To Sophie, With Love by Meghna
To Sophie, With Love By Meghna Sathiapalan
I read and re-read the letter in my hands, feeling the paper gently with my fingertips as my eyes scanned the words on the page.
Dear Mr. Shawn Garett,
The council at NACA has decided to initiate a mission to the moon next week, the first manned rocket. For this task, we have picked five of our top astronauts, including yourself. The council has unanimously decided for you to be the head astronaut.
There was more, but I couldn’t be bothered to read it, as memories engulfed me.
“Daddy, isn’t the moon just beautiful?”
“Yes, Sophie honey, it is indeed.”
“Are you going to go up there one day?”
“I don’t know, baby. Maybe I will.”
“If you get the chance, you should go. Wouldn’t it be amazing?”
“Yes, it would. If I got the chance, I would take you too.”
“No! You should go alone, the moon won’t be able to hold both of us.”
“Because it’s made of cheese, remember? Pure Swiss cheese.”
“Oh yeah, I had forgotten about that.”
“Bad Daddy. But if you go, you have to bring me back a little round piece, ok?”
“Honey, I’d bring back the whole moon for you, if I could.”
“Nah, just a little piece, just so I can prove to everyone that the moon IS made of Swiss cheese. But leave the rest of the moon right there.” I smiled at the memory, remembering the little round cheese cutter Sophie had bought. Very seriously, she had gifted it to me for my thirty-fifth birthday, saying that I was to bring her a perfectly round chunk of the moon when I went.
I returned to the letter, omitting parts that really didn’t matter to me. History will be made, as humankind will take its first steps on the moon. Your success will pave the way for future explorations, and will be the greatest honor to all of us at NACA. Yes, I agreed. It would indeed be a great honor, not only to NACA, but also to myself. The risks involved didn’t bother me, as only one thing lingered in my head as I lay down to sleep-the face of my daughter.
I typed up datasheets on my computer, sipping coffee as I entered in various calculations. Suddenly a hand holding a pile of papers popped into my face, and I looked up. My colleague Larry was standing there with a smile. “Morning Shawn,” He stretched out his smile a bit more, putting the papers down on my desk, “I heard the good news. You’re going to make history!”
“Yeah.” I said, stifling a yawn. I hadn’t slept at all last night, thinking about the trip.
“You don’t look very excited,” Larry noticed.
“Really?” I replied, sipping my coffee a bit more, and returning to my computer. To tell the truth, I didn’t know what to feel. Of course I was delighted at being chosen, but then again, I was confused. Was it really worth it? What if it didn’t work? My life was at stake, but that couldn’t be it. I just didn’t know.
“Oh come on Shawn. You’re going to be the first man on the moon, because the head astronaut is going to have the privilege of stepping out first! Why the glum face?” Larry plopped down on the seat beside me, turning my chair back around to face him.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I confessed, “I’m so confused. My wife always told me to keep safe, and my daughter always wanted me to go to the moon. I’m not really scared of death, because I’ve done what I’ve needed to do in life so far. It’s just strange, I can’t even explain it to myself.”
Larry looked sympathetic, “Well, just think about it then. But mate, don’t worry about death and all, because they’ve sent many rockets safely to the moon in the past year. The only difference is that this one is going to be manned. So no worries, just know that you’re going to bring pride and honor to us at NACA and the country.” He patted me on the shoulder, and then left. “Yeah.” I nodded, “Pride and honor.”
Well, ok, I had to admit, I was slightly frightened of death too, since I was only forty-eight. Yet, death was inevitable, and what was the point in worrying about it? Besides, I hastened to reassure myself, this isn’t the first rocket to be sent to the moon. I’ll be fine. Then I noticed the papers Larry had left behind for me on the desk. “Life insurance.” I read out loud. “Oh, great.”
That night, I propped up my elbows on the windowsill and gazed at the moon. It was so beautiful, radiant in its white light. It was so far away, yet it glowed brightly, as if it were smiling straight at me.
“Daddy, look. When I keep my hands like this, it’s like I’m holding the moon.”
