the chest, and that he will die around midnight on November 25, leaving behind a wife and a baby daughter.

When I do come to know these things, some time later, I will also know that due to the extremely high cost and danger of retrieving the body, the family agreed with state and local officials to entomb it in the cave, and that, despite hundreds of protests, the cave’s main entrance was sealed shut, in addition to the passageway holding the remains. The way in and out is now blocked by a concrete plug. A stopper in the blowhole. A stone sealing the tomb.

Visitors might regain access to the main entrance at some point in the future, but even if the cave reopens I know I will never reenter it. I could not force myself to squirm through its narrow openings while remembering the botched delivery of John Jones. I could not guide my boys down the rocky slope of the Big Slide with the knowledge that one man never climbed back up again. I could not sit with them in the inky oblivion of the Big Room, so near the corpse of the young father, hanging like a soul in purgatory, quietly decomposing in the dark humidity of the Birth Canal.

 

 

IV. Stairway to Heaven

We are entwined in bed when the phone rings. We let the machine answer, annoyed by the interruption but determined not to lose focus. Seconds later the phone rings again. Reed mutters something, and I silently curse whoever is lame enough to call repeatedly at 10:30 pm. When it immediately rings again, Reed lunges out of bed, grabs the phone from the computer desk and barks a hello.

I brace myself on behalf of the caller, probably one of the kids’ clueless friends, who’s about to get an earful. But Reed doesn’t say much. All I hear is “yes” and “okay” and “thank you” in a tone of voice I can’t identify; I can see the outline of his upper body in the window’s faint backlighting but I can’t see his face. After half a minute he hangs up the phone and turns on the light. “Get dressed,” he tells me.

Ten minutes later I’m backing the car out of our driveway, my head buzzing with adrenaline, my hands white-knuckled on the wheel. Ben is in the passenger seat. I drive as fast as I dare towards the nearest hospital, leaving Reed behind to watch over the little boys. When we’re two blocks away, Ben groans and clutches his stomach. I pull over and he opens his door and vomits on the side of the road. His shoulders heave again and again. I lean back against my seat, limp with sudden relief. Once the retching stops I get out of the car and study the pool of vomit on the asphalt. In the yellow light of the streetlamp I see what I was hoping to see: intact capsules, blue and white, at least a dozen.

These are the capsules he swallowed without water minutes before, from the prescription bottle with his name on it, holding a ninety-day supply of antidepressants. When I tossed the bottle on his bed that evening, reminding him to refill his pill case for the week, it was jammed full. An hour later, when Reed and I burst into his basement bedroom, it was half empty. Ben sat on the side of his bed, still holding the laptop he’d used to compose a suicide note and email it to his best friend, who (thank God) is not clueless and didn’t hesitate to call us, or to call us again, and again.

I get back into the car and turn the ignition. Since the urgent medical crisis has passed, our best bet for treatment is the pediatric hospital half an hour away, so I flip a U-turn and head east toward the freeway. Ben sits quietly next to me. I-215 bends and curves like the road we drove together the summer before last, a rural road leading from the Utah side of Bear Lake to Minnetonka Cave, a limestone formation tucked high in Idaho’s greening hills. We had the van windows cranked down and the iPod cranked up, and I played him “Stairway to Heaven” for the first time. Tonight the windows are shut tight against the February chill, and there is no music playing.

As soon as I’m able to form sentences I begin asking Ben questions, and he answers me calmly and candidly, both of us pretending that words can help, that words can explain.

His voice sounds just like my brother’s in tone and cadence. His words are ones my brother might have spoken. I try not to notice, but at sixteen, Ben is more like George than I can ignore. Thankfully he has a stronger family, a stronger identity, a stronger support system—but he’s haunted by the same grim melancholy, the same crushing self-doubt. Like George, he carries an ink-black void in his heart that light cannot reach. Sometimes when I catch a glimpse of Ben in his Led Zeppelin T-shirt, or hear him laughing from the other room, I think he’s the ghost of my brother, and I shiver. Tonight, I am shivering.

The hospital rests on a mountain bench overlooking downtown Salt Lake City. It’s past eleven when we arrive. The ER parking lot is full and the parking garage feels too far away, so I pull into a deserted loading zone. Ben follows me through the sliding ER doors to the triage desk. The admit nurse asks me why we’re here. I’m not sure how to answer. We’re here because Ben is having an acute psychiatric crisis. We’re here because I handed this kid my mental illness, and then handed him a potentially lethal dose of medication. We’re here because my son wants to die.

I stammer something about an overdose and produce the half-empty prescription bottle from my coat pocket. A blonde nurse takes charge, peppering Ben with questions until she’s satisfied that he’s not an immediate threat to himself or others. He is stripped and gowned, weighed and measured, bled into a test tube, drained of urine, pumped with IV fluids. We are questioned by another nurse, a physician’s assistant, the resident internist, and the social worker on call. When the lab reports indicate no toxicity, we’re put out to pasture in a room at the end of the hall. “It’s been a crazy night around here,” warns the social worker. “I might not be back for a few hours.”

She shuts the door behind her. The room is cramped and dark, windowless. Ben passes out on the narrow cot, overcome by fatigue. I slump in the vinyl armchair in the corner, panicked by the closeness of his pain, this dank despair heavy enough to stop a heart. I try to pray. In my mind I envision that one, God himself, who came down among the children of men and embraced the gloom, alone. That one who, in due time, will lead his children out of the earth’s gaping mouth and into the clearest of nights. But as I sit in this pinch point of a room, my view of that future redemption is faint, too faint, a dim light flickering at the back of a cave. I can only cling to the hope of things unseen for my son, my brother, myself.

I’m startled awake when the door opens with a rush of fresh air. The social worker apologizes for taking so long; she was needed by a bereaved family in the pediatric ICU.  I look at my sleeping child, broken but alive. The resident has cleared Ben for discharge, and an ambulance is waiting to transfer him to the neuropsychiatric inpatient unit down the road. Within minutes the EMTs arrive with a gurney and strap Ben down for the ride. He looks so young beneath the restraints, so weak and so pale, shrouded in the hospital’s white woven blankets. As he’s wheeled away I wave to him, but his eyes are closed.

I gather Ben’s discarded clothes and walk through the sliding exit doors into the last vestiges of the night. It will soon be dawn. Approaching my car I inhale the thin winter air, icy like menthol, which clears the staleness from my lungs. As I pull out of the hospital driveway I see the vast valley spread below, its edges curved up into mountains that touch the overarching heavens, veiled by haze. When I look up I see nothing but black. But when I look down I see wide swaths of white and gold, countless lights forming constellations of cities and towns and neighborhoods, each bright spot marking a street, a home, a life. And it shocks me anew that so much goes unseen in the light of day, that only darkness can reveal these stars, these souls, glittering on the ground as if the earth has become the sky.

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