The Day the Earth Smiled

Dad’s obsession was pretty overwhelming, so he wouldn’t settle for a normal family photo.

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Dad never liked being in pictures with us. He volunteered to take them wherever we went. He insisted it was fine when kind strangers would reach for the camera and offer in the universal sign of “I can take that for you.” He even proposed that he photoshop himself in the back of our Christmas card one year.

Other things he did left us all wondering if he actually liked us. He missed Maggie’s solo at her chorus concert because he was looking for a podcast he’d heard about the week before. It was probably something about space.

Everything was about space. When he wasn’t working or sleeping, his mind was zooming off this planet and toward the cosmos. He had a room in the basement that mom and I called “Mission Control.” That’s where he set up his desk, kept his telescope, and read his weekly NASA e-newsletter every Tuesday.

We all knew something was going on when he called a family meeting. “I bet he’ll say Mom and him are getting a divorce,” Maggie said. I could see they didn’t enjoy spending time together, but a divorce sounded too extreme for my father.

“You all may not know this but,” he said, taking a deep breath, preparing himself, “the Cassini spacecraft is making its way to Saturn right now after almost 16 years of space travel. Well, long story short, once the craft gets past Saturn, it’ll turn all the way around and take a picture.”

He paused for dramatic effect. Maybe he thought we were all going to fall over in amazement, but we sat there silent.

“We’ll be in the picture. All of us,” he said, gesturing to humanity. “Earth will be in the background of the picture of Saturn. Don’t you think that’s cool?”

Maggie didn’t. Mom and I at least tried to feign interest because he was actually engaging with us for once. He went to the top of the basement stairs and grabbed a cardboard box and brought it to the couch. Inside were four thick sweatshirts. “Just a little something for next Friday,” he said. “I don’t want you guys to feel unprepared.”

He handed us each an embroidered sweatshirt with something aerospace on it: a Saturn V detaching a booster, an astronaut floating inches above the moon’s surface, and a baby blue sweater with a large explosion on the front and “Never Forget” and “Columbia 1986” on the sleeves. Mom handed it to me and noted how I could “break the ice with a little history lesson” next time I wore it.

We didn’t know how serious all of this was until he took the day off of work. He had centered his life around work, so we felt like the moon had found a new earth to orbit for a few days.

He made pancakes the morning of, swirling food coloring inside them to make them look like little planets on our plate. I was lucky enough to get Neptune and an early attempt at Saturn with rings. Maggie ended up with a mysterious, lumpy green planet. The oven was counting down to the exact minute we were to be outside smiling at an extraterrestrial camera. Every few minutes, Dad looked at the countdown, compared it to his watch, and returned to cooking.

Maggie and I enjoyed staying out of the summer heat as long as possible by watching TV in the living room. We were interrupted by shouts from Mission Control.

“It’s almost go time,” he said.

Dad came up the stairs, already wearing his Apollo 10 sweater. “Why aren’t you two wearing your outfits?” he asked.

T-minus 30 minutes until snapshot: He did one more sync between wristwatch and oven before beating us all outside.

I put the sweatshirt on over my T-shirt and went out after him. Mom followed right behind, beaming because Dad had let her into his life a little. Maggie came out just as Dad was calibrating the compass on his iPhone to orient us in the right direction. He lamented the fact it wasn’t night so he could use his telescope to really find our direction. “That’s our mark,” he said, pointing at a bright blue sky. “Focus right up there.”

“Dad,” Maggie said. “Can I run inside and get my sunglasses? I can’t see, and the sun is hurting my eyes.”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “What would you do if you missed all of this for a stupid pair of sunglasses? You would probably regret it for the rest of your life.”

“Kevin,” mom said.

“Fine. Go get them.”

He probably knew he was being ridiculous, but could you blame him? He must have thought this would become like the JFK shooting of hobby astronomers: Everyone would have a story about where they were during the historic moment Cassini took that picture.

Maggie ran inside, and I almost went with her just to feel the air conditioning on my already sweating skin. I settled for shade with Mom. Sweat stains were already peeking out of different areas on each of our sweatshirts. Could no one have sold him the same designs printed on T-shirts or hats?

It was almost time, and Dad was getting antsy. “Where the hell is that damn kid?” he said to himself. None of us had seen him this worked up before. Maggie stepped out, right on cue with the start of his two-minute countdown.

He finished and gave us the signal to look up at the sky and wave. At a planet. Just like we were on the lake, passing by a boat that was enjoying the water too.

A cloud inched its way across the horizon.

We could hear the oven timer beeping from the front yard.

Maggie tried to pull away after a few minutes, but Dad squeezed her and kept her right where she was. We stood there for some time as one awkward, smiling family in the yard. A car drove by, and I wondered what we looked like. Maybe a cult, waiting for our alien god to take us home.

It took NASA a few weeks to get the picture back and posted, and Dad called another family meeting — this time in Mission Control — to show us the final product. It didn’t look like anything but a big picture of Saturn.

“Right there,” he said, almost touching the screen.

We looked closer while he enlarged the dot.

“That pixel right there, that gray one. That is Earth. That’s us.”

What did I expect? I guess more than a few pixels for all of the work.

It didn’t faze Dad. He took the image to work and had them print it on large, glossy paper so he could hang it on the wall in the basement. I caught him staring at it like Mom stared at our baby pictures.

“Dad,” I said, waking him from his dreaming. “Dinner’s ready.”

The final straw for Mom was when he mentioned the idea of sending the damn thing out as our Christmas card. We all laughed, but Mom put an embargo on non-family-related issues at the dinner table. He laughed, saying it was only a joke, but we knew it wasn’t.

“Well,” he said. “I think it technically is a ‘family matter’ since we are in the picture.”

Christmas was easier than ever that year. I found a website that printed images on curved glass, so he could have a mini version on his desk at work. Maggie stole the show when she went to Walmart and had them make a custom blanket of the thing. He almost cried when she pulled it out and wrapped it around him. Even Mom cracked a smile and thought it looked good as a throw blanket.

“I’ve never had a picture of my family that I could always take with me,” he said, hugging both of his presents tightly on the couch. Mom’s smile went away after that.

 

Dad eventually calmed down about the picture. He even took the big printed version down after a big Mission Control reorganization, and as private companies started taking over the space business, he just seemed to lose interest. One of the guys in my wedding got his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. When I asked Dad if he’d be interested in having lunch with him, he shrugged and said he couldn’t. Too tired. Too busy. I only had to ask a few times to get the message that he wasn’t interested.

We all said kind things and told what funny stories we could at his funeral, but it felt more like a retirement party with someone outside your department. We didn’t have any secret insight about who he was when he came home and kicked off his shoes.

What could we have done? We were just his little satellites, thousands of miles away, hoping for a better glimpse of what was going on down there.

 

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Comments

  1. An interesting story about one man’s fascination with a particular planet and his perception of how his own family fit into the picture once taken. I have to wonder if he asked them to smile for the camera or the spacecraft?

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