Commentary and Philosophy Fiction posted April 3, 2016


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Time on Earth

by Mark Valentine

The author has placed a warning on this post for language.


August 2, 2016 - 08:00 Hours

I should have gone out for pizza. Julie and I had been friends since freshman year. In retrospect I’m sure she would have gone out with me had I asked her. I always meant to. A couple of times I almost got the words out of my mouth. Anyway, in the spring of our sophomore year, our group of friends decides to go out for pizza. Julie goes out of her way to make sure I was coming, “Sit by me so I don’t get stuck having to talk with Chad and Richie, OK?”, she says.  What trajectory might my journey have followed had I just said “OK”? But instead I say, “Gonna have to pass on pizza, I’ve got a test in calc tomorrow”.  Idiot.

Trajectories. We spend a lot of time calculating trajectories in my line of work. Launch speed, angles, vectors, friction. Gotta stay on course – a slight deviation means you miss your re-entry window. And it’s not just physics. Gotta get A’s in your core subjects in your sophomore year so that you can get accepted into the right Air Force track. Gotta excel in the Air Force so you get into NASA’s training program. Gotta stand out at NASA so you get picked for a moon landing. Work. Excel. Work some more. No time for pizza.

Julie’s trajectory sure changed that night. She ended up sitting next to Doug. By the time they came back to the dorm that night, they were a couple. I guess she got tired of waiting for me. They’re married now and have three great kids. All for the best. Doug is a better man than I. Gave Julie a better life than I could have. Nevertheless, I should have gone out for pizza. Hell, I should have done lots of things. I should have taken more walks, bought Apple stock, tried out for Jeopardy, stayed with piano lessons, spent more time with my dad, learned Italian. I should have kissed the girl.

Too late now.

I did get to the moon however, so there’s that. In case you’re wondering what the worst part is, the worst part of having terminal cancer, not the worst part about going to the moon - I’m sorry, did I not mention that I have pancreatic cancer? Anyway, the worst part of the whole terminal illness thing is not the pain, nor is it the uncertainty of an afterlife – it’s the certainty of knowing that the world will still go on turning without you. I’m not the first to have that insight, but I think I have a unique perspective on it. I’m literally watching the world turn without me. My time on earth, as they say, is through.

Of course, the folks at Mission Control don’t know that yet. They’re counting on this being a round trip. I still can’t believe that I was able to keep my diagnosis a secret. They screen you for everything pre-flight. Everything except pancreatic cancer apparently. Thank God for doctor-patient confidentiality. The doctors gave me an outside window of six months – that was three months ago. Given that I’d sacrificed so much for this one shot, I wasn’t about to let a little thing like a terminal illness stand between me and the moon.

I feel bad about lying to NASA – they’re good people. It was a privilege working with them. But I did all the experiments they asked me to, and their landing craft will still be here in good condition when they send another rocket up to retrieve it. What are they gonna do – fire me? I’ll leave them a note asking them to leave my body up here though.

And so here I am. Here to stay. At least I’ve taken the uncertainty out of the equation. None of this 1-3 months, maybe longer, stuff - I’ve got 96 hours’ worth of oxygen left. I’ll get to see four more rotations of the earth before my supply runs out. The folks down there needn’t be burdened with my end-of-life care, nor with the disposal of my remains. There will be no funeral arrangements, no hospitals, no palliative care or morphine fogs. In approximately 96 hours from now, the air that I breathe will be mostly CO2 and I’ll drift off to eternity.

And the world will keep on turning.

I don’t know why that last part makes me so sad. People were going about their business for millennia before I arrived, why shouldn’t they keep on keepin’ on after I’m gone? I guess I’ll miss it. Not sure why I said that in the future tense, I’m already gone as far as earth is concerned. Did I remember to turn on my Out of Office Assistant?

I know most people wouldn’t choose to spend their last days like this, but this suits me just fine. I am alone with my thoughts. Alone as a man can be. Right now my thought is how beautiful it all is from up here. How peaceful and serene the earth looks from a distance of 180,000 miles. It takes my breath away. That’s a metaphor - for now.

