When I was sixteen years old, I saw the Milky Way for the first time. This is the truest thing that I have ever written and it will be almost everything I can do to commit it into black and white print for the first time.
I was six months old when I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. I am lucky, the type that I have is not the most vicious or devastating. It means that I am night blind, that my peripheral vision is slowly narrowing into a pinhole of vision, and that my depth perception is gradually flattening away to nothing.
My cousins and I used to go out and lie on sleeping bags in the back of a pickup truck or, later, on top of one of my aunt's van and watch meteor showers. They would watch. I would stare up into the black sky and study the seven bright points of light that I could see and wonder what it was like.
When I was sixteen, my father did the thing that all good fathers promise their children they will do. With the help of a military surplus catalog, my dad gave me the galaxy. It happened because he ordered a pair of Russian military night vision goggles, intending to use them so he could walk his sprinklers at night in the fields to make sure that they didn't get plugged by debris in the irrigation water. When he got them, we waited for the night to fall and then, we tried them out, after breathlessly reading the instructions over and over and over again in anticipation.
Dad turned off our yard light and we went outside. I put on the night vision goggles and removed the lens caps and looked up into the sky. It was a personal miracle. Stretching above me in uncountable points of light as far as I could see, there were stars, some of them clustered so tightly together they made swirling patterns of white against the inky darkness. I stared.
I'd had people describing the stars to me all my life. What I discovered was that everyone will tell you something different, because they all see them in their own way. None of what they had tried to describe to me could possibly match the glittering arch of that night sky.
I still wasn't seeing what others would have, even with the assistance of night vision goggles, there would still be stars too dim for my eyes to perceive. Then too, there was the matter of the emerald green wash of color night vision goggles put over everything. It didn't matter. I was breathless under an arm of the Milky Way that I had always simply had to take on faith was there.
Two weeks later, someone broke into my father's pickup and stole the night vision goggles from behind the seat. They smashed the driver's side window in and ran, like the cowards that they were. What hurt the most was knowing that to the person who stole them, it was just easy cash, a quick, dirty transaction to a faceless man behind an anonymous counter at a pawn shop miles away. It meant less than nothing to them.
There was no way for us to order new ones, first of all because they had been so expensive, and, more to the point, as a military surplus item, there was only a very limited supply of them. When we realized that, I went into my room, curled on my side with a book, and pretended to read while I let my heart break around the loss of so much ordinary magic.
When I got to college, I followed my nature, which is to study the things that I don't understand, so I can find out more. It never takes away the mystery, because everything I learn leads me to ask more questions. It spins me into waves of curiosity and inspiration as infinite as the Universe itself. After consulting with the instructor and explaining my night vision issues, he agreed to let me take astronomy. There, what I had thought would be a liability turned out to be one of the most amazing assets to the class. Without all the clutter of the stars, I could find the visible planets and the stars we used for markers more quickly and easily than anyone else, including our professor. And, while I loved the process of finding out about that whole aspect of our world that I would never see, it was colored with a tinge of sadness. I still had to simply believe without seeing what I was being told. A telescope does not gather enough light to alter how much of the stars that I can see.
When I was sixteen years old, my father gave me the stars, handed them to me in the emerald green trappings of science. When I was sixteen years old, someone else stole the stars from me, and now, I have only the memories of them left. You cannot miss what you have never had. To have had only the barest taste and then lose it can almost be devastating.