Isaac Asimov famously said, “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I’d type a little faster.”
But what if you had only a few nights before major surgery? Would you stargaze a little faster?
I’ve had the opportunity to find out.
At long last, my total knee replacement procedure was scheduled for mid-July. For a while, it felt like I had all the time in the world to plan and prepare for what promised to be a slow and painful recovery. I took occasional breaks in the late evening to step outside and look up at the stars, but I was focused on ensuring clear pathways for my walker inside the house, getting ahead of work deadlines, starting pre-op physical therapy, and arranging care for Jax the Danelab while I was in the hospital. Because I was nervous about the surgery, I was determined to be as prepared as humanly possible.
That’s the thing about my anxiety: I can keep it at bay as long as I’m occupied with constructive tasks, and there was a lot to do. My anticipatory anxiety spiked whenever there was a lull, so I kept myself busy.
Then one day, I realized I had just five nights left before surgery. I still had items on my pre-op to-do list, but I was fast running out of time to stargaze without the inevitable compression stockings, a swollen knee the size of a melon, the aforementioned walker, and pain. I wasn’t sure when I’d next be able to spend a few comfortable hours outside after dark.
At first, I tried to make a plan. I’d already been working my way through a list of summer targets, but there was no way to cover the rest before surgery, short of cutting down neighborhood trees and camping out all night. Suddenly, I regretted not picking up that all-weather, wearable sleeping bag I’d eyed during Amazon’s Prime Days.
But after spending approximately eleven seconds stressing about how to triage my summer-stargazing wishlist, I remembered the whole point of spending time beneath the stars: to slow down, relax, and enjoy. It’s about quality, not quantity. I embraced this soul-soothing hobby to kindle joy, not to race through an astronomical task list.
With that in mind, I took a more casual approach. With more preparations to be made and PT exercises to do, extended hours outside late at night weren’t practical. But I could take in some deep breaths of starlight and make these last few nights count.
Five nights before surgery, I hobbled out the door with Jax by my side. There was a single constellation I’d been longing to see, but it was always hidden by trees or clouds. Now the tiny pattern was finally clear of the neighbor’s thick foliage, though I still had to battle a pair of streetlights. I found a spot in the driveway with a narrow window of eastern sky, leaned against my ancient RAV4, and lifted my 7×35 binoculars.
I found Delphinus almost immediately, along with its companions Sagitta, Vulpecula, and the Coat Hanger asterism. I thought back to the first summer of the pandemic when I and so many others turned to the sky for reassurance, adventure, and relief. That year I bought my first dedicated astronomy instruments, beginning with a pair of Orion 2×54 wide-angle binoculars — aka “star goggles” — that I used to spot Delphinus for the first time. I spent many magical July and August nights lying on a blanket in the yard for hours on end, looking up in wonder and beginning to explore the night sky in earnest. The Dolphin constellation was my instant favorite, and it has been an enduring celestial touchstone ever since.
That night in the driveway, a few minutes in the company of these familiar friends eased my anxiety, slowed my breathing, and sent me to bed with happy anticipation of many more star-filled nights to come. I’m not sure how I’ll make stargazing work in the weeks after surgery, but I’m confident I’ll figure it out. By the next morning, my pre-op jitters were trending more toward excitement than apprehension; I was having the same physical experience, but with a different interpretation thanks to my brief stellar sojourn. I felt grounded and even eager.
By the time you read this on the Sky & Telescope website, I should be more than two weeks post-op. I hope I’m resting comfortably and building back strength and mobility. While I’m planning my next column on stargazing and pain relief, it may take long weeks or months before I’m back to a satisfying rhythm under starry skies.
In the meantime, I am daydreaming about dark skies and discovery. I’m boggling at new images from the James Webb Space Telescope. I’m looking forward to cooler weather and the return of my autumn and winter friends in the sky, like Saturn and Jupiter, the Beehive Cluster, the Pleiades, and the Orion Nebula. I will get back outside again before too much longer. And I definitely have that wearable sleeping bag on my wishlist.