Sky & Telescope - February 2021 - 84

FOCAL POINT by Joe Barry

A Star for Donna

For the author, the red giant Betelgeuse always brings to mind a lost beloved.

do you ever reminisce about loved ones
who have passed on? Every night I gaze
at Betelgeuse, I reflect on my stepmother, Donna, and the Latin phrase Et
lux in tenebris lucet ( " The light shineth
in the darkness " ) comes to mind.
Donna passed away from pancreatic
cancer in 2008, and although I drafted
this story soon after, I never felt a sense
of urgency to publish. But Betelgeuse's
sudden fading in late 2019 triggered a
renewed determination to tell my story.
Of all the influences in my life,
Donna was most responsible for igniting my fascination with astronomy.
It was she who gave me a book on the
planets and stars when I was 10 years

old. And with my curiosity piqued, it
was Donna who suggested to my father
that I receive a telescope (a 60-mm
refractor) for Christmas. Thus began
my lifelong journey in astronomy.
Two years later, my parents rewarded
my burgeoning passion with a 6-inch
Newtonian reflector. Throughout
my middle and high school years, I
observed from our backyard below their
bedroom. A simple " Hey, look at this! "
would entice them downstairs to share
in my celestial discoveries.
After college, I was commissioned
into the Air Force, and my service
enabled me to pursue astronomy
throughout the world. The next 11 years
seemed to pass like a meteor flash.
In Donna's last month, I took leave
and returned home to my family. I
brought along my signed first edition
of Leslie Peltier's Starlight Nights: The
Adventures of a Star-Gazer, and I read
her my two favorite passages: the night
of his first comet discovery, and his
" extraterrestrial " sighting that turned
out to be something entirely different.
During my visit, I enjoyed a full-circle moment when I convinced my father
to purchase his own 5-inch MaksutovCassegrain. From our familiar backyard
haunt, I guided him as he star-hopped
to the famous nebula NGC 2392 in
Gemini. It was a welcome respite from
the looming reality.
The night after Donna's passing, we
held a celebration dinner, and afterwards I showed family and friends the
rings of Saturn from our backyard. As
my stepsister and I looked up at the sky,
she suggested we choose a star to name
in Donna's honor. " It has to be a red
star, " I declared, " to represent her fiery
red hair. " She agreed, and the natural
W When Betelgeuse, seen here atop Orion,
dimmed in 2019, the author couldn't help but
wonder, " Is Donna sending me a message? "

84

FEBRUARY 2 021 * SK Y & TELESCOPE

Betelgeuse reminds us
that nothing is permanent,
and this reality implores us
to cherish life.
choice was Betelgeuse, which beamed in
Orion above our house that night.
Astronomy brought our family
together, and Betelgeuse shined through
our hour of darkness.
Ever since that night, I celebrate the
first time every year that Orion rises in
the eastern sky and I spot Betelgeuse.
On several occasions, I have regaled
friends with the red giant's immense
size - that it would extend well beyond
Mars and possibly as far as Jupiter if it
replaced our Sun. That beautiful red
star has faithfully shone through good
times and bad.
When Betelgeuse began to dim in
2019, I was left with mixed emotions.
The astronomer in me was excited about
the prospect (however unlikely) that we
could witness a spectacular supernova
in our lifetime. Yet I also mourned that
a visible remembrance of my stepmother was fading. Change is unsettling. It made me wonder: Is Donna
sending me a message?
We expect stars to appear every
night; we expect them to outlast us.
Betelgeuse reminds us that nothing
in life is permanent, and this reality
implores us to cherish life - and each
other - in the short time we have on
this planet.
„ JOE BARRY is a Tampa, Floridabased amateur astronomer, Air Force
veteran, and founder of Deep Sky Coffee
Company, which donates proceeds to
dark-sky preservation. He is available to
talk astronomy and coffee at joeabarry@
gmail.com.

G A RY SERONIK

WHEN YOU PEER UP to the heavens,



Sky & Telescope - February 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky & Telescope - February 2021

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