How many fathers can one child have?
You have your biological father, sure. But, if you were like me and that man was not present in your formative years, who would take his place? I was raised by my grandparents, and while they provided a roof over my head and an education, they did not provide any emotional of psychological support.
I was a traumatized child who left my birth mother abused and terrified at the age of seven. I was formless. I taught myself to read when I was very young and I loved Jules Verne…but I knew nothing of philosophy. The stars that made up my mind had yet to be transformed into ordered constellations.
The church my family attended (and it’s associated private school) did not teach me critical thinking. Yet somehow I could still smell the bullshit they served in big, ladled servings called “knowledge.” I remember the day we talked about dinosaurs (a topic I loved, as all children do) and hearing the teacher say that dinosaurs went extinct because of Noah’s flood. Now, I had seen Jurassic Park that summer and read enough from the library to know that that was not true. I raised my hand and told the teacher flat-out that she was wrong. I still remember the stinging whipping I got for disrespecting the Lord that my grandma gave me.
Who then could guide me, take me away mentally from the wing-clippers of the Long Beach Adventist School? I “met” this man when I was no older than ten. After watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on PBS I found a copy of the same named book in a local thrift shop. Like the universe in the split second after the Big Bang, my mind exploded into being. The author was Arthur C. Clarke. I combed every thrift shop and Salvation Army store, every used bookstore and local library to find his books. I read 2010, 2061, Childhood’s End (oh the tears from such beautiful poetry), Rendezvous with Rama, The Wind from the Sun and on and on.
Through these stories I was able to view the universe, to understand in broad brushstrokes the nature of where we had evolved and how this species might achieve immortality. Real immortality, not the living-on-a-cloud playing a harp for eternity verity taught in church. I stopped being afraid because I knew that even though I was tiny in the scope of the cosmos, I was not insignificant. There was no Hell burning below me, and no god waiting to judge over me. I was free.
He also taught me that there were good, decent people on this planet. I learned about humanism and his sense of humor influenced me to learn to laugh at the absurd. I loved to read different editions of my favorite books because of Arthur’s notes updating his knowledge and where he was in his life. The internet allowed me to find and read his Egograms, a newsletter of sorts that kept me in the loop about all of his new and exciting projects. When I was 15 years old and disgustingly precocious, I emailed him, telling him in gushing loquaciousness about my admiration for his work.
He sent me a thank you note. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
The world lost its prime visionary almost seven years ago now. He lived an amazingly full life, impacted millions with his mind. But his loss is still felt as a hole in my being. We recently lost Ray Bradbury as well and with the two of them gone, no one carries the torch of poetry of, and for, the universe. I try, but could never lift it above my head like they did.
I loved you Ray.
I loved you Arthur…happy birthday:
Behind every man now alive
stands thirty ghosts, for that is the
ratio by which the dead outnumber
You knew that ghosts didn’t exist. They
are just the momentary shadows of
electrons left in space-time by the
buffeting of electromagnetic waves,
or the wondrously hidden mystery of gravity.
What were you when you were alive?
Did the DNA that coded you come from
a special blend of guanine and cytosine,
adenine and thymine unknown before 1917?
I can hear you walking briskly through
the science museum at Kensington.
What are you thinking about? Rocket thrust
ratios? What the mountains of the moon might
look like to a visitor bathed in the bright light
The Wright Flyer hangs over your head.
Is it too daring to imagine people on the lunar
surface only three decades from when
fabric wings took to the sky?
The stars were neighbors in dreams
written out and gifted to your readers.
From war to peace, to satellites and Apollo,
space shuttles and interstellar Voyagers –
you got to see them all come true!
How I wish I could have been in that room
at JPL in 1971, you and Bradbury the twin poets
of the spaceage, Carl Sagan there too.
To watch you all bounce ideas, theories,
articulate memories; the excitement of
awaiting glimmers of Martian landscapes
more effervescent than caffeine
in a coffee cup.
Now, your constituent elements have
broken down. In a damp grave in Sri Lanka,
under that country’s beloved dirt, you lie.
I don’t know, I can never know if there is a
soul. Whatever temporary collection of
neurons and electrochemical signals that
made you, you have long since evaporated.
Sublimated like ice on a summer Martian afternoon.
The paradox though, is that you still live.
On paper, in ink, on film and video, in
the light-speed flash of zeros and ones flowing
through semi-artificially intelligent machines,
beamed down from a communications system
you envisioned in orbit around the Earth.
But you also live in me. In my mind.
In that constellation of stars
you created there.
I love you Arthur.