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The Last Word

The first time he gave me a clue into his mysterious job at NASA, I was hooked. This handsome, older man intrigued me, and from my childlike perspective I was in awe. Not only did he have a magical smile, he was intelligent and gentle, as well. This man was my dad. On that January morning, 21 years after his passing, he still remained in my daily thoughts.

I didn’t know what I was looking forward to the most that day. Surely it was the anticipation of watching the space shuttle launch on television and seeing the events through the eyes of my four-year-old son, Nathan. After all, my father’s profession had cultivated my curiosity in the space program, and on this morning, sharing his legacy with his grandchild was foremost on my mind. I was convinced that I would be creating a happy, unforgettable time with my child, just like the ones I had when I was young.

“What did you bring me?” I would anxiously ask as my dad walked through the front door. “What could it be this time?” I wondered. His position at NASA opened up new worlds when he brought something home to share with me. Once, there were small cards with illustrations of spacecraft with peculiar names like Gemini, Apollo and Mercury. “One day,” he said, “you’ll see something like this land on the moon.”

There was also a colored map of the solar system printed on shiny paper. With each turn of a page, the galaxy came alive as beautiful planets appeared in deep hues of blue and amethyst. Agreeing that Saturn was our favorite, my dad and I imagined dancing together on the yellow-orange rings that wrapped around it.

The most magical moment occurred when he reached into his pockets and produced two small magnets. “These,” he said with a smile, as he placed one magnet in my tiny hand and held the other, “do nothing when placed apart from one another. But when you put them near each other, they will remain so close together that it would be hard to separate them. Like you and I always will be.” Even as a little girl, I understood the symbolism of the magnets and how their profound message was my father’s gentle way of telling me what was to come. As I went to sleep that night, I hid the cherished magnets under my pillow and buried his words deep in my heart. Before too long, when reality came in whispered, hushed tones, “Your father is ill,” I came to realize just how much those tiny magnets would always mean to me.

Before the shuttle launch that morning in January 1986, I decided to share my childhood memories with my son. Reaching for the wooden box hidden under the bed, my anticipation grew along with Nathan’s eagerness to see what was inside. “This is your grandfather,” I said,

carefully opening the box and showing him a NASA photo I.D. Gently taking the map, cards and magnets out of the box, I proudly told him of his grandfather’s part in the space program. As Nathan looked at each object, he did so with reverence, somehow realizing the significance these objects held for me. The magnets were the last pieces to be put back into the box, but not before I placed one in Nathan’s little hand and held the other, as I told him the poignant story that had once been told to me.

“Oh look, Nathan, here they come,” I said, as the seven astronauts waved to the cheering crowd. The morning couldn’t have been more beautiful, the azure sky free of clouds. “A perfect day for a launch,” the television commentator said, and I could not have agreed more.

At 11:38 a.m., Nathan and I counted down with the announcer. As we shouted “lift-off!” we held our breath as the shuttle went up into the sky. It rolled gently to one side, rocketing toward the heavens.

And then, in a burst of flashing light, something went awfully wrong. In stunned silence I watched long, white plumes of smoke appear as the craft veered wildly off course with debris falling all around.

It wasn’t until I heard a quiet, little voice ask, “Mommy, why are you crying?” that I realized we had seen the launch of the Challenger come to a horrific end.

The emotion I wanted to feel that morning and the happy memories I desired to create for my son were not meant to be like this. I was
overwhelmed with grief for the seven astronauts aboard the destroyed shuttle. That lovely winter morning turned ugly and dark. My dad’s diligent work at NASA, the dearly loved mementos in the treasured wooden box, and the pride that I held for the space program quickly dissolved into sadness, confusion and disappointment.

I missed my father more on that winter morning than at any other time before. As the image of the Challenger faded from the television screen, I longed to be comforted by the smart, gentle man from my childhood. He would be the only one who could explain what had happened and why. That morning’s events were almost too much for me to bear. I needed my dad.

Although my father’s time on earth was too short, I am thankful that the memories remain vivid and the various tokens he entrusted to me are safe in the wooden box under my bed. From time to time I sift through the bits and pieces in that box, placing a beloved magnet in the palm of my hand. As I let the cherished memories of the man I deeply adore wash over me for a moment or two, I mourn for the family broken apart 40 years ago. Mostly, I feel for the little girl who has never forgotten the promise that lies in the wooden box and who still needs her dad.

In the quiet aftermath of that cold January morning, I fondly remembered one more thing. That fateful winter day would have been my father’s 58th birthday.

– Linda Mecca
Loren Morgan
is public relations
assistant in the
College Relations
Office at Albright.

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