Old Age, Space Age

I had heard that there would be a lunar eclipse last night, so when I got up at 4:30, I looked for it.  The moon was about 2/3 covered and was opening up, but it did initially have a pink glow.  I was glad to see it –the night was cold but the sky was clear, and the stars (suns) were out.

It reminded me of other nocturnal sky events, most notably when I was 6 and we were living out in the woods. My father bundled us out of bed to see Sputnik as it moved like a living star across the sky.  Such excitement as he pointed upwards and told us we were seeing something that no one had ever seen before.  I don’t know if we saw Sputnik 1 or 2 – the second was launched about a month afterwards and contained the poor dog Laika, with whom I had much empathy as a child and later included in one of my stories.

Last night’s lunar viewing also reminded me of the first U.S. manned space flight, Alan Shepard in his Mercury capsule (Freedom 7), when I was 9 years old.  My mother had to pick me up at school that day and take me to the doctor because I had a bad earache and the nurse insisted on it.  She had been monitoring the news all day about the capsule’s progress and was not happy about being dragged away.  When we came out of the pediatrician’s office, Mom started waylaying people on the street asking them if Shepard had gotten back safely.   People were happy to tell her he had.  Of course, Freedom 7 did not even orbit the earth.  Shepard’s capsule went up and then down in a perfect parabola – the shape of our lives according to Dante.  A year later John Glenn would become the family hero when he achieved earth orbit in Friendship 7.

And now I have lived long enough to see rich people build their own spaceships in order to give other rich people the thrill that we all got vicariously and collectively through Alan Shepard and John Glenn.  President Kennedy hoped to replace the patriotism and energy of war with that of exploration, and it worked for a while.  But capitalism trumps all.  Young children used to want to be astronauts; now they want to be rich so they can be astronauts.  And instead of one satellite to look for in the sky, orbital space is so full of our discarded junk that it is becoming a hazard.

All of this from getting out of bed to see the eclipse.  I hope some daddies wrapped their kids in blankets and took them outside to see it.  Robert Frost told us that we needed to “choose something like a star” to look at because:

It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Sputnik was no star.  It was a piece of technology and a propaganda tool.  The American space program started with stellar ambitions and has ended as the plaything of the wealthiest men.  It was a different time.  Laika the dog was loved by children everywhere.  Heroes like Alan Shepard and John Glenn were not torn apart by the media as soon as the news cycle started to flag.  “Choose something like a star” Frost said.   Hard to do when light pollution almost blots out the night sky, but try anyway.  I had a beautiful view this morning.

Even after sixty-some years, I remembered Laika well enough to include her in a story, “What Crime is There in Error?” – part of my Metamorphoses  series.

Last Confessions – Waiting Until the End to Tell the Story

When Abulrazak Gunrah won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, I was somewhat abashed that I had read nothing by him.  I looked for something related to aging, and chose The Last Gift, which was published in 2011, when the author was 63. (The main character is also 63.)  It is the story of the last days of Abbas, a man who has kept the secrets of his youth for his whole life.  Even his children, born and raised in England, do not know where he came from.  We are English, his children tell people who ask about the source of their brown skin.  Abbas’s wife Maryam, much younger and the anchor that kept him on shore after a long period at sea, has an equally mystifying past.  She was a foundling whose parents were never identified, and she broke ties with her foster family when she ran away with Abbas.  Secrets all around.

When we enter the story, Abbas is getting old and suffering from diabetes.  The children of the family have grown and are successfully negotiating university and the working world.  They maintain ties with their parents, ties of obligation and guilt.  Soon, Abbas has a collapse from diabetes, and then a series of strokes, losing his speech and making him weak.  We find him working desperately to recover his voice because he finally feels compelled to tell his story before it is too late.  “He had left things for too long and there was no one to blame except himself.”  Abbas’s confession spills out in languages his family can and cannot understand; the substance of his story causes them all to re-evaluate their lives and the secrets they themselves are hiding.   Soon his wife is also telling her story, as to why she abandoned and has never communicated with her foster family.

It is a good book; I recommend it.  It is a tale of immigrants and parenthood, but I left it thinking mainly about the compulsion many of us have to tell our stories before we are gone.  Capitalism has even tapped into this – there are apps and websites (i.e. StoryWorth, Saga) that guide you through the process and print you out a glossy book with your picture on it in the end – something to be gifted to all the relatives (whether they want it or not).  There are ghost writers who will gladly do it for you (for a substantial fee) and will be less humble about your life than you might be.  Some  people write out their memories longhand and place them in an envelope with their will.  We all have secrets, but we are not quite sure that we want our secrets to die with us.

Of course, in these days of ancestry.com and DNA tests, family secrets are harder than ever to keep.  One reason to tell our own story might be to exert some control over the narrative.  But the urge to impart everything before you go is as old as man.  Classically, it takes the form of a last confession to a priest, but more often it is a plethora of tales told in one’s old age.  Even people with dementia seem to want to tell their stories; in her last years, my mother told hers over and over again, including many details of her young life that we had never heard before.

As I have said elsewhere, writing one’s life – present or past – is an enlightening and therapeutic experience.  To have to put words to the fearsome memory or that critical act is a good exercise, and the monster of memory is often tamed by calling it out by name.  And surely, if there are facts that someone is likely to unearth after you are gone, it might make sense to tell your story in context.  We all have such memories, I can assure you.  They are not necessarily secret, but they are not necessarily spoken either.  It makes no sense to pretend you are perfect.  Even if your family believed that, is that a good image to leave them with?  How will that make them feel about their own stumbles?

In Gunrah’s novel, Abbas’ family is stunned and then intrigued by his secrets (no spoilers here).  In the end, his son and daughter are happy to have both a past to investigate and a better feeling for their father as a real person.  It is, indeed, a “last gift.”

Truth is important, and communal truth is increasingly rare.  My latest story, “And Now, A Word from Dead Barry,” is a humorous look at the role of truth in life and the afterlife.  Meanwhile, I encourage you to write down your story and then think about who you need to share it with.  Or not.  But you might not be able to decide that until you can put your arms (and words) around what your story is.