The Celestial Menagerie
“He is dying, Aphrodite;
luxuriant Adonis is dying.
What should we do?
Beat your breasts, young maidens.
And tear your garments in grief.”
She peacefully inhaled her last breath with her eyes closed and when she failed to exhale, linear time stood still as the fabric of my world was torn asunder from the seismic event of her passing. Vicky, my wife of nineteen years, the mother of our two children, and a chiropractor by profession, died of leukemia at the age of forty-eight.
Vicky’s death marked an anniversary almost twenty-two years to the day that we first arrived in Montauk to witness the serenity of the Hamptons as young professionals. This experience, which lasted a single day and night, would serve as a microcosm of our future life together and will always resonate for an eternity within me.
I remember every detail of the day because it is seared on my soul. It was the time we looked up at the celestial sky to pay homage to the heavenly bodies that man in antiquity used as a scale model to measure the world, but is obsolete today in the information highway of the computer age. It was the night we rode horses at dusk on the beach and later watched shooting stars streaking across the starry sky over what Plato once called, the “wine-dark sea.” It was the sensation of lying beneath a cotton blanket near the unmarked Indian cemetery while reading the poetry of the Sappho to each other, illuminated only by the lunar light as nocturnal deer roamed silently in the nearby woods. It was the instant we thought life would last forever, and did. How did time bring us to this place?
I was introduced to Vicky in 1991 by my matchmaker cousin, John, who owned the diner across the street from the chiropractic office Vicky had just opened after her graduation from college. On the day we met, we talked for hours, mostly about our careers (I had just joined a local law firm as an entry level associate) and future aspirations. I was enchanted not only by her physical beauty (Vicky rarely wore makeup) but also by her engaging intelligence, radiant smile, and laughter—her trademark characteristic. During our rendezvous, I learned that she was a member of a movement then sweeping the nation that advocated the benefits of organic foods to regulate the body’s equilibrium. She preached the importance of a healthy diet to her patients and I remember her telling me, “Each patient carries his own doctor inside him.” She also helped me lose forty-five pounds after diagnosing that I had certain food allergies that caused sudden weight gain.
After several months of dating, Vicky invited me to spend a weekend with her family at their condominium at the Montauk Manor, located on a hilltop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. (Historically, President Theodore Roosevelt and his rough riders lodged here in quarantine after returning from the Spanish-American War in 1898.)
I remember picking her up early in the morning in my olive-green Saab (a color she helped me pick out representing what she said was the “color of nature”) and making the ninety mile drive from her Nassau County home, moon roof down, listening to the radio playing Firehouse’s new song “Love of a Lifetime,” that we would later sing at our wedding during our first dance as husband and wife. While driving on Sunrise Highway toward our destination, we witnessed cloud formations creating images of familiar animals of the zodiac. We saw Capricorn, Scorpio, Taurus, and the likeness of a ram, all displayed against an open and crystal-clear blue sky that appeared to stretch into infinity like a scene right from an Ansel Adams landscape photograph. As we got closer to our final destination, I remember pulling over at Vicky’s request to purchase organic tomatoes and cucumbers grown by local farmers. Back then, organic fruits and vegetables were the rage of the new age, and Vicky was one of the founding members.
We arrived at noon, and after taking our luggage up to the condominium, we departed for a horseback-riding tour Vicky scheduled at Rita’s Stable at the outskirts of Montauk. The trail runs along the coastal land and contains a dirt path bordered by savannah grass, bushes, and pine barren trees on either side of the waterfront landscape. Upon arrival, we embarked immediately, me sitting astride Duke and Vicky on Molly.
“Duck!” I yelled, as Vicky leaned forward in the saddle and tucked her head low, near Molly’s shiny black mane. After the horse passed the low-lying branches, Vicky sat upright and drew Molly to a halt next to me. Rita, the proprietor and trail chaperone of novice riders, explained that horses don’t go around branches because horses can tell if they will fit underneath and forget about their riders on top. Later in our adventure, our horses began to trot when they saw Rita’s horse galloping ahead of us. We were told that horses are naturally competitive animals and really love to race and show off to each other. As Duke and Molly got closer to Rita’s horse, they wanted to pass ahead of her. While Duke overtook Rita’s horse, a rabbit dashed out of the tall grass onto the trail, darting back and forth under Duke’s feet, terrifying him. Duke reared up and took off—without me—as I flew into the air landing on my right side a few feet from him. Vicky dismounted and ran over to see if I was harmed. I was not and laughed it off. Not believing what I said, Vicky replied, “there’s a place by a lake about a mile ahead where we can stop and have lunch. You’ll feel better after eating.” I agreed, not because of the fall, but because of the pain in my groin, resulting from the up-and-down movements of horse riding. Our picnic consisted of turkey on gluten-free bread, along with the tomatoes and cucumbers we purchased earlier in the morning from the local farmer.
The rest of the day was spent quietly riding along the seashore. When the sun set, we marveled at the population of stars visible in the pitch-black sky. Nowadays, street lights, neon signs, and the brightly lit buildings of towns and cities have made seeing much more than a handful of stars a luxury, but the east end still has views reminiscent of simpler times. On a clear night, it’s estimated that around 2,000 stars can be seen without binoculars or telescopes, and the Milky Way leaves a glittering white trail across the sky that’s almost unrecognizable to those accustomed to city nights. On that night, we walked on the shoreline like pioneers, exploring the landscape of the cosmos. As a student of astronomy, I showed to Vicky the different constellations bordering the outer limits of heaven and earth. There was Gemini, the belt of Orion, the Big Dipper, and Andromeda. When I pointed to the constellation of Lyra, the lyric poet from antiquity that is associated with the harp, I began reciting the poetry of Sappho to Vicky. Suddenly, a flash appeared in front of us creating a disturbance in the celestial menagerie. It was a meteorite dashing across the horizon in a brilliant display of lunar reckoning. But the planets Mars and Jupiter along with the moon were in conjunction, keeping the cosmos in balance, and there was order in the land.
Twenty-two years later on the night of Vicky’s passing, my cousins were driving me home from the hospital, and as we approached our exit on the Long Island Expressway, the car was illuminated by halogen lights. I was sitting in the back seat of the car as a beacon of light concentrated on me. I felt as if I were being escorted home. I looked up at the dark sky and saw a waning crescent moon crossing the Aquarius constellation. The experience had a supernatural feel to it and upon reflection, I now know why. An Internet search revealed that the lunar phase that night mirrored the sky as it had looked back when we had ridden horses on the beach of Rita’s Stable so many years earlier. Life had come back full circle and according to Einstein when this happens there is a crossing at the Singularity–the moment in time when the past, present and future meet in one place. At this gate, Sappho was heard speaking again:
“The Moon has left the sky,
Lost is the Pleiads’ light;
It is midnight,
And time slips by,
But on my bed alone I lie.”