When my sister was a baby, I spoke for her. I don’t know if I was trying to be helpful or if I was, at nearly three years, simply used to being the primary object in our family solar system. At any rate, I was an early talker, ordering pancakes from my stroller as a precocious 10-month-old to the delight and confusion of strangers. My mother swelled with pride. My sister, though, remained silent – chubby and content. I blathered stories into the space of her reticence, making up interpretations of her grunts and coos. “She wants her bottle,” I would say, imperiously. The doting adults would offer up milk to her drooly mouth and clutching hands. “She knows exactly what her sister wants!” they exclaimed. I might not have been as prescient as they thought. After all, what fat little baby is going to refuse a fresh bottle of milk?
At first, my parents were charmed, but when she turned two and then three and still relied on single syllables to communicate, they grew alarmed. She was due to start preschool and my mother worried. How would she fare in class if she couldn’t talk? In the warm Hawaiian evenings, my father would walk with her outside, up and down our driveway, pointing to the night sky and all the objects in it. Star. Plane. Moon. One day, she pointed her finger alongside his at the big bright disc just over the horizon – nothing compares to the moon as it rises over the Pacific. She said, “Moon.” My father was overjoyed! He pointed to it again. “What is that, baby?” “Moon,” she said. “I’m Dada,” he said, pointing to himself. “Who am I?” “Moon,” she said.
He loved to tell that story. And also, to tell us how the preschool teachers said they could tell we were very secure. Clearly, we were loved. “Parents are supposed to be like the moon,” he said. He meant constant.
He died when I was 5 months pregnant with my daughter. I forgot that the moon also disappears when it is in the earth’s shadow. It’s not gone, but you can’t see it. If it weren’t for the tides, you wouldn’t know it was there.
I was left utterly bereft. I felt the gravitational pull of him, but the sky was dark.
I became obsessed with looking for traces of him. Papers with his handwriting. Birthday cards he made me with funny drawings. He wanted to be an artist, but he told me once that a teacher had told him his work was “too commercial.” He became an interior designer for an industrial supply company. He drew dining rooms and lobbies for clients so they could envision their restaurants and offices, furnished with the fixtures and carpets the salesman helped them pick out. I loved to play with the fabric samples, and he gave me the old architectural floor plans to use as scratch paper. I pressed them to my face to inhale the blue inky scent. I think he thought he was a sellout, but there were bills to pay.
Occasionally, though, he took a side job. When I was in fifth grade, he illustrated a book called The Bossy Hawaiian Moon. The author was retired haole lady named Sabine Ehlers. She lived in a fancy high-rise building called the Arcadia, with air-conditioning and plush, teal-colored carpets and sparkly chandeliers. We met her there for lunch one day. I was the only child – all the other residents were silver-haired. I realized years later that that must have been a retirement home. I made an impression, apparently, because she named the little girl in her book Nanea.
I have a memory of my father reading that book, which explained the phases of the moon, to my grade school classmates. I was the typical childish mixture of proud and mortified. After he died, I scoured the Internet to see if it was available anywhere. The small local publishing house that printed it had long since gone out of business, and I found only one tattered copy of it on Alibris for $80. I had several copies of my own, of course, but it felt necessary to gather up all the bits of him I could find, so I bought it.
In the book, Nanea and her brother are begging for a bedtime story, and though they should be asleep already, their father relents and agrees to tell them one. The story is that long ago in Hawaii, the Moon ruled the sky. He was proud and puffed up, and he shone so bright every single night that no one could see the stars. The stars became sad that the Moon would not share the sky with them, so they asked the clouds and the Kona wind and his brother the Tradewind for help. The winds blew the clouds over the moon, blotting him out, and they stayed there until, eventually, the prideful Moon agreed to their terms. He would not shine full every night. Instead, he would peek out as a sliver, then a quarter, then a half, and then finally a full, glorious Moon. And for a time, he would not shine at all so that the stars could have the sky to themselves.
My favorite part of this tale was when the Moon was covered up by the clouds and furious that he could not be seen, because his angry face was exactly the face of my father when we made him mad. I asked him about it, and my father confessed that when he was trying to draw the facial expressions of the bossy Moon, he would look at himself in the mirror to get the eyes and mouth right. He drew himself into the story.
I imagined my father, who spent his days measuring square feet for cabinets and sketching different versions of seating arrangements, making funny faces at himself and then intently translating those poses into a storybook. When I think of it now, I can feel him, like the tide.
He’s been gone for years, but I talk for him. I tell the stories into the space he left. I try to remember that we aren’t meant to live in unceasing brilliance. Darkness is part of the cycle. Hope, like the moon, wanes and then waxes bright again.