She waited for Atlantis to leave. It was the last launch of that space shuttle, or any space shuttle carrying little old ladies like her, and the way they lived in nursing homes at the end of their lives. She had a TV and a telephone, and her son who called her several times a week, so she could tell me how she believed the space shuttle launches interrupted the energy around the earth.
“You’ll notice there’s always earthquakes, or some hurricane, or tornadoes, or some natural kind of disaster that happens right after they launch, especially while it’s still up in space, going around and around,” she said, convinced there was a correlation between weather events on earth, and that tiny little capsule penetrating the outer reaches of our atmosphere to enter into a low sub orbit, and dock with the International Space Station.
As sick as she had become in July of 2011, I wasn’t too surprised when she left on July tenth, two days after the launch of the last Space Shuttle Atlantis. Eighty-seven years, three kids, two husbands, the last fifteen years fighting Parkinson’s, she smiled through her final eight years living in nursing homes with 24 hour care. When she was born, the automobile was in its infancy, while Flapper Girls were just starting to smoke and go out dancing all night. Women had just secured the right to vote. By the time she was a kid, Prohibition was in full swing, and Al Capone was making a mess of that whole thing in Chicago where she grew up. Later, she moved to Pittsburgh with a husband who took a top secret job with I-Like-Ike’s Military Industrial Complex, designing valves for the first nuclear submarines at the Westinghouse Bettis Plant. His laminated photograph I.D. card attached to his starched white shirt pocket with an alligator clip, and the ubiquitous pocket protector holding all his pens and mechanical pencils, he drafted away to make a better valve for our future submarines that could stay under water as long as they wanted to, now that they ran on nuclear power.
I grew up in that Commie Scare decade with station wagons longer than an aircraft carrier made out of real U. S. Steel manufactured at the plants just a few miles from our house. Belching out smoke around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the furnaces never shut down, burning nothing but anthracite coal railroaded up from West Virginia. Coal mines down there dig that black promise out of the earth, three hundred, five hundred, eight hundred feet below the surface of things . . . I see now how she waited patiently, cunningly, for Atlantis to take her out of here.
They’re building a museum for that space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center. That exhibit will open in 2013. Suspended in air, Atlantis will look like it’s flying over the people below. Like me. I intend to be there with someone who will listen to me read this epitaph . . . about a woman, a nurse, a mother, a wife who did everything right, and yet died anyway from a disease that took her life one nickel at a time. But it could never take her heart. Nothing ever stopped her from loving. There’s a tall courage in that even a rocket can’t go any higher, as it circles above the earth, and looks down on these troubles like passing clouds.
Look, there’s some clouds moving over Southern China, but it’s clear sailing out in the South China Sea, all the way to Fiji, Atlantis says.
They say the last Space Shuttle Atlantis traveled light, minus a few astronauts, so it could carry extra cargo. I’ll say. Only the stars know how to tell the truth unwavering. Any astronaut or sailor knows that, when navigating these seas at night. We think of our loved ones, or a God, up there looking down. But if you’re waiting for Atlantis, I’ve got news for you.
This shuttle leaves in two lines.
Be on it.