The Signal

Dear son,

Hello. I’m your dad. I won’t have too many opportunities to say that to you, which sucks, so I wanted to make sure I started there. I also want to apologize. As your dad, I’m supposed to be there for a lot of the most important moments in your life. I’m supposed to give you advice and tell you stories so you’ll learn from my failures and successes. Your granddad did that for me. He was a good man and taught me a lot about what kind of man I should be. He passed away about four years ago. Something has been missing for me ever since, so I know me not being there for you is going to be a hole that you’ll always miss.
I’m so sorry for that.


Your mom and I just came from the doctor. We go to a lot of doctors right now. Your mom’s pregnant with you right now, and we just found out you’re going to be a boy. I couldn’t be happier. You’re going to be a fine man some day. I know it. I may not have proof, but I have hope, and I believe in hoping. Your mom was born to be a mother, and she will definitely raise you to be a kind, caring, confident, capable man. But you won’t have a father. Maybe you’ll have father figures. I hope so. I know my brother will do his best to give you some advice and provide an example, but it won’t be the example you’re supposed to have. It won’t be your dad.


The other doctors we’ve been going to lately are the oncologists treating me. That’s a fancy doctor word for someone who helps sick people fight cancer. I still believe I can beat this, but they don’t agree. Some battles can’t be won. The kind of cancer I have is rarely beaten. I don’t really feel sick yet, but I will soon. My doctor told me last week that if I fight I’ll see you be born. So I’ll be meeting you. I promise. I won’t be there for any of your other birthdays, but I promise I’m going to be there for the first one.
I know I can’t replace all the things I’m supposed to do for you with a letter. I can’t give you all the advice you’ll need, and give you an example to emulate. I’m sorry.
I asked your grandma what I should do, and she said I should tell you about me. She said I should try to teach you a few of the things I’ve learned. I’m a little young to start pretending I’m wise. But I do want to tell you about the most important moment of my life.
My story starts in high school. I was sixteen. You’ll hear all about this part in school. It was a generational experience. My parents could tell me all sorts of things about the day JFK was shot. My mom said it was one of the few times she’d ever seen her dad cry. She said he was said that some part of the “American Dream” was dead. Something noble, like it was out of a fairy tale, was lost. Dead. She remembers all sorts of things about that day. Ask her about it some time and she’ll tell you all kinds of details. She’ll remember more things about a day fifty years ago than you’ll probably remember about yesterday. My generation has its own day. The day of the Signal.
I was a high school junior when the Signal reached Earth. I was sitting in study hall, second period, on Tuesday, September twenty-fifth. First period was Chemistry, for which I did not have an aptitude, and on Tuesday and Thursday I had study hall instead of lab on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I was sitting next to a pretty girl. Her name was Nina. She was really good looking, but didn’t get as much attention from guys as she should have. Her hair was often kinda messy, but when she straightened it she looked dynamite.
Okay, let me stop myself right there. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression of the kind of guy your dad was. I never really say “dynamite” when talking about how girls look. Actually, unless I’m talking about the explosive I don’t think I ever say dynamite. If I could be around a few more years I might say things like that to you. Little kids like those kinda words. But by the time you’re old enough to read this I’d probably have stopped. Your mom is going to give you this when you go off to college. You’ll be grown up enough to know I’m being silly. You’ll probably be in the stage when everything I say annoys you. Let’s pretend you wouldn’t feel that way though. Let’s pretend our relationship when you hit your teenage years would be really good, and you’d still laugh at my bad dad-jokes.
So Nina looked dynamite. And she did on the day of the Signal. Her hair was in a ponytail, and he shirt was crisp and white. She sat to my right, and my desk was in the back of the room. A window was right behind me. I liked that because the teacher would always have it open, and it made Nina cold. She’d ask me to close it. I guess at sixteen being able to do anything nice for a dynamite-looking girl is a big deal. That Tuesday she asked me to close it. Five minutes later, as I sat there thinking I was keeping a girl warm – and therefore a big man – the intercom snapped on and the Principle started stuttering.
The first thing we all did was snicker. I’d say laugh, but we weren’t supposed to laugh when the Principle stuttered. He was a pretty good guy, and it wasn’t fair for us to laugh when he got nervous on the intercom. So we were sitting there snickering at Principle Sutter – I know, “Sutter the Stutter” was a popular thing to say when you wanted detention – until he told us a news report had come on saying a signal had reached Earth. A signal from another planet.
It’s important to note this was 2001, and most kids didn’t have cell phones yet. Smart phones weren’t even a thing yet (I also had to walk uphill both ways to and from school through twelve feet of snow every day). So no one really knew first. We were all sitting in study hall and found out together. We all found out as a group the world had changed. The genie was out of the bottle and would never be put back again.
You’ll hear about what it meant, and how people were suddenly thinking differently. The people who tell you that are half right. We all sort of changed, but it was more because we all shut up for a minute. Everyone wanted to know what the Signal meant. I was a bit of a class clown and rarely missed an opportunity to make myself look stupid, but I hardly said a thing that day. I almost did at one point, but I was more curious than attention-seeking. The Signal was more important than anything else. There were conflicts going on, but no one really thought about that for the day. Our teachers tried to keep classes going, but we were too curious. We wouldn’t really sit still or stop asking questions, so about an hour after the first announcement we were all watching TV in the classrooms. I remember being surprised they had cable TV at school. I thought the TVs just used VCRs to show us boring videos. I won’t explain what a VCR is. They were like YouTube, only slower and you had to rewind a tape before you could watch it again.
