I feel the heat through my boots, the only warm spot on my body. I tilt the sole of my shoe up to be sure it’s not melting. I snuggle into my jacket and stuff my hands deeper into my pockets to keep them warm. Looking across the campfire, my brothers are laughing; my husband nurses a beer with a bemused smile on his face. Beyond their fire-lit faces are the faint outlines of trees, dark silhouettes against an even darker background. And beyond the trees reaching their branches toward the sky, a blanket of black. Every now and then the quiet Christmas Eve night is punctuated with howling coyotes. We stop to debate their location and numbers. We listen again, but this time, nothing.
“They’re on their way,” my youngest brother grins over the flames. We laugh at him but I catch my other brother peek over his shoulder. We’re still new here.
Only when I look up do I notice the stars. Oh, the stars. The big Texas sky has no competition here, surrounded only by sprawling farmland and coyotes; it sparkles and shines over the city dwellers at the campfire. The volume of stars, the sheer vastness of the sparkling sky, the years and years that separate us from them–it stuns, and I can do nothing but stare.
A rustling in the leaves nearby startles for a moment, but I quickly remember. “Come here, pup,” I call to the black shadow shivering in the distance. Skittish but sweet, he wiggles his skinny body slowly to me between tail wags and then licks my hand obsessively before rolling onto his back. Our mascot for the week, the dog found us while we explored the surrounding woods and followed us home. His protruding rib cage, his fear of us coupled with his yearning to be touched, it spoke to all of us and we immediately adopted him into the family.
“Lay by the fire, little guy,” my brother calls out, but the dog isn’t convinced. Instead, he heads back to his pile of leaves, watching us from a few yards away. I imagine him content as he listens to the laughter, creeping out of his nest every few minutes to sneak a few graham crackers. I wonder if he sees those stars.
Two days later we walk the muddy path to the neighbors–neighbors who live a quarter mile away. My boys are delighted that we have to open the gate each time we go visit, and that we must close it behind us. Our dog follows, and we step over cow manure and around mud puddles under a bright Texas sun and cloudless sky. We are headed to the farm.
When we arrive, it’s as if we’ve come home. The farmer and his wife, whom we met a few days before, welcome us with open arms. The boys stop a moment to greet the longhorns, then seek out the grandchildren and eventually they all find their way into the chicken coop. The five children take turns scooping feed into a pitcher, pouring the feed into a cup, dumping the cup down the gravity shoot, and watching the hens peck at it below. No eggs today, but my son remembers exactly how he held those eggs a few days before. “Very careful,” he says slowly, annunciating his words to show me just how careful to be, “like this,” he says, cupping his little hand and making a slow scooping motion.
One of the granddaughters exits the coop with a peck-marked hand, a present from a hungry hen. I peek inside to find the garbage pail of feed mostly empty and tumbled onto the earth. I right it, and see my oldest still stepping diligently onto an overturned bucket so that he can reach the feeder.
I overhear my mother’s conversation with the farmer’s wife right outside the coop.
“I don’t know who had more fun, my husband or hers!” she laughs, her brown eyes shining. “He loves to talk about his farm.”
I know instantly that she is talking about the farmer and my husband. Wanting to glean as much as he could about this farmer’s organic operation, my husband asked if he could spend Christmas Eve morning at the farm. “I want to be a farmhand!” he joked, then dialed the farmer and set the date. He was going to learn the secret to growing perfect basil.
“After your husband left, I asked my husband if he had a good time,” the farmer’s wife speaks to me over the head of her grandson whom she bounces back and forth as she holds him. “And he said to me, ‘we need more of him in the world'”. I smile but then turn back toward the coop. I can feel my eyes burning with tears.
“Yes we do,” my mom agrees from outside the coop, next to the farmer’s wife.
I nod slowly as my boys shuffle past me back to the yard. I watch the hens peck the dirt, unable yet to turn around.
Yes, we do.
Our last night at the cabin my brother wants to watch the stars. We put on our layers, our hats and mittens and jackets over pajamas, and wander outside, then tilt our chins to the sky. In between sips of beer and bouts of laughter that makes my sides hurt, we try to pick out constellations. My husband and youngest brother point upward, gloved fingers tracing pictures in the sky. My mind wanders back to Christmas morning, a hug in the kitchen while red and green wrapping paper is torn and tossed aside, while Christmas music plays in the background. I hold him tight and whisper my secret into my husband’s ear. “I’m so happy you’re healthy”, and he doesn’t miss a beat when he replies, “me too.” I hold him long enough to remember the pain and uncertainty of last Christmas, but I release him before I get drawn into the past. His clinical trial is a few months from over, and we are miles and miles from where we started a year ago. We steal a quick kiss under invisible mistletoe.
Our baby waddles over to my mom, handing her a new book. “Read this?” he asks, then settles into her lap before she can reply. As she opens the book, I can see the happiness about to burst right out of her. Nothing can touch us today. Today, we have it all.
“There’s Orion’s Belt,” my brother declares, sweeping his hand across the sky.
“We already said that,” my other brother replies, and instantly I am brought back to the present. I laugh–we’re older but we’re still the same–and take a sip of cider, then breathe in the frosty air. The dark night has surrounded us. I look down a dirt road, the one that leads to the farmer’s house, and I squint to see if, just maybe, the dog will appear. He never followed us home, content to play on the farm. He’s found a proper home, and I smile to myself in the dark.
But I whistle one more time, just in case.
We are on the road early, trading in county roads for highways and Texas stars for street lights as we drive to the airport to head home to DC. Between the sing-alongs and cow-sightings, I lean my head back and stare out the window. As the fields fly past the window, and farms turn into strip malls, I see the months of 2013 falling away. An unbelievable year, one I can’t wait to end. But then I sit up straight; I remember the sunsets we watched, the family we visited, the new friends we made and the bonds we strengthened with old. I remember the songs we’ve sung, the hugs we’ve given and received, the parties we danced, the vows we witnessed, those that we’ve lost; the laughter, the love. The stars. Oh, the stars.
Yes, cancer is inconvenient, and so distasteful that I wish we could spit it out of our lives. It isn’t uplifting; it’s too heavy and too sad…
But as we pull into the rental car drop-off and my boys belt out their favorite song, I ask my husband to leave the car running, to let them keep singing, to take just a minute. Because in spite of the inconvenience, the heaviness, cancer brings into focus the most important elements of life, like the beauty in songs from the mouths of babes and keeping the car running to finish a song. It realigns our priorities, like finding a good dog a good home, and sharing a coffee and conversation with a farmer at his kitchen table. It has turned every single day into something to celebrate.
I watch my husband lift half a dozen suitcases out of the trunk and stack them precariously onto the luggage rack. He closes the trunk and pushes forward, two boys in tow. They are all singing.
No, I wouldn’t trade this year for anything; not even for years of stars in the Texas sky.
Sometimes, you just have to finish the song.
Originally published December 31, 2013