By Patricia Crisafulli
Their grandfather and the stars filled their earliest memories, one inseparable from the other. Most vivid of all were the nights they stayed up late, hoping to catch a glimpse of streaking meteors or the hazy swirl of Milky Way trails. They stared, widened eyes accustomed to the darkness and listened to Grandpa Didi—short for Didier—as he explained the vast distances of a light year and what a summer sky over northern Minnesota had to do with infinity.
One year when they visited, Grandpa Didi set up a small telescope he’d ordered from the Sears catalog. “We’re searching for Andromeda!” he announced as they tried to see beyond the blur of tree branches and the Moon enlarged into a glowing blob.
Even during the day, while floating on inner tubes in the small lake or fishing from the old rowboat, they talked about stars and planets and space travel. Sometimes their mother would cover her ears with her hands and tell them, “Enough!”—while scanning from Grandpa Didier to the two of them, Dennis and Elyse. But annoyance could not eclipse the smile in her eyes.
“Your mother was fourteen when Armstrong and Aldrin stepped foot on the Moon,” Grandpa Didier would say, drawing her in.
“And poor Mr. Collins had to stay behind, orbiting in the space capsule,” their mother added.
“That’s my girl, Madeline,” Grandpa said, and Dennis and Elyse giggled as if somebody calling their mother a girl was the funniest thing they’d heard all summer.
Her cell phone rings, and Elyse glances at the name and number on the screen: Dennis. “Hey, what’s up?”
Just two years apart—now, his 40 to her 38—they’d always kept in touch, but usually quick texts and only the occasional phone call. In the past few weeks, since their ninety-six-year-old grandfather had been moved from assisted living to a nursing home, their contact had increased in frequency.
Hearing her brother’s voice, Elyse pushes down the familiar bubble of guilt that he is in Minnesota, on the family’s front lines, while she tries to do what she can from Chicago. Elyse reminds herself of the three days she spent there over Labor Day Weekend, and that she and six-year-old Lucy will be there for five days over Thanksgiving. And Peter, she adds, hoping her husband, who always seems to be off somewhere on business, will make it.
But eight days cannot possibly even the scales given all Dennis does every day—visiting Grandpa Didi, who is so agitated and confused since moving into long-term care, and comforting their mother. But her brother does not keep score.
“What can I do?” she asks, hoping this sounds like a sincere question and not a statement of resignation.
“I know you’re coming in a couple of weeks, but—”
Before Dennis finishes the thought, Elyse promises that she and Lucy will be there. “Peter is in London, but I’ll take Lucy out of school.”
“I hate to have you do that.” Dennis’s exhale sounds long and low over the phone.
“She’s in first grade—it’s not like they’re splitting the atom.” Her comment makes Dennis laugh, and Elyse is grateful she has been able to do that for him.
Two days later, Elyse and Lucy stand at the gate at O’Hare. Lucy reaches for her hand, and Elyse looks into her daughter’s serious dark eyes, so like Peter’s. But in the heart-shaped face and soft brown hair she sees herself and her mother—and even a hint of Dennis.
The plane lifts off, bumps through some mild turbulence, and levels off above the clouds. Bright sun casts prisms as the light refracts through scratches on the airplane’s windows. Maybe it’s a good sign, Elyse thinks: their grandfather will rally with them all together again, and her mother will have a little more time with Grandpa Didi. They all will, she tells herself and closes her eyes.
“Ma chère. Wake up.” Grandpa Didi spoke in a rough whisper that amplified his nasal French-Canadian accent. He shook Elyse’s shoulder, and her eyes fluttered open. In the dim glow from a gap between the shade on the open window and the sill, she saw Dennis sitting up in his cot across the tiny bedroom. Their mother rolled over in the twin bed, her voice husky. “What is it?”
“Something you must see,” Grandpa Didi said, drawing them all out of bed and ushering them through the tiny cottage and outside to the porch. Dew dampened the boards and chilled Elyse’s feet.