“You’re right. Stay right there, let me go get the camera.”
“No Daddy! Don’t. Let’s just stay here, and enjoy this moment. We don’t need the camera.” Just enjoy the moment, she had said. Why worry about that which we cannot change? I turned away from the window, and went to my cupboard. Opening the first drawer, I took out the little wooden box I had kept nestled in velvet. Then, I slowly slid the lid off and picked up the little metal round cheese cutter. I turned it round and round in my hands, as her words echoed in my ears. “Just bring me back a little round piece ok?” I turned back to the moon, and it seemed to be calling out to me, urging me to come explore it. My decision was made. I was going.
A week had passed fast. My quick training for zero gravity and other conditions was tiring, but had to be worth it. This was the day. I had slid into my best tuxedo, and was gobbling down breakfast as I heard honking outside. I quickly swallowed the bacon down, and rushed out with my suitcase. Then I gasped. A black sleek limousine was parked in my driveway, and a chauffeur, upon seeing me, jumped out and opened the door to the backseat. “Th-th-thank you,” I stuttered, as I slid into the backseat, still stunned. My boss had hinted at a bit of luxury when he told me about the departure day, but I didn’t expect this. Little did I know what other surprises awaited me. I was still inspecting the inside of the limousine when it pulled up to NACA. To my surprise, there was a huge crowd of people blocking the entrance, and as I stepped out, a red carpet unfurled. I was blinded by the camera flashes, as random microphones were stuffed in my face and questions shouted at me by desperate reporters.
“Please sir, we’re from CNN,” one reporter yelled above the noise of the crowd, following me as I tried to sidestep the crowd, “Tell us, how do you feel about making this historical journey?”
“I feel proud, happy, excited,” I blabbered like an idiot, finally realizing all this attention was for me.
“You’re going to be the first man to step on the moon. This will be a risky journey. What fuels you to stake your life for this trip? Is it patriotism? Is it pride? The tempt of glory?”
“No,” I realized, “It’s love.” And I stepped into the sliding doors of the NACA entrance, shutting out the noise for good.
The four other astronauts to be traveling with me worked in other NACA stations across the country. They introduced themselves to me, and I to them, and we headed for the rocket. There was only an hour left 'til take-off. I decided to head to my desk for a short moment, and found Larry.
“Well mate,” he grinned, “This is it. You’re going to make history. Shawn Garrett, the first man on the moon.”
“Yeah,” I smiled back, “Thanks for the advice, man. It really helped.”
He reached out and patted my shoulder. “You’re gonna do just fine, just watch out for those blasted aliens.” He laughed, but then his face became serious, “Take lots of photos, that’s all I want.”
“Oh, and someone’s on the phone for you,” He pointed at the upturned cordless on my desk, and mouthed,“VIP.”
“Hello,” I said cautiously into the phone. A gruff voice replied, and I almost dropped the phone as the caller introduced himself to me. It was the President! He talked to me for half an hour, and then wished me luck before bidding goodbye. With shaking fingers, I replaced the phone on the charging stand. Larry was still standing there, and with a smile, he pointed at the clock. It was time for me to get moving. I shook his hand as he wished me luck.
And then, “Goodbye.”
I surveyed the buttons around me. My, every space was covered in buttons. But thankfully, the third astronaut was in charge of flying the rocket. My job was just to coordinate everybody, and maintain contact with the NACA space center while we were in space. I moved to the head astronaut seat, flinching at the stiffness of my aero-suit. It was much more rigid than our practice suits. I would have to get used to these. I sat down slowly.
A robotic voice suddenly startled the crew. “Please get strapped into your seats. Take-off will be initialized in five minutes.”
Five minutes. Wow. In just five minutes, we would start our journey to the moon. What an adventure! Belatedly, excitement kicked in. Around me, the four other astronauts were strapping in too.
“Well,” Tim Burkey turned to me, “Are you ready for this adventure?”
“I sure am,” I replied, smiling widely, “Aren’t you?”
“I’ve been ready my whole life. This is a dream come true, it is,” Tim nodded, “My wife and kids, they just kept saying that this is the prize I get for all my hard work these years.”
