Delmarva Review: The Philosophy of Stars: A Personal Essay by Gail Overstreet

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Three years ago, I watched as my best friend, my father, gulped down a giant, salted caramel cookie the size of a dinner plate. His face flushed with toddler-like eagerness, crumbs littered his chin on down to the neat, knit collar of his polo shirt. Dad took full advantage of the fact that my stepmother wasn’t there in the Barnes & Noble café to order him a sensible turkey sandwich for lunch.

He was no longer able to drive, and I was still stinging from the 20-minute diatribe he had just unleashed on me due to my missing the correct highway exit in his new town; a town I didn’t know. Unaccustomed to these new and frequent emotional outbursts, I felt rattled.

I tell him to wait for me in the café while I go to the ladies’ room. When I return three minutes later, he is gone. Hastily I explain to the café clerk that my Dad has dementia, and did she see which way he headed? Seeing my panic, she joins me in my frantic search. We find him a long five minutes later, wandering aimlessly on the other side of the store, looking for something or someone.

It would be our last outing together, as a pair.

Most stars have companions; they are bound together by mutual gravity. When paired, stars orbit around each other, with one star typically more gaseous while the other is more rocky. The forces of gravity between them can cause the younger, more gaseous star to gain mass and shape from the older, denser star. Like water swirling around a drain, their orbital gravity allows for the transfer of basic components of a star – gasses, space dust, rocks – and for the younger star to begin to solidify under compression. This compression progressively generates extremely high temperatures within the core of the star-under-construction – known as a protostar – which ultimately leads to fusion. In other words, a star in its infancy through youth evolves from a nebulous, gaseous form, becoming more solid, partly through deriving material from a mature star in its orbit.
Eventually, the younger star graduates from its protostar status, fusing into a fully-baked star in its own right.

My Dad and I were a pair from the start. Fresh out of the Navy in 1965, where he served as an intelligence officer, Dad would spend the next 40 years as a civil engineer drafting plans for the construction of large airports and seaports. When I was in elementary school in the 1970s – while my older brother, in emulation of Swiss Family Robinson, spent all his time playing outside in tree houses or exploring the weedy vacant lot at the end of our road – I would sneak into the den of our modest, Easter egg-yellow ranch house in suburban San Diego. I sat on my Dad’s spinning bar-style chair with the burnt sienna-orange vinyl seat, situated at his drafting table. My legs dangled off the high seat, careful not to disturb any of the drawings he’d been working on. I gingerly fingered the drawing paper; it felt semi-stiff and made a crinkling sound under my light touch, the delicate corners and edges curling up slightly. My eyes traced the outlines of buildings, walls, parking lots. The comforting Dad-scent of his smoky aftershave lingered on his desk pad and drafting pencils.

While he drew, I played on the floor around him, sometimes peeking over his shoulder, wondering if when I grew up I would have my very own drafting table, too. Between his projects, I would experiment with the see-through green, circle-shape drafting templates – struggling with my too-small fingers to keep the hard-plastic mechanical pencils pushed firmly, but not too roughly, against the sharp, beveled edges of the circle shapes, lest the lead would break off – pretending to draw plans of (mostly circular) buildings.

Now, Dad seems light years away from me.

The Earth is continually turning, making it tricky for astrophotographers to track objects in deep space and successfully make clear, sharp images of them. Stability is everything in astrophotography; moving the scope even a few inches can translate into millions of miles off-target once the instrument’s view hits deep space.

For this reason, a telescope has two cameras: the first camera is aimed at the Target Star (or “object”) that the astrophotographer wants to make an image of, while a second camera is aimed at the Guide Star.

A Guide Star serves as a single fixed point in the sky, a reference point. Once the first camera’s shutter opens, the light sensor inside it starts collecting light data from the Target Star. At that point, the sensor in the first camera becomes overwhelmed with bright light, and the view of the Target Star through the astrophotographers camera software goes blank.

A Guide Star is your anchor, your reassurance. You know where you are in time and place in the vast universe. It is home base.

When I was in college, my Dad relished my experience along with me. He was a true intellectual, his mind engrossed by many subjects, delving deeply into the sciences, literature, the arts. Raised in rural farming communities, he diverged from the family and immersed himself in books and music whenever he could, lying in grassy fields on sunny afternoons as a young boy, hearing musical compositions form in his head as he gazed into the vast, blue California sky. My two brothers didn’t go to college, but rather pursued careers in the trades. So, when I finally found my way to Berkeley as an English undergrad in my late twenties, my father was overjoyed.

Dad had bypassed his desire to study music, instead going to school for a professional degree in civil engineering. He envied my study of the Classics, and philosophy, and timeless themes of war, love, redemption, and coming home. Every Sunday, we gathered on the phone, our exclusive club of two. We joked about how we might save the world with the help of Voltaire, Shakespeare, and Homer. After I took my last two final essay exams back to back, my mind happily exhausted in an adrenaline- fueled afterglow, I called Dad.

