It always comes back to the same things — the fear and the sadness.
I remember Ronald Reagan getting shot. The carpool dropped me off at the bottom of the driveway, and as I hiked up the hill, I could see my mom on the front porch. Usually, she just left the front door unlocked and yelled out from the den or the kitchen when I let myself in every day after school, a snack-seeking missile disheveled by the multiplication tables. That day, she sat on the porch, the first sign to me that something somewhere had gone wrong, and when she came out onto the front steps and picked me up — at almost eight years old, I'd passed "too big for that" a while ago — I knew for sure. She hugged me and murmured into my ear, "The president's been shot."
I parked myself in front of the television for the night — directly in front of it, on the floor, and the den rug felt scratchy on my legs after a while, but I didn't want to sit any farther away. I watched the news and wrote down little bulletins on drawing paper in my ugly limping cursive that I'd just learned, and I'd run to bring the bulletins in to my parents, who sat in the kitchen smoking and talking, and then I'd run back into the den so that I wouldn't miss anything. I hoped I'd get to stay up past my bedtime, because I didn't want anything to happen during the night and not know about it, but at the same time I hoped I'd get sent to bed; watching the footage of the shooting over and over gave me a weird antsy feeling like I'd seen something I shouldn't have, the way grown men screamed and rolled around on the ground. At not quite eight years old, I'd figured out that grown-ups didn't know everything and couldn't always protect me, but I could put it out of my mind most of the time. My mother stood on the front porch and waited for me, and I couldn't put that out of my mind, the bleak realization that my mother could feel afraid — did feel afraid.
I remember the Oklahoma City bombing. I lived with my parents at that time, working for my father in the mornings and coming back to the house for lunch every day, and customarily I would fix myself a sandwich and watch a rerun of 21 Jump Street on the little TV on the kitchen counter. That day, Ma and I sat at the table and watched the face of the building shear off again and again as an anchor droned a voice-over about the day-care in the building, and I ate a turkey sandwich and thought about that day-care filling with dust and fire, a cloud of crying children running towards the skirt hems of their teachers with their arms out, believing in the power of taller people. I thought about the teachers bending down, gathering them in for the last time, shielding the little heads with trembling hands, and the floor giving way and all of it failing. I thought about all of them falling together, and I thought that, just maybe, all of them felt less afraid in the moment before their deaths. I thought that, just maybe, all of them thought, "It feels like flying," and I thought that maybe it did feel like flying at that moment, that it could have, that all of them felt weightless and light at the end instead of scared, that maybe I could have children of my own one day and teach them that running towards things with their arms out and believing in those things is the only way to live.
I remember September 11, of course, the buildings coming down and the men and women jumping out of the World Trade Center, holding hands, falling all that way down with only each other, and I think the same thing. I have to. I have to think that, at the end, whatever remnants of mercy the universe had to spare at that moment turned their fall into fearless flight, the wind whipping their shirts as they went down together with their arms out, not waiting. It's too much to ask of a soul to endure that kind of agony and fright and then leave its body and everything else it loves behind, and I have to think that when a soul faces a violent death, it gets a reprieve from fear at last.
I remember the National Geographics about the Voyager spacecraft, with all the pictures sent back from Jupiter and Saturn. I read those issues until the spines gave out, looking at the pictures and trying to get my head around them. How did a little can with nobody in it get so far? How could the pictures get back here from all the way out there? I wanted to become an astronaut — primarily, I admit, for the ice cream, and because bounding along on the surface of the moon looked impossibly fun — but it took years to get to Saturn and years to get back. Who would I talk to? What if the ship broke or we ran out of gas? I'd have to bring a lot of books to keep from getting bored for eight years — what if they didn't all fit? It seemed too empty out there in space, spooky and lonely and silent, and I'd never get all the science, and the moon looks like it has a face from down here, but it's just a rock and it's really far away and I knew I would never get there because I didn't believe I could.
I left CNN on all day Saturday, and the final transmissions from mission control played over footage of the shuttle falling apart, and I sat at my desk with my chin in my hand and just felt sad. I felt sad about the deaths of the astronauts, and I felt sad for their families and friends and colleagues on the ground, and I felt sad because, whatever I think or choose to believe about the final moments of a violent death, I can't know for sure that the seven of them didn't feel panic and anguish until the very end. I can't know for sure that they called out to God for help and got it. I know for sure that they deserved it, but when a spacecraft breaks into pieces miles above the earth and doesn't let anyone say goodbye, it doesn't seem like a peaceful way to go. It hardly seems possible that the end came without pain and fear. Then again, it hardly seems possible that a man could go to the moon and come back alive, so, even it's only for myself that I do it, or a form of mourning disguised as hope, I will just assume that as Columbia fragmented into a star shape in the sky, seven brave men and women held their arms out and closed their eyes and believed that something would pick them up and keep them safe, and I will just assume that before the earth came up to meet them, something else came up to meet them too.
February 3, 2003