March 24th marked the death of my father. At the time of this posting, he has been nothing but ashes and fading memories for 12 years. I don’t typically treat the day as anything significant. It’s a day devoid of epitaphs, eulogies, and melancholic resurrections. I imagine those last few sentences come across as a bit surprising, or callous even. But through the passage of time I’ve become numb to it; ambivalent to the emotions that have stained the day. I achieved a level of peace and closure because I was by my father’s side as he battled his disease, the grotesque ALS. At night he pleaded for the grace of death, as the disease chiseled down his body into a rubble of human nothingness. Death was the only way he could escape the pain. From that perspective, his death was harmonious, as it granted him release from his shrinking frame. I hope you can understand how easy it was for me to move on. Yet, after the birth of my son last year, my father’s death has taken on a newfound significance. Specifically, my son will never know his grandpa. It’s sobering to know he’ll only know his grandfather through whispers and masked discussions.
Worst of all, my memory of him is eroding. Every once in a while I’ll dig through my mind and force myself to recall his laugh, the scent of his cologne, or even how he placed his hands on a steering wheel. These fragments, fractured and withered by time, are all I can give to my son; all I can keep for myself. I can certainly resurrect my father through stories, as can many of my other family members, but the essence of his existence can get lost in translation and through interpretation. I want my son to feel my father by his side, to know him inside and out. I want my son to see his grandfather’s triumphs celebrated and his faults exposed. I want him to see my father as a human being. Nothing more. Nothing less. The only way I know how to do this is through the power of cinema. Over the last few years, I’ve encountered a collection of characters that, when stitched together, form a composite of my father. This, Henry, is how I remember your grandfather.
In the early stages of your grandfather’s disease, it was easy for me to associate him with heroic characters. My vision of him was egregiously steeped in sentimentality, and for some people, he still sits on a pedestal without a scratch to his reputation. But your grandfather had a ruthlessness that went undocumented, a ruthlessness that was only discovered years too late. As I watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood for the first time, I couldn’t help but see your grandfather in the film’s protagonist, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). First, the resemblance was purely physical. Plainview, possessing a worn face and bushy mustache, was nearly a carbon copy of my father. And as the film unfurled, Plainview’s dedication to his craft mimicked your grandfather’s own impenetrable dedication to the printing business. Both were entrepreneurs, both worked tirelessly, and both sacrificed a piece of themselves to acquire the success they so desperately needed. And in many respects, they sacrificed parts of their family for their craft.
But my father’s drive for success often poisoned his mind, turning life events like divorce into a battle he needed to win at any cost. This is another aspect where Daniel Plainview is a reflection of your grandfather. Ferocious and unwilling to lose, Plainview publicly chastised and embarrassed his opponents, literally dragging them through the mud. It wasn’t enough that Plainview won, he had to destroy his enemy. Your grandfather had the same issue, as he battled your grandmother in a very messy divorce. If gaining custody is the definition of winning in a divorce, then grandpa lost, but not without needlessly drawing blood and using his children as emotionally destructive tools. Admittedly, I don’t know what kind of thoughts grandpa wrestled with throughout this moment in his life. It was a stressful time for him, that wasn’t helped by a cutthroat lawyer who was a genuine prick. He never really opened up to your uncles and I. He often hid behind gender stereotypes and defined societal norms. It’s a truth Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life reminded me of. Regimented, reserved, and demonstratively stubborn, Pitt’s patriarchal character, Mr. O’Brien, represented the guarded persona my father often had. Very rarely did your grandpa show emotion, at least not one that someone can construe as weak. The only time I ever saw him cry was when he was in physical pain, but emoting was an awkward experience for him. Much like Mr. O’Brien, my dad’s job was to be infallible and defiant in the face of unrest and uncertainty.
Pulling Back the Curtain
Yet, as I grew older and became more perceptive, my father’s act became nothing more than a thin veil. A lot of the films he loved actually undermined his machismo. Titanic, for instance, was a film my father loved, and was a film he bought under his own volition. And I promise you, he didn’t buy it so he could simply see Kate Winslet naked. One of his favorite films of all-time was Field of Dreams, a romantic, syrupy baseball film steeped in mysticism. Buried under the film’s fairy tale premise, was a warm story about a father and son reconciling a tumultuous past. Starring Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella, a down on his luck farmer trying to provide for his family, Field of Dreams possessed a romanticism your grandfather gravitated towards. Admittedly, it’s easy to paint my father as a villain, but his asshole tendencies also unfairly overshadow moments of tenderness and sweetness he genuinely orchestrated. On one Christmas Eve, where I was sweating through a fever and an uneasy stomach, he had me lay on his lap, while he ran his hand through my hair. As I slowly drifted asleep, and as he watched my brothers play with their presents, I saw a small smile plastered to his face. For once he had nothing to hide.
