Vega, Altair, and Deneb form the famous “Summer Triangle,” with a right angle at Vega.
All navigators know it. It is easy to find.
– from Find the Constellations by H. A. Rey
THIS IS A STORY about glimpsing heaven, but it begins in hell, in the summer before my twenty-first birthday. The heat is so heavy it could knock you down. I’ve starved away a third of my body weight. Just a few pounds more, I believe, and I’ll shed the burden of self-loathing I’ve carried for half my life.
I arrive at the University of Kansas for my junior year of college. It’s the heat that makes me breathless, I tell myself. The heat that slows my movements and turns my brain to soup. Never mind that I’ve stopped menstruating and my hair is falling out in clumps. Never mind my seismic emotions. Never mind that my insides are malfunctioning and I’ve peed myself while jogging and while trying on a silver lamé dress. It’s the oppressive heat.
I drink a gallon of water a day to stay hydrated. I wear lightweight sundresses and slingback sandals. One sandal raises a blister on my ankle that refuses to heal. I develop a staph infection and slink through my first week of classes in a feverish daze. My oceanography instructor describes how people die from drinking too much water, and I begin to cry. I can’t stop crying.
I withdraw from my classes and enter treatment for an eating disorder. There, I arrive at a tentative understanding, an insight that feels like grief and hope together: the compulsion to validate my worth—through weight loss and academic achievement and constant striving in every endeavor—derives from the visual impairment I’ve had since childhood. I am determined to prove that partial blindness does not diminish my value.
It surprises me, this epiphany, because I’ve trained myself to detach emotion from the fact of my failing vision. My white blood cells began attacking my irises before I was old enough for school. Eye drops and steroids and multiple surgeries have kept blindness at bay, but the act of seeing requires constant effort. The world is smudgy, an Impressionist painting, and I am a museumgoer, more observer than inhabitant.
Altair is the alpha star of the constellation Aquila and the twelfth brightest star in the night sky. In Chinese folklore, the star we know as Altair is the Cowherd. His wife, the Weaver Maid, is the star we call Vega. They are separated by a celestial river, the Milky Way. One night each summer, the world’s magpies join wings to form a bridge, and Altair holds his beloved until morning.
THE FOLLOWING SUMMER, I am a teaching assistant at an academic camp for high school students hosted by the University of Kansas. The camp’s theme is “Anthropology of the Nighttime Sky.” The classics professor who’s in charge projects star charts onto an overhead screen and recites poetry inspired by his stargazing habit. We teaching assistants pen comments in our students’ journals and lead discussion sessions after class. The professor calls us his Star Mavens.
For the first time in my life, I feel effortlessly cool. The campers, high school juniors and seniors, admire my vintage clothing. They imitate my “Dancing Queen” moves when someone plays an Abba CD at the Friday night social. A girl named Nadia comes to my dorm room to discuss feminist poetry and Ella Fitzgerald music. I browse the public library for loosely astronomy-themed children’s stories and read them aloud in class. “Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter!” I recite in a dopey singsong from Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen. “We bake cake! And nothing’s the matter!” The students laugh at my cartoon voices. Nothing is too offbeat for Nerd Camp, the affectionate label the students have adopted, and I feel more at ease here than among my own peers.
Still, there are moments when I fight against the sense of isolation that defined my adolescence. Slouched in my Star Maven’s seat at the back of the lecture hall, I squint at the projector screen, struggling to make out the professor’s star charts. Like so much of the world, they seem visible to everyone but me. I occupy myself by compiling an alphabetical list of things I will never be: A: Air Traffic Controller. B: Buxom. C: Circumcised. I’m pleased at the challenge of finding a physical impossibility for each letter.
I’ve managed to keep my vision loss mostly invisible to others. In college classes, I sit near the chalkboard and let the other students think I’m brown-nosing. I feign recognition when someone greets me from afar. Because I live on campus and don’t own a car, nobody knows I can’t read street signs or drive at night.
At camp, it’s difficult to pretend. Every clear evening, all 150 of us trek across the KU campus to Memorial Stadium, carrying notebooks, flashlights, and binoculars. Reeking of mosquito repellant, we sprinkle ourselves over the yard lines on the football field and crane our necks to find the stars we’ve learned about in class.
One night, I hover near a goalpost while my students search for Altair, Vega, and Deneb, the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle. Nadia beckons me over to where she is sprawled on her back.
“Is that Deneb?” She lowers the binoculars from her face and extends one arm, drawing a triangle with her index finger. When she has closed the triangle, she leaves her finger planted at the left vertex. “Right there?”
I raise my binoculars from their strap and aim for the spot she indicates, but I can’t make sense of what I see: a pulsing nebula engulfed by darkness, a confusion of light and shadow. What Nadia observes with her naked eye is imperceptible to me even with magnification.
