When I was a child, time always seemed to slow down before Christmas. I remember how the days seemed to drag then, filled with waiting, and hoping, and waiting again. Then too, there was the suspense - this might be the year Santa doesn’t come, I probably shouldn’t have hit my sister, etc. But my small fears were always swallowed up in the overwhelming joy of Christmas morning.
I always woke up before my sister, in the cold, pale hour before dawn when no one else in the house was yet awake. I remember how I used to lie in bed a moment, relishing the comfortable warmth of my blankets and savoring the anticipation. Then I would bounce up, oblivious to the cold outside my bed, and run over to my older sister. She would always groan a little bit at being woken up so early, but once I got her out of bed and down the stairs, she was always as starry-eyed and breathless as I was.
We would creep through the silent house towards the living room, where we could just discern the faint, warm glow of the Christmas tree lights. Our parents never turned them off at night; they remained the whole night burning, each small bulb casting a soft glow that warmed the grey shadows of the early morning. It was so on Christmas, especially. The lights never seemed as bright and welcoming as on that morning - to my sister and I, they represented the hope we had so faithfully sustained the entire Christmas season, a small symbol of what was to come.
We walked slowly into the living room now, lured by the gentle light. I remember feeling my sister’s cold hand in my own, feeling her squeeze it hard just before we rounded the corner-
And there they were - the anticipation of the entire Christmas season lying in bright heaps of paper and ribbon and tissue paper.
We would always hesitate a split second before rushing forward, shrieking with delight. It was our parent’s rule that we could not open presents until they came downstairs as well, but with the noise we made, they were never far behind us. Before long, they would stumble downstairs, our dad’s head almost splitting in a wide yawn and our mother smiling at us groggily. As soon as they were comfortably seated on the coach, the warm, rich smell of their coffee wafting through the entire room, my sister and I could allow ourselves the pleasure we had waited for since after Thanksgiving.
I remember, still, how we had laughed and exclaimed over each new toy, shouting over each other in our eagerness to show our parents what Santa had brought. I remember the total contentment we four had always felt with the world then; life was unpredictable, but those few moments in the grey dawn of Christmas morning were reserved for us and nothing else.
Strange, how at one point, it all meant so much to me. As the years slipped away, it somehow lost a little of its glamor. My interest in it wavered and eventually almost crumbled away altogether.
And yet, that’s life. Time compresses itself when you grow older, and with that loss, it becomes more valuable. We no longer have time for everything; we must pick and choose what will dictate our waking hours.
That, for good or ill, is the principle that has driven my life since I was a teenager. Junior year, to be precise. AP classes, varsity sports - suddenly every moment was as precious as diamonds - and also as scarce. I began to cut out what I deemed as unnecessary and focus all my overtaxed energy on one goal: becoming the best NASA scientist the world has ever seen.
Oh, no doubt I was overconfident. Most teens normally are. And even if I never became that famous, I got close. I slaved over textbooks, drilled myself for hours on course material, fought to get into the best colleges, and I came out of it not among the best of the best, but still above average. I was pleased, but not satisfied. Nor would I be until I had strained every fibre in becoming what I wanted to.
The day I got a position at NASA still seems like a dream. The moment I realized I was hired was like that moment of entering the living room on Christmas morning - all the heart-pounding anticipation wiped away in an instant. And in its place? Pure bliss.
Years slipped by, filled with work and research and learning - I loved every moment of the exhilarating, mind-stretching work I did. I became so deeply involved in it that I didn’t realize how time was passing by. I didn’t really realize that my sister had gotten married until I was at her first child’s baptism; I didn’t realize that an old friend had passed away until I was standing by the open grave, wondering where time had gone. I was so deeply buried in my work that I was blind to any life outside of it.
None of these revelations came quickly; they grew, slowly, quietly, so unobtrusive that I was hardly aware of it. In those few hours where I was momentarily devoid of work, I remember feeling a faint disquiet - the feeling that something was wrong. And yet, I could never figure out what it was.
My obvious dedication to my work, however, did not go unnoticed. One day, I was chosen to be part of a new program: the first human mission to Mars.
It was not until after we had taken off, had left the luminous blue orb of the earth beneath us, that I began to realize the full implications of what I had undertaken. I was leaving our planet for a whole year. I would not see the sunset slipping through the bare branches of the trees and blurring them with its soft light, would not see the ocean spreading out in volatile color, would not see the fog hanging over the city streets, would not see the sun sparkling on the frosty grass of a November dawn…
I think I did pause then, and really reflect on what I was missing. But the whole adventure was still so new and exciting to me that I didn’t think for long. The mission - what I had hoped and dreamed of for years - demanded all my attention.
I remember landing on Mars, after nearly a month of travel, and stepping out onto that alien planet for the first time. It was nearly sunset there, and the dying light cast the red cliffs in luminous shadow. They towered above our insignificant selves, bumping up against the pale blue expanse of the sky, glowing against pale wisps of cloud. The dry, red landscape of shifting hills and valleys and peaks stretched in every direction, nothing breaking the uniform waves of crimson dust and dead stone. It was bleak and bare - yet weirdly beautiful.
I could never find the words to describe it, but one of my team members came close. It was Pam, I think. We were all standing by our ship, looking off into the distance when she said, “I think it's the emptiness of it all that makes it so beautiful.”
We looked at her, confused, and she elaborated.
