By B.J. Hollars
We’re on vacation in Duluth, Minnesota when I receive the text:
Skies should be amazing tonight.
The heads-up comes courtesy of my photographer friend back home, whose knack for tracking the Northern Lights is akin to a bloodhound chasing a scent. For weeks, he’d been pestering me to join him in the dark, to witness the celestial miracle I’d been missing. And for weeks I’d turned him down. There was always some reason not to rouse myself from bed (“Big day tomorrow,” “Wife will kill me,” “I’m beat”); each reply a white flag confirming that the comfort of my covers was too great.
But tonight his message takes on a new urgency.
You’re so close, he promises. Just a short drive away.
I hem, haw, but at last, am out of excuses. Given my northern locale, I am indeed on the doorstep of the Aurora Borealis.
I glance over at my droopy-eyed four-year-old sprawled in the hotel bed; his face lit by the glow of the television. It is the wrong light, the wrong glow, and I want to show him the right one.
“Okay,” I clap, “Grab your shoes, adventure time!”
“Nah,” Henry says, waving his own white flag.
“Hey, since when do I need to persuade you go on an adventure with me?”
(The answer, I know, is since he discovered the hotel had cable.)
“Come on,” I retry, reaching for the remote. “Quit being a zombie.”
“But I like being a zombie,” he moans.
Five minutes later, my zombie and I are buckled into the minivan.
“Keep your eyes to the skies,” I say, “we’re about to see something magical.”
Or we’re about to see a whole lot of nothing. Frankly, it’s hard to say. As my photographer friend had warned, without the aid of a camera, we weren’t likely to witness the spectral green glow in all its glory. Still, I figured we’d at least see something. After all, this wasn’t exactly a needle-in-a-haystack situation. How hard could it be to spot bright lights in a dark sky?
Five minutes pass.
“Is that it?” Henry asks, pointing.
“Nah,” I say, “that’s just the sky.”
“What about that?”
“Nope. Just more sky.”
This goes on for 25 miles or so, until at last we reach the town of Two Harbors.
“What about that?” he asks.
“Nope. That’s a gas station.”
“That?” he asks irritably.
We drive a few miles more, pulling to the side of the road to witness a strip of white-gray fog rippling through the clouds overhead. It’s the lights, at least I think so. And even if it’s not, I’m committed to making a good show of it.
I sigh, clear my throat, try hard to hide the disappointment in my voice.
“There they are!” I gasp. “Henry! You see’em?”
He does not. How could he with his eyes closed?
“Buddy, wake up,” I call louder. “You’re missing the lights!”
But he isn’t. Not really.
I wave the white flag again, and U-turn us back toward Duluth.
It’s then that I see it: the purple glow illuminating just beyond the tree line to my right. At first it’s so faint it hardly registers, but then, as we drive deeper into that darkness, it surges in strength.
“Henry!” I retry. “The lights! For real this time!”
But I can’t compete with a four-year-old’s dreams. A glance in the rearview confirms that he remains ragdoll limp in his car seat, a big boy overflowing well beyond all those straps. Just yesterday of course, he’d fit that seat just fine, and the day before he was practically swimming in it. But I blinked, and now I see him differently.
If you blink, you’ll see the Northern Lights differently, too. And in the worst case, a blink might cause you to lose sight of them completely. Neither the naked eye or the camera lens can halt a celestial body in flux. Nothing can halt a body in flux, either—no matter how much you wish you could.
Back in the hotel parking lot, I unbuckle him, then hoist him into my arms. His eyes flutter wide long enough to find the world just as he’s left it—quiet, dark, not a Northern Light anywhere. I lug him across the street, adjusting my arms in search of a better hold. But my hold isn’t the problem; my problem is that my boy now defies holding.
I shift his weight to one arm, then reach for the hotel door. Upon doing so, I glimpse our reflection in the glass and confirm what I feared to be true: we have lost our natural fit, have become two people whose angles no longer add up. All I have left is the snugness of his head nestled into my neck—the only concession the universe has to offer me.
B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com