When I was eight, I saved up my money and went to the Discovery Store at the Mall of America. I remember this very vividly, I had saved up for a telescope. I was so proud to pick one out and to go up and pay for it all myself. I don’t remember exactly why I was so obsessed with having one, but I spent that summer looking at the stars. Every single night, I was out there looking at the constellations, and the planets, I could tell you where the planets were and why you could see certain ones. I could pick out constellations, and tell you the story behind them. I loved it all.
Astronomy was my first great obsession of any substance. It was the summer of Hale-Bopp, and I watched that comet glide through our night sky. Dancing around the stars. It never seemed to move, it seemed stationary at some points, but little did I realize how fast it was traveling, how far away it was, and how big it was. This chunk of rock and ice is being flung at speeds I can’t even begin to comprehend, and yet to my eye it seems so still. It seems stuck in the sky, like an ornament on a christmas tree. This frozen memory serving as a reminder of what once was.
I had declared that summer that I wanted to be an Astronomer when I grew up. Other little girls were still in their princess phases, and wanted to be mommies and wives when they grew up. I just wanted to stare at the night sky forever. I can’t explain why I was so transfixed on the stars. The light traveling so far from stars that have probably been long gone. Serving as frozen memories, just like that comet. Serving as reminders that we are not the only planet in this vast universe. That amongst the billions and billions of others stars and galaxies, we are utterly tiny. Maybe that’s what I was trying to understand as I stared through that telescope. Trying to understand what the universe was telling me. That I am tiny. Not just literally, I have always been on the tiny side, but figuratively too. That everything I will experience will feel so big and so overwhelming to me, but to the universe, it’s barely a blip on the radar.
The dichotomy of being big and small at the same time. It’s something that I still have trouble understanding. Especially when you slip into the darkness, you feel things on a larger scale. The sadness makes you feel tiny, and large at the same time. But in a very different way from staring at the night sky. Those humid nights with the telescope never made me feel sad. I felt free. Like there was some unspoken knowledge being pumped into my brain, that things will be fine, and I can let go of those things that will bog me down in later years. The darkness is the thing that keeps you chained to the earth. Not even fully to the earth, it chains you down in a hole underground. Unable to feel the breeze, the humidity from the summer, unable to see the stars, you lose you sense of place. You go stir crazy. There are days where you feel like you will crawl out of you skin, where I can see the layers of epidermis being peeled away like an onion, only to reveal things that reduce me to tears. It doesn’t emit an odor like an onion, but it emits the pain I keep bottled up. It emits the feelings I shove down. That feeling of wanting to peel your own skin off is nothing compared to what it feels like to have that pain come out. It’s uncomfortable and leaves you feeling so vulnerable that you might as well be running down the side of the highway butt-ass naked as the day you were born. The darkness taught me that those feelings are bad. They are a weakness. The sadness will keep me strong. If I bottle it all up, I will be able to endure. I will persevere. Which in a twisted sense, is true. I survived, but not as I thought I would. I have come to love the sadness too much. To rely on it on a level that is unhealthy. It has become such a part of my identity that the idea of losing it scares me as much as having a limb cut off. I have these moments of clarity where I can see what it has done to me, how it has poisoned me, how it has betrayed me, and I can truly see it for the monster that it is. But eventually it becomes seductive again. The idea of being in bed, having the pity party, making the excuses, just seems too natural for me to turn my back on it. I grasp to it like child does for it’s mother. Sometimes it feels like that. It felt like a parent for me. When you’re a teenager, you’re already in a very vulnerable place, undergoing drastic changes in a short amount of time is enough to make anyone desperate for some kind of control. But when you’re not just a teenager, you’re a teenager who’s already been exposed to the seduction of the darkness, and who undergoes massive life changes in a extremely short amount of time, you latch onto whatever you can to keep you afloat. I latched onto the depression, to the darkness, because it told me that it would let me survive. That through giving myself to it, I could endure the hardships that were to follow. I never realized that I was selling my soul to the darkness. The stars in my sky began to disappear, one by one they vanished. Lights going out until I was left alone with the dark. That’s how I remained for years. In this hole I had dug for myself, with the dark, only the darkness.
As the summer humidity faded, and turned into the chill of autumn, the telescope was little by little moved back towards the house. Then as it got too cold to stay out in the night for long, it eventually was placed in the basement, where it would go on to collect dust. The dreams of being an Astronomer were shattered, as soon as I learned how much math it required, it was replaced with dreams of begin a history professor. I traded the night sky for Elizabeth the First. Eventually Elizabeth got left behind. She collected just as much dust as the telescope. These frozen memories of the life I had wanted so young. After that, nothing really fit. No careers jumped out at me. I tried a little of this and a little of that. Half-assing these choices that seemed to come so easily to my peers. I just wanted to remain in my darkness. I knew I was safe there. My vision got fuzzy and all I could see was my pain in my tunnel vision, surrounded by pure black. Nothing mattered but that pain. I think feeling that from time to time was the only way I knew I was still alive. I certainly didn’t feel alive. I felt like a shell of a person. Just functional enough to get by, do the bare minimum so that people leave you alone. I learned how to do just that. The absolute bare minimum. I slipped through cracks, and didn’t apply myself. I look back and wish I had applied myself. I knew I was capable of so much more than I was doing. I know that now. I know I am capable of so much more than this bare minimum crap I put out. Do I change it? Do I bother to do anything to change it? Just enough to get by. The darkness has me by the throat, and in those especially dark times, it threatens to snap me like a twig.