Your grandpa also had a knack for intensely focusing on my brothers and I, as well as our friends. I don’t mean it in a negative way, rather he was always engaged with us in various activities. He hardwired his passion for baseball into our DNA, so it was natural for him to coach and mentor us in the game he loved so much and in life. Through practices and impromptu games of catch behind our house, grandpa nurtured our skills on and off the diamond; implanting a tireless work ethic in our brains. His wisdom and attention not only affected your uncles and me, but also the players he coached throughout the years. Never did he deconstruct a player’s self-esteem or degrade them in front of the team. He only built them up, raising their self-worth through praise and unwavering support. It’s on the diamond that he emulated Costner’s Kinsella the most. It’s where his romantic side burned brightly.
A Proper Calibration
If your grandfather’s tenderness is underwritten, then his aloofness and playfulness are criminally overlooked. In many respects, and he would probably appreciate this, he was like Clark Griswald from the Vacation series. Your grandpa wasn’t a bumbling buffoon by any stretch of the imagination, but he enjoyed incisive banter and indulging in acts of silliness. I still remember the late nights where, after waking up from a semi-drunken stupor, he’d challenge your uncles and me to a game of Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64. He’d play us well into the early morning, often talking shit despite his clear lack of skill. The outcome didn’t matter; he always had this twinkle in his eye and a shit eating grin when we played. That shit eating grin and inescapable twinkle became a trademark for him in his later years, where his slow and tiring march towards death made us seek brevity in pitch black humor. Being that he had days where he sat alone in a chair, unable to move for hours on end, a slow and tiring walk toward death was unavoidable. But humor was a way of burying the truth for us. Fleeting as it was, it had healing properties. And it was in your grandfather’s sickly struggle that he was free from the shackles that chained him as a man.
Death made him more alive, and more honest than he had ever been. And it was Julian Schnabel’s breathtaking The Diving Bell and the Butterfly that reminded me of my father in his final and finest form. Your grandfather and the film’s protagonist, Jean Dominque Bauby, are reflections of one another. Both made parental and marital mistakes, but both also became mentally boundless and self-aware human beings, while irrevocable ailments grounded their fleshy vessels. Bauby, much like your grandfather, resented his earlier behavior but also fell prey to his old tendencies in spite of his best efforts. Your grandfather would seek redemption through late night monologues and cold calls to your grandmother. And then moments later he would viciously throw verbal daggers at your uncle Chris, a habit that continuously suffocated any chance for reconciliation between a father and son who were more alike than they’d like to admit. From your grandfather’s illness came combative moments where he shot insults out like a Uzi unloading hot lead, but now he understood the ramifications of his explosive outbursts. After moments of quiet reflection, he’d invite his unwitting target back, typically me or your Uncle Andrew, so he can help suture the bullet wounds he laid to flesh.
So Now Then…
Honestly, your grandfather didn’t live long enough to heal all the wounds. When he died it was unceremonious. Everything leading up to his final breath felt like a work of fiction, or a piece of cinema plucked off the screen. The day it happened was normal. Your uncle Andrew and I were conveniently away from our phones all day, it was the start of spring break after all, as your grandfather slipped in and out of unconsciousness. Frantic calls were placed to our phones, but they went unanswered. Finally, in the early evening we received word he had gone to the hospital and that his status was grave . A race against time developed, as your Uncle and I, along with your grandmother, rushed to pick up your great-grandmother, if the unthinkable happened. It’s at this moment, if our life was a film, a split screen would appear. On one side are doctor’s working to save your grandpa’s life, all while your Uncle Chris clings to his hand. On the other would be your Uncle Andrew and I, hopelessly ignorant of the situation playing out. With little working knowledge of your grandpa’s condition, every second slipped away slowly like a drip of water escaping a broken faucet. It truly felt like we were in a movie.
As fate would have it, or a script riddled with contrivances would, we stepped foot in the hospital at the exact moment your grandfather passed away. There were no dramatic good byes, no regrets atoned for, and no poignant monologues. It was a scene devoid of deus ex machina. He was simply gone. I remember as I stared at his lifeless body, I painted his eulogy in my mind. It told a heroic tale of a man besieged by disease, and his inspiring battle against it. But as I looked around the room and saw the faces of my family, it wasn’t an honest biography. I wanted to say something about him at his funeral, but I couldn’t formulate the words without being dishonest or infringing on someone else’s vision of him. Now, I can see it clearly, and say it without hesitation. Your grandfather was a complicated person with qualities that were admirable and sweet, wicked and disheartening. He was never the hero, but he also was never the villain. He was unequivocally human. In his waning days, that’s what I admired the most about him. Now, it’s inevitable that there are people who will regale you with their version of your grandfather, but they’re only scratching at the surface. If you want to truly know your grandfather, look no further than the frames of countless movies. I can show you. When you’re ready to meet him, all you have to do is push play.