“Don’t leave me,” he urges her. “Stay with me.” He opens the curtains to reveal the night sky, then lifts the window-sash to let in the cool breeze. Impulsively, he stretches both hands through the open space and draws them back, cupped. “Look,” he says, returning to her bedside. “I’ve brought you a piece of midnight. Share it with me.”
She puts her frigid hands in his. Her nails are blue, like her lips. “A piece of midnight. I like that.” Her voice is weak and thready, her smile watery, but her eyes shine like the stars. “When you look up from now on, you’ll see the missing piece, and know it’s with me until it’s time to be together again.”
It had been a – not really a joke – an act, he supposes. A bit. Something to make her last moments a little less awful.
When her eyes close, he climbs into the hospital bed with her, careful not to get caught in the IV tubes and the wires that connect the many discs affixed to her skin to the array of monitoring devices. He whispers loving words into her ear, long into the night.
The nurses peek in but no alarms are sounding, so they let him stay.
In the morning, she doesn’t wake, and it’s sad, yes, but it’s also a release from endless rounds of chemo, from radiation that never seemed to work, from pain and exhaustion.
He grieves alone, and with their children.
A week goes by. A month. A year.
On the anniversary of their mother’s death, he brings his children with him to the observatory where he works and sets the big telescope to the coordinates he’s long since committed to memory. Just at midnight, they each get to look at the starry sky.
“That star right there,” he says, “is the one we named for your mother. That’s her, looking down on us and wishing us well.”
The children accept his statement, his daughter because she wants it to be true, his son because he’s young enough to still possess unshakeable faith. But the boy startles them all, when he announces. “Dad? A piece of the sky is missing.”
“What? Let me see?” He thinks the instruments must be miscalibrated, but he looks through the ‘scope and sees that, just above Her star, there’s a tiny space where the night sky isn’t. It’s as if someone reached above it and scooped out a piece of the galaxy.
The years roll by. The annual trips to the observatory change. First his daughter stops coming, then his son, and finally, the great telescope is replaced by a new project, and he retires. Good thing, too, because his joints just can’t handle the effort of all the stairs anymore.
His daughter marries, has children, has grandchildren. She writes a cookbook of her mother’s recipes and hosts a cooking show on some channel you can’t get on the television without an expensive cable package, which he gladly pays for. He sees her on the screen more often than in person, but they talk for ten minutes every Sunday.
His son checks out of life for a while. He sends postcards and video messages. Surfing in Hawaii and Australia. Diving off Tahiti. Skiing in Switzerland. He has no clue how the young man pays for these excursions, but there’s something about a YouTube channel, and something else about teaching other people how to surf, and dive, and ski.
On his son’s thirtieth birthday, a photo he took graces the cover of National Geographic. It’s a close encounter with a grey whale, and it’s magnificent.
Eventually, time wins out and the children – no longer children, no longer young, just younger than he is – are hovering in his hospital room.
“Dad,” his son says, looking out the open window, “that piece of the sky… it’s missing again.”
“Not again,” the old man corrects, “still.”
They press the button to raise the glass pane and let in the cool breeze, and then they sit on his bed, one on each side. His voice is barely a whisper, but he’s certain they hear him.
“On your her last night, after you two said goodbye, I scooped a piece of midnight out of the sky and gave it to your mother. She said she’d return it when it was time for me to be with her again. I suspect the nighttime sky will be different after tonight.”
He expects them to scoff, but their mother had always seemed a little bit magical to them, and don’t all the magazines and Facebook posts say that it’s best to humor the elderly?
The grandchildren and great-grandchildren come in to say goodbye. His son-in-law pops in to sit a while, and his son’s partner too, but eventually they all relocate to the family suite next door. A nurse will alert them to any changes.
The full moon casts a beam across his bed, and in the stillness of his hospital room, the only sounds the soft beeping of the monitor and the hiss-puff of the oxygen machine, She appears.
She looks the same as she had before she’d left him, before she got sick, when she was still a young mother and aspiring poet, but her eyes sparkle with the light a thousand stars, and her lip are burning hot against his cheek when she kisses him.
“I’ve come to return this,” she says, and lifts his hands. Then she cups her own hands together and pours a piece of midnight into them. “This allowed me to watch over you and the kids, and it kept us connected. But now it’s time to restore it to its rightful place, and since you took it, only you can put it back.”
She climbs onto the bed and curls herself around him, but while her voice is low, she doesn’t whisper words. Instead she sings songs of distant planets and spiraling galaxies. She shares ballads about the untold wonders of the universe, and anthems to the joys of space and time. Finally, as morning light begins to color the edges of the horizon, she sings a lullaby about putting stars to sleep.
His last breath comes as the final note is dying out.
The children and their partners, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all file into the room for a last look before his body is sent away. There will be a funeral later, and then they’ll mix his ashes with hers and cast them to the winds from the top of Observatory Hill.
But all that day and into the night, they keep a vigil in his living room. More distant relatives come and go. Food is served, forgotten, reheated, and finally eaten. They tell stories, laughing and crying and remembering all the details that get pushed aside by busy lives.
When it is midnight again, his son and daughter slip away to spend a quiet moment with the night sky.
“Look,” says his son, pointing to their mother’s star. “Look!”
In the place where a piece of midnight has always been missing, stars shine brightly down.