When it was too hot to sleep, they’d climb through the window of their upstairs apartment and lie on the roof to catch whatever breeze was stirring. There in the desert the night was spangled with stars so close it felt like gravity might pull them down to the Earth. Zeke talked about how humans and stars shared the same crucial elements of life: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur.
“They’ve proved it, babe,” he said. “Scientists took a huge sampling of stars and cataloged the very same elements that we have – in different proportions, of course. It’s nice to think we’re all made of stardust.”
Ellen laughed and agreed. They were young and in love. She thought she’d found heaven right there on Earth.
Life happened, of course. The early days of just the two of them gave way to children, mortgages, careers, and worries about aging parents. They left the desert and moved to the city to be available when those parents needed them. Ellen got a job, the kids were in school and sports, and life became a blur of activity. Zeke found silver strands in his black hair, which he called star streaks.
He laughed about it. “Getting old,” he said. It was true he’d slowed down.
When his weight loss became a concern, he finally gave in to her insistence that he see a doctor. She returned home from work that day to find him sitting quietly in the backyard. He wasn’t cutting grass or edging or weeding. He was just sitting. It was so uncharacteristic that she felt a thrill of alarm.
“What’s up? What’d the doctor say?” She tried to sound casual as she dropped onto the grass at his feet.
“Oh, babe,” he said, and there was such a world of sadness in his voice that she knew. She knew right then the stars were falling out of their sky.
It took a year. It was a gradual, graceful fading. The children did their best to help, but most of the time it was just the two of them, like in those long ago desert days.
“The word awesome is so overused,” Ellen said after the funeral. “Any old thing is awesome these days. But you know what’s really awesome? Sharing that last journey with the person you love.”
The first year was hard. The first birthday without him, the first Thanksgiving, Christmas. Christmas was the worst. The months rolled on, seasons came and went, children continued to grow, and there were still the everyday chores of living – laundry, meals, errands. After a while, it got easier. She laughed again, she got hungry, tired, bored. As if nothing had changed.
Finally, when the last child left home, when his parents and her parents passed on, Ellen moved back to the desert. She bought a one-level condo, made friends, did volunteer work. Life was different, but it was good.
On a night when she couldn’t sleep, she sat outside on her tiny patio, leaned her head back and looked up. The stars went on forever, still flinging out their splendor, still composed of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur.
“Hi, babe,” she said.