I was spoiled under the big, open skies of the Illinois prairielands, the stars hugging the Earth, unobscured. I spent hours watching satellites and meteors from the backyard, eating popcorn on the neighbor’s porch during lunar eclipses, feeling the familiar suckling of mosquitoes on my arms (and hearing the painful reminder that they do it because I’m so sweet).
The first word I ever spoke was “moon,” as in the big glowing orb in the sky. I always said that I would go there someday.
I met Captain James Lovell of Apollo 13 when I was eight years old. He signed my copy of his book, shook my hand, and told me that maybe I would be the first person to step foot on Mars. I was pretty sure that my life path would lead me to the red planet anyway, but to have that reaffirmed by a real live astronaut made my heart soar. I was so ready to leave. If they had given me wings, a jetpack, a small plane, I would have flown that very night. I would have flown to Mars and sent a postcard back, and only that.
Something that you observe growing up on the prairie is that, even though the Earth is round, the land is flat. That’s a blessing: it’s easier to move forward when you can see your next destination from miles and miles away, when you know of all the obstacles that stand in front of you.
But sometimes obstacles can blindside you: the engines fail, your body stops, your mind revolts against you. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and the egress you had mapped out slips through your fingers, and it takes so much longer to get en route than you had thought. By the time it finally comes around, everything has changed.
I always thought that leaving (Illinois or Earth, either/or) would provide me with direction, that it would be exciting and self-affirming. Now that I’m here, though, I have nothing to escape from, and the only “different” I feel is a sick hollowness in my gut and an ache in my chest, knowing that I’m leaving my whole world behind.
The world, I know, is bigger than the 100 mile distance between the place where I was born and the place I am now. But I still feel like I’m shuttling upward through the sky at 16.26 kilometers per second, preparing to exit the atmosphere and enter the great, vast, and beautiful unknown which contains every conceivable and inconceivable possibility, but also a certain impending doom (and I swear that I can feel the oxygen forcefully and rapidly evacuating from my lungs).
I wonder if they wobbled when they took the first steps on the moon. I can’t stop shaking.
My life here is vibrant and my heart is full; the skies here are the most beautiful on Earth. I will never truly be ready to leave.
There is no way to say goodbye, except to just go.