My son sent me a birthday card the other day, a digitally painted holograph of dinosaurs that dance across the edge of my desk, most of them playing bugles, trombones, and French horns, with a few carrying a banner that reads, “Hope You Have a Great One, Mom!” The data package from Korolev must have been fairly expensive, I realize. It would’ve traveled almost four hundred million kilometers over the course of at least twenty minutes, not accounting for compression and decompression, so I feel more than a bit ungrateful when I can’t fully bring myself to enjoy the gesture.
It’s probably because my editor’s still emailing about the Martian Mother piece, the one he thinks will connect with the thousands of parents who’ve found their children scattered to the solar winds, to the crater cities somewhere on that faraway red planet. He’s angling for a feel-good human interest story, he tells me, a sense of what it’s like to be an ordinary mama looking off from the repose of her rocking chair, bosom swelling with maternal pride at the thought of those brave explorers—a story about the optimism and magnificence of science fiction made into science reality.
But watching the projection of those miniature dinosaurs buzzing around with that cloying brass band, my eyes linger on one of the smallest, dawdling toward the back, the kind with a long neck that I can never remember, a Brachiosaurus or Brontosaurus.
This feels more like a ghost story than science fiction to me.
People on different planes, with little contact between the living and dead save afterimages strewn back and forth alongside starlight.
It makes me think about the credenza, next to the dining room and just before the umbrella stand, where I keep my favorite pictures of my son—a half dozen moments of a baby and a boy and a young man in a series of frames, with recognizable continuity between them on some days, but on others, so stark and so different that he begins to feel like a collection of separate people, all of whom are long gone. Lately, when I stop there to catch my breath or to look for my car keys, I get the strange and unmistakable sense that I’m fixed before an altar at a memorial.
When I tell people that I feel like I’m the mother of a ghost, they laugh.
Not cruelly. But gently, reassuringly, to remind me that my son is in space, not gone forever. They talk about the ‘Turners they know, maybe a church friend’s child or a colleague or relative, and how my son might be one of them—the ones to return rather than renew their initial contracts, because everyone gets tired and wants the comfort of stable soil eventually, or so they say.
But they don’t know my son.
They didn’t see the glint, the joy sparking under the skin, the day he told me about his plan to enroll in the IAES, when there was already early talk about the academy becoming a feeder for the second wave. Back when he was a shaggy-haired teenager who still needed me to buy his jeans and microwave his food, when his interests in water conservation and filtration were starting to take his studies to terrain I already had trouble understanding.
Even then, I could tell he wouldn’t look back, because I never did, when it was my time to leave everything behind, when it was me sitting at a cramped dining table, talking to my mother about a job at a paper in Seattle. My small and cautious mother—who spent her whole life as a secretarial assistant, never going more than a few dozen miles from Concord, and who couldn’t fathom what it would mean for her daughter to be a writer—didn’t hesitate, just smiled and nodded and told her child she was happy, the same way I did when it was my kid going on about the IAES.
I watch that projected dinosaur, still dancing, waving its neck back and forth and tooting that little bugle, and I think about what separates us from the dead. Such a small difference of time and place.
And I consider perhaps that I’m the one that’s the ghost.
Sitting here, in the first and only home I ever bought, rain thumping the skylight and curves of the roof tiles, gushing gutters dumping tangles of twigs and dirt into the side yard, I’m a lot less moored in time.
One second I’m staring at a digital birthday card, the next I’m crawling in darkness, reaching and swiping under the slats of a toddler bed while my son shrieks for his dinosaur toy so violently that he can barely breathe. “Barry” the Brachiosaurus, or Brontosaurus—I still don’t know—a blue, goofy-eyed doll matted in spit and unvacuumed dust when I pull it from the depths, too tired to stop my son from burying his face in it as he falls asleep.
“Barry,” a word that’s less than a glimmer in my son’s thoughts. So much so, I’m certain that he chose the birthday card without remembering any of that crying and crawling and reaching at all. It’s the recognition that I’m quickly coming to speak a language no one understands, that this knowledge will disappear, is disappearing, somewhere within me.
I haven’t told him this, but I’ve calculated our remaining time.