I never married, never had kids. I loved hanging out with my sister’s daughter though. Carolyn – what a cutie! We had a lot of fun together. She thought that having an astronaut for an uncle was the coolest. “Uncle Spaceman”, she used to call me.  I remember watching Sesame Street with her. And as I remember that, the lyrics of a song come back to me. I think it was Ernie who sang it.

 
Though I'd like to look down at the earth from above
I would miss all the places and people I love
So although I might like it for one afternoon
I don't want to live on the moon

It’s not a bad place to die though.

August 3 - 9:30 Hours

For breakfast, I added a Snickers bar I smuggled aboard to my NASA provisions. As they say, anything can be part of a healthy breakfast, if you eat it with a healthy breakfast. Besides, I find I’m not so worried about keeping my weight down these days. Up here I only weigh 28 pounds. Looking forward to tonight’s dinner – smoked salmon and a bottle of Pinot Grigio I smuggled. What’s the joke about the restaurant on the moon? Good food, no atmosphere? They forgot to add, unbelievable view!

Speaking of which, time to venture out.

I wonder what they’re doing down there. Right now I can see China. One quarter of the earth’s population, and I can cover them with my thumb. And there’s Korea. Can’t really tell where North begins and South ends – seems someone forgot to draw the 38th parallel on the globe I’m looking at. What’s his name, the little fat guy? He could detonate a nuclear weapon right now and it would be indiscernible from up here.  Kim Jong Un – that’s it. Hey Kim, you should see what you look like from up here. Most powerful telescope in the world couldn’t see your tiny little fat body, you microscopic piece of flea shit. You too, Trump. You too, ISIS.

And you too, Tony Capoche. Yeah, I still remember what you did to me - locking me in my locker in fifth grade. I’ll have you know I’m a lot bigger now – I can bench 275 pounds. I’m a fucking astronaut! I should come back to earth just so I can KICK YOUR ASS WITH MY DYING BREATH YOU BULLYING SON OF A BITCH! DO YOU KNOW HOW HUMILIATING THAT WAS? THE SCARS IT LEFT? DID YOU EVER GIVE IT A SECOND THOUGHT? YOU THINK YOU’RE GOD ALMIGHTY BUT YOU’RE NOT! MAYBE FROM WHERE YOU’RE STANDING, BUT I’M STANDING RIGHT HERE, AND YOU’RE NOTHING! ALL OF YOU. YOU TAKE AWAY YOUR HEATERS AND YOUR PISTOLEROS AND YOU’RE NOTHING! FUCK ALL OF YOU!

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Wow, so much for my moment of Zen. Where did that come from?  I guess I can cross, “Stand-on-the-moon-and-do-a-Brando-impersonation” off of the bucket list. Crying too. Didn’t even do it when my father died. Had to come to the moon. I’ve gotta say, it felt good. Got my helmet all fogged up though. I should probably go back to the ship so I can clean it off – maybe take a nap and regroup.

August 3 16:00 Hours

Where was I? Oh yes, wondering what they’re all doing. I wish you guys could see yourselves. I wish you all could know what I know now. Take care of each other, OK?

64 hours left in the world’s best and most expensive camping trip. The whole thing’s been a camping trip I guess, not just the moon part. And what’s a camping trip without wine? Time to open that bottle of Pinot.

August 4 – 11:00 Hours

I should contact Houston to tell them my latest scientific discovery – you can still feel hung over on the moon! Maybe I shouldn’t have drunk the whole bottle, but I figured I wasn’t driving so, what the hell?

I should get up and moving – that’ll make me feel better. Maybe play a little golf, see if I can break the course record I set yesterday. My game is really coming around, hit a couple of 800 yard drives and got a hole-in-one - OK, so the "hole" was a crater, but still... Funny, up here you can improve your lie as much as you want because no-one is watching – but that’s precisely why it makes no sense to do it. No one to compete with, no-one to impress, nothing to be embarrassed about if you take an eight.