Once I got into the working world, Dad said, I might never have these moments again – the “high” from intellectual rigor, for the sheer joy of it. Treasure them.

There are observable regions of space that contain hundreds of galaxies, which consist of billions of stars. These galaxy neighborhoods occur due to the expansion of mutual gravity. That is, the more galaxies there are the more gravity that is generated both between pairs of galaxies and among galaxies as a larger group – with the gravitational pull accelerating at an astonishing pace. In fact, “gravity rules” could be the official tagline of how deep space operates – it’s like a giant game of bumper cars up there.

Gravity is how stars are created from their infancy, as protostars. Gravity is what keeps our Earth moving around the sun. Gravity is what will cause the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies to collide into each other a projected four billion years from now.

And in these galaxy neighborhoods, gravity is what causes these astral bodies to orbit each other, and even steal stars from each other if they can get close enough.

Thirteen years ago is when I first noticed. Dad was 65, and we had both traveled to Ohio for a week of festivities before my little brother’s wedding. We were driving around town, having no luck finding bagels to bring back to the group. Pulling up to the third potential restaurant, my dependably even-keeled Dad shouted: “Let’s just get some damn food!”

A jolt of shock coursed through my body. I glanced over at my father, who was staring straight ahead, as if in a trance. I froze, trying not to cry – bewildered by this stranger sitting next to me.

A year later, everyone else noticed. During a family lunch, Dad repeated something he said just 10 minutes earlier, like it was a new thought. My siblings and I froze, our sandwiches and mouths hanging in mid-air. We shot startled looks at each other, as if one of us would deliver the punch line.

Months later, those ten-minute gaps turned into five minutes, a year-and-a-half after that, one minute. During that time, my stepmother relayed the doctors’ findings. First was “atrophy of the hippocampus” (the center of emotion and memory in the brain), which quickly progressed to “moderate” dementia. Then, from the memory specialist’s report: “The severity of his memory impairment is suggestive of an evolving Alzheimer’s disease.” It all happened so fast – once the gravity of the disease took hold the acceleration was astounding, stealing memories by the minute.

A few months ago, I presented my father with a pine cone from the Giant Sequoia, the largest trees in the world, gathered near the mountain home in California that my new husband and I just moved into. I explained how these cones are a rare find since they only typically drop during powerful mountain storms, or an intense wildfire when the tree is under great heat stress. Usually, these cones stay tucked away at the very top of these ancient trees, which can grow as tall as 300 feet and live up to 3,000 years.

Dad glanced at it for about a second, puzzled, then dropped it on a side table, mumbling “Um…OK. Thanks?”

The engineer-father I once knew would have analyzed that pine-cone for hours, noting the exquisite design of its diamond- shaped scales. He would have traced the geometry of the cone with his fingers, observing where the outer scales joined the core, and where the core joined the stem. He would have considered how functionally astute this tree was, protecting its seeds deep inside its tightly closed orbit.

My Dad will never see our new home. He doesn’t remember my husband between our visits to see him and my stepmom in Florida. He doesn’t remember that I now live in California, just up the mountain from where his family farmed the San Joaquin Valley for decades starting in the late 1930s, refugees from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. He doesn’t remember that I went to Berkeley, or the constellations of hours-long conversations we had about what I was discovering and learning, or that he came to see me there.

And one day, he won’t remember me.

Comets are loners. They are trapped within the sun’s orbit, accelerating as they get closer to it, the sun’s gravity exerting great centrifugal force. Unlike stars, comets do not easily reveal which way they are headed.

Even a comet’s orbit is different from a star’s. Elliptical, like an oval, instead of circular as with stars, comets are much more unpredictable. A comet’s movements, direction, and whether it will someday crash into the sun – or be able to escape the sun’s massive pull and free itself – ultimately remains a mystery.

Many comets are like Comet Catalina, which we are now seeing from Earth for the last time. It has gotten just close enough to the sun to take advantage of its centrifugal force, and be propelled out of our solar system forever.

Soon, it will cross a threshold and escape from us. Maybe it will linger a bit longer in the liminal space between our solar system and what lies beyond it. Or, maybe it will go out in a blinding blaze, gone in a flash.

However it goes, we will know it is still out there, blazing its trail in the deep corners of space, just out of our sights.

Gail Overstreet’s essay in the 10th edition of Delmarva Review has been selected as a “Notable” essay in “The Best American Essays 2018.” Ms. Overstreet received her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University. She is a teacher and astronomer and lives with her husband at 5,000 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, near their astronomy observatory. Her work has appeared in National Geographic: Sierra Nevada Geotourism, Orion, and other publications.

Delmarva Review is a national literary journal with regional roots. In it’s eleventh year, the nonprofit journal publishes compelling new prose and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions, sales, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and copies, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.

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