A pang tore at my heart as he mentioned family. But before he could continue, the robotic voice interrupted. “Take off will be initiated in one minute. Last contact with NACA center is now, before take-off starts.” A crackle of sound, and then Larry’s voice came through, “Shawn? Shawn? Can you hear me? Shawn? SHAWN!?”
“Hey, hey. Larry, calm down. I’m right here,” I laughed, “We haven’t even taken off, and you’re already having a heart attack.”
“Oh thank god,” Larry sighed, “For some reason, the connection was faulty and we couldn’t reach you guys. We were pretty worried, because take-off is going to start any time now.”
“Yeah, I’m sure the connection is fine now. Thanks for checking.”
“No problem. It’s my duty, mate. Good luck.” “Thanks.” “Any-“ But his reply was cut off by the robotic voice, “Take-off will start in ten seconds. Count-down will be initiated.”
My cabin mates and I looked at each other with rising exhilaration. In less than ten seconds, we were going to be in space!
“Six.” All of us were mouthing the numbers as well, except for Tim, who was gripping the armrests of his seat tightly, with closed eyes. He looked like he was praying hard.
“Four.” We all looked at each other and together, started shouting out the last three numbers, as an inferno of sound from outside the spacecraft shattered our eardrums as well.
“Hey, we’re still he-“ An impatient cabin-mate voiced, only to be interrupted, yet again by the robotic voice.
“BLAST-OFF!” And with a huge push upwards, the rocket whooshed up.
“Lord have mercy,” Tim Burkey whispered into his palms, his eyes still clenched shut. I felt an enormous pressure as the rocket made its way up, and the hushed silence seem to echo throughout the interior of the spacecraft. The robotic voice cut through the silence, startling us all, “Take-off successful. We are now in space.” It took a minute for that to sink in, but once it did, everyone simultaneously snapped off their seatbelts and headed for the windows.
“Wow.” George Irvin sighed, “Just look at that.” We all followed his gaze, towards that little greenish-blue ball in the distance. Our Earth. Oh how beautiful it was. Then I realized that Tim still hadn’t moved out of his seat. His hands were covering his face, and his body was slightly convulsing. I kneeled down next to him. “Tim, are you alright?” When I got no reply, I started to worry. I repeated, “Tim, are you ok? Tim, we’re in space now.” Suddenly, I heard a gentle sobbing. Was Tim crying? “Tim,” I started awkwardly, “What’s wrong?” I pulled his hands apart, and to my surprise, Tim wasn’t crying. He was laughing, laughing so hard that he was tearing.
“We’re in space!” Tim cried, “I just can’t believe it, Shawn! My dream! My family’s dream! I’m finally here! I’m just….so happy!” He wiped his free-flowing tears with his sleeve. “Sorry,” He grinned, “I just can’t control my tear glands once they start.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine,“ I replied, though slightly disturbed. “I thought something was wrong-“
“How can anything be wrong Shawn? We’re in space! And soon we’re going to be making history! Look, there’s the moon.” He laughed in joy. The punctured surface of the shimmering moon loomed before our rocket. I gasped. The sight was just too breath-taking. Honey, I’m finally here. And it truly is wonderful, you were right.
It was time to start our descent. All of us took our seats again, and strapped ourselves back in. Slowly, we inched downwards, and Tony Gliden and Jerry Myers started steering the craft leftwards to find a good landing space. After locating it, our journey was straight downwards, and with a hard plop, we landed. Once again, the impact left us stunned in our seats for a few seconds. And then- “History, my fellow astronauts, history has been forged!” Tony announced.
Jerry added, “The first manned rocket has reached the moon. It’s time to contact the space center.”
Tim pressed the communication button, and the other astronauts flocked around him while we tried to make contact with the space center. But I had more important work to do. I hurried to my cabin, and reached under my bed to retrieve my suitcase. I laid it on blanket as I put in the combination to unlock it. It opened with a click, and I quickly went through its contents. I took out the flag, unfurling it slowly. I could see that hours and hours of work had been spent in making it. The stripes of red were bordered with rhinestones, while the stars were sewn with sequins, glowing in the dim light of the cabin. Simply gorgeous. I attached it to the pole, sliding it on carefully.
