The word “anniversary” first appeared in English in the 13th century. It was derived from the Latin word “anniversarius,” from “annus” (year) plus “versus” (a turning). An annual turning.
A few days ago was the thirty-third anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster ... explosion ... crash. (Is there really an appropriate word for what happened that day?) The day that seven adventurous Americans were launched into the sky inside a 122-feet tall bullet and, 73 seconds later, became the kind of hero that no one wants to be.
Then, as now, I wasn’t much of a news hound. I rarely watched television and limited my radio consumption to a few minutes of NPR in the morning as I got dressed for work. So the voice that delivered the shock was not the baritone-deep voice of Dan Rather or Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw. It was that of Marilynn Sellers, the then-director of Statesboro First United Methodist Church Pre-School.
It was one of those winter days with sun so bright that every surface becomes a mirror. I pulled into the car pool line which had emptied out already and saw Marilynn standing on the edge of the sidewalk holding the hand of my three-year-old nephew. She opened the car door and helped Adam get in, smiling her lover-of-children smile. And then she leaned into the passenger side window and asked in a pained voice, “Have you heard about the shuttle?”
I had not. And once I had, once she had told me – in carefully chosen words that would not frighten the child in the back seat – , I found myself in that place, the place our minds go when the place where our bodies are is suddenly too hard, too scary, too much. The place where there are only questions, no answers. The place where time is divided not into minutes and hours, but simply before and after. The place that is wallpapered with images of every other awful catastrophe, unspeakable horror, irreplaceable loss.
The specific images in that place, it is worth noting, are not universal. The projector of memory is unique to the brain in which it resides and despite the imprinting upon my brain from repeated exposure to the official Challenger crew photograph – the one with Christa McAuliffe and Judy Resnik sporting 80s hair and blue eye shadow, the photo that most Americans, if not most humans, could identify within seconds – it is not the picture that immediately comes to mind when I think of that day.
What I, and only I, remember upon hearing the words “Space Shuttle Challenger” is that car pool line. The playground behind it. Marilynn Sellers holding my boy’s hand. The red snack box dangling loosely from the soft, fat fingers of his other hand. The sunlight on his blonde hair – so blonde that it seemed to be a part of the beams of angled light.
But what I, and not just I, felt – the emotions, the instincts, and urges that moved me then and move me still – has been and will ever be the same. Heartbreak. Sorrow. Overwhelming desire to touch and clutch everyone I love.
Which is why, as it turns out I think, that we commemorate anniversaries. They are, in a way, mandatory reflections, annual turnings from the things with which we are normally consumed to the things that we might otherwise forget. Things like how I felt, what you saw, how much has changed, how much hasn't. My story, your story, different versions of the same event that, somehow, end up meaning the very same thing.