I am Such a Lucky Man
A Prayer in Time
I'm 87 years old, and I find myself waking up for the last time.
I'm in a far-too bright hospital suite, and let me just say that even in 2055, the annoying beep-beep machines and clear bags of fluid hanging from sterling hooks still decorate these places. Once upon a time I was young and strong, but now I'm tired. I exist in weakness. And now as I remember where I am, when I am, and even what I am, I know that in just a little while, I’ll stop being. My breathing has changed. My expiration date is here, I think. It won't be long before I finally see what comes next. If anything.
My Lynn has been gone for over four years now. It was the only way she ever failed me: her leaving first. For five decades I told her that wasn't allowed to happen, but I should have known when she edited "obey" from our vows that I'd be the one on an overpriced hospital bed with no one to talk to. She always got her way. My lips curl into a thin, fragile smile. She always did. I did my job in that regard. She’d like these cool, airy linens… especially if they were thick and heavy and there were three layers of them.
I miss her getting her way. I miss making sure she did.
George Henry retired from his first engineering position at 34, when he founded Heaventech. I’m getting old, Dad, I need to do this. I need to show myself I can do this. For twelve years now, he's been the CEO and chief engineer of that giant. He proposed, designed, lobbied for, and built the seamless network of space elevators all above and around us right now: twenty-four geosynchronously-orbiting step stations each 700 miles out in space. Every time zone on the planet has an EarthHub Base embedded into the mantle, each base connected to the corresponding station by a spire of ionized lithium nanofiber ascending into the sky. Eight years ago, when the revolutionary and wildly controversial EarthRing was completed, those stations were unified when the flex-carbon SpiderTube transport ring was finished, surrounding the planet itself. Just like Saturn, Dad, except smaller and WAY more expensive. When Armstrong Station was completed three years later, an orbiting platform was born from which the TransLunar Elevator could be launched. Thus today, if a human being wants to travel to lunar orbit, all that person needs to do is take an elevator from any one of Earth’s time zones to space, then transfer to another elevator, and they’ll be within 500 miles of the moon’s surface.
When MoonRing is completed, just one more elevator transfer will take you all the way there. Step on a lift in Brazil, step off of a lift on the lunar equator. It took over a century, Lynn, but George Bailey finally did lasso the moon for Mary Hatch. “Who?” Lynn would say. Never mind, I’d say. That stayed my favorite movie, all this time.
Now, harvesting the Helium 3 isotope on the moon and transporting it back to earth is on the verge of being routine and amazingly inexpensive. Lunar colonization is a fact. But is it really colonization when you’re connected to home by a couple of floating hallways?
At this very moment, GH is almost directly above me, in an elevator, almost to one of those MoonRing stations. He’s beginning the deceleration from fifty times to twice the speed of sound, 201,000 miles away. I realize this. I know this. My mind, thankfully, has been the one organ to stay in relatively good shape, though yes, Lynn, I know, some might disagree.
It's been a lonely four years. I see GH often, but only for short spells of time. Point-to-point matter transfer is still almost entirely theoretical – my boy's company is actually working on that nugget as well -- so the Star Trek vision of transporters is still at least decades away. Otherwise, I'm sure I'd see my boy and his family every day.
I miss my wife. I miss my little boy. I’ve been so wonderfully proud of them both. How I wish I could tell that to each of them. There’s such a finite number of those opportunities, and no matter how many times you repeat that fact in life, you only ever realize it when the last chance is gone.
I try to sigh a cleansing sigh, but I can't. A sonorous tone from one of the beep-beep machines suggests to me that I'm trying too hard, and I feel a cool burst of super-oxygenated fluid pump through a tube into my left hand. Here comes the high, I think, and I wait for that rush of endorphins. A happy patient is a non-problematic patient, I heard a nurse once say, and well, hell, that's fine with me.
But now I begin to realize, there’s no buzz, or at least this time the high doesn't feel like it usually does. Now I know my suspicion was correct: things have gone downhill. Wow. Wow! It’s coming, then. I won’t page any nurses, I decide... I’m not scared. If it’s coming, then I'm going to be free soon, and this is something I've wondered about my whole life. What would these final moments of life show me? And afterward, would there still be a me to be able to remember them?
How unjust it would be if nonexistence is what comes next? All these thoughts and laughs and tears, a lifetime of them, unique to the universe, so little of it able to be shared. Lost forever. I won’t be able to remember The Beatles or coconut ice cream. There’s no justice at all in that reality. I hope tonight I'll be able to sit down at a table with Lynn, and my parents, and my grandparents. I hope we can share Mémère’s Christmas meat pie, chunky apple sauce, and talk about our trips to Winnepesaukee and Bear Brook, remember whiffle-ball in the back yard, talk about how proud we are of George Henry. Those thoughts and laughs and tears have sculpted an old man who has missed them all more than anyone ever warned him about, and he’s ready to be back with his family again. Can you imagine how many people have dreamed about what such a reunion would feel like? Oh, I have. I can’t imagine a hundred billion souls yearning for just such a reunion, then only be able to embrace the vacuum of oblivion.