“Look, over the lake.” Grandpa Didi kept talking, patting their backs. Elyse felt the last tether of sleep snap, and her eyes focused on the greenish glow over the horizon. The light moved in shimmering shafts, elongating and shrinking, and shooting up the sky.
“Aurora borealis,” Grandpa Didi said. “The Northern Lights. You’ll not see that every day of your life.”
Dennis stands on the thin industrial carpeting between baggage claim and the exit door. Elyse seems him first, waves, and allows Lucy to run straight to her uncle. He scoops the child up in a bear hug that squeezes Elyse’s heart. Why her sweet, hardworking brother is not married with kids filling the backseat of his SUV she will never understand, then fears she knows the answer. Because he spends all his free time taking care of their mother and grandfather and not enough tending to his own life.
Dennis takes their bag, and Elyse puts the strap of her carryon over her shoulder. Lucy walks between them, one of their hands in each of hers. Elyse notices more silver in her brother’s dark hair than she remembers from September, though that doesn’t seem possible. “Let’s go right to the nursing home. I take it Mom is there?”
“Always,” Dennis says. They exchange a glance that holds an entire volume of family history: their mother widowed young, raising an infant and a two-year-old on her own; Grandpa Didi asking them to move in with him at the little cottage that he made his year-round residence after their grandmother died. Elyse suspects their mother held out for independence and also better schools and job prospects in the Twin Cities. But nothing compared with the time they spent at Grandpa Didi’s cottage, especially two long weeks every summer.
Their mother waits for them in the lobby of the nursing home, brightly lit with creamy yellow walls and a large arrangement of fall flowers and colored leaves. Elyse notices how her mother’s jacket hangs from her shoulders, at least a size too big. She steps into her mother’s hug, but Lucy steps back, shy suddenly.
“Someone is being silly,” Elyse says.
Madeline bends over, hands on her thighs, bringing herself to Lucy’s height. “I like silly.”
Dennis points to the elevator, and Lucy races off to get there first, declaring that pushing the buttons is her job.
As they walk behind the child, Madeline links her arm through Elyse’s. “Your grandpa will be glad to see you,” Madeline says, then stops before they reach the elevator. “He’s very different from when you saw him the last time.”
Elyse glances between her mother and brother. “I know he’s having trouble adjusting.”
Madeline shakes her head “Didi isn’t really here much anymore.”
Elyse pelts her mother with questions, but Madeline only steers her onto the elevator.
Elyse stretched her legs off the dock to see if, now that she was twelve, her toes could reach the water. Almost, she told herself, then watched Grandpa Didi load the bait bucket and fishing rods into the boat. It made her think of going on a mission.
“Do you want to go to the Moon?” she asked.
Grandpa Didi looked up at her. “I don’t think NASA is going to ask me to be an astronaut, if that’s what you mean.”
“No, I mean, if you could go there—like people go to Florida or something.”
“Ah, space vacationer.” Grandpa Didi put his hands on his lower back. “Let’s make a plan—you, Dennis, your mom, and me. As soon as we can get tickets, we’ll go.”
Elyse extended her feet toward the water one more time, but nearly slipped off the dock. She scootched back onto the rough boards. “Really?”
“Why not? It’s good to have a plan.” Grandpa Didi gave her a smile.
They caught bluegills that they mostly threw back, except for a few that were big enough to keep for supper. Between casts, Elyse prattled on about what it would be like to go to the Moon, and Grandpa Didi kept it up with her, but Dennis, now fourteen, said nothing. His silence made her feel the two years’ difference in their ages.
Elyse leaned forward and studied her grandfather and brother as if seeing them for the first time. They were still her family, but they had separate lives, too. Grandpa Didi had a lady friend; a woman named Alice who lived down the road and sometimes stopped by, but always said she didn’t want to intrude on their visit. Dennis talked about learning to drive and going out West one day, far more than anything else.
