63° Good Morning
63° Good Morning
OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Our fleeting trip through time

The final Saturn ringscape photographed by NASA's Cassini

The final Saturn ringscape photographed by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA

My grandson is 6 years old. In a month, he’ll turn 7.

It’s an exciting time, this age when children change so quickly. His vocabulary is expanding, his thought process is maturing, his awareness of the world is deepening, his independence is growing.

He’s leaving some interests and hobbies behind, things he enjoyed for a long while, and acquiring new ones. He laughs at different kinds of jokes, finds different things interesting, and asks for different layers of explanation.

And it’s all good and a lot of fun to see, but it’s so personally poignant that I want to reach out and grab this little boy and hug him and stop time for a while, just hit the pause button and savor the moment.

Because it’s different than it was with my own children, perhaps because of my experience with my own children.

For parents, child-rearing can be a whirlwind, and you’re swept up in the euphoria. You find yourself immersed in the day-to-day energy of the next sports team practice, the next music lesson, the next play rehearsal, the next big test, the next sleepover, the next birthday party, the next relationship crisis, the next family vacation, the next event in the crazy quilt of childhood, and you revel breathlessly in all of it and want to make everything as good as you can, and then one day you’re in a car pulling away from a college dorm, wondering whether your child is feeling the same anxiousness you’re feeling or the euphoria you felt in your own college dorm, and you ask yourself where the time went.

And when your grandchild comes along, now you know all of that and you’re determined to relish every minute because soon enough it’ll be gone.

The same thing happens at the opposite end of life, with your elders. You watch them aging and you want to stop time again, to absorb more of their wisdom, hear more of their stories, appreciate more of their perspective, learn more about yourself. You want to keep them where they are because that keeps you where you are.

It’s all so fleeting, at both stages, and the heartbreak comes from knowing that in the end, there’s nothing you can do to stop either.

I was reminded of this, in an odd sort of way, by the demise Friday of NASA’s fabled Cassini spacecraft. Nearly 20 years after its launch and out of fuel, it disintegrated as planned as it plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere.

In its life span, it was enormously successful. The first probe to orbit Saturn, Cassini discovered an ocean of water beneath the ice of one of the two moons it revealed as possible hosts of life beyond Earth. It uncovered the structure of Saturn’s famous rings, and transmitted reams of data and some of the most amazing photos ever taken in outer space.

It was an inanimate object, but the scientists who were part of Cassini’s team for much or all of its existence spoke of the spacecraft in anthropomorphic terms. Cassini was a “she,” and she had human traits like perseverance and curiosity. Her final moments were poignant, too, with the announcement of her demise marked by tears, subdued applause, impassioned hugs, and voices cracking with emotion. It was hard for them to let go, too.

Team member Jo Pitesky told The Washington Post, “She’s us . . . We can’t go there ourselves, so we build a spacecraft and load it up with instruments, and then we put on our hopes and desires and we send them there.”

Just as we do with our children and our grandchildren. And as our parents and grandparents did with us.

We all carry hopes and desires, ours and others’, and each of us wants the journey to last forever.

Time stops and time passes, time and time again.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.