The first time I visited my father in the hospital, I carried a Starfleet combadge in my pocket.
The winter prior, my wonderful, funny, brilliant father had been diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a rare form of cancer. The subsequent spring, he was being treated with a Julian-Bashir-level-genius stem cell procedure, which required a hospital stay of nearly two weeks. He’d checked in the day prior, and as I lived in Boston near the hospital, I was going to see him for the first time. I was going alone, it was a workday, and I’d called out sick, as I was already feeling anxious and worried.
I remember pacing my apartment, too anxious to see my Dad — my big strong father, the man who could lift anything, throw anything — plugged into wires and tubes, monitors bleeping. I knew this would be hard, and I was stalling. Realizing I was wasting time, I found my socks, my shoes, and I went to grab a book for the subway ride, when I spotted it.
Sitting on my bookshelf, glinting in the light, was a Starfleet combadge. It was a 2370’s era Late Deep Space Nine, Voyager, TNG film era-combadge; that familiar delta with the bracket behind. I’d bought it years before for a Halloween costume, and I liked looking at it on my shelf. I reached forward and picked it up, feeling the cool metal in my fingers. For a second, in my moment of worry, I imagined how Captain Picard felt, with his own little metal badge just like mine, facing off against the Romulans across the neutral zone. I squeezed it, and slipped it into my jeans pocket, and I headed out the door, to the hospital.
On the train ride over, I remember feeling the little object in my pocket beside my keys. I realized whatever I was feeling, whatever anxiety was shuddering through my nerves, shaking through my body, my Dad had to have been feeling worse. I couldn’t make him worry. I needed him to think I was okay, that I was strong, and that I was brave. I felt that little piece of metal, and closed my eyes as the subway car rattled and clacked along. What would Captain Picard do in this situation? I asked myself. He’d be strong, and he’d face what was in front of him with bravery and compassion.
When I got to my Dad’s room, I was directed to sanitize and don a paper face mask, actions in that pre-pandemic world which felt so foreign and scary. How bad a shape was he in that I needed to wear PPE? I opened the hissing airlock-like door, expecting the worst, and then I saw him.
“Hey hey!” Dad yelled from his hospital bed. He wasn’t plugged into anything, except for his white trailing 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, laying on his bed, looking bored, and scrolling social media. Aside from the context, he seemed perfectly normal. I remember smiling behind my paper mask, relieved. He was okay, and I would be too. For a moment, I felt like Captain Picard at the edge of the neutral zone again. The Romulans were turning back, conflict had been avoided, nobody had gotten hurt. I remember realizing there wasn’t anything to feel anxious about, and getting myself physically there was the hardest part. Dad and I laughed and joked, and I remember feeling like everything was normal. I felt silly and stupid that I was worried about going, about seeing him, but I didn’t forget what gave me the strength to get there.
The combadge became my little talisman for whenever I had to do something really hard, or something I was worried about. The day I gave my notice from my very good job in Boston, to tell my mentor and boss I was moving to Maine, I had it slipped in 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.
Look, I know Star Trek is fiction. I know the future of 2370, or 2266, or even 3189 isn’t our future, but as author John DuFresne writes; “fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” While that shiny, utopian future may not be real, the truths of the Starfleet Captain’s code are: being brave, looking out for others, having compassion, and living curiously about the wonder of the universe around us. These principles gave me focus, something to return to in my darkest of hours. This became a pillar of strength to lean on when the odds looked slim and the shields were failing.
I called upon that Starfleet Captain strength again, the night my Mom called to share she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. When I begin to worry, and feel anxious, the first thing that happens physiologically is I begin to feel cold. I feel like I’ve just taken a plunge into a freezing churning river, the insides of my body are frozen solid, and I can’t get warm. The night my Mom shared her diagnosis, I felt that icy chill, that arctic distilled feeling of dread. After we hung up, my wife, Lisa, wrapped me in a blanket, and I remember feeling echoey and empty inside. Both of my parents, now, were sick. The two people who I loved the most, the people who’d raised me, taught me everything I knew were battling unbearable odds.
The next morning, I woke up with the sun. I’d slept very little, and it was a cold winter morning. I poured a steaming cup of coffee and stood by the window. Outside, the pines gently swayed with the wind. I inhaled from the mug, and for a moment, I felt like Captain Janeway at the window of her ready room, coffee in hand, alone, worried, far from home. I went upstairs and retrieved my combadge again. If she could do it, I could too. If alone in the Delta Quadrant she could put her faith and trust in the principles behind this little piece of metal, I could too. I had to. There wasn’t time to flounder 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 in which we live, every day, we’re faced with brutal choices. Every one of us is the Starfleet Captain of our own lives. Do we choose to see the people we love knowing the risks and knowing we have fewer days with them than behind? Or do we do the hard thing and stay away to keep them and us safe? Do we choose the hard road, knowing that listening to science is in itself an act of compassion? Never before has a Starfleet Captain’s philosophy been more critical. Be brave, be compassionate, be curious, and always choose to save lives.
There are more dark hours ahead. I know this. I can see the Dominion forces gathering on the other side of the wormhole, the Romulans massing at the neutral zone, or the Klingon warships assembling at 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 hold the Starfleet captain’s principles, there is no challenge we can’t solve, no problem too great, no situation too dire.
As for me, there are still days that are tougher than others. Still, though, I try as hard as I can to hold those Starfleet principles as my guiding beliefs every day. When I’m feeling anxious or worried, I’ll remember the words of Captain Pike on Boreth, faced with his own bleak, unavoidable future; “You are a Starfleet captain, you believe in service, sacrifice, compassion, and love.”
My little metal combadge has become a bit battered over the years. It has scratches and nicks now, but I still carry it on me in moments of challenge, or pin it on my shirt. Now though, after everything, it’s come to represent something else to me, that if I can channel my inner-Starfleet Captain, I can survive anything, and that gives me something entirely new that I didn’t know I had, hope.
Nick Mancuso is an author and essayist based in New England. His first 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 along on social media at @mancusonr.
Star Trek: Picard streams on CBS All Access in the United States, in Canada on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave, and on Amazon Prime Video in more than 200 countries and territories.
Star Trek: Discovery streams on CBS All Access in the United States, airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave in Canada, and on Netflix in 190 countries.