I looked through the rest of my suitcase’s contents, feeling the sides of the bag. Where was it? I took out my PJs, my shaving kit, my blankets and towels, but still…..I couldn’t find it! In desperation, I opened the suitcase fully and dumped everything inside on the bed, and ran my fingers through the contents, tossing all the items aside. No way! I was sure I had packed it. I ran out, back to the other astronauts. “Did any of you see a metal, round cheese-cutter?” I shouted, my tone bordering on desperate anxiety, and the other astronauts looked at me like I had gone crazy. They all shook their heads, and I went back to my cabin dejectedly. It wasn’t as if their answer was unexpected; my suitcase had been locked since I left the house, so there was no way the cheese-cutter could have fallen out.
I couldn’t believe it. I had forgotten it at home. My daughter’s express wish, and I had left it in the top drawer of my dresser, overlooking it in my frenzy of packing. I looked out the window at Earth, desperately wishing mental telepathy would work from here to summon it. I lay down flat on my bed, staring at the bunk above me. Just bring me back a little round piece, ok? I tried to shake off the memories.
“Shawn?” Tim peeked his head into the cabin, “Is something wrong?’
“Yeah.” He came and sat on the edge of the bed, “What is it? We’re all getting ready to step out, and as head astronaut, you get out first, remember? We’re all waiting for you.”
“Oh,” I tried to smile, “Oh, ok, I’ll be right there. Nothing’s wrong, don’t worry. Just remembered some stuff.”
“Ok then,” He nodded, and left.
Sophie, honey, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll bring back a chunk, and shape it later, ok? Then I got up and zipped up my aero-suit properly. I took out a rucksack from my suitcase, and slid the flag in. After that, I stepped out of the cabin and returned to the company of the other four.
“There’s the man,” Tony clapped me on the back, “Ready for our first steps?”
Without waiting for an answer, Jerry pressed a blue button near the door and up it slid, revealing a barren land. I moved to the doorway, and surveyed the strange land before me. It was completely inhospitable, with a monotonous shade of grey as the overall background color. Yet, it had its own strange charm, and I slowly stepped down the ladder.
“STOP!” Jerry yelled. “WAIT, WAIT, WAIT! Let me get the camera!” (We could hear each other because a little green button on our sleeves transmitted sound between our aerosuits. So much for private conversations.) I heard a shuffling behind me, and then, Jerry was next to me, kneeling on the same step.
“Ok, then, put one foot down,” he instructed, “Slowly, now, slowly.”
Very gently, I placed my foot on the last rung of the ladder and then inched my other foot towards the ground. And then, I placed it flat on the soft ground.
“PAUSE!” Jerry positioned himself near my foot and clicked many different pictures from different angles. Then I placed both my feet on the ground, and stepped away from the ladder. I was a part of history now. Me, Shawn Garett, the first man on the moon. I jumped up and spun, feeling like a little boy, and watched a bunch of flashes from Jerry as he tried his best to record history. I took a few more steps on the moon, feeling the lightness of the ground beneath me. “Check it out guys,” I turned to them, “I’m moon-walking.” Their responding laughter echoed through the speakers in my aero-orb. I took a few more steps, and inspected the craters that seemed to cover the moon’s surface almost completely. Then I looked up and surveyed the strange land around me. The only shades of color I could see were grey and white, and that was it! No reds, no blues, no yellows…..such a dull, monotonous world it was.
“Shawn, Shawn,” A voice cut through my speakers. I identified it as Jerry’s and turned to where he was standing, “Here’s a good spot to plant the flag.” I hurried to where he stood. A tiny crater lay there, and it would be perfect for the base of the flag. I took the flag out of my rucksack and placed it gently in the hole. Then I straightened the flag out, so it fluttered gently, its rhinestones glittering in the dim white light that bathed it.
“Wow,” Jerry sighed, “It’s great.”