Also, I gotta go for a run. I know I should conserve my oxygen, but I’ve always wanted to go for a run on the moon, and my regrets list is long enough already without adding one more item. Man, I loved running down there on earth. Nothing like the high of being in the middle of a twenty mile run – just you and farmland on either side. Feeling the miles pass effortlessly under your feet. I imagine the space suit will impair the experience a bit, but still, it has to be done.

I suppose I could just take the helmet off and get it over with right now. I’m not going to, but for some reason, I need to know that I could. It’s strangely comforting. I guess I’m not ready to completely relinquish control of my fate yet. I’m still in Captain’s seat for the next 45 hours.

August 5 – 14:00 Hours

Sea of Tranquility. Grimaldi and Riccoli nailed it when they came up with that name. How’d they know? So peaceful. So sublimely peaceful.

I can see the Americas. Peoria, Illinois would be right about there. Julie is down there. My God she was beautiful, And kind. I hope she’s happy. I hope they’re all happy. They’ll all keep doing laps next week, unobserved by me. Unobserved by anyone? No, I don’t believe that. Not anymore

You’re there, right God? You’ve gotta be. It’s so silent and so beautiful. I’ve always sort of believed in you, but now I feel sure. Not sure if that’s because my countdown clock is at T-minus 18 hours and counting, or because I have finally extricated myself from the rat race. No point in having an ego up here – there’s no-one to impress. Just you and me.

Sorry for my little rant the other day. The Brando thing. I guess they’re all your children down there right? Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump, Tony Capoche, the whole dysfunctional family is yours. Is this how you see them, or is your vantage point even more distant? Or, perhaps closer? Maybe you’re down there mixing it up on a daily basis. Do you do that? Cuz, I tell you, if you do, in the words of Ricky Ricardo, you got some ‘splainin’ to do Big Guy.

Like my parents for example. Mom died when I was ten, dad when I was sixteen – where’s the fairness in that? The Cubs? Slavery? Mosquitoes? Yeah, I’d say you got some ‘splainin’ to do all right.

Or not – what do I know? You don’t answer to me. A passage from Job comes back to me. I’m not the kind of guy who can reel off Scripture passages from memory, but apparently this one was on the shelf somewhere and comes back to me now.

 
“Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? Brace yourself like a man, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.”
 
Yeah, I get it - you’re God, and I’m a soon-to-be dead astronaut. I guess the fact that I graduated at the top of my class at Purdue, or that I am one of only a handful of humans to walk on the moon isn’t all that impressive from where you sit. I remember the nuns in grammar school teaching us about how you created everything ex nihilo. Now, THAT’S impressive. They also told us that we had guardian angels watching out for us, and that you cared about each of us individually. The angel thing seems a bit far-fetched, but the other part, the part about you caring for us - for me - is that true? I hope so.

Stay with me OK? Stay with all of them too. I’m a little bit scared. I’m sure they are too, but for different reasons. The beauty and the distance help me relax though. They bring peace. I think I'll just watch for a while.

Thanks, I can feel you now. It’s love right? It’s always been about love. Didn’t need to come up here to figure that out. Or maybe I did.

August 6 – 06:00 Hours

The final day. Memories are flooding into my consciousness now. It’s as if some memory dam broke and the waters are pouring randomly and chaotically into my consciousness. Must be the lack of oxygen. I guess the end is near.

35-7-19. That was the combination to my locker in high school. Ricky Gutierrez got the lone hit, an infield single, in Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout game. Julie’s middle name was Irene. They’re coming faster now. The soliloquy from “Hamlet”, the lyrics to “Indiana Wants Me”, my mother’s smell.

And then, another high school memory - this one lingers a while. It’s the phrase “Everything is fine”. It was the mantra for our cross country team. When lungs were gasping for air, when we were ascending a steep incline and oxygen-deprived muscles begged for rest, we’d tell ourselves through clenched teeth that everything was fine. Sometimes screaming it at the top our lungs – “EVERYTHING IS FINE!” It’s true - everything is fine.  You’re still there, right God? Gonna walk through the door with me? Everything is fine.

