Surprised by Light
The phone rang at 2 a.m. A surge of fear brought me upright in bed. Get ready--the words flashed in my consciousness. Who would call at this hour? It couldn’t be good. What crisis waited at the other end? We’d experienced a lot of trauma in the teenage years in our family. Car accidents, underage drinking, drug use—all the things parents fear. My heart leapt as I fumbled for my cell.
“Hello?” I said.
“Mom! You’ve got to go outside.”
Aaron. I hadn’t heard from him in months. It was one of the things I’d had to let go of—a son who chose to leave home at seventeen. Left high school, too. Dagger in my heart. How could he do this? We valued education in our home. I’d tried so hard to parent with a balance of love and discipline, thinking I could prevent my children from suffering. Prevent mefrom suffering.
And now he was out there in the world, who knows where—he wouldn’t say. How would he make it the world without a high school diploma? How was he living? Was he crashing on someone’s couch? Did he have enough food to eat?
“Aaron? Where are you? Are you okay?”
“You’ve got to go outside right now!” The urgency in his tone shot adrenaline through my body. My hands trembled.
“Why, what’s going on?” I pictured police cars, blue lights flashing.
“Go out on the deck,” he said, a calm directive.
This was our middle son whose creativity and spirit had always delighted us. His dresser was a field study: drawers overflowing with bird’s nests, insect collections, bones, shells, a rattlesnake skin, broken robins eggs. He’d preferred the woods and fields to school any day. I struggled into my bathrobe and headed down the stairs.
“Are you there yet?” he asked.
“Almost.” I opened the back door–a blast of frigid air jolted me. White frost coated the empty deck. “Where are you?” I asked, thinking I would see him standing there, maybe bloodied, beat up, or hurt.
“Look up,” he said.
I tilted my head back. Ribbons of green light pulsed across the blackened sky. They rose and fell, undulating to a silent rhythm, shaken by an unseen hand. Aurora Borealis.
“Oh…Aaron. It’s beautiful.” I cradled the phone to my ear. The hush of night washed over me. I took in the vast field of stars, feeling at once infinitesimally small and hugely expansive. Something released inside me.
“Just had to call you, Mom. I knew you wouldn’t want to miss this,” he said, his voice giddy, the way it had been as a boy when he found a new kind of frog or a huge crayfish.
No, I thought, looking up at the crystalline stars, and pulling my robe tighter. I wouldn’t want to miss this. I savored his words. Waves of green shimmered and danced above. The hoot of an owl sounded from a cottonwood near the stream.
“How’ve you been, kiddo?”
“I’m great, Ma. I’ve been watching the northern lights for over an hour. Sorry to wake you. But I knew you’d want to see them. Don’t worry about me, okay? I love you.”
“Love you too, honey.” And as I took in a deep breath, cold air filling my lungs, I knew he wouldbe okay. As parents we’d always said that he was the one person with whom we’d choose to be lost in the wilderness. He could shoot an elk with a bow and arrow, gut a deer with surgical precision, make a fire without matches, and build a hut from branches. True, he was navigating a different kind of wilderness now, but maybe those skills would transfer somehow. I thought of the Wallace Stevens line from poetry class: There is another kind of intelligence beyond the mind.
There are many ways of knowing. I knew this child I bore was of me, but also not of me, and that he had reached across a frosty winter’s night to invite me to watch the northern lights. And that was a sort of promise. I knew, too, that I could still be surprised by light.
Jennifer Thornburg lives and writes in Bozeman, Montana. She has one husband, five grown children, and a cat who thinks he’s a super model. She teaches writing at Montana State University and agrees with Faulkner who said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”