Orbits in Conjunction

IT is a summer evening, warm and still. My family and I are standing together in the backyard, passing the binoculars back and forth, gazing up at the near-perfect V of Mars, Jupiter, and Venus in conjunction above the pines. Bret, who is 5, and Nathan, 2, know nothing yet of mortality, so this once-in-a-lifetime configuration interests them only briefly; they would rather chase fireflies or climb their swing set in the dark.

For my wife, Rita, and me, however, this configuration of planets exerts a powerful tug. We want to keep looking at it, three worlds and a silver half-moon just a thumb's width apart. The moon is particularly beguiling this night, particularly lucid and near. I realize how much time has passed since I last paused like this beneath the umbrella of night to consider its distant glows - not since I was a young man, a boy, full of questions then, full of the callow expectation of response.

It is difficult finally to pull myself away from the heavens, even after Rita has rounded up the boys and herded them onto the porch. "I'll be there in a minute," I say as they tumble inside to the lights and warmth of enclosed space, of visible boundaries, of discernible beginnings and predictable ends. Then I am alone in the damp grass, a boy again, regarding with naked eye a darkness too deep for science's most powerful telescopes, too vast to be illuminated by any instrument but hope.

Soon Bret appears behind the window screen in his Ninja Turtle pajamas. "I'm ready for my story now," he calls, and I answer, "I'm coming, honey." But I cannot pull away just yet. I will never again be able to turn my eyes skyward and behold Mars, Jupiter, and Venus in this same configuration.

Too much time passes before I can force myself inside. The boys have fallen asleep on the living-room floor. I will get no giggles and hugs from Nathan this night, no warming snuggles from Bret as we lie together on his narrow bed for the 59th reading of "Corduroy." A few moments of closeness is all I can salvage as I carry each boy to his bed, nearly nuzzling them awake with my apologetic kisses.

It is as difficult then to leave their room as it was to abandon the display outside, for I have been reminded abruptly of the temporary nature of this other conjunction, this too-brief agreement of our orbits. In the years ahead we will inevitably drift away from one another. Rita and I will continue to share the same slow ellipse, but our boys, propelled by the thrust of their parents' love - a love that wants to pull as relentlessly as gravity but must find the strength to exert an opposite force - ou r boys are already speeding off toward parts unknown....

I am strangely energized this night. Aware of the days of our time together falling away behind us like shooting stars, I do not grumble off to bed as usual, I stay awake a while longer. We stay awake together, my wife and I. We tiptoe outside once more; we pass the binoculars back and forth. It is a funny thing how the vastness of mystery and the awareness of how very little we know can engender a quiet optimism. I would expect instead despair. But no. That human eyes have been scouring the heavens for millenia now, trillions of eyes asking to understand time and space and being, and not a single mind among them that has ever truly known - I would not expect this realization to pacify an anxious heart. And yet it does.

We stay awake, my wife and I, giving voice to feelings too often silent. And when the time comes at last for sleep, there is no tossing and turning, no worried recounting of the day now lost, no apprehensive rehearsal of tomorrow. The planets in the sky outside are gradually, imperceptibly drifting apart, as are the orbits inside this very house. But there are moments of conjunction in every grand and humble design, rare, sweet moments that can be stretched by an awareness of them, an appreciation, so th at even a pale half-moon, solitary and barren as we know it to be, can be seen as somehow beautiful, somehow benign.

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