Hey Dad, what are you doing here? Great to see you. I guess you heard about the cancer. It’s OK, I’m not scared anymore. Still, I’m glad you’re with me. I’ve missed you. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. You know I’m an astronaut now, right?  I met the president last year. I wished you could have seen it. I wished you could have seen a lot of things, but then again they wouldn’t have impressed you – that’s what was so great about you. I never needed to impress you. You were the only one who thought I was important just for being me.

Now, I suppose a lot of people think I’m important. At least this week. I imagine I’m the headline story in a lot of papers:  “Lost Astronaut Presumed Dead” – maybe I’ll even make the cover of Time. Funny, isn’t it? I finally get my fifteen minutes of fame just when I realize how profoundly unimportant fame is.

 
“Vanity of vanities. All is vanity”.

 Another Bible verse. Where are they coming from? I don’t remember you reading them to me.

Anyway, what do you think of the view? Great huh? Makes me feel small. Makes me realize that, in the grand scheme of things we’re all small. Infinitesimally small. That doesn’t bother me though – actually, I find it comforting.  

Remember that day you took me to the Planetarium? I don’t know how, but you must have known that I was being bullied at school, because you took the day off work and let me skip school.  Best day of my life. I think that day launched my love of space. The funny thing is, the Planetarium wasn’t even the best part. The best part was sitting outside the Planetarium, on the rocks by Lake Michigan, and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with you. If I could re-live one moment, that would have to be it.

God, I loved being with you. You were a great dad – I hope you know that. It’s so great to see you again. Did I say that already? You should really put a space suit on – there’s no oxygen up here. Oh wait, you’re dead. That’s right. Died when I was sixteen. So I guess the space suit thing is moot. But, if you’re dead, does that then mean that I’m dead too? No – I see that you’re fading now – I guess the old reality testing is slipping a bit as the flow of oxygen to the brain slows. I wish you could stay dad. That’s OK though, I know you’re with me. You’ve always been with me. I’ll see you soon.

Will I see him soon, God? Please let all of that heaven stuff be true. How cool would that be?

 
Would you like to swing on a star?
Carry moonbeams home in a jar?
 
That’s from a song my dad used to sing to me. Do you know that one God? Bing Crosby. Don’t know why it popped into my head just now. The memory flood thing, I guess. Only now, they’re all starting to blend together – not so much like my life flashing before my eyes, but more like my life being compressed into a single point; a sublime black hole of people, events, thoughts, and love. It’s like a wonderful dream.

 
Que toda la vida es sueño, y los sueños, sueños son.

Read that in college. Can’t remember who wrote that, but it’s a great line. Is it just a dream? Did all this really happen? I think so. If it was real, then it was good. Very good. Thank you. Thank you God. For everything. Even the bad stuff seems good now. It’s been a great ride – trip of a lifetime, but I guess it’s time to go, huh?

 
The last whispered wish of age is to live it all again.

I think that one’s from a Moody Blues song. Either that or a fortune cookie. No matter, it’s a great quote. Truer words were never spoken. I’d definitely live it again. Wouldn’t change too much either. Except…

I would have gone out for pizza.

 


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Thanks so much for staying with this one until the end. A few notes:

They lyrics that begin with "Though I'd like to look down at the earth from above": are from the song "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon" written by Joe Ross and featured on "Sesame Street".

The rant that contains "You take away your heaters and your pistoleros and you're nothing" is taken, in part from a Marlon Brando scene in "On the Waterfront".

Francesco Grimaldi and Giovanni Riccioli were Jesuit priests, mathematicians, physicists and astronomers in Italy in the 17th century. They discovered and named the Sea of Tranquility

"Who is this that questions my wisdom?" Job 38:2

"Vanity of vanities. All is vanity" Ecclesiastes 1:2

"Would you like to swing on a star?" from the song "Swingin' on a Star" written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke.

"que toda la vida es sueno, y los suenos, suenos son" is from "La Vida es sueno" by Pedro Calderon de la Barca. It means "All of life is a dream, and dreams are dreams."

"The last whispered wish of age is to live it all again" is from the Moody Blues' song "Never Blame the Rainbow for the Rain" written by Justin Hayward and Ray Thomas.
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