Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 3, 2006

Something beautiful remains

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger 20 years ago is ancient history to some, but not to me. I remember it as if it were yesterday.

I didn't know anyone connected with the launch, but I was in the middle of a life-and-death drama closer to home and it seared in my memory the images of the shuttle breaking apart seconds after take-off.

My first husband had been in a coma since the day after Christmas, and other family members and I were taking turns staying at his bedside. The nurses told us to talk to him because usually the first of a coma patient's senses to return is hearing. Jerome had been an avid reader and journalist so we read newspapers and books to him and discussed news events we saw on television.

I was particularly interested in news coverage of the shuttle. Jerome had always been a huge fan of space travel because he loved both engineering and science fiction. Since we were both teachers, we were excited because Christa McAuliffe was also on board.

During the morning of Jan. 28, Jerome's mother Rita and I took a break from being in his hospital room. She went to the restroom while I went to the waiting room to watch some television. Expecting to see part of a soap opera, I was shocked to see the pieces of the Challenger whirling through the sky and shuttle members' families watching below. Their excitement, like mine, turned to anguish. Tears started running down my face and I started shaking.

When Rita returned, she took one look at me and asked, "What happened?" I knew she thought that Jerome had died, but when I tried to tell her about the TV images, I was so choked up, all I could do was point at the screen. I remember thinking how sad Jerome would be if he understood.

I don't know if he understood what happened that day or whether he heard or understood anything we said. He died less than a week later on Feb. 3 without ever regaining consciousness.

A few days before Jerome was stricken, we were heading to his parents' home to celebrate Christmas with his family when he reached over and patted my belly. We had just found out I was pregnant and we were both overjoyed about the prospect of being parents.

"You know," he said. "I could have been killed any number of times riding my motorcycle or driving a car, but I think my purpose in life was to create this little thing."

Now, that "little" thing is our 19-year-old daughter Mariya.

Jerome's death at 31 and the deaths of the young astronauts made me grieve for their lost potential. Who knows what they might have accomplished had their lives been longer?

The passage of time has helped me cope with that unanswerable question.

And the sympathy card I received after Jerome's death which most touched me also brought me some comfort. That card included the following poem:

"The tide recedes, but leaves behind bright seashells on the sand.
The sun goes down, but gentle warmth still lingers on the land.
The music stops and yet it echoes on in sweet refrains.
For every joy that passes, something beautiful remains."

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