Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The sky on garbage night

The last time my friend was hospitalized - about five weeks ago - I happened to be on vacation. I had managed to get nearly an entire continuous week off. I had plans of all sorts, plans that had mostly gone out the window even before I became aware of her situation. But once I knew about it I rearranged my entire schedule. I made time to visit her every day during the permitted visiting hour, except for the one day I had a scheduled commitment from months earlier. I spent my days half-waiting for calls from her, for requests to look up addresses and phone numbers for things that she would need to take care of once she was out. When the big day came for her to get out, I had already resumed my work schedule, but by sheer coincidence her release was on my day off. I was the one who picked her up when she was released from the hospital and drove her off into a world of freedom and second chances.

Three weeks after she was released, when her second breakdown occurred, things were different. I didn't have any vacation scheduled, so the possibility of overtime loomed large, overtime I needed to start working for reasons I'll disclose sometime. A massive overtime incentive - a huge hourly bonus on top of time and a half pay - made it impossible to pass up. So I've been working overtime every day that I can. The last day off I had was the day of her breakdown, when I spent most of the day communicating with the one person she regularly talks to anymore, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. When I went to work the next day she was still missing, and I was steeling myself for the possibility that she was dead of exposure in a field or drowned in a pond in a small town on the other side of the state. I was overjoyed to hear when she was found later that day, even though it meant she was probably going back into a hospital for a long, long time.

But this time the hospital she's in is on the other side of the state, not just a quick ride away. I haven't talked to her since she went in, but I'm trying to get in touch. I won't be able to visit her every day, or drive her out whenever they decide she's ready to come out. I have no idea what a third chance will look like for her.

So I'm losing myself in work. Neglecting other things I cared about. Work helps keep my mind off things, and there's all that money. So much money.

I don't remember the last time I went outside and looked at the night sky. Summer is a rough time for this: it doesn't get dark until late, and the sky is usually thick with haze. But tonight is garbage night, and while I tried to get that tedious task done early, the outside cats had other ideas, showing up for their dinner just was I was walking out with the second bag of garbage. So I had to wait, and wait, and wait. By the time I judged it safe enough to take the garbage out without scaring the cats as they ate, it was nearly 10:30.

I stepped off the porch with cans and bottles for recycling and glanced up at the night sky. It had a strangely mottled appearance, like it was covered with clouds. But stars were clearly visible, even dim ones. As I took out the bags of garbage, I realized the sky was not cloudy, but extremely clear. The mottling I was seeing was actually the Milky Way Galaxy stretching across the summer sky.

I switched off the outside lights to get a clearer look. The sky was quite bright with light pollution from artificial sources and the first-quarter Moon. Still, I could easily see constellations and asterisms that I hadn't seen in a long time. Soon I saw more: wee dim satellites crossing the sky in every direction, and one immense, bloated, deep-red object glowing low in the south. At first I thought it was an approaching plane, or a slow-moving Chinese Lantern. But after I had carried the garbage and recyclables to the curb I realized the red object had barely moved at all. A quick check showed that it was Mars, just nine days from Opposition, the point where it will be directly opposite the Sun from the point of view of Earth, and appear largest and brightest in our sky.

Last time my friend was in the hospital, we had a stretch of incredibly beautiful and comfortable weather, punctuated by a single horrible storm and massively damaging tornado. This time, the weather will not be as nice, but she will be missing other things just as rare and beautiful.

Cherish your freedom, and your sanity. You could easily and quickly lose both.

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