Today would have been Leonard Nimoy’s 89th birthday.
Marking the passage of time with birthdays and anniversaries can make absence even more perplexing. This is even more true when memories of a person are easy to access, to wit; I watch Star Trek: The Original Series constantly. It’s comfort food. So to me, Spock (and by way of him, Leonard Nimoy) is as vibrant and present as ever. Which in turn is another invaluable source of comfort—because Spock made such a difference to the impressionable child version of me.
Wanna hear something weird? When I was very young, I didn’t know that Original Series Star Trek existed. My parents watched Next Gen sometimes, and I had seen the movies without context. I assumed that the movies were somehow a spin-off of Next Gen or vice versa. I remember being a little confused at the closeness of the characters, but I assumed I’d missed a bunch of movies. (I watched Star Trek IV the most often.)
Then there was this tribute on the Emmys to the history of television and I had a sublime vision; it was a clip from “The City On the Edge of Forever,” featuring Kirk and Spock in gorgeous technicolor, at least twenty years younger than I had ever known them.
“What is that?” I gasped in the living room.
“That’s Star Trek,” my dad said, puzzled. “You know Star Trek.”
I glared. “You never told me they’d had a TV show before their movies.”
“Didn’t I?” My dad appeared to give it some thought, but there was hardly anything he could do about it now. “Well, they did in the ’60s.”
Problem was, I had no idea where to watch them. Then, like some great god of serendipity was smiling down upon me, the heavens opened, and the SciFi Channel—as it was called back in the good ol’ days—started airing commercials for Star Trek: The Special Edition. (This was after the Star Wars Special Edition had come out in theaters, so everything had to be a special edition now.) They were airing every single episode, complete with behind-the-scenes interviews.
It was on right around dinner time, which made my mom so angry. I never wanted to sit at the table anymore.
Spock was my favorite. Spock is always everyone’s favorite, even if you are secretly a Kirk or Uhura or Scotty fan at your core. Even if you know that nothing on that show functions without Doctor McCoy’s imperious eyebrows. And the reason why Spock is everyone’s favorite is because Spock is everyone. He reflected all of us in some way or another. Stories that centered on Spock tackled issues across the spectrum of humanity: racist allegory, familial strife, the struggle to balance the emotional and rational self, and so much more.
For me, Spock was about carving out a place in the universe where you fit.
I had just started middle school when the show began airing on SciFi. New building, new teachers, new classmates, new rules. That transitional stage is rough for everyone; you always lose friends, you always struggle to figure out where you sit in the lunchroom, you always commit a few unmentionably embarrassing acts, you always redefine yourself (sometimes without intending to). Middle school was where I figured something out—I was a nerdy kid. And nerdy kids lacked a certain social currency, particularly during this in-between phase before we transitioned to big-kid high school. People would small talk to me so they could cheat off my tests, not so they could form lifelong bonds. I was separated from my grade school pals almost entirely, due to having a different core of teachers, and clung fast to the side of anyone who would speak three words to me. I knew I was awkward, and it was devastating. I had never been so afraid to talk to people before.
But I had Spock to watch in the evenings. And he taught me so much—that having a special set of skills or interests was valuable. That having a different frame of reference from your peers was nothing to be ashamed of. That sometimes you would work alongside people who were cruel to you, and that they had a lot to learn. That speaking up with a new perspective was always useful in any situation. That bravery didn’t have to be about brawn, but about giving to others.
Spock’s struggle with his emotional half made the angst of a pre-teen seem far more reasonable. He was an adult, and an alien, and he had a job that was far more impressive than any of my meager academic achievements, but we were both attempting to tamp down the same irksome feelings that made it difficult to get from one bell to the next. It was comforting to know that a character you respected was facing the same turmoil you were encountering in your formative years. It made growing up a tiny bit less frightening.
Knowing that Spock had encountered plenty of difficulties during his childhood was equally reassuring. And it wasn’t even the thought that his life had turned out wonderfully in spite of bullying—it was simply knowing that those struggles were universal, that they were worthy of recounting despite Spock’s success. The struggles of your past were not irrelevant to your future, they were an integral part of your life. It’s strange, the things that can help you along during the most uncomfortable phases of youth, and knowing Vulcan kids beat up little Spock was one of them.
Kirk and McCoy’s affection for Spock taught me something else, too; that there were alike souls in the universe. You might just have to go looking for them.
In the end, Spock meant many things to so many people. For one little girl growing up in the midwest, his presence was akin to a comforting hand on the shoulder. His cadence was a soothing way to fall asleep, and his logic presented useful tools for the most impassable situations. But most of all, his friendships shaped his life. The connections he made to others were what defined him, and that was something that stuck hard with me. I tried to pursue a similar course in forming my own friendships, but found that it didn’t really work that way. Those bonds found me, often by surprise.
And I have a feeling that I would be a poorer friend by far without the guidance of a certain pointy-eared Vulcan.
Three years on and it’s still hard to believe that he won’t show up in the next Trek film. I never had the chance to meet or see him in person, and that will always sting. But the sentiments of everything I wanted to tell him have been echoed by millions of fans over half a century, and will continue long after that. He wrote biographies called I Am Not Spock, and then I Am Spock, and I think both of those titles were correct. Mr. Nimoy was much more than any single character could contain, but the most human part of Spock? That was Leonard Nimoy all over. That was the gift he left us.
That is what makes his journey through the stars remarkable.
An earlier version of this article was published in February 2015.