He and his wife say that they’re planning to visit Earth again, after they have kids at a good stage in both of their research careers. It’ll be important for the grandkids to see where they come from, the people they come from, they tell me. And so based on that, I tried to estimate at least two or three trips they might make—costly trips, not just in resources but in time, five to ten months depending on the planetary positions. Even if my son and daughter-in-law are allowed more than a few weeks’ leave, even if they stay with me a month or two with each visit home, that’s six months or less that I’ll be in the same time and place as my son.
Six months at most, and then never again.
People talk a lot about a third wave these days, projections and estimates of when national governments and their corporate partners may open up Mars to commercial travelers, not just to qualified researchers. Some say it could be as soon as ten years that relatives and loved ones might apply for visas and take up residence in the dust.
It gives me a newfound sympathy for my mother in Concord, those many calls I’d have where I’d tell her about my life as a single mother, how I really wouldn’t mind grandma’s help, if only she were just a little bit closer. Those times she’d send checks and her love but could never seem to bring herself around to starting again out here, like she’d dropped an anchor in the northeast and that was all there was to it.
I recall that she’d always suggest, especially in the early years, that I could still consider coming back if Seattle didn’t work out, maybe find something at a local magazine or a teaching position at one of the charter schools. She’d try to lure me with crisp and snowy Christmases, talk about how pure and white everything was, with a sheen from lights hanging off all the houses, perfect to look at as she sipped a soothing peppermint tea.
But the thing was, I never loved the snow as much as she did, with the crunching and the shoveling and the caked, staining salt of it all. For me, it was the storms, up in my new apartment. The sound of that water plinking and pattering on every surface, the dampness in your hair and cooling your throat.
For me, it was always the rain.
It’s the same way my son describes the Martian sky, I realized: the flowing dust scattering light to a deep red when you’re looking away from the sun, or spilling out in a beautiful, fractured blue around the horizon, a reverse Earth sunrise or sunset. I can just tell when he writes about it.
That’s his rain.
If I were to draft the Martian Mother piece my editor wants, it wouldn’t be about space settlers and terraforming and resource development and the like. It would be about the rain and the dust and the snow. About toys and pictures and words that lose importance. How it doesn’t matter whether it’s a cross-country plane through the air or a shuttlecraft through a vacuum, when there’s a distance there’s a distance and there’s no getting back from it.
After I calculated that my son and I maybe had six months, I figured out, based on letters and pictures and old calendars, how many visits my mother and I had worked out between us before she passed. There were two holidays in Concord, four summers when she came out here. A couple of years when I was doing a regular column and couldn’t set aside the time for a trip. And then one last beach vacation we all took when my son was eight or nine. After that, it was harder for her to travel on her own. Even when I round up, we didn’t manage much more than six months either.
The thought takes me back to the panic, calling from the airport lounge to tell the nurses my flight was going to be coming in the morning, when the morphine drip was still light and she could talk, drowsy and quiet though it was—when she told them to tell me something I didn’t understand then but will never forget.
Don’t worry too much about goodbye, she said. We’ve been saying plenty.
From the first talk about Seattle at the dining table until I hung up that airport phone, it was just a number of gradual goodbyes until the last.
My son doesn’t know it, but he won’t even have the comfort of that call when it’s his turn to reach out, when he’s guilty and afraid. Part of me wants to tell him now, I get what she meant. The goodbye already happened, and it’s okay. I am okay.
The times when I’m a little less full of self-pity and dread, when I can remember that he’s digging soil and testing samples while I’m scraping together words at my keyboard, I remind myself that neither of us is dead, of course. My life goes on, with deadlines and wine glasses and walls of dog-eared books, a beautiful son who sends pictures of alien vistas overlooking oceans of dirt—and digital birthday cards that dance across my desk.
It’s just, I didn’t know how little overlap there’d be, a handful of years that were barely a fraction of our lives when all’s added up. An island of a decade or so, when I was working around the clock, barely resting my head on a pillow, with baby vomit and food crusted on the edges of my sleeves, when it was me and him, and every once in a while, my mother.
That was the time.
And on nights when I’ve finished tinkering with words, and I’m listening to the rainfall from under the comforters, I imagine the three of us in a kind of chain, my mother and me tethering him to the planet as he goes farther and farther. I drift off next to the empty wine glass, into blackness, picturing an improbable way of being, all of us, insubstantial and together for however long.