The Launch

November 7, 2010
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“That daughter of yours sure is something else, Ed,” Henly observed, patting his flight mate's shoulder with one hand, smooth helmet tucked snugly in the crook of his opposite arm.

“You've no idea,” Ed mumbled, gazing at his daughter's precious face, memorizing the freckles surrounding her long, rounded nose and the poppy seed-sized chicken pox scar a centimeter above her left eyebrow. Her innocent blue eyes sparkled in the mid-afternoon sun, black hair whipping wildly in the wind.

“Hey, I'll catch you on the shuttle. I've got some adoring fans I must attend to,” Henly said with a wink. As he strode off, Ed's eyes returned to LeNora's scar.

The chicken pox had come early and stayed late for poor Lennie. Ed journeyed towards his daughter and her Aunt Marsha, remembering the day he'd walked in on Lennie after she'd been in the bathtub. Soaking in warm water was the only way for her to stay comfortable.

She had squealed, “Don't look, Daddy!” and dashed behind a door, wrapping her six-year-old body in a giant bath towel.

He had hollered, “Ah, a naked baby!” in mock horror and rushed out of the room, covering his face with both hands. Lennie stepped out from behind the door, hands on hips, ranting indignantly about being called a baby. Babies wore diapers and spit up on themselves. Lennie took her own baths and wore big-girl britches.

Chuckling at the memory, Ed approached Marsha and Lennie. Lennie's face drooped at the sight of her dad nearing, adorned in his astronaut attire. For Parents' Day in second grade, Ed borrowed a suit from NASA and displayed all its features to the eager class. Even old, crotchety Mrs. Bucklemeyer seemed captivated. Lennie strutted around school all day with a wide grin on her face, proud that her dad had the coolest job ever. Now, at her father's third launch, she couldn't help but wish a red flannel shirt and scruffy blue jeans were in the place of that white suit.

“Hey, Baby-Len. How you doin'? You gonna miss me while I'm gone?” Ed asked, bending on one knee to reach Lennie's eye level. He tickled her sides, forcing a fit of giggles from her small frame.

“Of course I'll miss you, Daddy,” Lennie cried, burying her face into her father's collarbone, arms wound tightly around his neck. “I always miss you when you're gone.

Ed's eyes welled with tears as he patted her frizzy dark locks. This part hadn't gotten any easier. Ed hated the deep frown that clouded Lennie's face every time he brought news of an upcoming launch. This time he'd made a resolution: he wouldn't be the cause of her overcast face any longer.

“This is the last time, sweetie. I won't leave you any more once I get back,” he promised. Lennie grabbed Ed's face in her small hands and kissed the top of his bald head. He brought her hands down and held them for a moment, then rose from the ground, hearing quiet sniffles from his sister-in-law. Marsha impatiently shoved the wiry blonde strands of hair to the side of her face and dabbed at her leaking eyes with her index finger, careful not to smudge the four layers of eye make up she'd applied that morning.

“Sharon would be so proud of you, Eddie,” she remarked, composing herself. “That woman had nothin' but faith in you. I admit I thought you were a right moron wastin' your life away up in space, but my sister always was your number one supporter. You've shown her faith was rightly put. I couldn't be any prouder, Ed, and I'm sure she'd feel the exact same.”

Ed grew solemn at the mention of his late wife. Before Lennie's bittersweet birth, the sun rose and set on Sharon. With one last push, the tears of joy transcended to tears of sorrow. Sharon's will for Lennie to live meant the end of her own life.

“I sure hope you're right,” Ed sighed. “Look, Marsha, I want you to know I sincerely appreciate you always being at the ready when I have to leave.”

“Oh, don't be silly. I love Lennie just like she was my very own,” she replied, stroking the back of Lennie's head. “Now you'd better get goin' before they leave your a**.”

Marsha smiled and exchanged a quick hug with Ed. He drew back and looked down at his daughter. Ed outstretched his arms and Lennie jumped into his embrace, wrapping her legs around his lower back. He held her for several seconds, then pecked her forehead and gently dropped her to her feet.

Trudging towards his fellow astronauts, Ed stopped a yard from the shuttle and turned to look back at his family. Nine years of memories flooded his mind as he waved goodbye to the one piece of good in his life.

Henly patted Ed's shoulder once more and said, “Come on, buddy. She'll be waiting when we get back.” They entered the shuttle, still waving to the crowd gathered behind.

Lennie's lip quivered as her father stepped out of sight. This wasn't her first rodeo, but she still sobbed, dreading the weeks ahead, void of her dad. After what seemed to be an eternity, the countdown commenced. A collective intake of breath sounded as the shuttle released from the launchpad.

Lennie's focus remained on the spacecraft, her breathing becoming shallow. Violent, vivid flames seeped out from underneath the shuttle. The bright embers reflected in Lennie's irises, and she shielded her eyes from the blinding light.

Inside the shuttle, Ed closed his eyes, practicing the Bradley breathing he and Sharon learned in preparation for Lennie's birth. Sharon was the only one who truly needed the breathing exercise, but Ed felt more supportive if he did it as well. Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth. Inhale nose, exhale mouth. Ed felt the metal beast roar to life and he braced himself for the intense liftoff. Inhale nose, exhale mouth.

Creating a space between her middle and ring finger, Lennie peered through her hand at the vessel containing her dad. The clear, brilliantly blue sky appeared endless as the rocket ascended. The shuttle increased in altitude until, three hundred yards above, the massive monster exploded, showering the ground below with flaming debris.

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