I’ve been thinking about Death recently. I’ll get back to that.
Don’t we all, eventually?
First I want to talk about a high school musical.
Last week I attended the Hampton High School performance of Big Fish, the musical adaptation of the Tim Burton movie. I’ve written about Hampton HS musicals before. I have no connection to the school other than my friendship with Dan Franklin, who teaches there and directs the plays they produce. Like my previous experiences Big Fish was a remarkable production. Dan and his students have forever changed my expectations of what high school plays can be. As always, the level of performance, choreography, music, and stagecraft was exceptional. While there were funny moments, as a story Big Fish deals with bigger and more serious issues than the straight-up comedies of the other shows I have seen. The students were more than up to the task. I must confess, by the end, my face was wet.
The basic story of Big Fish is that of a young man, Will Bloom, trying to understand his father, Edward. Edward is a storyteller, a raconteur of big fish stories, one who exaggerates the details of his life to such a degree that his son has no idea what is true and what isn’t. Edward’s life, as he tells it, is filled with big moments. He met a mermaid, had friendships with a werewolf and a giant, and when he was young he met a witch who revealed to him the way he would die. He tells his son that his approach to life is to ‟fight the dragons” and to ‟storm the castles.” He encourages Will to, ‟Be the hero of your story if you can.”
The problem is that Will believes he doesn’t know the ‟real” story of his father at all. As he prepares to become a father himself he wants to better understand his own. This desire, thwarted by Edward’s insistence that the stories he tells are true, becomes even more pronounced when Edward is diagnosed with an incurable disease. For his part, Edward isn’t overly worried. The witch told him how he was going to die, and this isn’t it. There will be a surprise ending.
The entire cast was very good, though the heavy lifting of the story fell on the shoulders of these two leads. A young man named Tyler played Will. Last year Tyler had the role of Patsy in Spamalot, and while he didn’t have a lot of lines his body language and facial expressions made it so I couldn’t take my eyes off him. This year he was able to explore a wider range of performance, displaying a strong voice, dance skills, and an emotional range beyond his years. After the show I learned he is a junior, so I look forward to what he does his senior year. Edward was played by a fifteen year old freshman named Joseph. It is impressive that he got the lead since this is his first role at Hampton. It was well-deserved. He ably conveyed the character at a variety of ages, capturing the age and infirmity of Ed in his later years without resorting to cliché ‟old man” tropes. In spite of his youth he embodied the concept of Old through the strength of his stage presence. A remarkable feat for any actor let alone one so young.
I think, speaking in general, our job as adolescents is to find our individual identity in part through rebelling against our parents. They have been the defining factor of our entire existence to that point and we need to figure out who we are outside of those parameters. This is normal. Then, once again speaking in general, we spend a lot of the rest of our lives trying to figure out how, in good ways and bad, we are actually like them.
In my 50s I can say that I was able to relate to both the main characters. I am much more like Edward. I’m a storyteller who likes the metaphors of dragons and castles and being the hero of your own story. I don’t really lie about my real life experiences, but as a writer I am fascinated by how the elements of the real world can be translated into fiction. I believe that sometimes the metaphor, the dragon if you will, speaks more plainly to bigger issues than the purely personal does. At the same time, like Will, I feel like I want to know my father better than I do.
Dad is almost 98 years old. I’ve written about him before. He is also a storyteller, but in a very different way than I am. There is no exaggeration to his tales. He relates stories in what feels to me at times as excruciatingly precise detail. Dad has a deep-seated aversion to lying, and I think he sees exaggeration for the sake of story to be too close to the same thing. He is also, unlike me, a very literal minded man. He has never been a reader of much more than the newspaper, nor is he interested in TV series or movies that revolve around story.
As a result of this I know more details about the deal he made on a pocketknife at the flea market last week, or about the results of a dog race he won thirty years ago, than I do about his experiences in Europe in World War II. I know broad strokes, of course, and he has talked about it more in the last two decades than ever before. But even when he does it still boils down to a lot of details as to where he was and when and what kind of Jeep he drove. I don’t know how he felt about the experience, his fears or triumphs or losses. I respect that these things can be hard to talk about, and there are things I have never asked. I don’t know if he just never thinks about those aspects, or if he has had to bury them deeply in order to move past them. Dad stormed a castle and fought actual dragons. I would love to hear about it... but not if it brings him pain to do so.