She pulled her legs into her chest and wrapped her arms around her knees.
“You got a bite,” Grandpa Didi said, reaching for the fishing pole she’d dropped.
“I don’t care,” Elyse said. Her eyes flooded with tears.
Elyse waits at the doorway, Lucy beside her, and assesses the room before she enters. Two beds with metal rails pulled up, two white-haired men in blue gowns. Beige curtains blocking all but the center of the window.
Madeline walks in first, talking cheerily to Grandpa Didi. “Look who’s come to see you. A big surprise today. Your granddaughter and great-granddaughter.” Her words land and roll off like a dripping faucet.
Elyse sees the closed eyes, the open mouth, the stubble of whiskers, the thin arms mottled with age spots. Her mind reels at how the man who still seemed himself two months ago could have shriveled to this husk.
“Hey, Grandpa,” she says and kisses him lightly on the cheek.
The cloudy eyes that flutter open show no recognition.
Madeline and Dennis help the nurses transfer Grandpa Didi into a wheelchair, which rouses him slightly. They take him for a walk up and down the corridors, their mother at the helm, pushing the wheelchair, while Elyse and Dennis walk behind. Lucy skips ahead and loops back.
“Why didn’t you go out West?” Elyse asks.
Dennis stops in the hallway. “What?”
She should drop it, change the subject. But seeing her brother here in this place stirs her worries about him. “When we were kids—that’s all you talked about.”
Dennis smirks, his shoulders rise and fall. “Teenage thing, you know.”
Elyse slips her hand in his. Her voice drops to a whisper. “Are you happy, Dennis?”
He pauses. “Sure. This is my home. I got my job, my buddies. Mom’s here.”
Her mouth opens, readying for a torrent of counterarguments. At forty, he has a lifetime ahead of him.
“You were the one who wanted to go off,” he says. “Art school. Europe.”
She steels for an accusation, but he smiles. “You didn’t make it to the Moon, but you got a lot farther than the rest of us.”
It gives her an idea.
Evening comes early as the days shorten. Grandpa Didi is back in his room, and Madeline waits for them after Elyse’s brief call.
“The nurses won’t like getting him up again,” Madeline frets.
“Too bad,” Elyse says. She goes out into the hall, looking for a nurse and comes back with a wheelchair. “We’ll do it ourselves.”
Elyse tries to block out Grandpa Didi’s soft groans as she and Madeline maneuver his frail body into the chair. Dennis yanks the blanket from the bed and tucks it around the old man’s body.
“Oh, you two,” their mother sighs. “You can’t take him outside.”
“The hell we can’t,” Dennis says and heads toward the door.
The nurse comes in, raising her voice and her objections. Madeline wrings her hands as she nods, but Elyse, finally finding the one thing she can do, steps forward.
“Our grandfather taught us everything about astronomy. It’s our link to him. And we’re going to do this.”
“But it’s too cold. He could catch a chill—”
Grandpa Didi quavers with a few words, unintelligible at first, then clearer as if he has finally taken a breath. “Stars.”
The nurse brings two more blankets and a pulldown hat borrowed from one of the orderlies. Off the second-floor dining room in the assisted living section is a small patio, overlooking the parking lot. Dennis finds the switch inside to extinguish the lights, cutting the brightness. Clouds obscure most of the sky, though a half-moon peeks through now and again.
Elyse holds the telescope she bought at Target a few hours ago. Looking around, she decides to plant its stand in a cluster of chrysanthemums growing out of a large standing urn. The height is almost perfect as they wheel Grandpa Didi closer.
He leans forward, closes one eye, and peers through the telescope. He turns a knob on the side with trembling fingers. He recites the litany from her childhood: Alpha Centauri, Milky Way, Polaris.
Elyse crouches down beside him. She knows it’s impossible but asks anyway. “Can you see them?”
Grandpa Didi doesn’t reply but keeps looking. “Andromeda,” he says, his voice a rasp. “Ah, there it is.”