“I’m not sure I see it,” I tell her.
She lifts herself onto her elbows and calls to another student. They work together to complete their sketches by the glow of their flashlights. Glints of light—constellations for my earthbound eyes—speckle the hundred-yard field where students hunch over notebooks. How do I reconcile the vastness of the universe with the tightness in my chest? Confined by the boundaries of my vision, I feel claustrophobic contemplating the galaxies beyond my reach.
Like Altair the Cowherd, I long for a bridge I might cross to behold the stars. Then, one thrilling night, I think I understand Altair’s annual joy. It’s a bus, not magpies’ wings, that transports us from the light pollution of Lawrence to a farm owned by the classics professor’s friends. The students spill onto the yard, spreading blankets and towels over the grass. The farmers’ young son flits among the campers on chubby legs, refusing to go to bed while an observatory forms in his backyard.
My expectations are low. I haven’t even bothered to bring a blanket. When I venture away from the farmhouse, I am startled by the vibrant image on the sky’s canvas. I lie on my back to take in the sight. The coarse grass nips at my neck. Overhead, the stars appear to soar, like trapeze artists. I rejoice as the curve of the sky embraces me.
Years later, I will read about stars that sing. I will feel a conspiratorial kinship with the scientists who detected the stars’ sound waves and recorded their concert. I will remember a night in Kansas when the stars were an angel choir, and I will think, Let the world know our secret. Let them know the song: “You are worthy. You are loved. You belong.”
Vega is the fifth brightest star in the night sky and the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, the lyre. With the music of his lyre, Orpheus charmed the Greek god Hades to release the lovely Eurydice from the Underworld. He led his bride through the dark passage to the land of the living. Approaching daylight, Orpheus defied Hades’s warning and looked back at the object of his affection. Eurydice receded to the Underworld, lost forever.
A FEW WEEKS after camp is over, I report to a hospital in South Dakota where I am scheduled for cataract surgery. I have not been here since elementary school, when I stayed in the pediatric wing for my first two glaucoma surgeries. My childhood ophthalmologist will perform a cataract operation that, I am hopeful, will improve the vision in my right eye. My eyes are fragile planets; we’ve postponed this surgery as long as possible to avoid upsetting their delicate ecosystem.
The hospital is more sterile than I’d remembered. In the adult wing, there is no honey-scented pediatric nurse to insert my IV, no blue and yellow paint on the walls. In preparation for the anesthesia, I’ve skipped breakfast for the first time since eating disorder treatment. I am edgy and light-headed. The anesthesiologist tells me I will be awake but not aware throughout my surgery. Before I can ask him what this means, he retreats with a snap of his clipboard.
Lying on the operating table, I begin to count backward from ten. I squint at the faces orbiting above me in their well-rehearsed course. Blue masks cover their noses and mouths, and elastic-banded caps hold back their hair. Only their eyes are visible. I recognize my ophthalmologist’s nurse when she raises my head to lay a cloth over my pillow. Someone squirts drops into both of my eyes, and soon, I see nothing but faint light.
I am vaguely aware of hands placing what feels like a plastic bag against my forehead and over my eyes, tucking it beneath the band of my scrub cap. I fear I might suffocate. Something like a strip of tape is secured over the plastic and pressed firmly from temple to temple. I no longer hear voices. There is a ripping sound, and the light becomes brighter in my right eye. The right side of my face feels numb.
Have I slept? My eye is cold and oddly ticklish. Voices are faintly audible. Then the pressure is like a fist, and something seems to burst. Warm fluid streams over my eye socket. I mumble that I am still awake, but the fingers keep poking and prying.
“I’m awake,” I moan again. “It hurts.”
“It’s almost over,” my doctor’s voice answers. “We’ll feed some more painkiller through your IV while we stitch you up.”
I want to sleep, but I’m gaining consciousness. Can I account for the entire operation? I frantically review the sounds and sensations: the ripping noise, and the rise and fall of voices; the prickle of the lens removal and the force of the implant being fastened into place; my body’s hot revolt against the invasion.
My head is throbbing when I leave the hospital with my parents. I try to tell them what I’ve felt, but my words slur and I lose the thread of my narrative. The room darkens and spins as I step toward the exit. At last, I lose consciousness.
When I recover and return home, I marvel at the clarity of my vision. The trees outside my house have distinct leaves and striated trunks. Tiny lines, like sunbursts, frame my mother’s eyes when she smiles. But the inflammation that persists weeks after the surgery warns me the clarity won’t last. I know I am losing sight when I return to my ophthalmologist’s office for a visual field test.