I know more about Dad’s life through my Mom, and more about her life overall. She’s not a storyteller in the same way as either my father or me. Her style is more conversational, less prone to either the mythologizing I do or the specifics of my Dad. Memories just come out while we talk, and while details may be sparse, the emotional content and human element are there. I am much more like my mother so it feels like my understanding of her as a person came much more intuitively. With Dad it has been more of a journey, one I am happy to have undertaken.
Dad was approximately my age when his mother died at the age of 91. I remember him then, though I have a tough time comparing the man he was then to the man I am now. My mother is the oldest of nine children, seven of whom she has outlived.
Going home to spend time with Mom and Dad is something I have done regularly all of my adult life. I have enjoyed a good relationship with both of them and genuinely enjoy their company. But going home has become more difficult emotionally. I see them aging and failing. I am so aware of their age. This is compounded by the destruction of my home area thanks to mining and fracking (which I’ve addressed before). I’m seeing the physical space of my youth, my history, being erased every time I go back. My emotional loss is being made literal in the real world. There is an old mythic idea of the king being tied to the land, and that when the king is unhealthy or dying then the land itself becomes barren. T.S. Elliot’s poem The Wasteland addresses this idea. My parents, the King and Queen of my youth, are beset by the dragons of age and the land around them suffers.
And yes, I realize I’m becoming Edward in my metaphors. It’s one of my ways of dealing with what I have been calling anticipatory grieving, something I experience to some degree on a daily basis.
With both Mom and Dad being in their 90s I am very aware that our time is limited. Not trying to be morose, just a statement of fact. While it is technically true of everyone we know, with advancing age this issue becomes more prominent. It is a theme that has come up frequently of late. Lots of my friends are dealing with some version of this. It’s a function of our age bracket. Last Thanksgiving, through Facebook I learned of the deaths of the parents of three of my friends in the course of two days. The same thing happened last month. The mother of one of my dearest friends is in the last stages of cancer and the whole family is in a holding pattern, trying to appreciate the time they have left while dealing with the reality of how short that time is.
It’s not just the elderly. Three days after I saw Big Fish I woke up to the news that one of my college roommates had died unexpectedly. John was 51. He and I, and four other guys, shared an apartment in Edinboro for two years... two of the most important and life-changing years of my life. I hadn’t actually seen John since his wedding in 1989. He and his wife Holly moved to Maine and it wasn’t until Facebook a few years ago that I heard anything from either of them. They had split, but remained amicable. Holly died unexpectedly two years ago. Now John is gone. Our mutual friends and I spent some time telling our stories of them to each other all last week. I discovered that one of those room mates buried his father the same day.
This past Sunday, Easter, the day of Resurrection, I saw the Broadway musical adaptation of the graphic novel Fun Home. For those who aren’t familiar with it Fun Home, created by Alison Bechdel, is the story of a young woman discovering her identity as a lesbian and trying to understand her relationship with her father who had died (she believes committed suicide), while she was in college. Once again, by the end, I must confess, I cried. While it has a very different style than Big Fish it is also a story about artifice and identity and how we want to discover truth in the tales our parents tell us so that we may better understand both them and ourselves.
Part of the impact of Big Fish was in seeing these issues played out by people so young. Not that you have to be old to experience loss or death, but the dichotomy of the topic of aging and death being performed by these young, energetic kids (they have no idea how beautiful they all are in this moment of their lives), lent a weight and poignancy. In listening to my parents stories I try to imagine them at those times in their lives when they had decades ahead of them and no idea what life held. When my friends and I eulogized John we were remembering a time when were young and energetic and beautiful in ways we were completely unaware of then.
Like Edward, I believe we should be the heroes of our own stories. We should storm castles and slay dragons (and sometimes befriend them because we all need dragons as allies). We should also remember that we are all bit players and part of the chorus in the lives of others and their stories are the windows through which we may come to know them. Grief and celebration go hand in hand on a daily basis.
I want to end this with a brief story about John. When we all lived together in Edinboro music was a huge part of our daily existence. The songs and bands I was exposed to there changed my life. John played guitar, better than me, but he was not a virtuoso. He wanted to learn to play the song Jo the Waiter from the Gary Numan album Tubeway Army. Unlike most of Numan’s songs Jo the Waiter was a sweet tune played on an acoustic guitar. It is the last song on the album, and like life it ends abruptly and with no warning. I have no idea if John remembered this or had even thought of this song in thirty years. He played the record over and over in his room, strumming along with it, so much that we were all annoyed and really sick of Jo the Waiter. Of course it is now a song that contains so many of my memories of John in ways that are specific to me and my stories of him.
‟Long gone, I recall good times.
I must confess... I cried.”