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Prayers for a Rocket Man

Even 200 miles up in space, Dan, our thoughts are with you

'I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife. It's lonely out in space on such a timeless flight....'

Elton John, 'Rocket Man'

I normally ignore those national news headlines that pop up at the bottom of our home computer. But on Thursday morning one of them caught my eye: 'Mother of astronaut killed in accident.'

After all these years in journalism I knew this story wouldn't rise to national news unless something else was going on.

With a sinking heart, I slowly moved the cursor over the link, paused a moment and clicked.

I willed my hunch to be wrong, but it wasn't. This mother's death was noteworthy because her son is 200 miles away.

Straight up.

Last Wednesday afternoon, for reasons we will never understand, Rose Tani drove her Honda Civic around a school bus stopped at a railroad crossing in Lombard, Ill., maneuvered around the closed crossing gate and into the path of a freight train.

As I read the story thoughts kept bouncing between two points.

One, I could envision clearly: That railroad crossing on Elizabeth Street, which I negotiated countless times growing up in Lombard.

The other was completely foreign to me: The International Space Station where my childhood friend, Dan, added another 'first' to his long list of accomplishments. This was one no one wanted: He became the first American to grieve the loss of a close family member while in space.

Knowing Dan, he will find a way to not just cope, but to honor an amazing woman, even from his perch in the heavens.

As I dusted off my childhood memories of Dan and his mom, a few stuck out.

I remember the very first time I met the pair - and they were a pair. Our family had just moved to suburban Lombard from a rural town in northern Illinois and I, a gangly, shy sixth-grader, didn't know anyone.

My dad, who had just taken an administrative post with the United Church of Christ office in Chicago, knew of Rose Tani from church circles. Her husband, Henry, who died when Dan was a toddler, had been involved in the denomination.

Dan and his mom showed up at our house for a cook-out.

As we headed out to the back patio through our garage, Dan paused and called his mom over to a cabinet holding a variety of gardening supplies.

'Look mom,' he said. 'You won't go hungry.'

There, on the shelf, was a container of rose food.

Hey, I thought, I might like this kid.

Dan was a year younger and attended a different school, but we became part of a tight-knit clique that centered around our church youth group.

As we hit the high school years, we'd often gather in one of our basements (usually wood-paneled with requisite wall-to-wall shag) for weekend card-games, fueled by massive bowls of popcorn, cans of soda and the beat of Simon and Garfunkel, Billy Joel and, one of Dan's favorites, Elton John.

Thinking back to those days this week, I realized that while I got along well with most of my friends' parents, there was only one who I addressed by a first name.

I don't know why. Maybe it was the endearing combination of her diminutive stature and enormous heart.

Rose was a remarkably sweet woman who had overcome some hardships that I didn't appreciate at that age, from the Japanese internment camp she was hustled into during WWII to the loss of her husband. It never really registered back then, but she was the only single-mom I knew.

She and Dan had their moments (for what teenage boy doesn't at some point realize how much smarter he is than his mom?), but they also had an affection that was palpable to the rest of us.

On Sunday, friends and family members, including Dan's wife and kids, were scheduled to gather at our home church in Lombard. They no doubt celebrated Rose's inspiring journey on earth, while her youngest child circled 200 miles above.

It seems that Elton John was right when he warned us, way back when, that 'it's lonely out in space.'

But Dan, my friend, I trust you know that you are not alone. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.