All I have left with me from this world is the wedding ring I’ve never taken off and the little silver holoframe which sits on the stand near me. It’s closer to me than the beeping machines. It's a hair bigger than one of those old Kennedy half-dollars, and dome-shaped, and glistening, and it's been my company for me these last couple of months. Long gone are the quirky controls – the dials or touchscreens of my youth – and the voice-commands that followed those have been obsolete for years. All I need do is think, just clear my mind and ask for it, and pictures from decades ago are floating above me – most of them so old they're still in 2-D – and I can lay back and enjoy them. My wedding day: there's my nephew Alan ringing the church bell as my dad looks on with a huge smile. There's Lynn getting out of the gas-fueled limo, yes, the old combustion engines! Then there's us at the reception, and then suddenly I feel a shudder, and then a coldness. I am shaky, and I have the strangest sensation that my heart is saying goodbye to me. But I want to see more pictures… please, if I won’t be able to remember them, let me see them one more time.
The beeping machine is fully awake, but the comfortable chill I feel makes me realize that it is quieting. People in white are coming in. Everything in the antiseptic room is fluttering, dimming. Everything except for the pictures. I focus on those. I focus hard on those. Images of GH appear above me. He was so beautiful. The corners of my eyes are leaking down the sides of my face through white beard stubble. I'm alone, and there's my little boy, fresh from a bubbly tubby, forty years and a different era away, when worlds weren’t plugged together by long cords. Movie and popcorn night. I want this image to be the last one I see. He had such a joyful smile… wasn’t there a time when that was always so? Fresh and clean, like the start of all things, in his PJs, and now I try to pray. My final words. What should I say?
God, thank you for my life. For my amazing family. Thank you. I know how fortunate I’ve been. I’m sorry for my mistakes. Please let my boy know how much I love him.
How I wish I could be with my little boy again.
The beeping stops. There is silence now, and I no longer feel the cold. I feel the wetness and the weight of a tear fall from my cheek, and at last, I hear the echo of my two final words. Thank you. Thank you.
One last heartbeat. I feel my soul reach out to that image above my body, my little boy smiling in cheery pastel PJs.
And I touch his hair.
It’s feather-soft and literally squeaky clean and smells like Johnson’s baby shampoo. He's sleeping now. He conked out just moments ago, warm and snug, and I kiss his head. I inhale a deep breath and I smile out that breath and put my head on my pillow. It’s Friday Eve – what most people call Thursday – just one more day to go before the weekend. Lynn is already at the church retreat in Maine with her mother and sister and about eight other church ladies, so while I’m at work my parents will pick up GH from school tomorrow. I'll head to their house after work to meet them for dinner – salmon pie and chunky apple sauce – and then take my little boy home.
One of the kittens leaps up on to the bed and stabs my toe while trying to get a pawhold, and it snaps me alert. It’s Arya, the grey and white fluffball, who walks up to my face, purring, and then bonks my chin. I scratch the small of her back and her tail sticks comically straight up, then she plops down between George Henry and my chest. I contain my giggle. It’s her favorite place, warm and cozy with her humans.
As I stretch out to click the light switch, a shadow draws my gaze to the sepia snapshot of my grandparents atop my desk. My dad’s parents, many years before they would ever meet me, smiling for the camera, ancient vehicles on Main Street in the background. They were angels. One of my favorite memories ever is of Pépère and I at Canobie Lake Park, passing by the bumper cars and the arcade, a nearby popcorn stand fragrantly distracting me from the lights and the sounds of the vintage merry-go-round calliope. I am almost one-hundred percent smile.
“When I’m this happy,” he addressed me, “I stop and close my eyes, and I wonder for a moment if it was God carried me here, like a dream come true.” He led me to the popcorn stand, winked at the young lady manning it, and pointed at a large box. “When I was in Normandy, freezing in a hole in the ground, I made a prayer like that. Maybe God heard me and brought me here, with you today. And He took the cold away and all the bad memories with it.”
And the lady handed me the popcorn as my grandfather paid her.
“What a great memory,” I whisper to the room, and I turn the lights off. I watch the residual light fade from the bulb, and a warm, grateful sensation envelops me. I am such a lucky man. I am so blessed. I hope I never forget that.
About the author
Don began writing his first novel in third grade - and had it survived his mother's cleaning habit, it would certainly have been a number one best seller. He lives in New Hampshire with his lovely wife, son, and three hyperactive cats.