The first time I visited my father in the hospital, I had a Starfleet combadge in my pocket.
The previous winter, my wonderful, funny, brilliant dad had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer. The following spring, he was treated with a Julian-Bashir-level genius stem cell procedure, which required a hospital stay of nearly two weeks. He had registered the day before, and since I lived in Boston near the hospital, I was going to see him for the first time. I was going alone, it was a work day and I had called in sick, as I was already feeling anxious and worried.
I remember pacing around my apartment, overly anxious to see my father – my strong grandfather, the man who could lift anything, throw anything – hooked up to wires and tubes, the monitors beeping. I knew it would be difficult, and I stalled. Realizing I was wasting time, I found my socks, my shoes, and went to get a book for the subway ride, when I spotted it.
Sitting on my bookcase, shimmering in the light, was a Starfleet combadge. It was a time of the 2370s Deep Space Nine, Traveler, Combadge of the TNG film era; that familiar delta with the support behind. I had bought it years before for a Halloween costume and loved looking at it on my shelf. I reached out and took it, feeling the cool metal in my fingers. For a second, in my moment of concern, I imagined how Captain Picard felt, with his own little metal badge like mine, facing the Romulans through the Neutral Zone. I squeezed it and slipped it into my jeans pocket, and headed out the door, toward the hospital.
During the train ride, I remember feeling the small object in my pocket next to my keys. I realized whatever I was feeling, whatever anxiety shivered through my nerves, shook my body, my dad must have felt worse. I couldn’t make him worry. I needed him to think that I was fine, that I was strong and that I was brave. I felt that little piece of metal, and I closed my eyes as the subway car rattled and rattled. What would Captain Picard do in this situation? I asked myself. He would be strong and he would face what was before him with bravery and compassion.
When I got to my dad’s room, I was asked to sanitize and put on a paper face mask, actions in this pre-pandemic world that seemed so alien and scary. How bad was he that I had to wear PPE? I opened the whistling airlock door, expecting the worst, and then I saw it.
“Eh eh !” Dad screamed from his hospital bed. It wasn’t plugged into anything except its white iPad charging cord. He didn’t look frail or sick. He wasn’t even in a hospital gown, he was in pajamas and a t-shirt, lying on his bed looking bored and scrolling through social media. Context aside, he seemed perfectly normal. I remember smiling behind my paper mask, relieved. He was fine, and I would be too. For a moment, I felt like Captain Picard again on the edge of the neutral zone. The Romulans were turning back, the conflict had been averted, no one had been hurt. I remember realizing there was nothing to worry about, and getting there physically was the hardest part. Dad and I laughed and joked, and I remember feeling like everything was normal. I felt silly and stupid for being afraid to go there, to see it, but I didn’t forget what had given me the strength to get there.
The combadge became my little talisman for whenever I had to do something really hard, or something that worried me. The day I gave my leave of my very good job in Boston, to tell my mentor and boss that I was moving to Maine, I had slipped it into my breast pocket, under my cardigan. When I was laid off two years later, and suddenly found myself alone in the middle of the workday, adrift and lost, I pinned it to my sweater every day for a week.
Listen I know star trek is a fiction. I know the future of 2370, or 2266, or even 3189 is not our future, but as author John DuFresne writes; “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” While this bright, utopian future may not be real, the truths of the Starfleet Captain’s Code are: to be brave, to watch over others, to have compassion, and to experience with curiosity the wonders of the universe that surrounds us. These principles gave me a focus, something to come back to in my darkest hours. It became a pillar of strength to lean on when the odds seemed slim and shields were failing.
I called on that Starfleet captain strength again, the night my mom called to share that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. When I start to worry and feel anxious, the first thing that happens physiologically is that I start to feel cold. I feel like I’m diving into a freezing, bubbling river, the inside of my body is frozen and I can’t get warm. The night my mom shared her diagnosis, I felt this chilling chill, this feeling of distilled arctic dread. After I hung up, my wife, Lisa, wrapped me in a blanket, and I remember feeling an echo and an emptiness inside. Both my parents were sick now. The two people I loved the most, the people who raised me, taught me everything I knew, were struggling with unbearable obstacles.
The next morning I woke up to the sun. I had slept very little and it was a cold winter morning. I poured myself a steaming cup of coffee and stood by the window. Outside, the pines swayed gently in the wind. I inhaled from the cup, and for a moment I felt like Captain Janeway at her guest bedroom window, coffee in hand, alone, worried, away from home. I went upstairs and picked up my combadge. If she could do it, so could I. If alone in the Delta Quadrant, she could put her faith and trust in the principles behind that little piece of metal, so could I. I had to. There was no time to wade and cry, to waste time that could be spent validating my loved ones. I needed to be brave like Captain Janeway.
Even now, in the pandemic we live in, every day we face stark choices. Each of us is the Starfleet captain of our own life. Do we choose to see the people we love knowing the risks and knowing that we have fewer days with them than behind? Or do we have to do the hardest thing and stay away to protect them and us? Are we choosing the difficult path, knowing that listening to science is itself an act of compassion? Never before had the philosophy of a Starfleet captain been so critical. Be brave, compassionate, curious and always choose to save lives.
There are more dark hours ahead. I know that. I can see Dominion forces gathering on the other side of the wormhole, Romulans massing in the neutral zone, or Klingon warships gathering in the binary stars. We have trials and challenges ahead, as individuals trying to make choices to protect lives in this pandemic, as a nation trying to atone for the sins of our past, or as a planet trying to save our perfect little blue marble from the ravages of climate change. If we live by the Captain of Starfleet Principles, there is no challenge we cannot solve, no problem too serious, no situation too serious.
As for me, there are still days that are harder than others. Yet, I try as hard as I can to maintain these Starfleet principles as my daily beliefs. When I feel anxious or worried, I will remember Captain Pike’s words about Boreth, facing his own dark and inevitable future; “You are a Starfleet captain, you believe in service, sacrifice, compassion and love.”
My little metal combadge has taken a bit of a beating over the years. It has scratches and nicks now, but I always carry it with me in times of challenge, or pin it to my shirt. Now, however, after all, it represents something else to me, that if I can channel my inner Starfleet captain, I can survive anything, and it gives me something entirely new that I never knew I had, I hope.
Nick Mancuso is a New England-based author and essayist. Her debut novel FEVER was published in 2019 by Woodhall Press and was a finalist for the Chanticleer Somerset Award for Emerging Voices in Literary Fiction. You can learn more at www.nickmancuso.net or follow on social media at @mancusonr.
Star Trek: Picard streams exclusively on Paramount+ in the United States and is simulcast by ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group on Amazon Prime Video in over 200 countries and territories. In Canada, it airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi channel and airs on Crave.
Star Trek: Discovery is currently streaming exclusively on Paramount+ in the United States. Internationally, the series is available on Paramount+ in Australia, Latin America and the Nordics, and on Pluto TV in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the UK. on the Pluto TV Sci-Fi Channel. In Canada, it airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi channel and airs on Crave. Star Trek: Discovery is distributed by ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group.