Going to repost what I wrote for mom last year. If you know her, give her some love today. In addition to all the things that make this woman pretty darned great that you’re about to read, she’s added taking in my 95 year old grandmother and caring for her as well. If you don’t know her, but you think she’s pretty groovy, please repost/link/press/digg or disperse through your social media of choice. Hell, just leave a comment below. Happy birthday Mom, I love you.
It’s going to be a little heavier today, but just bear with me:
These are what remains of my father’s tags from the 50’s. They are not his issue tags, but recreations of them that he’s had since the 50’s. When he died I inherited them, and as a child I was always fascinated by these little stamped pieces of tin. He kept them in a dirty brown ceramic stein he got in Germany when he was in the service, along with assorted other keys and oddities he collected throughout his life. By the time it came to be in my possession the stein was in a dusty box in his closet. It was filthy and sticky, the years of chain smoking with this stein sitting just over his shoulder had left it unsavory to the touch.
But not to me. I reached for it instantly while my sister and I were going through his possessions. The Latin and Germanic text on the sides was now almost invisible beneath the sickly yellow cake that held on to this artifact of his youth, but I knew it instantly from years of reverence. I recall when I opened the lid to dump out the contents and saw those tags my heart raced and my eyes widened to their zeniths. I had forgotten about them as I got into my twenties, you see.
My twenties were a blur of his different cancer diagnoses and treatments, surgeries and follow-ups. While friends were touring Europe on student visas, I was removing needles from my father’s chest implant. And these needles carried chemotherapy drugs so toxic that I was to be rushed to an emergency room for treatment should any have leaked on my skin during the removal. I had forgotten all about the tags and the stein they lived in. They were just things at that point, and pretty irrelevant things at that.
And then dad died. And then we found that box. And in that box we found that stein. And in that stein we found these tags. And in these tags I found the value of irrelevant things. Touching them for the first time in what must have easily been twenty-two years or more, I felt like I was doing something mischievous. Dad would never let us touch that stein by ourselves, and had always supervised me when I was allowed to hold those 30 grams of rigid metal. I remember looking around to make sure the old man wasn’t looking. I rubbed the two tags together and heard the metal scrape together, a delicate tinny sound that reminded me of ice skates. I asked my sister if I could have the stein and the tags on the spot and she said, “absolutely, I don’t want that smelly old thing in my house.”
I couldn’t fault her, it was a smelly old thing and it contained irrelevant things. Also possibly a treasure map, but that’s a different story.
I took the stein and it’s contents home and immediately got a chain for the tags and wore them under my clothes for about a month after he died. I wore them to his funeral, as well as the Hawaiian shirt I am wearing today in that photo above. You see, they were a symbol of everything I loved about my father. They were a symbol of my childhood, and my reverence. But they had also become something else: These stamped pieces of tin became my dog tags for the years I spent by his side, slogging out of the despair and hardship of his cancers, his Parkinson’s disease, and his eventual dementia. They became my reward and my remembrance for fighting in a battle 15 long years with only small victories, and one casualty. They became the symbol of the man in that desperate foxhole next to me, that I laughed with, fought with, fought against, and held while he cried. My friend. My father.
I took them off after about a month partly because I felt I needed to move forward but in all honesty mostly because I was afraid I’d lose them. To the rest of the world they were irrelevant things, but to me they were everything that made me who I am and I would be heartbroken if they were lost. I don’t wear them often now; only on special occasions really.
I wore them the first year I rode support with my mother on her first 3 day Breast Cancer Walk. I wore them the first two thanksgivings and Christmases he missed. But really now, I only wear them twice a year.
One is on March 12th, the anniversary of his death. One is today, November 15th, his birthday. He would have been 78 years old today. I’ll turn 38 years old tomorrow. He was 40 years and one day older than me, a fact that becomes increasingly more poignant the closer I get to 40 myself.
The only other times I will wear these tags is on my wedding day, the birth of any of my children, and the day I’m interred myself; because on that day they become once again just irrelevant things.
I love you dad, I miss you every day. And as much as I hated it at the time, the most important years of my life were spent in that foxhole with you. Happy Birthday.
P.S. Thursday I get a pink mohawk carved into my head, as I have every year after the first year my mom walked the three day. Friday I go support her as she and her team walk in San Diego. She’s a cancer survivor as well you see, and while some people look at shaving my head into a ridiculous pink mohawk is an irrelevant thing; to my mother, myself, and the five thousand walkers on that three days it’s a symbol.
Today is the birthday of Carl Sagan, a scientist that opened the Cosmos to my generation, and the generation before. While he will be known as an astronomer, a television personality, and arguably the nation’s first televised celebrity scientist, Dr. Sagan was far more. A shaggy-haired gawky man with warm eyes he was the embodiment of nerd chic in his mod-era turtlenecks and blazers, waxing poetic about such heady topics as the Oort Cloud and the size of our tiny galaxy within the scope of the universe.
He made astronomy, and by relation science as a whole, cool for a disillusioned generation who had grown up surrounded by unpopular wars and political turmoil. Armed with his trademark “billions and billions” descriptor, he related the wonders of the known and theorized universe through his show The Cosmos with the enthusiastic fervor of a small child while speaking in the buttery language of a herald.
Because of Carl Sagan, and his groundbreaking Cosmos, we have a new generation of celebrity scientists who carry on his work of making the extraordinary relatable and digestible to the masses. Without Carl Sagan we wouldn’t have:
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Okay, so the Hawking one is a bit of a stretch, he was publishing books alongside Sagan and well within the public eye by his own right, but I’m a fan of his work and goddamn, look at the man, he’s big pimpin’ brain of the Universe herself.
As for Sagan, he had something that no one else had that set him apart from the scientists of his era; he was a true poet. He saw the science and read it as poetry. His greatest gift to me as a boy was the lyrical beauty he gave the cosmos, and the adventure he made it’s exploration; even from this insignificant speck of dust orbiting an unremarkable star on an indistinguishable arm of an uninteresting galaxy amid billions and billions of other galaxies.
Part of my job every year is carrying on the legacy of Carl Sagan’s heralding the Cosmos for the masses, and even though I do it with digital whimsey rather than my words and degrees, I feel proud to be part of that family that Carl created.
The wonderful skeptic in Sagan would hate my next statement, but the poet I hope would smile.
To me, the poet that stands watch in my mind alongside the skeptic saw the Cosmos give Carl a birthday present, if not a day early. Asteroid 2005 YU55 passed by Earth yesterday, skirting by our little blue marble within the moon’s orbit. It’s not an uncommon event, NEO’s (Near Earth Objects) are more common than people are aware, but this one caught folk’s attention.
When we got a good look at it we saw what it was; just an unspectacular rock floating through space. Nothing more than a speck of dust from the cosmos, but at the same time so very important. The way Carl described Earth. In a poetic way, it could be thought that the Cosmos said, “Happy Birthday Carl, for an insignificant speck of dust, you’re pretty damned important.”
In reality the mathematical probability of an NEO sweeping past earth in line with one of Carl’s birthdays (plus or minus a day) is pretty high. But maybe, just for today, we can let the poet win out over the skeptic.
Happy Birthday Carl Sagan, from a tiny speck on a pale blue dot in the corner of your great Cosmos.