Consolations of Light

My daughter Alice’s life was changed forever last summer when we returned home from an idyllic vacation in upstate New York to the incomprehensible news of her soccer teammate’s death in a car accident.

In one breath, a ride in the car went from being an efficient if wearying passage to the pristine gorges of Ithaca and the baseball dreamscape of Cooperstown, to a tragic, fiery death. At Alice’s request, my wife and I woke her sister, and together the four of us stared blankly into the early morning stillness of our already sweltering house, trying to comprehend how 15 years could mark the end of a life.

What doubtlessly proved helpful, though at the moment was most painful, was that Sara, her friend, was the epitome of optimism and a life lived well: all who knew her spoke repeatedly of her effervescence, her zest for life, and her indomitable sense of fun and good humor. How was Alice supposed to reconcile her friend’s sun-filled smile with her sudden erasure from life?

The aftermath of any such tragedy is filled with poignancy and heightened significance; the ensuing hours of that particular day, however, were marked by events that, as a seeker of Light, gave me surprising and welcome hope that the beauty and magic of life and of literature were still there to console us.

Though the soccer game scheduled for that weekend in Rhode Island was canceled, we made a decision to go down the coast anyway and stay with dear friends in their summer place as planned. We arrived after dark and, wanting to invigorate ourselves a bit after more travel and on-and-off sobbing, walked down to the bay for a swim.

Once assembled at the dock and staring into the inky ocean below, our friend Bill led off and set in motion one of the most spectacular, natural displays I have ever witnessed. He dove from the dock, ten feet above the water, plunged into the blackness and immediately set aglow wave upon concentric wave of star-like lights through the water. As his arms swept out, the water sparkled magically as if he were casting fairy dust out of his fingers. As Bill swept through the water, the ocean became a watery firmament mimicking the star-filled sky above. The science behind the magic was tiny jellyfish, effervescents, startled into ignition by the intrusion. Each of us plunged in turn, creating our own magical auras, stunned, awestruck, delighted by this strange occurrence. Something of heaven was back on Earth.

We were quick to recall a children’s book that had been a family favorite during our daughters’ toddler years, Night of the Moonjellies, by Mark Shasha. It is the story of a young boy whose grandmother takes him out for a nighttime boat ride to release a jellyfish that he has inadvertently trapped in with his beach treasures. Since the boy/narrator has captured the creature in daylight, the wondrous properties of his discovery are yet to be revealed.

Near the conclusion, he tells of the moonjelly’s release:

Thousands of moonjellies stretched along the sea in every direction. I opened the bag and poured out our moonjelly. Now it was with the others. We stood on the deck and watched the shimmering sea.

There was certainly something of Sara in that story, who was now released in and through darkness, a darkness made more livable as her spirit continued to glow.

Our late-night swim was more than just a whim. We were rallying to stay up past midnight to herald another sure-to-be favorite family book: the next installment of Harry Potter. We packed ourselves off to the local bookstore minutes before twelve to join a large party of wizard wannabes, squealing with anticipation for what had been promoted repeatedly as a darker, sadder adventure for the beleaguered protagonist now just a year older than my daughter. Once home, we plodded up to bed thinking Harry would wait until dawn. Such was not to be the case. In a heartwarming reversal of traditions, it was my groggy wife and I who were lulled to sleep by the first chapter’s recitation from down the hall; my daughters and their friend took turns reading aloud into the night until sleep overtook even them.

As the next several days of reading and listening revealed, the adventure is indeed dark. Death does claim someone dear to the Hogwarts community and even the most cynical of readers have professed a certain stunned grief at the outcome. There is consolation, however, in the beauty of even the scariest of situations—a beauty that rang especially true for us as Dumbledore leads Harry through a particularly dark and watery passageway on their fateful, final mission. Dumbledore, the sage and wonderful friend and mentor to Harry, magically lights the way:

"Lumos," said Dumbledore, as he reached the boulder closest to the cliff face. A thousand flecks of golden light sparkled upon the dark surface of the water a few feet below where he crouched. . .

"You see?" said Dumbledore quietly, holding his wand a little higher. . . .

"You will not object to getting a little wet?"

"No," said Harry.

"Then take off your Invisibility Cloak —there is no need for it now—and let us take the plunge."

When Alice and her teammates met to memorialize their friend Sara several days later, they were all handed a memento from her family, a beautiful portrait with these words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet inscribed below. They were a prophetic message for our family’s personal experience of light and hope:

"When she shall die,
Take her and cut her out in little stars,
And she will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun."

My daughter has been singing the George Fox song since she was three—"Walk in the Light, wherever you may be . . ."—and now looks for Sara in and of the Light, looking to the stars and to the miracles of the sea to hold on to that friendship.

Kirk D. Read

Kirk D. Read, a member of Lewiston (Maine) Meeting, teaches in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Bates College.