Linda Voss has been published in nonfiction with Discovery Channel Publishing and the Macmillan Library. A graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism with a science minor, she writes about science and technology for NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation. Online articles include this on her sister’s work. She also blogs about comparative religion for the Institute for Spiritual Development. This is her first published personal essay.
The Heavenly Messengers
In Memorium Janice Voss (1956 – 2012)
One of only six women to have flown in space five times, Astronaut Janice E. Voss’ missions contributed to the body of knowledge in combustion science and provided the highest resolution map of the Earth ever made. She was also Science Director for the Kepler space telescope launched in 2009 to search for Earth-like planets.
There are moments that seem to hold an answer. A friend helping you walk the aisle of cyprus trees, an ungainly version of who you are, belly distended by the cancer, pregnant with that malignancy. The quick, grateful smile you gave me, your sister, when you smelled the white rose I picked for you. That moment of sun and scent and smile. Radiant.
Talking about it, you could be describing the descent trajectory of a ballistic missile. Those lung drains that, after a while, didn’t ease your breathing and would have panicked you more, were it not for the inadvertent discovery from the three weeks when it became difficult to breathe, but you couldn’t get a drain because the chemo lowered your blood count too much. You discovered that your lungs didn’t keep filling with fluid. They reached a stasis under the greater pressure that made breathing even more difficult. You couldn’t take a deep breath for the pain, so you breathed shallowly. Maybe you hadn’t needed those drains every week for the last eight months, after all.
“That’s scary,” I say.
“You can’t be afraid for that long,” you say. “At least not the way I live my life. You just work it through.”
My dharma teacher said the question that transformed the Buddha, that set the young king on his spiritual path and left us the gift of Buddhism, was, “What is it of our humanity that transcends the three Heavenly messengers—illness, aging, and death?”
When you are sitting at the deathbed of the person you love, advises my friend who is a NASA Health and Medical Officer, an Antarctic explorer, and a cancer survivor himself, don’t talk to them about the spiritual stuff. “Just hold their hand and tell them you love them.”
Doctor Sherwin Nuland, in How We Die, looks at what constitutes a good death. “Of the many kinds of hope a doctor can help his patient find at the very end of life, the one that encompasses all the rest is the belief that one final success may yet …[vanquish] the immediacy of suffering and sorrow.”
My minister, speaking at the church service where the congregation performed the prayer for your transition from life, used a Pac-Man video game analogy for why we play this game of life. Even though we know we’re going to die, or get gobbled into ghost people, we strive to prevail against the overwhelming forces arrayed against us.
Dr. Nuland postulated that the final, triumphant success was that of dying as you lived. He used the example of a patient who, days before his death from cancer, opened his doors to friends and loved ones for his annual Christmas party and reading of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. On his epitaph was written his favorite line, “He knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
This is what Steve Jobs’ sister, Mona Simpson, says she learned from Jobs’ death. “Character is essential: what he was, was how he died.” In the hospital at the last, intubated so he couldn’t talk, Jobs “…designed new fluid motor monitors and x-ray equipment. He redrew that not-quite-special-enough [intensive care] unit. And every time his wife walked into the room, I watched his smile remake itself on his face.”
“What amazed me,” Simpson says, “was how much was left after so much had been taken away.”
We should sing love songs to our beloveds every day.
When you stay with me getting treatment for three days at my home in Arlington,Virginia, my work day begins when you go to bed at 9:30 at night. I crawl into my big bed at 3 in the morning, next to you propped up on pillows so you can breath, and gently take your hand. I can feel the warm pulse flowing through the delicate veins, the skin so soft and thin. The bones are small but prominent and hard against flesh that is dropping away.
Two days after you have left, I walk to the Iwo Jima statue. Standing in its shadow, I am keenly aware that I am not nearly (orders of magnitude) grateful enough. My eyes follow the march of orderly embossed letters spelling a litany of places Marines died around the world. The day is pure gift, the brilliant sun of a perfect luminescent summer day. I feel the rays of sunshine like a shower of love from Heaven.
The mulberries are flourishing at the Iwo Jima this year. Walking the edges of the park, I find branches laden with fruit drooping across my path. I know these berries—not poison, but wholesome fodder of folklore and pioneer tradition. They are growing all around this year in parks and along city streets, and I love eating them. I have a relationship with these berries. I pop a shiny purple berry into my mouth and crush the juice on my tongue.
I am so grateful. For having a sister who was a pioneer through life. For what I know, my relationship with myself, with my body, with the Earth, with my God or Goddess, which is my sense—my own personal sense—of higher being, the larger forces that form a matrix within which I live. The gifts that I have are so simple. The simplest and the most precious. My sense of life, present to its gifts.
That simple joy and gratitude, the overwhelming love, I believe, is what we go to when we die. We can experience it here in life, if we are open. It’s all around us. You gave me the gift of knowing that.
Don’t talk about the spiritual stuff; just love them.
You died as you lived. You marched with self-determined grit, wide-eyed, scientific and uncompromising into the disease that ravaged your body. You chose that path with the “normal” courage poet Jack Gilbert describes that over time conquers and transcends: “The beauty that is of many days. Steady and clear. It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.” You died that way, determined you were going to beat it. You joined a health club that week and square danced the weekend before. You emailed colleagues about work just before the ambulance came.
You didn’t know that moment in the hospital coughing up blood would be the moment that took you. It could have been any of so many moments. Your moments of joy. Your wave good-bye, face beaming, boarding the bus to the Space Shuttle. The moment that took you wasn’t important. It was important that America be a space faring nation. It was important to you to explore the fundamental science of how things burn when you take away the variable of gravity. It was the unknown, the challenge, that drew you. The cancer gave you the chance to explore the mystery of the healing potential and boundaries of your body. And then surpass them.
My dharma teacher, upon hearing of your cancer, replies, “Who’s to say that death isn’t a healing process?”
You marched right through that wall to the other side where the vistas to explore are infinite. Was there even a tug before you slipped the bonds of earth? That was just me, holding on for a moment more.