First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Memorial to Columbia
On Monday I stood with about two hundred others as the families of the seven Columbia crew members filed into a tent on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. It was the one-year memorial service for those astronauts who died in the service of increasing the knowledge and capabilities of humankind.
A military band played hymns and symphonic music; the "Singing Sergeants," an ensemble of excellent a capella singers in uniform, moved us all, as did the lone bagpiper who played "Amazing Grace." Patti LaBelle was there, and her soaring paean to those who live and die in space brought many of us to tears, and it seemed that even she had a hard time getting through the song.
I was not one of those children who wanted to be an astronaut when they grew up. Mine were different dreams, which changed with the passing years as I learned the limitations of my abilities. But when I was young, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts won my admiration, and there was a time when I could name all of the Mercury Seven and most of the others.
I remember the shock when the Apollo 1 astronauts died on the ground -- we did not know such men were mortal. And years later, when the Challenger broke apart during takeoff and we watched the contrails of the pieces of the ship, I wondered, Is it really worth it?
But that isn't the question, is it? Because there are some truths about human beings that we need to remember:
Humans cannot leave well enough alone. There are plenty of homebodies among us, to be sure, but there's also a hunger in many human hearts, to know what lies just out of sight, to go to places yet unseen, to be the first to set foot on new ground. Seventeen astronauts have died so far in the exploration of space -- in Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia -- but how many earlier sailors and explorers lost their lives, often alone, in far places where no one but animals or enemies witnessed their passing?
Death comes to every living thing. It is not death itself that is the tragedy, but the sense of incompletion, of work as yet undone, that breaks our hearts. When children die we mourn the experiences they could have had and now will not; when people in the prime of life, like these astronauts, are taken, we grieve for their families left behind, and wonder what they might have gone on to do.
Feet that walked on the moon, hands that performed their tasks in high orbit above the earth, eyes that saw the world without borders, a glistening white-and-blue planet which, in a thin layer of atmosphere, sustains the billion-year parade of life -- they are still mortal.
Talking to sons of one of the astronauts, I found that I had nothing to say to them. Supposedly I have a talent for words, but there are no words of mine that would mean anything to young men left fatherless. If I had told them that their father's life, though incomplete, was nevertheless one to be admired, it would be true, but scant comfort. If I said, I know you will miss hearing your father's praise and approval at your achievements in life; come to me and I will offer my poor substitute -- I would have been sincere, but embarrassed by the inadequacy of the offer.
And yet there is some comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone in your loss; that the loved one torn from your life is also missed by others; that his life is recognized as having had great worth. It does not replace the private grief and loss, but it helps to give it meaning.
They played two national anthems at that memorial service, and displayed two national flags -- of Israel and the United States. There is special poignancy in those flags standing together, for in so many ways our two nations' futures are interwoven. We are both at war, and both nations have the ill wishes of many millions who hope that we go down in bitter defeat, who long for our humiliation.
That knowledge that others wish us dead, that some would die themselves for the privilege of killing you or me in some spectacular way, is a different kind of grief, isn't it? The injustice of it galls us -- if you only knew me, you would not wish me dead!
But death knows no names. As my wife and I walked the avenues of the cemetery, she remembered her visit to a cemetery in France, where crosses and stars of David stood in endless rows, remembering the countless soldiers who died. And to know the history of those wars, the sheer stupidity of commanders who spent so many lives in meaningless assaults against impregnable positions in World War I, the evil ambition of Hitler's Germany to conquer and destroy, can fill your heart with despair.
And yet these wars were not, in the end, meaningless. I'm reading Stephen Ambrose's account of Eisenhower's war years right now, and though my heart breaks for the thousands of young men who died in North Africa, just so Ike could learn which of his subcommanders were worthless and which could be relied on, I also have to realize: At least Eisenhower learned.
Can it be said their deaths were in vain, when the result was that the survivors trained hard and well, and won the battles that lay ahead, and the commanders whose stupidity cost them their lives were sent home, and better leaders took their place?
Everyone will die, and, dying, will leave a work unfinished. Like the astronauts who thought they knew what they would be doing next week, next month; like the soldiers in battle who would never see their children again, or would never marry, would never even have children; like old people who look back and wonder at the things they meant to do and never did, no life ends with all tasks completed, all lessons learned, all gifts given, all injuries healed.
Is death in battle, or in the soaring heights above the earth, a greater tragedy than the lives wasted in traffic accidents in the midst of ordinary life?
It is true that the soldiers, the astronauts, they died in the midst of serving a cause much greater than themselves. Not some corporate ambition, not some mad race against another car, but rather in service of human knowledge or human freedom, the safety of their nation or the relief of those suffering under intolerable tyranny.
But it is not the age or place at which you die that determines whether your death has meaning. The meaning comes from what you were doing with your life. Were you raising a family? Were you mentoring others? Sharing of your means with those in need? Treating people decently even when they provoke you? Soothing and comforting those who least deserve it?
Those who died in spacecraft -- the worthiness of their lives is without question. Those who died on the battlefield -- each individual may be missed by only a few, but together they wear the badge of honor in our memories. It is a public death, a collective sacrifice.
But private honor counts as well. We are not all soldiers in war or astronauts in space; some die in senseless car wrecks, or are felled by adverse reactions to prescription medicines, or other random ways that life can end. But we can live our lives so that when death catches us, as it will surely catch us all, we died as steadfast soldiers in the quiet struggle to pass civilization on to another generation, or as intrepid explorers of the limits of the human mind and heart.
Instead of despair at the rows of crosses, we should be filled with determination: You died, but I will honor your sacrifice by spending the time I have more wisely and generously.
Those young men whose father died in space will feel his absence all their lives; but they will feel his presence also. And the real tragedy is those who die without having given anything to anyone.
Solitary takers, strutters, posers -- there is no shortage of barbarians. The children who grow up without that moral sense of duty to learn wisdom and share it, to give good gifts and honor those who also give; the children who remain children throughout adulthood because they still believe that all things are owed to them, and they owe nothing in return -- those are the ones we should despair of, not the ones who died in the midst of learning, sharing, giving, honoring, and repaying the debts of civilization.
In the constant kampf of civilization, which army do I fight with? Do I build and sustain a good community against the forces of entropy? Have I civilized my children and given them the tools that will help them build their own happiness and pass that gift along to generations yet to come?
During the six-hour drive to Arlington on Monday, we listened to country music, the music of America's heart; and in that cemetery I realized that the truest songs all overlap. The anthem of the "American soldier" is the same song as that of the angry son whose heart says -- and longs to hear -- "I love you this much," and both of them are the same song as the one about the man who looks at his daughter and says, "There goes my life."
And the song about a soldier getting "letters from home" is really a song about all our lives. For we all live to hear a voice -- a father's voice, even when our father isn't there -- say to us, I'm proud of you.
Or as it was phrased much earlier, Well done, thou good and faithful servant.
Well done, you seven astronauts, you seventeen, you hundreds of thousands of soldiers, you millions of good and decent people whose deaths left so much good undone -- but whose lives did so much good before you left.
Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.
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