I sat with a group during lunch and we talked about the Signal. I didn’t always sit in the cafeteria during lunch my Junior and Senior year in school. I usually sat in the lobby reading or listening to music by myself. I had friends, but I always felt lonely. You’ll probably feel that way sometimes too. I hope not as much as I did, but even if you do, don’t worry about it. Everybody goes through those times. Even the cool guys and prettiest girls feel lonely sometimes. You might feel it more or less than some, but you should understand it’s okay to feel that way, and understand when other people the same way. I wasn’t the best friend during that period. I hope you don’t act like I did. I had friends but generally chose to not sit with them. If I could go back to high school I’d make my friends laugh more often.
But don’t worry if you screw those things up. At some point you’ll meet people you can’t ignore. You’ll feel like you’re part of something, and it’ll be scary and difficult at first. You’ll want to recede from them. You might even have a few chances to get closer to people and blow it. But at some point you’ll be connected to people and whatever effort you have to give to keep them around will be worth it.
So that day, when I went to the cafeteria, it was sorta awkward, but a couple guys invited me to sit with them. They talked about the Signal. Some guys thought maybe it was from benevolent aliens who would bring on world peace and we’d all be living on Mars in a few years. One kid thought the aliens might be coming to conquer us and make us their slaves. But we didn’t know. It was just noise at first. Data. It took time to decode it.
The news that night was really interesting. I got home and my mom was sitting on the couch. I don’t think I’d ever seen someone who could be so accurately described as ‘glued to the television.’ She just sat there while Lady, my dog, jumped up and down at the gate separating the kitchen from the family room. I grabbed Lady – no easy task because she was a fat Dalmatian – hauled her over the gate and let her sit next to me on the couch. We listened to one report after another. It was mostly speculation. This famous scientist did a lot of the talking. He was really calm. Every interviewer introduced him with his full title with all sorts of honors and degrees, but he was best known for writing a few books explaining Physics to the layman. His name was Jim Fagan. He was always so calm and collected. It was like he was the most patient guy in the world. I think the news channels turned to him so much to talk about the Signal because people were scared and he had a paternal tone of voice and appearance.
That first night he explained what we knew and what we were still trying to figure out about the signal. We knew it contained information, and was encoded in basic binary, so we’d be able to decode it pretty quickly. The challenge, he said, was understanding the language and discerning meaning from what was sent. It would take time, since there was a fair bit of info, but it wasn’t meant to be obscured. The senders of the message wanted someone to receive it and understand it. He said that gave him great hope. The nature of the message indicated a hope for open communication. It reminded him of the Golden Record. I honestly don’t remember being taught about the Golden Record in school until after the Signal, but the idea was that some of our scientists sent a probe out into space with a ton of information about Earth encoded on it. Their hope was that one day some race might find it, understand it, and perhaps reach out to us. He said the Signal was a Golden Record from this alien race. He hoped it would contain their language, culture, art, music, history, and science. The possibilities of the Signal were endless. This race might be far more advanced than we, or more primitive. They might have cures for diseases or be in need of cures we can give them. They might have philosophies that will change our world.
The hopeful philosophy of Fagan would have been enough to change our world if we’d live by it. The right philosophy doesn’t mean much if you don’t live it.
There are many different ways to interpret moments of your life and your personal philosophy. Looking back on my own life, I can see how so many times that challenged and defined me could have turned out differently. Some for the better, some for the worse. Fagan was hopeful. He saw the potential. He saw a chance for advancement in sciences, but also enjoyment through new and exciting music. He had hope. An alien race had sent out a message, hoping it would reach someone who could understand it, and it had. If the message arrive two hundred years ago we’d have been deaf to it. But it arrived just fourteen years ago, and we were ready for it. That, he said, was reason to hope. That was providence.
Of course, there were others who warned caution. They thought the Signal could contain computer viruses and other hazards and we should be careful to not send a reply in case the aliens were hostile and might come with an invasion force. Like I said, there are many ways to interpret a given moment. I believe Fagan had it right. Even if the Signal turned out to be a bad thing, optimism is a better way to go through life. You’ll find opportunity instead of fear.
A girl at school, Maggie, chose fear. She was scared so much after the Signal arrived. I’d known her since first grade. She was pretty and sweet, but isolated herself by playing the role of victim. I don’t know when it started, but at some point she got a taste for pity. I went through similar times – I’m not proud to say that – and while having people buck you up and take care of your can feel great, it’s not the way to get through things. Never play the role of victim. We all experience enough hardship in our lives without having to conjure up new pains. I looked for pity at times in high school and college, and it didn’t make me happy. Optimism brought me a lot more happiness and took me further in my career and with my friends. I’d rather you be a fool looking for the best in bad people than a cynic guarding yourself against every possible threat.