The field test simulates a search for stars. I settle onto a padded stool and lean into a chin rest suspended inside what looks like a small satellite dish. Directly in front of me, at the center of the concave surface, a tiny red light glows through a thin lens. A patch covers my left eye, and a technician tells me to keep my right eye fixed on the red light.
The technician hands me a metal clicker the size of a crayon. Above the red dot, a tiny yellow light blinks and fades. I depress the clicker before the light disappears, like a game show contestant with a signaling button. A pinprick of light appears to the left of the dot. Click. A fleeting glimmer to the right. Click. My eye strays reflexively, and the technician’s console screeches a reprimand. She resets the machine to make it stop.
A quarter of an hour strains by. At first, I am active with my clicker, finding a rhythm while the blinking lights are close to the center and the contrast between the lights and the white surface is still sharp. As my eye becomes fatigued, entire minutes pass between sightings. The dish’s surface turns a vibrating amber. I can’t distinguish the lights in the dish from the afterimage flashing inside my eye. The technician scribbles rapidly, plotting the points of light I’ve failed to see. My eyelid flutters against the dryness of my cornea, and the console shrieks again.
An hour later, the ophthalmologist reviews my performance in his exam room. He peers over a diagram that resembles a star chart, mapping regions of blindness like constellations. Noting the doctor’s frown, I wonder if I will ever gather the stars to my eyes again.
Within a year, I will lose all vision in my right eye. I will suppose I’ve been too greedy, like Orpheus, coveting more than I was meant to see.
Deneb forms the head of the Northern Cross asterism and is the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus, the swan. In Greek mythology, King Cygnus befriended the demigod Phaethon. When Phaethon was struck by a thunderbolt for riding his sun chariot too close to the earth, endangering human life, Cygnus mourned near the river Eridanus. The gods took pity and turned the king into a swan.
IN THE DECADE following my unsuccessful surgery, I see—albeit imperfectly—many things that bring me joy: a bouquet of origami flowers hand-folded by my beloved; the gemstone eyes of my newborn children; the rolling plains when I revisit the Midwest after moving far away. But nothing compares to the magnificence of the stars I glimpsed that summer at camp.
I fear I have offended a Zeus-like god, that I’ve trespassed like Phaethon and the stars have been taken away. It isn’t until I’m approaching thirty and in a contemplative mood that I realize what should have been obvious all along: my inability to see the stars doesn’t mean they are gone.
The story I remember most vividly after camp is the legend of the Pleiades, a cluster of stars also known as the Seven Sisters. In Greek mythology, they are the seven daughters of Atlas pursued by the hunter Orion. Transformed by Zeus into fleet-winged doves, they live among the stars, where Orion still follows them in an immortal chase.
There are Seven Sisters, but only six stars are generally visible to the unaided eye. As one legend has it, the lost sister, Merope, married a mortal and hid her face in shame when she regarded her sisters’ alliances with the gods. From her name comes meropia, a condition of partial blindness.
The story stays with me because it substantiates the connection between blindness and shame. On the eve of my thirtieth birthday, I reread the Pleiades myth and learn that Merope bore a consolation child. She named him Glaucus, for the glassy green color of the sea. Glaucoma first described the glassy stare of anyone with blind eyes. In women, glaucus eyes were considered beautiful.
Continuing to read, I am reminded of something I have forgotten. The tradition of a lost Pleiad is not unique to Greek mythology. Germans, Romanians, Australian Aborigines, Mesopotamians, Brazilians, and North American tribes, including the Navajo and the Arapaho, all had legends accounting for the disappearance of a seventh star where only six were now visible. Stargazers from around the globe believed in a light they couldn’t see though there is strong evidence that no more than six of the Pleiades were ever detectable without magnification.
How did ancient observers know there was more than met their eyes? What made them so certain of a star they couldn’t see? Contemporary astronomers have confirmed there is not just one but hundreds of invisible stars in the Pleiades cluster.
The specter of a primitive stargazer bids me consider: what if joy is the momentary glimpse of a beauty we sense but can’t always perceive? Love. Rebirth. Purpose. A God who is nothing like the merciless Zeus. A heaven where stars sing. What if my audience with the stars was not a favor withdrawn but a promise bestowed?
When I turn thirty, my husband takes me to an observatory to see a star that is thirty light years away. The light that reaches my eye originated in the year of my birth. I can almost get my head around the concept. A docent helps me focus the telescope and find my star. It doesn’t look like much—a blur of light seen through the cataract that remains in my left eye—but I know it is brilliant. I imagine a celestial fireworks show on the day I was born, a gift wrapped in sparkle and sent on a journey of 176 trillion miles for delivery three decades later. In the shadow of infinity, three decades is not such a long time. Thirty years is not so long to learn to see.