Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Radio silence

This afternoon, my daughter asked me where the phrase, "Houston, we have a problem," comes from. She hears it on the cartoons she watches.

So I explained the problems of the Apollo 13 mission: the malfunction in the space ship, the repairs, the concern that the ship was irretrievable. The difference between Cape Canaveral and the command center in Houston, Texas. She had thought that perhaps Houston was a person.

I told her that we should talk about the space missions some time. That they had taken place when I was in kindergarten and early elementary school. Younger than her. I don't remember Apollo 13 very clearly for some reason--perhaps my parents were worried it would scare us. And so much easier to hide the news then--just the physical newspaper, the off dial on the radio, the TV that only received two stations regularly, three when the weather was good across the lake.

I do remember Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. It was summer and we watched the moon landing from the television in my parents' bedroom, which was on the ground floor of our house. I remember the contrast between the black and white images on the TV and the world outside the windows: the sense of where "here" is evaporating--"here" was that room and outside with the flowers and the trees waving gently in the breeze and it was also up in the sky where I could not see. Except I could see on the television. And all of it simultaneous. Real in its simultaneity.

I also remember, very vividly, the return of the various space capsules to earth. Walter Cronkite broadcast the conversation from the cockpit as the capsule neared earth's atmosphere. The military jokes, the calm and cool voices of the astronauts giving the impression that all this, all this was just procedure. Just the way the military men on the bases my dad did his summer duty at--Fort Belvoir, Fort Lee--were solemn and funny at the same time.

And then Cronkite's voice and the voices of the reporters would get tense as the capsule hit the outer layers of the atmosphere and the men entered the period during which there could be no radio communication as the last piece of the big rocket, what was left after its voyage and the various jettisons of its parts, hit the friction of what we call air. Would the heat shields hold? It was hot inside as our atmosphere slowed the capsule's speed, the drag creating heat, like a rug burn, flames probably bursting at the base.

Silence. Silence. Waiting and the cameras would train up at the sky, at the place the capsule should emerge into the blue of the air just before hitting the blue of the ocean. And pan the sky again. And then a black dot and bigger and it would be the capsule and a big parachute would deploy. And then voices.

Radio blackout. That point in time when you are truly alone, on your own, and all that is left is to wait.

Robert under anesthesia--going under, either with a mask or falling off with the delivery of the agent through his tube. The white sheet under him and the bright lights and the anesthesiologist telling me what would happen, that the anesthesia smelled like bubble gum. And Robert's startled face each and every time as the mask covered his mouth and nose. Breathing, then held breath, startled, and breathing again. Eyes wide and then drooping closed.

And how quickly they would make me leave then when I wanted to linger and just make sure he was OK.

And, after radio silence, his return to earth. Limbs and eyes stirring, then waking to remembering then not knowing where he was.

I thought of none of this while I was going through the CT scan repeatedly today, but it is as though I had thought of it. The room is white and cold. And big. Because the equipment is big. And lonely because the technicians leave the room to monitor the computers in an office in the back.

There's just me, entering the white ring of the machine, wondering if my elbows resting by my ears will hit. The recorded voice telling me to breathe in, hold my breath. Silence. Long pause. The whirring whine of whatever makes the images and trying not to look at the little sign that says, do not look into this red square because you will be looking directly at the laser. Which is probably not good, but the sign doesn't tell you why.

And then the recorded voice saying, with odd urgency for a machine, breathe!!


NightSwimmer said...

I hope you alright? I'll keep you in my thoughts and prayers. Your description is exactly what the surgeries, the hospital equipment all feels like to me, particularly the loneliness, other-worldliness.

Elizabeth said...

Such beautiful intertwining of the culture that shaped people our age (I have very, very similar memories of the moon walk, the landings, etc.)and your own personal experiences with Robert. But you, you -- what's happening?

Dale said...

That was one of the supreme dislocating moments, wasn't it? And I was so disappointed, in my heart, because what you really want from a new planet (moon, whatever) is to feel the alien wind in your hair and the drink the alien water. And there he was all bottled up. I felt so bad for him.

All this by way of saying: hugs, you. Thinking of you. ( Using the patented Jeneva method of long introductory indirection :-> )

erika said...

I love the way you write - your voice, the imagery, the poignance... But a CT scan? I hope you are okay. Thinking of you.

Maggie May said...

I am saying a quiet prayer for your health.