There were stars

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I think two things.

One, I don’t think I say often enough on this blog thingy of mine just how incredibly blessed I am. I tend to post about life’s trials (which tend to be not much more than a spider in the bathroom or falling down the occasional escalator). But I want the record to show that I have been given much to be grateful for. So, so much.

Two. This one is important. (They’re both important, but this one is the relatable one). I don’t think we notice how fleeting moments are, and how precious are those which hold on to some wisp of permanence in our memories.

And I think one and two are connected. But to prove this, I have to tell you a story.

It’s a story about stars and people who shine like them. It’s a story about an unfortunate situation. It’s kind of a story about Jared and I having one last grand adventure. But mostly it’s a story about moments.

MOMENT: My head falls forward and I jolt awake in the dark observatory. We’re standing in a line beneath a huge dome opened and revealing a breathtaking arrangement of stars. It is me and six of the Americans who came to help with our camps this summer and the face of my watch lights up just long enough to tell me it is nearly 10:30 p.m. The girls are huddled together even though the summer air is balmy. As tired as I am, I register how much I enjoy watching my friends ascend the stairs to the telescope, lean in and smile in awe as they see the craters on the face of the moon magnified before their eyes. I feel small, but in a good way.

We walk down the hallway following our Czech friend and guide who is giving us a special tour now that his shift at the Štefánik Observatory on Petřín Hill is over. Charts of constellations and pictures of spacey things hang on the walls. I don’t remember most of it because at this point I am literally falling asleep standing.

Only hours earlier we had finished the closing program for our last VBS of the summer. Half the group left early to come to the observatory, the other half stayed to clean and then, hopefully, get to bed at a decent hour.

In the hall the team takes turns on the scale to see how much they would weigh on different planets. I weigh a lot, even in gravity-reduced areas. Thankfully, I’m too tired to care and Leah promises that I’d have weighed less if I hadn’t brought my purse onto the scale with me. David informs me that it looks worse in kilos than it would in pounds, but no one knows the ratio. I continue to assume that people on the moon would probably call me ‘fatty’ but I’m oddly at peace with it.

“We weigh exactly the same,” Abby says to Gabby. That’s a sure sign of best-friendship, if there ever was one. Abby and Gabby give me hope that sweet, honest girls still exist in the world and that best friends, sisters and golden hearts can survive the cruelness and betrayal of time.

My phone rings and I pick it up.

“Jerry?” I say sleepily.

“Mary, is Jared with you?” he asks.

Before I can speak, Jared and Kathleen come rushing towards me, Jared waving what looks like a credit card.

“Yes,” says Jared. “I have it. I have the key. I just found it in my pocket.”

If I could be more awake, I might be considerably more concerned that Jared has the only key to let our cleaning-team out of the school parking lot. I am not, so the only thing I feel is a low-toned sympathy for the poor team members who are stuck at the school and wanting so desperately to go to bed.

“He’s got the key, Jerry,” I say. Jerry says we need to get to the school right away and we hang up.

“I’ll go with you,” I tell Jared.

“I can go by myself,” he says.

“Your dad may try to call again and I have the phone,” I say. “They could get out on their own and then you’d go all the way to the school for nothing.”

“I’d hate to drag you away from the observatory,” says Jared.

“Jared.” I look at him through half-closed eyelids with as commanding a stare as I can muster (which, at this point is about as firm as soft-serve ice-cream sitting in an unshaded parking lot at noon). “I just wanna go to bed. If we get to the school and get your folks out, we can go with them in the car and I won’t have to wait at a bus stop in Prague in the middle of the night for a ride home.”

“Okay.”

I tell Kathleen who then promises that she will be able to get the rest of the team back home safely before the last bus leaves. I trust her because she can do anything. She’s like superman except probably even nicer.

We say ‘goodbye’ to our Czech friend and then run to the lift that departs every fifteen minutes for the bottom of the hill.

MOMENT: Jared and I are sitting quietly in the lift. Jared is kind of panicking, but only reasonably so considering the situation. I am abnormally calm. I have literally no explanation for this other than total sleep deprivation. The city sparkles beneath us so that it looks like there are stars hidden in the winding alleys and old churches below. The lift starts and we crawl down the hill.

Music from a restaurant floats by and Jared audibly runs through the possibilities of the evening, most of which include ending up in trouble for not getting to the school quickly enough or for having taken the key in the first place. Only one of which includes French fries and a shake. I feel like we should work harder to incorporate that into our night’s adventures.

We take a tram to the bus stop and peruse our options.

Jared’s idea is to return the way we came on the 253. However, in the last year I have gotten to know the bus system extremely well. Through trial and error (let’s be honest, mostly through error), I have learned a few shortcuts.

