08 June 2012

"Get Your Ass to Mars"

By Curtis C. Chen

My father died before I went into space, but he was the reason I made it there.

For years, he talked about visiting the Grand Canyon, but kept putting it off. There was always something more important to do. It became a running joke between us. Every birthday and Father's Day, I would send him another tacky souvenir I'd bought online, building up memorabilia from a vacation he'd never taken.

It was funny until my junior year of college, when he was diagnosed with stage three bone cancer.

That summer, I surprised him with a gift: two train tickets to the South Rim. It had taken me weeks to negotiate with his doctors, but we all knew he didn't have much time left.

He had taken up whittling, using a kitschy penknife I'd sent him the year before. The lacquered handle showed tracks from coyote, deer, sheep, and other mammals native to Arizona. The pawprints had inspired him to attempt to carve tiny versions of each animal.

He was fashioning an alleged mountain lion out of basswood while we waited for the train. His fingers kept slipping off the blade, but I said nothing.

"What do you think?" He held up the tiny chunk of maimed lumber.

I squinted. "You're getting better. That almost looks not like a mutant dog."

"Everyone's a critic." He laid the carving on its side. "Hold that, will you? I need to make my mark."

I don't know if it was the pain in his hands, or if the whistle of the incoming train startled him, but I saw a flash of light as the knife spun out of his grip and slid across the glass tabletop. Then I saw red.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'm fine," he said, his voice tight.

"You're bleeding."

"What? No." He held up his hands and turned them over. There were no cuts or scrapes anywhere. "I'm fine, see."

I pointed at his chest. There had been one fuzzy red dot on his shirt a moment ago. Now it was expanding. Other dots appeared, turning the solid blue cloth into a gruesome polka dot design.

An ambulance rushed us to the hospital. The doctors refused to let him leave. I knew what they would tell me. My father wasn't going to see the Grand Canyon.

I sat with him that night, reading aloud from a book titled Over the Edge, which cataloged the outlandish ways people had managed to get themselves killed in the national park over the years. I had been saving it for his next birthday.

"See," I said, "it's a good thing we didn't go. You might have ended up dead. Or worse."

"Promise me you won't wait," he said. "Whatever it is you want, whatever you think will make you happy—don't wait until it's too late."

"I promise, Dad."

He smiled at me, and I held his hand as he closed his eyes.

I went to the Grand Canyon after my father died. I scattered his ashes there, and I kept my promise.


Image: Superimposed Rover on Rim of Victoria Crater by NASA/JPL/Cornell, October, 2006