ON CHRISTMAS Eve nearly thirty-eight years ago, a father was holding his minutes-old newborn son on the third-floor maternity wing of a Baltimore hospital in the middle of an early morning snowstorm. Halfway across the world in New Zealand, periodic comet 38P/Stephan-Oterma was beginning the last few days of its journey across the southern hemisphere’s night sky. The comet had been traversing past Earth’s gravitational field for the better part of two months and was finally heading back out into the vastness of space, not to be seen again for almost another four decades. At first glance, the two events seemed to have little to do with one another, and it wouldn’t be until years later that the unseen driving force of the universe, working to bring two people together, would become evident.
The recurrence of the celestial event of 38P was ultimately the reason Peter, just one day from his thirty-eighth birthday, now found himself almost nine thousand miles from home, driving New Zealand’s State Highway 79 from Christchurch International Airport on his way to Lake Tekapo and the Mount John Observatory. When Peter was a small child, his father, an amateur astronomer, told him more times than Peter could count his dream of traveling to New Zealand’s South Island with his only son to view the comet’s next appearance. Peter had always been so fascinated by the thought of being an adult and his father an old man by the time 38P orbited back around that it became his dream as well. After his father’s death when Peter was in middle school, the dream became less of a fantasy and more of a necessity; Peter saw it as an homage to his father’s memory, and he would do anything he could to make the trip.
Peter thought of his dad as he zoomed down the highway in his airport rental car, the windows rolled down to let in the warm summer air. He tried to imagine his dad’s reaction to finally being here after all these years of waiting and had to blink back the tears that suddenly and unexpectedly pricked at the backs of his eyes. He had been so young when his father passed he hardly remembered the small details of his face or even the way his voice had sounded—too many years had gone by for memories like that to stick around.