I was on a plane 16 years ago, headed for Florida, when I read about the downsizing of Pluto, its demotion by pointy-headed astronomers to “minor planet” status. Pluto was my favorite planet because it had a neat name, one that Walt Disney appropriated for the world’s most lovable cartoon dog. And these science types wanted to say it wasn’t a planet at all, just a big ball of ice out there on the edge of our solar system? How dare they.
So you can imagine how excited I and millions of other Pluto-lovers are by having our special planet (we don’t give up just because some pointy-heads say we should) in the spotlight these days, as NASA’s New Horizons space probe arrives at Pluto after a 9-year, 3-billion-mile journey. Snapping pictures and collecting data. Putting dear old Pluto in the spotlight, giving even the pointy-heads a new appreciation for this remote, intriguing piece of our universe.
When I think about Pluto these days, I also think about my seatmate on that flight to Florida years ago. She was about 75, I guessed – petite, lively of eye and pleasant of manner, traveling from her home in Connecticut to visit friends in Florida. It was January and she was happy to leave the snow and ice of Connecticut behind, as she had done for a month the last dozen years.
But this year, the trip was different. It was the first time she had made it alone, because she had buried her husband a month before. She was handling it well, and the friends in Florida were a big help. They had told her, “You’ll never be homeless,” and I realized that meant a lot more than a place of physical shelter, especially now. She would spend a few days with each of her Florida friends and then fly back to Connecticut, knowing that it was not her only home.
We talked for awhile, and I remember hoping that one day, if faced with similar circumstances, I could handle a loss with as much grace and that I would have friends somewhere who would make sure I was never homeless.
Across the aisle from me was a man about the same age as my seatmate, a woman seated next to him that appeared to be his wife. He was impatient with her, grumpy and out of sorts in a sour, scrunched-faced way. He had two Bloody Marys and drifted off to sleep, and she looked relieved. I wished I could introduce her to my seatmate and they could steal away together for a month of Florida sun.
But of course the wife would never do such a thing. Somehow she had put up with his grumpiness all these years and here in the twilight she wasn’t likely to exchange the known for the unknown. So she would probably keep putting up with him, but maybe kick him in the shins every once in awhile. Someday, odds were, she would lose him, and miss him, grumpiness and all.
I went back to my newspaper and re-read the story about the downsizing of Pluto and pondered for awhile on the nature of loss and its aftermath. I decided that I could never again think of our solar system in the same way, and it made me sad that poor little Pluto didn’t have anything like friends in Florida to ease the pain. I thought of those astronomers downsizing Pluto as a bunch of old grumps, too – in need of a kick in the shins.
But now, 16 years later, with New Horizons putting my favorite planet in the news again, I’m happy. For me and lots of other folks, Pluto will always be a planet – maybe the runt of the litter, but part of the litter, nonetheless. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for runts.