When I was first accepted into this 1 year mission to simulated Mars, the first person that I told was my husband. Thereafter, my brother and mother, the latter of whom who cried out with incredulity, “You didn’t ask ME if you could go!”
I will be 37 in September. “When was the last time that I asked for your permission, Mom. Twenty years ago?”
“No,” she replied.
“Thirty years ago?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said.
“Maybe…” I hazarded a guess, “When I was five. Did I ask for permission to do something when I was five years old.”
“No,” she sighed. I could hear her shifting the phone to the other ear, “Not even then.”
I believe it.
After I broke the news to my mother, I told my in-laws. On account of the fact that at least one of them wanted to be an astronaut, they were a bit more understanding. I got a lot of very sweet, “We’ll miss you!”s but no tangential attempts at guilt. Finally, I told my father.
“You’re a genius!” he exclaimed. This is his reaction to just about everything since I was about five years old. Possibly, this has to do with the fact that he never asked my mother for permission to do anything, either.
This was a couple of weeks ago now. I’ve been waiting for a few things to fall into place before letting the world of my close friends and extended family know what’s going on. If you are interested, you can read the letter that I wrote.
The responses were many and varied. They ranged from, “You are equal parts brilliant and crazypants,” to a very mid-range, “That is SO YOU,” and the equal but opposite, “FREAKING OUT!” Mostly they were just like my friends: loving and supportive, funny and irreverent. Three things did happen, though, that caught me by surprise in good ways and bad. One person said:
“I’m coming to see you!”
I haven’t seen this person in a long time. We need to fix this, pronto.
“Good,” I replied by email. “If you do not, I will hunt you down and put rasberries all over your tummy. Not the kind that you eat. The kind that tickle.”
Another person said: “I’m having a baby! A little boy.”
“That’s so awesome,” I wrote. “Please send me a photo of the little man when he comes around.” Normally, I would send her the traditional gifts that I gift unto all new parents: a copy of The Spacechild’s Mother Goose and a bib that reads, “These fools put my cape on backwards!” However, she got that with her first child, a girl, so she’s all set. That pink cape bib is going to look awesome on the little tike.
The last person wrote, “I should update you, too. I have cancer.”
Because we went to medical school together, he didn’t say it quite like that. Instead, as the best doctors do, he began at the periphery. He explained what his symptoms had been, at first, then allowed the narrative to flow into different signs that portend doom: pain, blood clots, collapsed veins, trouble breathing.
And, as another doctor does when you approach things this way, before he got to the end, I knew where he was going. This is a story we’ve all heard, we’ve all seen, and that we all dread. Long before he was treated for this in college, before he was born to the light, even, my friend drew from the genetic deck a truly terrible hand. Since then, through cancer the first time, through joint problems and heart valve replacements, he has played his hand as best he could – with patience, dignity and indefatigable good humor. We say this about people who are dying, but I swear, in this case, it’s true. The man even started off his email to me with the phrase, “Hey hey, what’s up!”
In Hocus Pocus, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “There are no dirty words in this book, except for ‘hell’ and ‘God’, in case someone is fearing that an innocent child might see 1.” For the purposes of this blog , so that all ages and types may partake with joyful innocence, or whatever flavor of partaking you prefer, I’ll stick to that general rule.
Darn it to hell, God.
My friend’s game is drawing to a close. He didn’t include that part in the narrative, but I know it, and so does he, for the same reason. So what can I say to him now that I’m leaving, and likely won’t be back until his seat at the table is cold and empty? Shall I ask him who else knows amongst our friends? Shall I inquire after his mother – a lovely and strange woman – or his father? Shall I tell him that the thing I associate most with his life is the sound of his heart – a cacophony of four clicking mechanical valves that can be heard, by one who knows how to listen, clear across the room without a stethoscope? They sounds like a symphony that’s been taken over by xylophones. They sound like a man playing the brass symbols as if it will be the last sound he ever makes. They sounds like silver rain on the pavement. They sounds like him.
“Darn it to hell,” I said to God, again. Picking up the phone, I turned to my friend I said, “Tell me when I’m coming to see you.”