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18/11/2016

All the Bright Stars

Sally Kerry Fox

Unlike all the other stars in the universe, the North Star stays fixed and true above the North Pole. For centuries, it has been a beacon of light and hope, guiding mariners, adventurers, and other lost souls home. From a mythological perspective, the North Star symbolizes not only home but also the gateway to heaven: a place where all living beings, having made the long and arduous journey through life, can find eternal peace and happiness.

*          *          *

My son, Jordan, a bright star on my own horizon, was born three months early. He was born in the autumn when the leaves were falling off the trees and lying like a red and yellow carpet on the ground. He was born the night before Halloween, after a breaking of the waters, a long car ride to the hospital, a lengthy wait in the emergency room, and an emergency C-section that brought him silent, not crying, into the world. After much shaking and poking and suctioning of mucus, a tube was inserted through his nose to his lungs and, in order to stop him accidentally pulling it out, his arms were tied to the sides of the incubator.  With only a pocket handkerchief sized nappy on his bruised and bony body, he was left alone to listen to the whir of the ventilator and the beeping of the oxygen indicator.

When he was two-weeks-old, the tubes on his incubator got blocked with water and the nurse, who was tending to another premature baby at the time, couldn’t get there for almost ten minutes. Ten minutes without breathing oxygen resulted in a second-degree bleed in his brain, and, later, a diagnosis of cerebral palsy and epilepsy, a condition that leaves the brain and the nervous system spasmodically misfiring like fork lightening in the middle of a storm or, as my husband, Allen, a mining engineer, preferred to say, like the sparks made by the slow sliding of rock over rock in the middle of a massive tectonic shift.

*          *          *

Jordan came home almost on his due date, three months after he’d had a shunt put in to drain his blocked spinal fluid. On the day of his homecoming, it was bitterly cold and snowing. As I walked to the car cradling Jordan tight to my body, Allen walked beside me holding the monitor. It was attached to Jordan by a wire taped to his chest. Getting in the car was no easy feat; we had to move together and slowly, so that the sensor would not be jerked free. I sat beside Jordan, one arm draped over his car seat, the other holding on to the machine. Every fifteen minutes or so, it would beep loudly and insistently, letting me know that Jordan had stopped breathing and needed to be shaken back to life.

*          *          *

When Jordan was three, he couldn’t walk, but he loved to dance.  Typically, he’d stand, holding on to the coffee table, and bounce up and down to the thumpthumpthump of Steppenwolf, revving his engines to get ‘his motor running,’ or Michael Jackson serenading us with his desire to ‘make this world a better place.’ Jordan’s movements, though, were slow, awkward, inhibited by a brain that told his muscles to contract when they should extend, to jerk spasmodically when they should have flown gracefully, easily.

Typically, I’d scoop him up and place him carefully on my right hip. Ignoring his tense legs and stiff body that arched out away from me, I’d use my right arm to support his back and, holding his right hand with my left hand, we’d dance side to side and back and forth to the beat of the music.  Once in a while, I swooped and bent, turned and spun, letting the unnatural backward pull of his body assist the centrifugal force of our bodies in motion. Sometimes, we twirled around so fast that gravity held him at arm’s length and, when this happened, Jordan’s loud, excited laughter pealed out in our wake. ‘More, more,’ he’d clamour when at last I put him down on the sofa, my spinning threatening to make me stumble and fall.

*          *          *

I was raising my children on my own then. My husband had long since left and was working as an engineer for a large mining company. His job took him around the world, taking stock of the company’s mining operations and advising the employees on cost efficiency. ‘Getting the nickel out of the ground is important, the most important thing,’ he used to say.  There’s an art, it seems, to extracting the goods. One has to know what depth, what pressure the rock will take before it bursts, what precise drill bit and what drilling angle to use. And, of course, one has to know how much it is going to cost. If it is worth it.

*          *          *

In his last year of primary school, Jordan was bullied. There was a group of boys in his special education class who tripped him in the hallways and pinned RETARD in big black letters on his back. Jordan kept it from me for a long time. When he finally broke down crying, I was enraged. I went to the school and demanded that something be done about it. The school psychologist sat me down, as if I were an errant patient, and told me in hushed tones that I should understand that these boys were very troubled.

‘They just want attention,’ she said.

