He gently shook my tiny shoulder and then leaned down to quietly whisper in my ear, “Wake up sweetie, there is something special I want to show you.”
I blinked my sleepy, four year old eyes and tried to return to earth from my distant dreams, but only grasped the faintest threads of consciousness. Encouraged only by a growing curiosity as to why Daddy might be trying to wake me in the dark of night.
It was a muggy night in July, my family and I fortunate to have a retreat from the city in the depths of the New Brunswick woods, high on the banks of the Nashwaak River. Our summer cottage stood on the bank above the flood plain below – still knee deep with mud and ragged spruce logs trapped by a failed logging run when the annual flooding receded that spring.
At four I was an explorer, alive in a world that was as much populated by my fantasies as reality, a wild, half-naked, primitive child roaming the woods, eating wild strawberries by the handful and building forts in the reeds and underbrush where no one could find me (unless bribed out with the promise of a cheese sandwich.) At four I was an expert at identifying the call of the chickadee, the scree of chipmunk, the tapping of the woodpecker, the abrasive gnawing of the woodchucks on the cabin foundations. All that was the Earth existed at my eye level.
Til that night my Daddy woke me in the wee hours of the morning, took my tiny hand and led me outside. He woke no one but me – for some reason I was the only one he chose to share this moment with. Still half asleep and bewildered, he led me to the large open field beyond our cabin- in the daylight a treasure trove of tiny flowers, unimaginably delicious wild strawberries and the creatures I thought of as my friends; the deer and rabbits who often boldly nibbled only meters away from us. It was a very different place in the deep darkness. I would have been frightened except for the comforting presence of my father.
He stopped once we were in the open, crouched down beside me and with one arm around my shoulders pointed directly above our heads. “Look” is all he said.
Above me, thin wispy veils of green floated gently in a lazy flickering dance. Beyond that the deepest, blackest sky I had ever seen. As my eyes gradually adjusted to what I was seeing I realized that the dancing green lights were not clouds! They may have been magic, or fairies, or dragon fire – whatever they were, didn’t matter, I was transfixed, awash with the awe and magnificence of the Aurora Borealis display above me. Sometimes they appeared to flow like rapids in a river, other times they pulsed like flames. I don’t know how long we stood there together, silently enjoying the magnificence of the night sky, but for me the moment was eternal, because it lives with me now today as clear as if it were only moments ago.
The universe grew for me at that moment, expanding to include not just my tiny self and my world at ground level, but spiriting me up into a universe in which I lived on a delicate sphere floating in the enormity of outer space. The night sky suddenly revealed to me the secrets we try to ignore in the daylight – the infinite, unexplainable vastness of the universe, the terrifying reality of our solitude, and the exquisite beauty of the miracle of our existence despite all that.
This was the beginning of my love for outer space.