Stupid Gibbous Moon (or "Decomposing Sheep Make It Hard to Sleep")

I thought only full moons were bright, but it turns out waxing gibbous moons are really bright too. We've pulled off a lonely ribbon of highway and followed a track of packed sand into the desert, where we pitched our tent in the shade of a wiry acacia tree. We're 55 miles east of Jeddah in the dark, rocky hills -- me and Savannah and Halen and Grace. We came to see the stars splashed across the navy sky, but the stupid gibbous moon is afire with pale, ghostly light that drowns out the soft glow of far off suns and brown dwarves and supernovas and planets and comets.

Our campsite. Good riddance, sun.
I'm staring out the screened tent window at the rocks and the acacia trees, at the surprisingly hard shadows they're throwing against the sallow sand in the fierce moonlight. Three little bodies are slumped around me. Their breathing is even. They're sleeping like babies -- like slightly elongated babies that can talk and frequently exhibit reasoning skills superior to my own.

We told each other scary stories an hour ago. Grace's was probably the worst ghost story I've ever heard. Something about these two brothers making a scarecrow named Gerald and smearing food all over its face (to repel crows?), and then they throw Gerald on the roof but later Gerald jumps off the roof (I guess Gerald came to life?) and kills one of the brothers. I guess that was supposed to be the scary part, but I laughed when I pictured a limp, stuffed scarecrow with yogurt all over its face, falling off a roof and smothering an unsuspecting guy who happened to be walking by. Grace indignantly demanded what was so funny about her scary story, and I lied that I had rolled over onto the flashlight and it had tickled me. My scary story about skinwalkers didn't really phase the kids, who fell asleep as I told it, but I kind of scared myself and that's probably why I'm sitting, hugging my knees, staring off at the Saudi Arabian desert, making sure no native American warlocks come and eat my children. What can I say. I'm a good dad.

The day was scorching and the darkness is slow to bring relief. We spent a few hours in the shade of the tent, just talking, waiting for the sun to go away behind the curve of the earth. I had hoped that the conversation would turn to the spiritual, that something about the silence would awaken within my children their sense of the profound. But all we got was yogurt-faced Gerald and an argument over pretzels and a monologue from Halen about monster trucks.

I listen to their breathing and I wonder what they'll remember about their youth. And I wonder if the small sacrifices that dads make -- like sleeping on a weird Coleman sleeping pad that blows up like a huge tube of toothpaste instead of a soft, sleek, oversized stick of gum (no, seriously, imagine trying to sleep on top of a big, rolley-poley tube of Aquafresh and then tell me with a straight face I'm not hecka-rad) -- mean anything thirty years later.

But memories are funny things, they way we remember the smallest gestures. Once my dad took me camping at Lost Lake. He wasn't much of a camper, and he wasn't a big talker either -- I think Mom made him take me. I was 11 or 12 and she probably thought if I didn't get some good male role-modeling I was going to start listening to Motley Crue and snorting Pixie Stix like the other boys at school. I remember rolling away in Dad's Dodge Omni, Mom on the curb smiling broadly and waving, and I looked over at Dad and he had this painted on grin, like he was driving somewhere to have his fingernails peeled off but Mom told him he better have fun or else. And I don't blame him -- now that I'm a grownup the thought of spending 24 hours alone with an 11 year-old kid sounds really, really bad. But I didn't comprehend his pained smile back then. All I knew was me and Dad were going camping, and it was this high point of my pre-adolescence for me, along with those torchy ballads Michael Bolton used to bust out.

So I lay back on my giant tube of toothpaste and I try to keep from rolling off, and the moonlight burns through the nylon above and it bathes me and my sleeping kids in pallid halos. And I hope the children won't remember setting up the tent in triple-digit temperatures, and I hope they won't remember that when they excitedly asked "So can we roast hot dogs?"that I answered, "No, I don't know how to start a fire. But here is an apple and a juice box and that's all you're getting till we get home tomorrow." And I hope they won't remember that we pitched our tent downwind of an animal carcass dump full of dead goats in various stages of decomposition. I hope their little brains only remember the silent night and the cool breeze and Dad's undivided -- if slightly reluctant -- attention. And my big muscles.