Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fathers and Their Children

'Tis Father's Day, and even though my father passed away (from a rare form of cancer) 6 years ago, I still think of him on this day and revisit memories that the two of us created. My dad was 88 when he passed and he led a full life, doing more things in one lifetime than most do in 3 or 4. He traveled all over the world, both when he was in the Navy and as a civilian with my Mom. We had our "not so positive moments" (all children and parents do) but we also had many many "oh so positive moments" and in the grand scheme of it all our relationship was special - after all, I was his baby, his little girl. Most of all, I know that my father loved me with every fiber of his being. Some of my best memories are the everyday things we did like just hanging out with one another. I cherish our chats, walking with him while he held my hand and gave me that fatherly advice all dads have a propensity for giving. And while I could retell about a billion special times with my Dad I won't because those were "our times". But, as I said before, it was the little things like crying together at those sappy commericals and TV shows (my dad was a very sentimental man), it was the pride and love that shone in his eyes when he spoke to and of me. Most of all, it was the love - the fatherly love that I could always count on, no matter what.

Being raised with that kind of love makes me sad when I think of my brothers and their children. My brother Keith (who's on a liver transplant list) hasn't seen his children (through no fault of his own) since they were little kids. His daughter, Christine, has to be in her late thirties and his son, Alexander, must in his mid-twenties. My oldest brother Randall lives with his second wife and they have 3 children. His daughter, Channing, is 13 (and oh what a "joyful" age that is to deal with...) and is his biological child. His two sons, Chandler and Dylan are 8 and 7, respectively (although Chandler will turn 9 next month - his birthday is the same as my mother's) and both boys are adopted. Randall will turn 62 on the 8th of July and I don't know if you can imagine having children that young at that age - it is not a walk in the park. Randall also has a son, Paul, from his first marriage. Paul will turn 40 at the end of this month and his relationship with his father has been basically non-existent since my brother and his first wife divorced. My parents always saw Paul as he was growing up (while my ex sister-in-law was very good about that she wasn't good about not bashing my brother to his son - in fact, she was relentless about doing it) and he still sees my Mom during most Christmas holidays (he's on the West Coast, she's on the East Coast). However, the first wife was so bitter over the divorce she absolutely ground Randall into the dirt in Paul's eyes. Now I know that there are always two sides to every story and my brother is certainly not guilt free. But he has made overtures over the years which Paul has rebuffed (although they did get along when my Dad died, even taking the same flights together, and every time my Mom comes out to the West Coast Paul will come to my brother's house to visit). Mind you, Paul lives about 30-45 minutes away from my brother but will not make the trip even when he's called and asked him to come visit his half-siblings. What makes me so sad is that Paul won't let go of his anger (and hurt, although he'd never admit the hurt part). Their relationship reminds me of the father/son relationship in the film "Smoke Signals". "Smoke Signals" originates from the short story "This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" that is found in Native American writer Sherman Alexie's book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Alexie also wrote the screenplay for the film). The film is a great film that explores the father/son dynamic and I often teach it in my literature classes. It is replete with all that symbolism that we English professors just love and also contains classic Native American humor that I often have to give my students an overview about since many would otherwise not "get" its subtleties and quirks. Anyway, I could give you the basic story but instead I'll share a review that sums it up quite nicely:

"The movie poses two essential questions: 1) If someone else has mistreated, hurt, abandoned, or disrespected you, is it possible to forgive them if they've NEVER asked forgiveness, never done anything to "put it right," never returned in atonement to undo the damage, and never begtun to deserve it? And 2) if it *is* possible--and it may not be--SHOULD you? Because if you do, doesn't that just make you a willing victim by letting them "get away" with what they did, and pretending the relationship is okay again?

Victor lives in the tension of this dilemma. As a 12-year-old youth, he witnessed the effects of alcohol on his family. His father vascillated between being loving and instantly "turning" to become hostile, violent, and humiliating to the young boy. Victor finds himself becoming more deeply embarrassed by his family's domestic abuse and alcohol use, even defiantly scolding his own father that his favorite Indian is "Nobody...nobody...nobody!"

Victor's mother awakens the next morning to see Victor angrily smashing his father's beer bottles on the back of his father's pickup truck (the two things he believes his father loves more than him), and the epiphany stuns the mother, who insists on an immediate end to family drunkenness. Proving Victor's fears true, the father--forced to choose between alcohol and family--flees the family, and never returns. It is within that unchanged arrangement that his father dies, 8 years later, having never returned home.

Victor and his oddball companion Thomas make a side-splittingly funny journey south from Idaho to Phoenix together to make arrangements for the father's possessions, confronted by the racism, peculiarities, and hostilities of the non-Indian "outside" world. Thomas, having never seen the dark side of Victor's father, irritates Victor with incessant stories and tales about the dad's greatness.

Victor, having been so deeply wounded and sold-out by his father's abandonment, has become tough, fierce, aggressive...and lonely. "You can't trust anyone!" he scolds. "People will walk all over you!" His mistrust poisons his friendships, family, and feelings about his father. He's become just another tough guy, hardened by family violence and substance use.

In Phoenix, Victor finds an essential artifact of his father's life: a worn-out photo with "HOME" written sloppily on it. At once, Victor begins to realize that his father's fatal flaw was COWARDICE: the father could confess his sins to new companions a thousand miles from home, but could never return home and undo the damage he'd caused. And so his son has suffered for 8 years. Victor begins to realize that he himself is allowing his actions to damage others, and that it is cowardice, not manly independence, that controls his decision to remain distant and fierce.

Victor slowly begins to repent of his own abusive toughness, cutting his hair in symbolic repentance (traditional hair-cutting is done either in grief, or in repentence for shameful behavior). The process of discovery continues when Thomas angrily confronts Victor about Victor's own behavior: remaining cold and distant from his own mother, acting forceful and ruthless to others, etc.

Victor ends the film by freeing himself of his 8-year hostility toward his unforgiven father, and in that final act of forgiveness we find that the greatest benefit is for VICTOR, who becomes kinder, funnier, gentler, and more confident in his friendships. The significance of forgiveness, he learns, isn't to let someone else off the hook, but to let one's own self off the hook of the pain caused by another, rather than carrying that pain inside for years.

In the final scene, this release of aged anger is represented by the cathartic release of his father's ashes into a river, meaningfully shown in film montage as expanding in power from streams into torrents, much like the energy of either a person enraged or a person set free.

It is at the end of the film that we really begin to understand Thomas' original cryptic remark at the beginning, "Some children aren't really children at all. They're just pillars of flame that burn everything they touch. And some children are just pillars of ash, and they fall apart as soon as you touch them."

The final scene when Victor finally sets everything free is shown below:

The young man you'll see at the beginning of the clip is Thomas-Builds-the-Fire who serves the role of the Native American storyteller and is also the narrator in the film. His voiceover is part of a piece by Dick Lourie entitled "Forgiving Our Fathers." The young man on the bridge scattering his father's ashes is Victor.

Take a look at the included clip but, more importantly, rent this film - it'll be well worth your time and, as sons and daughters, we've all had parental issues (even those of you who won't admit it) that, while not as extreme as Victor's, need forgiving.

As I stated earlier, my nephew Paul will be turning 40 next month and still has ongoing issues with letting go of his pain and anger at his father. I think I'll send him a copy of "Smoke Signals" - if he watches it with his heart it just may be the best present anyone will ever give him.