The next few months blur together. My teachers had to go on teaching, but they adapted their lessons to bring in alien life or space travel. My history teacher gave us an essay that had us explain the events leading up to World War 1 to an alien. My calculus teacher had us figure out the distance the Signal traveled. This was already in the news, so we all knew it came from a planet orbiting a star nearly one hundred thousand light years away. My teacher, Mr. Schumann, explained that since the Signal was broadcast on a radio wave, we knew it traveled at the speed of light. The day after NASA announced they’d found the origin of the Signal, Mr. Schumann had us work backwards to see how they’d figured that out.
My physics teacher that year was new, just out of college, and she struggled to control a bunch of teenagers. She was a sweet girl, but looked younger than most of her students. She discussed what the distance to the alien’s home world meant. What she was getting at was the age of the Signal. Since it traveled at the speed of light, and the planet was one hundred thousand light years away, it traveled one hundred thousand years before we heard it. A culture can change a lot in that time. One hundred millenniums ago, an intelligent race was only about fifty years behind us technologically. So they’d be far more advanced than us now. Imagining the amazing technology they must have developed was exciting. The enlightenment they might have achieved was beyond our imagining. And the new artistic and cultural movements they’d experienced made us believe in perfection. There was a chance of a perfect society out there. There was so much in the Signal that showed they were on the cusp of great achievements. Their culture had recently been through wars, and a new generation was primed to advance their society. They had so much potential. A hundred thousand years of history would be exciting to learn.
Mr. Fagan’s speech about hope and optimism seemed like one for all of us. Considering the possibilities of another culture made me think of how much we would learn in the future. Some day humanity would learn from our mistakes. We would see wonders. We would create wonders. I believe that.
But I didn’t always apply this to my life. As I neared the end of my high school career I spent most of my time worrying about where I should go to college, and what I should study. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I hope you figure this out earlier than I did, but it’s okay to some of it to fate. You should work hard to figure it out, and once you have you’ll have to work hard to become what you want, but things will work out even if you struggle. Do everything you can to get in a great school, but whatever school you get into is the one you’re meant for, so enjoy it. Study hard. If you don’t get into an Ivy League school don’t worry about it. I’ve worked with guys from those schools. The only time I was jealous of them was when I was in school. When you graduate, the best of us start at the bottom and work our way up. They might make more money, but you’ll have greater achievements.
Three years after the Signal arrived I woke up late for my French final and scrambled to catch a bus when another news report came on the TV. I was living with your Uncle Joe, and he didn’t have class right then, so he was watching the news. The story was about the source of the Signal. Some astronomer down in Australia who was looking for the planet decided to take a more in-depth look at the star it orbited. Somehow or other he figured out it had changed. There were indicators that the star was changing, but was in its early stages of change. The change would happen soon, which meant, since the light traveled a hundred thousand years before reaching us, that it had happened a long time ago. He proved the star collapsed and expanded. No doubt you’ve read about this in school a few times. The star was like our sun, but at some point the gravity pulled it in on itself. Then it exploded outward, becoming far larger but less dense. The new size of the star meant its nearest planets had been consumed.
The evolution of a star takes millions or billions of years, yet one day there was a planet across the galaxy with intelligent life that was reaching out to connect with us, and the next day it was gone. No one knows if they saw it coming or could prepare for it, but they’re gone. Some people talked about fate. Finality. No more. But they weren’t gone. Even thousands of years later their Signal was still traveling through the cosmos on a path to us. Mr. Fagan was interviewed a few days after the news came out about the planet dying. He was no less hopeful than he had been before. He said he was sad the planet was gone, and the possibility of us communicating with the other race was gone, but he didn’t think they were done talking to us. We’d received one message with a huge amount of data about their home world, but one thing that was clear was that the Signal was a first attempt. Within a few years it was likely more messages would come, especially if they advanced their knowledge as quickly as we did. We just had to keep listening. They would never hear our responses, but their impact on our lives wouldn’t be over for a long time.
A second Signal hasn’t arrived yet. Maybe by the time you’re grown and reading this a number of new messages will have arrived. I hope you see each and every one of them as a reason to keep hoping for tomorrow. We all need that.
I needed hope four years ago. My dad died. He wasn’t swallowed up by an exploding sun, but one day he was here, and the next he wasn’t. Your grandpa was never the healthiest guy, but the last few years of his life he got worse and worse. In the end, it was an infection that killed him. It was a Friday in April. A horrible day. I remember my mom asking me if telling the doctors to stop performing lifesaving measures was right or not. She’d been a good wife for over thirty years. At the end she was worried she failed. I’m not sure we can ever know if we’re doing the right thing. The best we can do is what feels right. If you live that way to the best of your ability – and I know you’ll struggle sometimes – I’ll be proud of you.