I told her they needed to be held accountable for what they were doing to my son.  She told me she would deal with them. The next day, I found out that when she’d spoken to the leader of the group, he’d told her he was jealous of Jordan’s wheelchair.  So she had given it to him for the day. This boy, Colm, laughed as he wheeled down the hallways, ran over other children’s toes, and knocked Jordan over. When Jordan got home from school that day, he fell down on the living room carpet and couldn’t rise to his knees. He cried and cried. His crying embedded itself in the walls and the furniture and it embedded itself in the membranes of my skin and in the nucleus of every cell in every organ of my body.

*          *          *

By the time he turned eighteen, the occasional insomnia that had haunted Jordan for years became a regular occurrence. The doctor told him that it is usual for people who have cerebral palsy to have trouble sleeping because their nervous systems are shot. The electrical energy coursing through their bodies jump starts them awake, and then the problem becomes how to get back to sleep.  Jordan was told to count sheep. When this didn’t work, he counted the stars through his bedroom window. When this didn’t work, I bought him a magnetic mattress, the magnets all pointing North, so that the electrical currents that were running wild through his body could be straightened out. It worked for a while, and then the sleepless nights returned full force. He said that it was in the night that he began hearing the voices. They whispered at him through the walls and came up through the springs in his bed.

*          *          *

By that time, I was working on my PhD dissertation. Night was the only time I could focus my attention enough to write. I started after the children were in bed, and worked until three or four in the morning. It was quiet; there were no distractions, not even Jordan, who either lay quietly in his bed or, if it got too bad, fell asleep on the sofa in front of the television. If I got overtired, I cat napped in my chair in front of my computer, my fingers still positioned on the keyboard, my head falling crookedly to the side. When I awoke, I erased the stream of accidental zzzzzzzzzzzz’s and began typing again.

*          *          *

When Jordan was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I broke down in a shopping centre car park and sobbed for over an hour. I had gone there from the hospital where Jordan had just been admitted. I had left him in the lock down ward, designed for those patients who were either a danger to themselves or a danger to others. He was fast asleep when I left, sedated into temporary oblivion.  I had wanted to buy him new pyjamas, a new toothbrush, some fruit, but, instead, I sat in the car, stretched out between the grey, concrete parking space and the darkening sky, and cried.

*          *          *

Last month, when I went to visit Jordan in the psychiatric hospital where he now lives, he told me he hated the night. He said that when the darkness seeped through the small rectangular-shaped barred window of his room, spread its lazy fingers around the whitewashed walls, he realized that everything was an illusion, not real. Just atoms colliding in empty space; there was nothing solid to cling to. Not the walls, not the bed, not even the nurse who bought him the red pills and the blue pills and told him to swallow.

That night I sat in a wooden chair by the side of his bed and waited for him to fall asleep. The nurses were still bustling in and out of the corridor, oblivious of the encroaching blackness, while the other patients, quiet now, settled down for the night. I thought about the doctor’s diagnosis—not very hopeful—and the synaptic misfiring when light flashed and disappeared as soon as it came, and realized that Jordan was right. There is much darkness in the world. ‘It’s around everyone on this planet,’ he told me once. ‘It’s in us, only nobody knows and everybody acts as if it’s not really there.’

*          *          *

Looking up at the night sky, I can marvel at the light that shines, luminous, from the distant stars and galaxies. I can point out the Milky Way, its cluster of stars looking as if someone has thrown a spray of salt into the night sky, and I can outline both the Big and the Little Dipper, my finger stretching up into the heavens. I don’t give much thought to the spinning or the way we hurtle on our given trajectory through space. I don’t give much thought, either, to what scientists call dark energy or the way in which the dark consumes the light as it pulls stars and whole galaxies into outer space. This darkness, this disappearing, depresses me. I take refuge in the idea that everything exists in the realm of possibility.

*          *          *

And it is possible for my son to get better. In knowing this there is a glimmer of light. Outside my son’s window, a star hangs in the night sky. It is the North star and it is the brightest star in the sky. As I watch, it sits silent, large and steady.  In one North American legend, it is known as the star that does not walk, and it exists to guide the lost son home.  In a slightly different legend, it is symbolic of the journey from darkness to light.[1] In this version, the son sets out to make his father proud by climbing the highest mountain he can find. Unable to reach the top, he discovers a tunnel that, like the trail of Ursa Minor itself, takes him deep down into the dark earth before eventually leading him upward again to the light. And it is there, caught between two worlds, that this son finds heaven. There that, as a shining bright star, he, like my son, remains.

__

[1] See www.native-languages.org for more information on this legend.

 


More work by Sally Kerry Fox can be found in this year’s UEA Creative Writing Anthology: Prose and Non-Fiction

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