Merrimack theater hosts launch viewing for man with cancer

MERRIMACK – Ten … nine … eight …

Elaine Kudalis wiped tears from her eyes Friday at the Cinemagic movie theater as she counted down to the final launch of NASA’s space shuttle program.

She traded hugs with friends and family members as astronauts readied the launch, and she cheered happily as the clock reached five … four … three …

But as the solid rocket boosters flared and the shuttle took flight, Kudalis fixed her eyes squarely on her husband, ready to send him on a journey of his own.

“This is for you, Tony,” she whispered softly to her husband, who is in the final stages of terminal brain cancer.

“It took us a while to get here, but this is all for you,” she said as the shuttle shot through the atmosphere. “I love you. Forever.”

The historic launch, which signals the beginning of the closing of the country’s 30-year shuttle program, marked the end of a long mission for the Kudalises.

Tony Kudalis, 56, a Nashua native, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2007, and Elaine Kudalis has spent much of the time since working to fulfill his dream of witnessing a shuttle launch.

The couple, invited by a NASA official, spent nearly a month in Florida this spring, waiting for a shuttle that didn’t take flight. But it wasn’t until last month, when Elaine brought Tony home to New Hampshire for his final days, that she was able to make his dream come true.

After leaving Florida in May, the couple, who met and lived in Las Vegas until earlier this year, arrived in Nashua to be surrounded by Tony’s family and friends. They rented an old family home, built by Tony’s grandfather.

But within several weeks, Tony’s deteriorating health forced him into the Community Hospice House in Merrimack, where Elaine first learned about Motivating Miles, a local nonprofit group that works to fulfill the dreams of terminally ill patients.

Unsure of how much time Tony had left, Elaine quickly reached out to the agency founders, Sarah Ramsey and Caleb Ginsburg, a mother-and-son team from Amherst, who launched the organization in 2008 after three family members were diagnosed with cancer within one week.

And once Ramsey and Ginsburg heard the Kudalises’ story, they set to work immediately.

“This is exactly what we do,” Ramsey said this week. “We want to do something beyond the disease. … This way, when Tony finally does pass, they can look through the photo book and have this wonderful memory.”

Tony Kudalis’ memories start and end with the NASA space program.

Growing up, Kudalis, like so many children of the 1950s, became captivated with space travel. He spoke often of becoming an astronaut, and he covered his room with posters and models of planets and shuttles, said his sister, Patty Lange, who came up from Danville, Mass., to watch the final launch.

“He’s fanatical about it. He knows everything there is to know about space travel,” Lange said as she looked lovingly toward her brother.

“I think he loves the exploring aspect of it, just exploring the unknown.”

Kudalis’ interest has only grown over the years. He watches every movie, show and documentary available, truthful or not, said John Noonan, a longtime friend from Hull, Mass.

“He’s a huge ‘Star Trek’ fan,” Noonan said as he watched the launch.

In April, Kudalis came within minutes of his lifelong dream of witnessing a shuttle launch when Elaine brought him to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where they planned to sit in on the launch of the shuttle Endeavor.

Weather and mechanical troubles forced NASA to delay the launch three times over the coming weeks, however. And the family had to return home for Tony’s chemotherapy treatment before the flight finally launched May 16.

“That was such a disappointment for him,” Elaine said Friday. “He really wanted to stay, but he was getting so weak.”

Approached by Kudalis’ family, Ramsey and Ginsburg initially considered flying Kudalis back to Florida for Friday’s launch. But they quickly learned that the high travel costs, along with Tony’s deteriorating health, made that impossible.

So they explored other options, eventually approaching Cinemagic about broadcasting the launch live.

“We wanted to get him outside, out of hospice, and we thought this could be a good way to do it,” said Ginsburg, 26, now a law student in Boston.

“We loved the idea. This is what Cinemagic is all about,” said Bob Collins, marketing director for Zyacorp Entertainment, which owns the Merrimack theater.

“We belong to the community. We’re not just a business in the community.”

By Friday morning, Ramsey and Ginsburg had made the necessary arrangements. They secured hats, videos and other materials from the Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center at Framingham State University, and they recruited Angela’s Pasta and Cheese Shop in Manchester to serve some of Tony’s favorite Italian foods.

As the launch approached, the one factor the organizers couldn’t control was the weather, and Kudalis’ friends and family members paced nervously as news commentators speculated about another delayed launch.

“Oh, God,” Noonan said. “He can’t take another one.”

But within minutes, the skies cleared and the movie theater audience clapped excitedly as NASA officials started the countdown.

Flanked by family members on either side, Kudalis celebrated the launch by opening his eyes and sharing a quick smile.

“He’s so happy,” Elaine Kudalis said, stroking her husband’s hair as the shuttle shot through the summer sky.

“You may not be able to see it, but he’s really at peace,” she said softly. “I can’t think of a better way to send him on his next journey.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.