After my dad died, I worked a lot and tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal. I told myself that fathers are supposed to die before their sons. I kept focused on other things. But I couldn’t talk to my dad anymore. I couldn’t ask him if I was doing the right things, or if my life was going in the right direction. I didn’t have a whole lot of hope. Your grandma went through some old things and found three pages of notes he’d written when I was little. He’d taken my brother and I to McDonald’s. I don’t really know what prompted him to write up a little sketch of the day, but I’m glad he did. He said I’d asked some interesting questions. He said he looked forward to hearing more as I grew older. He looked forward to answering them. I’m going to put those pages in with this letter. They’re pretty old, so be careful that you don’t tear the paper. That was the last message I got from my dad. I’d wanted to give up and recede from the world. But there were still questions worth finding answers to.
So I went on and let myself be put into positions where good things could happen. And they did. One day, I met a girl. She didn’t change my life that day, yet my life was never the same again. The next day we talked. And the day after that. And every day since. It was just another day, but everything was different after. A message arrived. A star exploded. My dad died. All that, and the most important event of my life was meeting your mom. I’d been exposed to messages of hope in one form or another my entire life. I’d nearly lost hope and given up. But the moment I met your mom made the rest worth it.
I’m telling you to hope now.
The doctors say I won’t be there for you. I won’t be able to teach you to ride a bike or catch a baseball. I’ll never coach your little league team or tell you bad jokes about dynamite girls. I’m your dad, but I’ll never be your father. I won’t get to teach you lessons every day about how to live or give you an example to follow. But I want you to hope. It doesn’t matter if you think you should or not. It doesn’t matter if life throws more reasons to lose hope than to hold on to hope. Just hope. I can’t teach you how to, or why to, but if you hope, one day the world will reward you for it. One day, a message will arrive. The universe will reach out and give you something beautiful. And all the times you were wrong to hope will have been worth it.

I love you,


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