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Published on 16 Jan 2015 | over 3 years ago

At the Wilbur Theatre in Boston, on January 15, 2015, six-(and-three-quarter)-year-old Jackson asks astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson the question on everybody's mind.

When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Young Jack always gave the same peculiar reply. From the age of two until about the age of five, Young Jack wanted to be… a black doctor. With tremendous enthusiasm, he told anyone and everyone who would listen. When he told his pediatrician this—when he asked his pediatrician if we could make him black—the kindly white-haired woman peered at us over her bifocals with an air of disbelief not frequently displayed by medical professionals. Young Jack and I both, you see, have the approximate complexions of hospital sheets. I quickly explained Young Jack’s affinity for the PBS Program NOVA, and especially for its frequent host, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson’s doctoral work is in the field of astrophysics, but he is a doctor. He is also black. Knowing not-too-much about astrophysics, and nothing at all about race, Young Jack nonetheless knew what his ideal future would hold; when Young Jack grew up, he wanted to be Neil deGrasse Tyson

When I heard that Dr. Tyson was coming to Boston, I made a mental note to get tickets. The mental notes of a single mom aren’t good for much except future regrets, so naturally the only seats available by the time I remembered (the day after they went on sale) were too pricey to be feasible for said single mom. Young Jack wasn’t disappointed because I hadn’t told him, and life went on as always it had.

Then, last month, I had dinner with Cory Granger, one of my oldest and dearest friends. He’s a drummer, a philosopher, and a manager at Whole Foods. Over zinfandel and stuffed quahogs, we discussed my son’s oft-astounding existential quandaries. For example:

The day after Christmas, Young Jack was in his bedroom reading Calvin and Hobbes comics to the plush orange Tiger that Santa left under the tree (complete with a bindle full of canned tuna). Suddenly, from the other room, I heard my progeny sobbing. Assuming some elaborate injury had befallen him, I rushed to his aid to find him intact and presumably unharmed. I asked him what the matter was.

“Something is missing!” he moaned.

“What did you lose?” I asked, uncertain of his meaning.

“I don’t know! I don’t know what it is, but it’s missing, and I miss it! And if I don’t know what it is, how can I ever find it?!”

“Baby,” I cooed, “we have everything we need. Nothing is missing.”

“We don’t even know… why anything is real! We don’t know what reality is. We don’t even know why we exist!”

“Oh,” I stammered, “Jack..!” I felt like I’d been punched in the solar plexus, “you’re talking about The Meaning of Life! Is that what’s missing?”

“YEAH!” he cried, distraught still, but comforted somewhat by having been understood.

“You’re six years old, my love,” I said, “you don’t have to worry about that right now. People look their whole lives for meaning, and it’s different for everyone. You’ll know it when you find it. I promise.”

Somewhat satisfied, he allowed me to usher him into the car for a visit with his Granny. En route, over the Chopin nocturnes that I hoped might sooth his precocious soul, I heard his little voice simply repeating, over and over, “Please, please, please, please, please, please, please..!”

I asked who he was talking to.

“I’m wishing on the moon,” he said. “It’s very bright tonight.”

I asked what he was wishing for.

“I’m wishing that I’ll find the thing that’s missing. I’m wishing that I’ll know it when I find it.”

I assured him, again, that he would… but I was glad that he was in the back seat because salty water began inexplicably to fall out of my eyes. I had to admit that I knew how he felt. At thirty, I still make that wish sometimes, sometimes even on the moon. The moon, alas, does not answer the way Neil deGrasse Tyson does.

Hearing this story a week later, Cory asked if I was bringing Young Jack to see “The Black Doctor”. I told him I hadn’t been able to get tickets. Cory grinned. He had tickets, but he also had to work. Jack and I were going.

“Are they expensive seats?” I asked.

“Tell ya what,” he laughed, “If your date is a six-year-old, it’s on me!”

The rest, evidently, is YouTube history.

Oh, and… for the record, Young Jack still wants to be a doctor when he grows up—an astronaut doctor.

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