Gaining strength from the Lions Paw
To the amateur astronomer, the sky can engender any of a number of pleasant occupations: from staring in wonder at some fuzzy galaxy in a telescope as big as a corn silo to carefully photographing a cluster of a million stars.
To the stargazer, the sky is a personal matter. Every bright star and planet triggers some sort of emotion, often associated with some deeply felt personal memory.
My fragile, 94-year-old father-in-law is here for an extended visit, and my thoughts turn to the star Regulus in the constellation Leo, the lion.
Back in 1996 around this time of year, I held my mother’s hand as she had her second heart attack in as many days.
“Oh boy,” she said. “I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
She made it, barely. As she slept around 5 a.m. I left the hospital to catch some air. I did what I always do at times like those.
Leo, the Lion, was rising in the southeast with bright Mars below it. The star Regulus, the “Little King” shone brightly as the front paw of the Lion.
The lion has always been a symbol of strength — its paw both powerful and delicate.
Regulus is 74 light years away, about 440 trillion miles. The light we see when we look at the star started traveling toward Earth 74 years ago, at about the time my mother was born.
Regulus is close to us by cosmic standards. The universe stretches around us for billions of light years, and our planet is smaller than a mote of dust by comparison to that vastness.
And the universe is old beyond our imaginative powers to truly understand how old. The universe is 200 million times older than my mother was when she died, and it will still be here trillions of years after she — and we — are gone.
As I looked at Regulus, a flash of light, a glowing streak, briefly illuminated the night. A tiny particle of space debris had burned up in our atmosphere and had left a tiny trail of glory before it disappeared forever.
Because of the hour and because these shooting stars are often visible only on a very small area of our planet, I may have been the only person alive to see it before it faded to darkness.
We flash through the universe like shooting stars, so many of which are never seen because no one took the time to look up. We are so small compared to the vastness of the cosmos. We live and die in an instant, a snap of the universal fingers.
But in that instant, there is hope. Life is all too short, but that fact makes every second a precious gift.
As I walked back into the hospital, my eyes were drawn to a tiny plaque, worn with age. I had passed it a dozen times without seeing it, as thousands must have done before.
On it were these words:
” … we embrace the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of our sisters and brothers in the human community.”
If our time on the planet is to mean anything at all, we must embrace with joy every opportunity to learn. We must cherish every chance to share the joy of others. We must use every occasion to help others to transcend their pain. We must uncompromisingly reject the hatred that seems to dominate our discourse. Life is too short to waste it on hate.
Instead, we must love with unstinting fervor the universe and all its parts. It is, after all, our greater parent, mother to us all.
Most of all, we must live our lives as if every moment is our last because inevitably every life will have a last moment.
My mother had heart bypass surgery, but she never returned home. My father-in-law will live a few more moments, or months, or weeks, or years, to experience the joys and pains of life on our planet.
I never showed my mother the Lion’s Paw, and my father-in law is too fragile to go outside and see it. Thus, I must content myself to make this promise. On my 74th birthday, if I am privileged to make it, I will go out and look at the Lion’s Paw. I will remember that the light I am looking at took my whole lifetime to get to my eyes. And I will try to gain strength and courage from the Lion’s Paw.
Tom Burns is the director of Perkins Observatory. He can be reached at email@example.com.