Apollo 8

The nurses tried their best to spruce up the antiseptic corridors but the smell of pine boughs was overpowered by Pine Sol and no one paused beneath the mistletoe on the contagious ward. It was Christmas Eve, 1968, and on my dying father's hospital room TV the crew of Apollo 8 had just lost all contact with earth, resulting in an unprecedented 45 minutes of dead air on radios and televisions everywhere, blank screens and static interrupted only by the announcers' exhortations for those at home to join the world in its prayers for the safe return of Borman, Lovell, and Anders--the first men to orbit the moon.

Prohibited from returning to his beloved Prague, my father wondered if the dark side of the moon could be any lonelier than his American deathbed. His wife (my mother) and his best friend Jerry (my soon-to-be step-father) were by his side, but, brand new political refugees from Prague, they were lost in bright immigrant daydreams of a shining future in America, a fresh start emblematized by the Americans' race for the moon. They waited in silence for the astronauts to come around, my mother distracted by her longing for a cigarette, Jerry interested in the TV set. When Apollo 8 finally reestablished communication, Commander Frank Borman read the opening lines of Genesis. "In the beginning, there was nothing..."

It was a nightmare, really, the word of God emanating from the black vacuum of space. He wished they would turn off the television but he had no way of expressing himself. Tubes down his throat prevented him from speaking. His hands were tied down because he had become subject to fits--whether from the treatments or the illness itself the doctors could not say. Even his eyes, which had once been so expressive, were, due to the drugs, unmoored, rolled uncontrollably as in dreaming sleep.

He knew that to the others in the room he was already dead and that his dying a formality before widow and best friend would marry in the interest of providing their daughter with a cohesive family, however lacking in love it might be. It was considered in my sister's best interest that she not see her father reduced to this, so Jerry took her to the parking lot where he presented her with a gift. She looked at the grimly illuminated hospital, trying to guess which window was his.

Jerry made her inflate a balloon and attached it to the toy. When he let go the air from the deflating balloon powered a propeller which caused it to ascend. She showed no interest or gratitude in the whirlygig. He deduced that girls were not very scientific.

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