Twenty-nine years ago today, I was crossing the hall from the bathroom to the bedroom at my friend Patricia Butler’s house in Austin when I heard the distressed voice of a news commentator on television as he reacted to the unexpected explosion of the space shuttle Challenger less than two minutes into its launch. I rushed into Patricia’s bedroom and stared in horror at the red-flamed center of a massive plume of smoke and knew instantly that all seven crew members – including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to be launched into space – were unarguably dead. Nobody could survive the intense heat of that explosion or a free fall from that height.
I took my 10-day-old baby Elizabeth in my arms and snuggled down into bed next to Patricia, my best friend since age 3, who had just been diagnosed with malignant melanoma, and we spent the day watching all the news coverage of this very sad event. My husband, Ray, and 3 ½ year old daughter, Sarah, were there, too, and we all watched as the news replayed the launch and the explosion over and over, as if one viewing wasn’t enough to cement this horrible reality in our minds.
I was particularly heartsick over the death of young Christa McAuliffe, who had been selected from over 11,000 applicants to be the first teacher in space. Not that I took the loss of the lives of the six astronauts lightly – certainly not – but I couldn’t help but think that they had been trained for years with full knowledge of the extreme dangers of space travel while Christa had only taken a break from her job as a high school social studies teacher in New Hampshire shortly before the launch. What bravery it took for her to don that space suit and strap herself into the seat of the space shuttle. I imagine her heart was racing with excitement during the countdown and lift-off. The only merciful aspect of the event was how quickly it happened. It’s hard to imagine there was much warning.
The Challenger disaster is in the same category for me as John F. Kennedy’s, Robert Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King’s deaths, as well as 9/11. I can tell you exactly where I was when I learned of those terrible events, and in each case I was glued to the television for hours trying to tease out some sort of meaning in the wake of senseless and unexpected death.
As it turned out, the Challenger disaster came soon after my friend Patricia received her own death sentence. At 33-years-old, she was diagnosed with cancer that had metastasized to her brain. Though she was in the beginning stages of chemotherapy and radiation, the doctors had already informed her that if the cancer didn’t kill her first, then the effects of massive radiation – the only hope to prolong her life – would eventually do her in. The doctors didn’t lie. Though her cancer eventually went into remission, radiation poisoning slowly destroyed Patricia’s brain long before she breathed her last breath. I expect had she known her fate, she would have gladly taken Christa McAuliffe’s place on the space shuttle. Yes, unexpected and senseless death extends to illness, as well.
I remember lying in bed that day watching the news coverage with my newborn on one side and my beloved friend on the other and feeling very much the fragility of life. I can still clearly see the dark purple of Patricia’s bedroom walls and hear the astonished voices of newscasters as they went over and over the details of the launch and explosion. I can still feel my friend’s thin body snuggled against my back on her California-king futon while my sweet Elizabeth nursed at my breast and Sarah and Ray lay stretched out nearby. And all the while I felt a mixture of sadness and disbelief that life could be so cruel, so merciless, so cold.
And yet it’s the warmth of that day that I remember. The intimacy and love we all shared and the sweetness of our time together. In that moment, there was no future suffering or sad good-byes. It was just us all together in a comfortable room with a more immediate tragedy playing out on a national stage, and the bond that comes from shared experience, however sad.
Life is unpredictable and death can come whether we are prepared or not. But sometimes there are moments that cross over time and remain intact. I am grateful to hold a moment in my memory that carries such sweetness; how ironic it is laced with such sorrow.