This is why I measure my life by my losses. By the pain. By the things I don’t have. The things I won’t have. The things I couldn’t have. Never the things I do have. The things I have been taking for granted for so long. I measure my life by my pain. Those big losses are milestones in my life. Like dysfunctional birthdays, that serve of reminders of what was lost. Everyone has losses in their lives. What makes mine so special that I feel the need to mark my life by them? Because it’s mine and mine alone. That pain is solely my property. No one else will ever feel it or see it or touch it. I find myself getting mad at people who share those losses with me, that they have pain that stems from those losses as well, and they share how it hurts them. I get mad at them for having the same the loss. I feel the anger bubble up, and the “fuck off” on the tip of tongue, but I bite it back. I get selfish with it. I want it just for myself. What kind of person does that? They get mad at someone for sharing their pain, for allowing themselves to be vulnerable enough to share that. Not a happy one.
The darkness has been ever-present in my life. The shades of it vary from time to time. It has been especially dark since September of this year. Ironically I think that’s when the constellation Orion started to present himself. My brain is telling me that, and I’m choosing to remember that, whether or not it’s the truth. The Scottish variant of my last name is Bowman, or Archer. Which I thought was kind of ironic that my favorite constellation has a connection with my last name. Purely coincidental, but still pretty freaking cool if you ask me. Depending on which mythology you want to subscribe to, Orion is the hunter or the archer, who stalks the night sky with his dogs. The Archer and the Dog. I think the reason my brain is telling that Orion presented himself in September was some kind of sign. I had a hard loss with Fala, the Jack Russell I got for my 14th birthday. We weren’t Orion and his dog, but she was the dog and the hunter in one. Always looking out for her prey.
I got back home in early September, and from the start, she had been acting different. Very unlike herself. She kept checking to make sure I was here, and wouldn’t leave me alone. This was after several days of giving me the stink eye for being gone for a few weeks. Two weeks go by, and you can tell by the way she’s carrying herself she felt like crap. She was always a tough dog, but this was uncomfortable on a level I had never seen her behave. After a few days, we take her to the vet, completely unsure of what is wrong. They do an ultrasound on her belly that had bloated up to a scary level, and discovered that it wasn’t just fluid retention. It was blood. She had a rupture in her spleen, and had been amassing blood in her belly as a result. We were given options regarding her health, and they could have done surgery to see what had caused the rupture, and if had been cancerous they could have done chemo. Which the vet suggested could have given her 6 to 8 more months. She’s 12 at this point. She’s had a good long stretch of life. The vet had also suggested that it might just be her time. I thought about it and decided it wasn’t fair to Fala to keep her around for my selfish needs. It wasn’t fair to have her be opened up and have her body possibly dumped full of chemicals for chemo. It wasn’t something I could do for her. I wasn’t ready for her to go, and I wanted to keep her forever. Despite that, I told the vet that it was her time. That maybe the hardest choice I’ve made this far in my life. Even now I still feel like I killed her. In the darkness, I tell myself that I killed the one source of unconditional love I will ever have in my life. I held her while they gave her shot, and when she took her last breath. I was holding her when her heart stopped, and she looked so peaceful. I’m sure everyone in the pet hospital heard the howling of the cries coming from that exam room. I have never cried that hard. It has never been that gut wrenching and painful. I felt like someone ripped my heart out of my chest and held it up for me to see. They forced me to watch it still beating in their hand. My heart was that dog. It might sound silly to some people, but when you find a source of unconditional love, and you witness the physical death of the source, it hurts. A lot.
All the stars in my night sky vanished in that moment. The darkness descended, and I bottled up my grief. I wasn’t prepared to deal with it. I’m still not prepared to deal with it. I still spend time looking around the house for her. Expecting to hear her nails tap dance on the wood floor. Anticipating her collar jangling as she runs around the house in this bundle of energy. All I have left of her is that collar. All those years with her are only tangible in a collar we bought from target, with her dog tags on it. That is the frozen memory I have of her. A collar that she hated to wear. I had it on my bookshelf the first two weeks after she died. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at it. The pain would bubble up and I wasn’t prepared for it. You’re never prepared for it. Loss is something we think we can harden ourselves against in preparation, but we can’t. You never are prepared for it. Maybe that’s why I measure my life in losses. Those are the moments I was caught off guard. Those are memories of when I didn’t feel in control, I slipped out of the numbing indifference that serves as a protection for moments of unadulterated loss. The grief so thick you could cut it with a knife.
I go for walks at weird times in the night. I’ve always had a hard time sleeping. I see more of the night sky than I do of the sun. The stars have been a comfort. Always a comfort when I see Orion in the sky. It feels like a silent guardian protecting those balls of light that can be such a source of relief for me. Seeing Sirius the bright star in the dog just to the lower left of Orion is a comfort now. The Dog Star shines brightly in the sky. I always think of Fala when I see it. The pain bubbles up, and it hurts, but I let it hurt. Because of what she gave, it’s worth the pain. The love of all those years, and the companionship I knew would always be there. The warmth she was so picky with, was given to me, and I feel lucky for being able to have received it. She was a fickle dog with her affection, not just the attention, but the true affection she gave. The non judgmental looks she’d give you. The unconditional love she gave to only a few of us. We were made better for it. I know I was. Even through the darkness, She was a light for me. She was the one star I had in my night sky. I had my Dog Star, and I knew I could endure. I could survive because of her. She saved me. Without either of us realizing it, she saved me from collapsing completely into that darkness. She died, and her star went out. Now I feel left with no stars in the sky. Complete black surrounding me, and it’s something that is too overwhelming to describe.
The milestone of her death is the biggest one I have so far. The Dog Star shines the brightest for me now. I wish I still had that telescope so I could see it a little bit better.
The Archer and The Dog Star.