I stare at the lines and scribbles of the owl drawn in crayon hanging on the fridge. My daughter sits on the floor creating another picture just for me as a goodbye present. The weight of my trip finally hit me this morning in the middle of making my routine cup of coffee. Tomorrow I leave for Jupiter.
Since I was my daughter’s age, I have dreamed about space travel. I read comic books about exploring the vast expanses of the universe and vowed that one day I would make the journey into the dark, open wilderness of space.
So when the offer arrived to join the crew on a mission to study the great swirling red spot on our solar system’s largest planet, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. My wife knew that one day this would come when I would be leaving for not just weeks or months, but for years. Mostly we discussed how when I return I would be going straight into retirement. Jokingly, but half seriously, we talked of plans to buy a ranchero in Mexico to live out our days in the sun or buy a sailing yacht to visit all of the ports around the world.
As I trace the lines around the owl’s bulging eyes, I do the math for the umpteenth hundredth time: two years out, twelve years of study and another two or so to return. Sixteen plus years I will be away from the familiar ground beneath my feet and from the gravitational pull that keeps me standing on my feet. Sixteen years away from the people I love.
Time is a strange thing. On one hand, time is what the clock reads. We keep time, meet and greet in time and wrap our daily lives around the forward marching of time. But on the other hand, time feels like another axis on the plane of existence. It plays a significant role in measuring force and motion, giving us the impression that time is a dimension causing us to think we can travel through it. Though the machine I will be traveling in will have no regard for time, only distance.
That distance along with my reanalysis of time suddenly became apparent to me as I poured milk in my coffee. I watched the tendrils of steam rise and the milk swirl like the storms of the gaseous giant. I had prepared myself for the inevitable change. In sixteen years, new buildings will be erected, new technologies will be developed and the little girl on the floor of my kitchen will be all grown up.
But with time and distance comes not only change, but forgetfulness. And it wasn’t until that moment, under the gaze of the wise old owl, that I realized the possibility of not only being forgotten, but forgetting. A fear wells in my gut that I will forget the look my daughter gives me each day when I return from work or the feeling of an embrace when my wife has a difficult day. I feel the warmth of the coffee move from my mouth to my throat to my chest, into my stomach. A tear falls from the corner of my eye, just as my daughter holds up her masterpiece.
It is of me, alone in a spaceship staring back as her and her mom stand holding hands on top of our planet of blue and green. More tears come as I bring her in and hold her tight. I don’t want to let go. But tomorrow I will have to.
In my heart I know this trip is not a sentence, but I will still be doing time.