“You know, the vastness of it. It’s like the ocean - always reaching out to the horizon. I don’t know about you, but that inspires me. It makes me think of how infinite this planet is. It’s so new, so much we haven’t seen yet.”
Yes, that was what had pulled all of us here in the first place. The thrill of discovering something entirely new, something no one else had ever seen before. The idea was almost intoxicating.
We settled down to reality soon enough, however; the practicalities of life do not go away when one is on a new planet. Life fell into a sustainable, familiar pattern again, and the newness began to wear off.
Maybe it was once I found myself falling into this dependable, predictable lifestyle, reminiscent of, and yet utterly dissimilar from my life on earth, that my mind began to find space to think a little once again. Unconscious thoughts began to break near the surface of my mind, slowly culminating in that wakening on Christmas day.
When I first awoke, I didn’t know it was Christmas. It was like any other day, at first. I remember lying in bed, looking over at the window in my makeshift bedroom. The sun was melting the plastic surface into liquid gold, light flaring and leaping about the edges. I rose and walked over to the window, looking out at the scene outside.
Because of the uniform bareness of the landscape, I had expected the world to look exactly the same every day - none of the minute changes that one witnesses with each day on earth. There is never a new leaf unfurling from its sticky shell, never a puddle gathering in some depression from a recent storm, never any of the small changes that constantly remind one the world breathes and shifts from day to day, even as we do. And yet, this world never looked quite the same every morning.
Perhaps it was a slightly different tinge to the red of the tall cliffs, perhaps a different shadow snaking its way across the ruddy ground, perhaps a different tilt of sunlight, perhaps a shifting mass of cloud...whatever it was, it never felt the same. This world went on, as uniquely volatile as our own.
I turned around from the window and saw Pam standing in the doorway. She was smiling and trying to conceal something behind her back.
“Hey,” I nodded.
She only stared at me, her eyes stretched wide in surprise.
I looked back at her, puzzled. “Is something wrong with the way I look?” I asked, trying to laugh a little.
The surprised look on her face slipped away and she smiled again. “Other than having a bed head, no. Only, it’s Christmas.”
Her words broke over my head, startling me with their significance. “Christmas? But it can’t have been that long yet.”
She shook her head and laughed a little. “It has been, believe it or not, and Santa found us, even in the middle of nowhere.”
She held out a small package, colorfully wrapped, of all things. I had no idea where she got the paper from. She caught sight of the surprise on my face and hastily explained,
“It’s just a little gift - I’m giving them to all the crew members.”
Before I can stammer out my thanks, she continued, “Anyway, there’s breakfast in the mess hall when you’re ready.”
“Great. Thank you for this,” I gestured with the package.
She smiled again. “Glad you like it!” She turned to leave, but I suddenly stopped her.
I got the satisfaction of seeing an even bright smile stretch across her face before she turned and walked out.
Left alone with the gift, my first thought was to leave it until later; I was beginning to realize how hungry I was. But then I realized that I would want to open it before I saw Pam again, so I could really thank her properly for it.
As my fingers started to tear away the crisp paper, memories came flooding back. That was when I remembered those early Christmas mornings so long ago, when the love we had for each other pulled so hard on all of us it was almost tangible.
I put down the present, guilt wrenching through me. When did I become so absorbed in myself that I almost forgot my family existed? When was the last time I called them? When I got accepted for this mission? No, that was impossible; it couldn’t have been that long. I lost track of time, I was so busy...
And yet even as I tried to justify my actions, I knew that it was useless.
I laid down the present and walked out of the room. I knew what I had to do.
I made my way across our station, careful to avoid the voices I could hear in the mess hall. My friends were there right now, enjoying their breakfast. But I couldn’t join them just yet; I needed to make this right.
There was one way that we could contact earth (other than HQ)- a kind-of speaker that could connect to our relatives’ phones. I had not used it once this trip, but I remembered putting in my parents’ and my sisters’ numbers before I left.
As I typed my request into the machine, I could feel my heart thumping thick and hard against my throat. I tried to reassure myself - this was nothing dangerous, nothing could possibly go wrong. The worst thing that could happen would be that no one picked up.
Even as the thought entered my mind, my stomach clenched. I realized that the knowledge of being completely isolated from my family could not ever make up for the beautiful surrealism of this mission. Even if here, on Mars, I had achieved my one dream, it would mean nothing to me at all if I found myself completely alone once I returned home. I hated myself for feeling so incredibly weak, but I couldn’t help it. The desire to know that somewhere, someone wanted me, someone needed me, was overpowering.
As I stood before the machine, listening to the faint ring rattle down the wires, I prayed. The once-familiar words came heavy and awkward on my tongue, working back through years of forgetting. I couldn’t remember the exact words, in the end, but I think God understood. He must have understood my desperate, hardly coherent request, and maybe smiled a little. It is always humbling when you realize you are not self-sufficient.
He must have heard my prayers, because I stood there, holding the headpiece up to my ear, I suddenly heard my mother’s voice on the other end.
I think I cried a little, and so did she. I remember how we stumbled over each other’s words, trying to speak through swollen throats and stinging eyes, trying to explain everything that had happened since I had last seen them, my mom trying to reassure me that she didn’t care it had been so long, hearing over and over again, ‘I love you’.
Time bent itself in that moment; almost as if it were spinning around the rim of a black hole. It was so long, and yet so short. So many things recovered, but others things left unsaid. Yet when I finally hung up, I knew it didn’t matter that time had run out.
Somewhere far away, through miles of empty space, another call would come through.