“Jared,” I say. “Let’s take the 197 to Lhotka and then run down the hill and get to the school through the back way. It leaves earlier and drops us off closer. And we’ll be going downhill for the last leg instead of running uphill.”

Jared argues a little bit, not completely confident in my navigational abilities (not without reason). Finally I call Jerry to settle the issue and let him know we’re close. It’s been almost an hour since we first got the call in the observatory.

Jerry gives the go-ahead for my plan and Jared and I wait for the 197, visions of our poor teammates stressed, tired and upset, waiting for us to show up with the key. And here they had all wanted to go to bed early.

MOMENT: We are sitting on a rattling bus looking at our dejected reflections in the window. Jared has been one of my best friends this year. With me through misadventure and baking sprees and chocolate binges, Jared has shown me what it means to be a good friend to someone and there’s no one I want to sit next to at 11:30 p.m. on a smelly bus as I struggle to maintain consciousness more than this buddy of mine.

“I can already feel that this was a good idea,” says Jared as the bus chugs along in the dark. “That’s pretty smart that you knew this way.”

This means a lot to me because Jared is almost always right when directions are involved and I …I tend to be wrong.

“Why can’t I be right when people are there to see it?” I ask him.

He chuckles.

“I’ll tell everyone,” he assures me. “I’ll shout it from the rooftops. I’ll shout it here in the bus, if you want me to.” I don’t.

The bus pulls up to our stop and we step out into midnight.

“Ready to run?” I ask him.

“Sure,” he says. Jared is always ready to run.

We take off down the sidewalk. Laughing and talking about how bad we feel for the poor team we’ve left trapped at the school, and the rest we abandoned in the city. No one is having a good night.

Except us. For whatever reason, I feel lighter than stardust, drifting through endless space.

We pass a McDonalds and both of us suggest stopping for fries. Both of us decide it’s a bad idea.

Then it’s left onto a neighborhood street and straight across a field. Jared still doesn’t know where we are so I lead the way.

“You’re going to be amazed when you recognize where we come out,” I say as we start down the hill.

MOMENT: Jared and I run through wet grass that licks our ankles as we follow a bumpy dirt path down a scraggly hillside. Trees block the moonlight so we can only see the road in patches. We’re running and laughing in the dark and the summer night opens up before us like a galaxy waiting to be explored. I’m not tired anymore.

We cross the footbridge and Jared ‘Aaahhh’s in recognition. We are right behind the school. It takes us less than a minute to reach the front gate. Two cars are parked behind it, so quiet and still I think perhaps no one is inside. We use the key to open the gate and the door to the van swings on its hinges.

Someone is moving inside.

I take the empty seat in the van and Jared hands the key to his dad.

“You’re going to have to take the other car,” laughs a sleepy Eli from the middle row. “Welcome to the doghouse.”

Jared chuckles and I say, “Thanks for getting us here, pal.” He troops off to the other car where his mom and sister are waiting and I buckle my seatbelt.

The passengers are stirring awake and Jerry has fired up the engine of our old tanker. Eli is still chuckling but something tells me he’s mostly asleep. Eli is one cool cat and normally I’m slightly intimidated by his much more advanced level of chillness, but sleep is the great equalizer and he looks as fuzzy and drowsy as I feel. (For the record, Eli will always be cool).

MOMENT: A car full of some of my favorite people in the whole world bumps along a midnight road. Heads lean on shoulders and someone is humming. No one seems stressed or upset. No one is agitated. Everything is alright.

Behind me Jana and Grace are telling me about how Jerry told everyone stories and the girls did each other’s hair while they waited.

“Hey, what’s this?” Jana asks, quietly tugging on something around her wrist. “This isn’t my hairband.”

“Oh, that one’s mine,” says Grace through a yawn. “I think I have yours.”

They giggle again and switch bands. I am reminded of how much I miss my sisters and giggling and girly things.

“Well,” says Jerry, “We finished it, guys. You’re done with your last VBS for the summer.”

There are some happy chuckles and a few satisfied grins (from people too tired to emit noise). It’s nice to be finished, but a little piece of my heart sinks, like a shooting star that falls out of place below the horizon.

I miss the summer sometimes, and those clear skies that let you look up at the stars. And I know I will miss these people.

Even in the winter, though, we can fold up inside our memories where those precious moments glow like embers in the night, lighting our way towards a brighter, warmer tomorrow.

I am so blessed to have so many happy moments from this summer, from this year, from as far back as my memory goes, really. God has given me a treasure chest of days to remember with joy, and they shine like stars.

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