It was thirty years ago today.
My firstborn child was a tender 17 days old.
I was in love with her. Enthralled by her every breath, every tiny frown. Enchanted by the shape of her cheek, the satiny shine of her skin.
That bitter cold January morning we were at home alone. My husband had gone off to work. Baby Katie and I were in our little apartment in one of Boston’s poorer neighborhoods. Our two cats were sleeping on the sunny windowsills, leaning against the plastic that we’d put up to keep out the winter chill.
I remember clearly that I was wearing a big bulky shirt. One that buttoned up the front to allow me to nurse my baby and to keep the pressure off of my C-section scar. I remember that I had bathed my Katie and that she was wrapped up snugly in a little onesie. I held her in a pink blanket, in my arms, walking from the nursery to the tiny living room of our apartment.
The shape of the room was almost rounded, with three windows that faced the busy street. We were in one of those old two family houses that were built in the 1930’s and 40’s. The old wood floors had been sanded and polished by the young couple who owned the house. They gleamed in the sunshine that came through the windows.
We had a big old boxy TV, sitting in a heavy wooden frame; back then, the television was a piece of furniture rather than a wall hanging. I remember that I had a potted ivy plant sitting on top of the big TV box.
I stood with Katie, watching the TV coverage of the Shuttle Challenger as it got ready for takeoff. I wasn’t one of those people who was fixated on space. I wasn’t even sure that I believed it appropriate for the government to spend so much money on space exploration when there were so many needs here at home.
But I was watching this time.
I’m not even sure why! Maybe it was just because I was at home and able to see it. Maybe it was because this time one of the travelers to outer space was a teacher, a woman only a few years older than myself. A young mother who wanted to inspire her children at home and at school. I had seen Christa McCauliffe interviewed on the news, and I’d been struck by her familiar, charming New England accent and by her effervescent smile. I remember thinking in a casual way how cool it was that she was going to have such an adventure.
So I stood there in my sunny living room, holding my beautiful daughter in my arms. I talked to her about the Shuttle, and about Christa the teacher. I was happy at that moment.
I listened to the countdown. I probably counted down the seconds myself, the way we always did. I don’t remember.
But I know that I was standing, in the middle of the room. I know that I held my baby in my arms. I know that I was watching the screen and feeling warm and safe and happy.
And the Challenger lifted off, into the blue blue sky. And the camera was on the faces of Christa’s family. Everyone was smiling.
Until that terrible moment when the plume of rising smoke split in two, and no one was sure of what we were seeing.
I don’t remember what I thought. I know that I was confused.
And then the camera caught Christa’s mother’s face, frozen and unmoving. Looking up, toward the spot where her baby girl had disappeared.
And I understood. We all did.
I looked down at my Katie, gazing up at me with so much trust. And I began to sob.