Saturday, June 25, 2011

Laika in Space

You've probably heard of the little dog that got sent up into space by the Russians. I just learned some pretty interesting things about her in this graphic novel by Nick Abadzis.

First of all, her real name was Kudryavka. "Little Curly," for her curly, samoyed-esque tail. Second of all, they sent her up there to die.

What they teach you in elementary school is that the Russians sent the first two satellites up into space and that the second one constituted the first "manned" orbit, with Laika on board. Yay! A dog in space! What kid doesn't get a kick out of that?

What they don't teach you is that after the successful launch of Sputnik--the first object launched into space--Kruschev ordered his space engineers to have a second, manned satellite ready to go one month later in time for the 40th anniversary of the Revolution. One month, folks. One. Because of the time crunch, the engineers did not have time to create a rocket that could bring anyone home safely from space. Only launch them out forever. All for propaganda's sake.

So they sent a dog. The best tempered dog they had. A dog unfailingly sweet after the most grueling training sessions. They re-named her "Laika" for the launch, because the name was more fierce. Laika, "barker." They put her in a special doggy space suit, strapped her into a tiny capsule and blasted her into space.

It was all over world news! "The Soviets still ahead in the space race! Laika in space! 'Muttnik!'" The official report was that she lived for four or five days in orbit and then was humanely put down and that great strides in research were made.

Actually...she died five hours into the flight, from stress and heat exhaustion. Just like that. A tiny life, gone. And the worst part is, it was kind of in vain. "The more time passes," said Oleg Georgivitch Galenko in 1998, "the more I'm sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog."

It totally made me cry, in case you were wondering. Check it out, if you can, though. It isn't all tears and sadness.

Doesn't this just look like the nose of a pooch you'd wanna pet?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Looking Death in the Face

My sweet, fragile Grandpa Rasmussen passed away on Monday. He was 95.

While at work on Saturday afternoon, I received an email from my mom about the recent decline of my grandpa's health. He had been steadily declining for years--forgetting little things, like where he put the keys, to forgetting the names of grandchildren he didn't see regularly, to forgetting his own children whom he saw daily.

Grandpa never changed though. He grew disoriented, and by the end of his life, a brief Sunday visit to my parents' house next door to his was a trip to a stranger's house. But he was always the same, gentle, gracious man he always was. He never lashed out in his confusion, never shied away from the "strangers" he saw all around him. He lovingly looked for my Grandma, whom he almost always remembered til the end. (On the rare occasions where he couldn't quite remember who she was, I'm told he would sometimes propose to her. :) That's the kind of man he was.)

Mom's email on saturday was just to let us know that Grandpa had gone to sleep a few days ago and was still restlessly sleeping. In other words... Grandpa was dying. It was time to gather round and say our goodbyes.

Later that evening, Travis and I went to see him. Grandpa was in his own room in a hospital bed, swaddled in many blankets, with a little white night cap to keep him warm. Unconscious, gaunt, and breathing laboredly, he didn't look peaceful; he looked like he was struggling--struggling to be free, perhaps. I was a little frightened by what I saw. After my mom and grandma left Trav and I alone to whisper our goodbyes, I began to cry into my husband's shoulder. "Death is horrifying," I whispered. And, to me, in that moment, it was. The man I'd known and loved my whole life, his quick wit and sharp intellect, his gentle humility, was reduced to this struggling shell of a body. The women I loved, Mom and Grandma, and all who did their nightly vigils with Grandma--women who knew this man far better than even I--had to tend this dying body, knowing that soon he would be gone. How was it to be borne?

"No!" Travis whispered back. "Death isn't horrifying." And as I remained many minutes more, and became more accustomed to Grandpa's, at first, alarming new visage, I realized Travis was right. This was as important of a journey as Grandpa's life. It marked a change, and not an easy one to accept, but a natural and a good one.

A picture of his mother, who died when he was twelve, hung on the wall next to his bed. It was one of those old-timey photos that, as it hung in my grandparents' guest room for years, I had often found humorous and even a little frightening. People always looked so solemn back then. But as I stared at that old familiar photo, I had the thought that in a few short days--or hours, I didn't know how long--he'd be reunited with his mother, a woman he hadn't seen in nearly 84 years.

There was nothing horrifying about that. In fact, I was filled with such joy at the thought that it makes me cry a little bit even now to think about it. Yes. Joy. It's a little bit stronger than mere happiness.

I feel like I experience the quotidien details of my life with blinders on. I believe that my existence began before I was born, and I believe that it will not end with my death. But I take this for granted every single day. I go throughout my routine and feel, however subconsciously, as if this--this--is all there is. As if my job, my schooling, my routine, my husband here and now are the most important things. In the religion I practice though, we often talk about having an "eternal perspective," or remembering the long-term reasons for doing things; remembering to choose to focus on things that will be of eternal importance to us--such as Family over Money, for example. Often, things such as reading Scripture help me refocus and remember the eternal perspective. But it's so so so easy to forget again.

My Grandfather Ellis's death has forced me to stare into Eternity, such as I believe it to be, and really come to terms with it. I hope and I have faith that he is happily reunited with his mother, his stepmother, his father and countless other members of his family. That idea feels right to me; that idea is consistent with my belief that familial relationships do not end after a brief and ephemeral coexistence on earth. No! NO! We go on. We'll be together again. If not? I don't care. I'll still believe it, because that belief alone I know will inform my choices and help me make the most of my life here and now.

This is my first experience with Death. It is sad--and for one moment, one brief moment, I felt the shock and despair of loss. That was horrifying. I still mourn for the separation from my Gramps. But there's no despair now. Only peace. I've looked Death in the face now and, as my mother said, "I'm not afraid of it anymore."

I'm not afraid of it anymore either.

Ellis Theo Rasmussen. Sept 21, 1915--Jun 6, 2011