Maybe deliberate experiences of joy and awe should be standard in any post-op plan.
There is a balm, intangible but undeniable, that comes from spending time under a starry sky. The universe has a way of putting things like osteoarthritis and impending surgery into a larger perspective. Physical pain is small and temporary in comparison to cosmic awe, and I expected to rely heavily on celestial relief in the aftermath of my total knee replacement.
That’s not exactly what happened.
Leading up to my mid-July surgery, I did take solace in the stars when I was physically able to. Even the night before surgery, as my anxiety ramped up and my gut became a rabid butterfly factory, heading outside to look up at the sky helped me to breathe. I knew I’d be fine, but it’s one thing to know something in your mind, and quite another to feel it physically — and that night my body wasn’t getting the message. I stood in the front yard and spotted Kenobi’s constellation. The giant star-filled paw instantly soothed my busy brain. I was ready.
But since my knee replacement, I’ve been feeling anything but bionic, and thanks to the expected but intense post-op insomnia, I’ve become effectively nocturnal. You’d think that would be a dream come true for a stargazer! I could spend those restless hours basking in celestial comfort, right?
Unfortunately, just because I’m awake doesn’t mean I’m functional. In addition to post-op pain, the increased fatigue and impact on my cognition were stark realities I’d not counted on. It has taken a long while just to confidently navigate a couple of steps in the dark.
The skies weren’t in my favor, either: Clouds seemed always present when I had the strength to duck outside, and wildfire smoke obscured all but the brightest stars on nights when the pain had me walking endless laps inside the house.
Nevertheless, I was determined to catch the peak of this year’s Perseid meteor shower — a summer favorite since I first attended a meteor shower watch party at Rooster Rock State Park a few years after I moved to Oregon. Since I was stuck at home this time, my partner set up the zero-gravity chair for me out back and lugged Jax’s dog bed outside, too, so I could rest in good company while enjoying the show.
In the space of about an hour, I saw only three streaks of light that might have been part of the Perseids. But it was a welcome relief to be under the stars again! Hours later, when pain and insomnia had me lurching around the house, I made my way back outside to find the reassuring return of Jupiter and the Pleiades.
In Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig writes, “Look at the sky. Remind yourself of the cosmos. Seek vastness at every opportunity, in order to see the smallness of yourself.”
I’ve spent long weeks boxed in by the physical work of healing and by the monotony of four walls and a roof. As I hunted for the Perseids and watched Cassiopeia rise between the trees, my discomfort remained. But every other part of me relaxed and expanded beneath the stellar canopy. Once again, I felt both insignificant and part of a universal whole. I felt less alone with my struggle.
I’m not saying that stargazing is more effective than Extra Strength Tylenol, let alone the “good stuff” they sent home with me from the hospital. For one, pain relievers work all day, whereas stargazing requires waiting until nightfall for a dose of celestial photons. But maybe deliberate experiences of joy and awe should be standard in any post-op plan.
Coming back from this surgery has been hard, and it’s a process that could take six to 12 months for full recovery. But the stars are eternal compared to this challenge, and once I’ve healed, I look forward to many years of taking full advantage of everything the night sky has to offer. There is such contentment and delight to be had.