I nodded, smiling. Tony took out the plaque that NACA had engraved, bearing the message, “On this Day, 18th July 1969, The First Men From Earth Landed On The Moon, In Peace.” We dug a wide hole to accommodate the plaque, and then set it there, right next to the flag. While digging, I found a nice chunk of moon rock, and I placed it in my pocket. Job done; the rest of the astronauts went off in separate directions to explore, ready to be back in an hour, because of limited oxygen. However, I sat down next to the flag. My dream was to keep the cheese cutter right here, right next to the flag, which I knew would’ve delighted Sophie to no end. But ah, in my carelessness….
Daddy, seriously, stop worrying about what can’t be changed. It’s ok, really... Startled, I looked up, half-expecting to see my daughter’s cheery face before me. But of course, there was nobody there. I put my head down, playing along with the delusions. Well, Sophie, I’m here. Your dream for me came true. And in my head I could see her big smile, a smile that was much too big for her small face. Her green eyes twinkled and she said, See, Daddy. Didn’t I tell you that nothing was impossible? You’ve done it. Yeah, I even have your little chunk of Swiss cheese in my pocket.
It’s not perfectly round, I’m sorry.
Daddy, I really don’t care. I’m so proud of you. When you get back, I’ll give you a nice big hug.
My heart almost tore in half, but I held it together. Sitting here, I felt closer to my daughter than I’d ever been before. I looked back towards my planet, Earth, which shone in it’s blue-green beauty. My eyes wouldn’t stray; I couldn’t believe that the Earth looked this wonderful from the outside. It seems I took a lot for granted while staying there. Sometimes you really need to lose something in order to realize how much it meant to you. But then, that really wasn’t a new lesson to me. I don’t know how long I sat there, reminiscing times spent back on Earth. I’m pretty sure the other astronauts would find me crazy, spending the limited time we had on a foreign planet mourning about what we had left behind. I should’ve been jumping around, spinning pirouettes like they were, throwing stuff in the air and then leaping high to retrieve them. But I just wasn’t in the mood for such tomfoolery, as wonderful memories and recollections that I thought forgotten swam through my head. It was much too satisfying to sit and refresh them, and love for my family burned through me as it never had before.
Soon it was time to return to the spacecraft, and as I mounted the ladder, the last person to get in, I turned back for a final glimpse of the flag. Standing next to the flag was Sophie, her brown curly hair flying behind her as she laughed and laughed, holding on the flag. She was waving at me, and as I watched, she blew a kiss. I caught the kiss and blew it back, and then waved some more before stepping back into the rocket. The astronauts looked at me as if they thought I had really lost it, but I just grinned at them and returned to my cabin to take a nap.
The trip to the space station, and back to Earth, as well as the whole NACA celebratory party all just went by in a flash. Once I was back home, I hurried to my bedroom, and to the calendar, crossing off the week I had spent in space. That meant that tomorrow was the twenty-sixth of July. Perfect. It was Sophie’s birthday.
A bouquet of red roses, with little white jasmines in between, lay on the dining table. I was busy shaping the moon rock, and soon it was a perfectly round glowing orb. I placed it in a velvet jewelry box, and slipped it between the flowers of the bouquet. I picked up the bouquet and headed to the garage. I started the car and headed towards my destination. Once there, I parked the car between a few motorbikes, and got out.
A weeping willow arched over the entrance of the place. I ducked my head as I went under it, and weaved my way through the different stones. Finally I reached it, the stone with Sophie’s name and picture engraved into it. And the message: Here Lies Sophie Garrett, beloved daughter of Shawn and Andrea Garett. Though she has passed on, her spirit lingers and she will always be remembered for her beautiful smile and cheerful spirit. She is loved forever. R.I.P. 1990-2000
I placed the bouquet on the ground in front of it. I read the little note I had attached to the side of the flowers.
Hello Sophie, Happy Birthday Darling.
I love you so much, and I miss you a lot. Here’s your present, the chunk of Swiss cheese from the moon that you always wanted. Hope you enjoy it.
Love you always.