Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Wishing Upon a Star

When I was a child, we often played outside until or even after dark, all year around, and enjoyed watching the "stars come out." We didn't have all the light pollution in Manhattan, Kansas then that's there now, and we could see a stupendous number of stars and the glorious Milky Way. I remember lying on my back and watching the stars in the summer, along with the fireflies that were numerous then.

I had a Little Golden Guide for Stars and in those days, I was fascinated with the heavens. I learned to find many of the constellations and planets and loved to watch for "shooting stars." One of the highlights of my childhood was seeing the beautiful Northern Lights twice, once in Canada and once an amazing display of red Northern Lights that came as far south as Manhattan, Kansas.

When I was in the fifth grade and had to do a report, I chose to do one on astronomy and called the university to find out if there was anyone who could help me. It turned out that just the person I needed lived all of one block from me. I called him up and "invited myself over." As an adult, I now wonder what he thought of some little fifth grade girl calling him up like that. I'm no longer sure, but I think his name was Jack Robinson. I wish I knew for sure, because he was great. He not only answered my questions but revealed that there was a small telescope on the roof of the chemistry building, which was where my father taught organic chemistry.

Between the two of us, we engineered a field trip for my whole fifth grade class to go up to the roof of Willard Hall at Kansas State University and look through that telescope at the heavens. I remember seeing the craters on the moon, the rings of Saturn, four of Jupiter's moons. To children today, having grown up in the Space Age with incredible photos from the Hubble telescope and space missions, seeing what we saw would be less than stellar, but for us, it was the window to other worlds and it was a highlight of my childhood.

Both my sons took after me in their interest in the stars, but their interest wasn't in identifying them. They were interested in the future, in science fiction, in colonizing the universe, in space travel.

Friends of Leif's have said they think he must be traveling in space now, maybe hanging onto a comet with his hair on fire.

Leif did not believe in God or an afterlife. He was an agnostic, primarily, I think because the orthodox beliefs of organized religion did not make any sense to him and because he fervently believed that our religions have caused so much death, destruction and hatred in the world that they deserve to be destroyed. He could not conceive how a god that could create the universe could be the god of those religions, and saying that he "believed in God" would allow people to think he believed in the god of those religions. He did appreciate many of the teachings of inspired religious leaders, but felt their followers had perverted their vision and misused their words.

Regardless of that, I think he wished he could believe in some kind of divine creator, one not defined by our human failings and beliefs.

I don't know if there is an afterlife, but if there is, I think Leif must be mighty surprised. If there is one, I hope it is a good one for him, better than the crushing load of disappointments, problems and health issues he faced as an adult in this one.

I will never look at the sky the same way again since Leif's death. I have always loved the sky, the sun, the clouds, the everchanging beauty of the sunrises, sunsets, storms building, cloud shapes and colors. I have loved the heavens at night. Now, I think because we associate death and heaven with the sky, whenever I look at the sky, I think of Leif. I wonder whether there is anything left of that powerful mind, that imposing personality. Like him, I doubt that there is. I haven't felt his presence, though I suspect that if there were an afterlife for Leif, he would not spend it here trying to contact those of us still alive.

When I look at the night sky, I will always, always, think of him and say that childhood wish poem:

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.

I will never get my wish, for I wish for Leif back, alive and happy. I will never get it, but I will never, ever stop wishing.


The photo I've posted is one from the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab site.

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