I'm sitting at my kitchen table, which is crowded with birthday presents for various loved ones, my stepson Lars, his girlfriend Alisa, and my nephew Quinn. It's 10 pm. Two candles are burning. I pulled them off the altar shelf high on the kitchen wall. Craig put those candles there last April, and they burned the nights we waited for my diagnosis. Not long ago, in Hawaii, he revealed to me that he'd done that, and it was moving to see the candles with my own eyes, to light them, and then to notice the prayer card depicting the Virgin Mary leaning against the Buddha statue, her hand over a flaming heart. I grew up with that image, the light blue robe, the white head scarf, the burning heart on the outside of her chest. On the back is the Hail Mary prayer in Spanish, which I grew up reciting in Latvian.
I sit here facing the moon rising up through the birch forest, Gris-Gris asleep at my feet. My neighbors and dear friends Asia and Michael and I just got back from a walk to watch it crest the mountains. Actually, Michael walked down to the bend in the road with the dogs an hour before Asia and I did. He's a film-maker, and with his old-fashioned camera on a tripod, in wool coat and boots, he patiently watched for the very first sign, a halo of light around a pyramid-shaped mountain across Kachemak Bay, just above the glacier. When that halo brightened, he called us, and Asia and I left our Scrabble game and joined him. I still feel the cold on my cheeks from standing there, a sensation I felt earlier today, running on the Homer Spit with Gris-Gris. It was sunny and 40 degrees and the light breeze was on my face as I ran, and it made me happy to at last feel that sensation of chill salt air I'd dreamed about in Hawaii. I may be the only Alaskan who regularly goes to Hawaii and misses the cold when there. But I do. We stood together at the bend in the dirt road and waited. We watched the lights go off in the Millers' living room. Their house is, as Asia says, like a fish tank, walls of windows, so we could see them watching the moonrise too. They are the grandparents of our little neighborhood. In the darkness, we could just make out the shape of two moose feeding on their lawn. The other day, the Millers told me the moose looked skinny, hungry because abundant snowshoe hares have eaten most of the browse, so they asked a farmer friend if they could have some of the cabbage he fed his pigs. He complied and they scattered it for the moose. They've lived in Homer most of their lives.
As the light behind the mountain brightened, Michael said we could see the moon's aura, which turned rosy and flared upward into the sky. And then one glint of flame-colored light emerged from the mountain's flank, and it grew. Michael said it looked like a panda. Asia and I were incredulous until he explained it was a panda lying on its back, its belly the dome of moon, its body the dark mountains. That dome grew and grew. It seemed impossible the moon could be so big, but it was, yellow-gold and ovoid, and finally it broke with the mountain and we wondered if it would just float away, like a blown bubble. The backs of my thighs cold, we packed up the camera and walked back home.
It's almost 11 now. Craig called from Hawaii to say he was watching the moon too. It's sailing among the ancestor clouds. I sit here, this house quiet around me except for the clock. I just got up to find a book, The Ink Dark Moon, a collection of love poems written by women of the ancient court of Japan, edited by Jane Hirshfield. I've had this book since grad school. The poems are in the tanka form. A tanka is a haiku with two extra lines. I open it to the title page and read the inscription I wrote to Craig when I bought it for him in 1996. "The moon will always shine its light on us at the same time, a reminder of the things which, once joined, can never be separate again."
During the Scrabble game, Asia called her sister Tara so we could wish her a happy birthday. Tara lives in California. When I had my surgery, she flew across the country to Boston, to help me through the first days when I felt so very vulnerable. She taught my niece and nephews to make individual pizzas, and cooked miso soup for me, and sat on the fold-out bed across from my sick bed and made me a necklace out of wire and buttons. Each night and morning, she helped me empty the nasty surgical drains, and on the second day, she brought a plastic tub up to my sister's big shower, and helped me take off my pajamas so I could wash. She was the first person to see my bandaged chest, and she brought Craig into the bathroom so he take his first look at my altered body.
Asia put her cell phone on speaker mode, and we placed it on the round, red-painted Mongolian coffee table between our racks of Scrabble tiles. We sat on the floor and talked with Tara, and at one point, my mind drifted, thinking of all of the friends' voices, including Asia's, that spoke to me through my cell phone when I was on Cape Cod. The distance then felt profound. And there I was, tonight, in Asia's familiar living room, the fire crackling in the stove, Korean barley tea in a pot on the table.
It's 11:22, and I'm watching the moon, which now has a haze of white light around it like a fog, and I'm thinking about that poem of John Updike's I quoted yesterday, how he said we need more worlds because this one will fail. But to me it seems we already live in many worlds in this life. In this one year, I've inhabited three, and each one, in its turn, was my only world; it was all the world. Except for tonight, when I hold those three in my heart at once, Cape Cod, Hawaii, Alaska. Because tonight the moon casts its light on their inhabitants at the same time, and I am forever joined to them. I can never be separate from them again.
I'll end with a poem by Izumi Shikibu, who watched this same moon almost ten centuries ago. This tanka is believed to be her final poem, written on her deathbed:
The way I must enter
leads through darkness to darkness--
O moon above the mountains' rim,
please shine a little further
on my path.