This was the emphatic request of the poor fellow sitting to my right at a never-well-lit Upper East Side bar two Saturdays ago, five hours after I found out my father had died suddenly from a heart attack the night before. After a few hours of doing nothing at our apartment (other than repeating to anyone who would listen that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do; no one really had an answer for me), my girlfriend convinced me to leave. And we settled on this particular bar because of the aforementioned lighting situation and that they play movies on their television screens rather than the sports that litter most of the taverns in this particular area of New York City.
Now, I need to preface this by saying that, in retrospect, I find this upcoming story pretty funny. At least, the optics are pretty funny to anyone who happened to be an outside observer. As it happened, the bar was playing Return of the Jedi, a movie I’ve seen far too many times to count. When we arrived, if I remember correctly, the movie was already to the part when C-3PO is explaining to the Ewoks everything that had happened in the prior movies up until they all arrived on Endor – as the Ewoks all sit there and get stoned, or whatever it is they do when they are not busy fucking up movies.
Up until this point, I hadn’t had much of an emotional reaction to my dad dying. It didn’t seem real. He hadn’t been sick. I had just spoken to him two days before. In fact, I wasn’t entirely convinced that I wasn’t dreaming. Back when Inception came out, I read a lot of nonsense about how to have lucid dreams. One of the tests to decipher if an experience is dream or reality is to read a couple sentences of something, then turn away from it, then read it again. In a dream, the text will always be different. And this, surprisingly, actually does work when you’re dreaming. I tried this test on myself about ten times that morning and, no, I wasn’t.
Anyway, I wasn’t actively paying attention to Return of the Jedi, but I happened to glance up right when Luke Skywalker was trying to help Darth Vader escape the about-to-explode second Death Star. Also at this moment, The Byrds’ version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” started playing on the bar’s speaker system. It was the perfect storm of nostalgic sorrow. So when Vader tells Luke that he for once wants to see Luke with his own eyes, I lost it. I was actively sobbing at the bar while watching Return of the Jedi. This was the first time of many times I would cry about my dad over the upcoming two weeks.
At this point, I just imagine the camera panning out to reveal a stranger sitting next to me, uncomfortably – wondering why this person next to him thought Return of the Jedi was just so sad. I now imagine this person telling his friends about the guy sitting next to him at a bar on a drizzly Saturday afternoon who, I’m sure, thinks I had never seen Return of the Jedi and just thought it was the saddest thing. “Wait, this is how it all ends! Why? Why?!?! [starts crying].”
I’m not going to pretend my dad introduced me to popular culture. If anything, it was the opposite. When I was a kid, he liked country music and that’s all I really knew until around 1983 when I first heard songs off Michael Jackson’s Thriller and realized, “Oh, this is much better.” My dad didn’t enjoy the movies that I did. When he was picking movies, we saw movies like Every Which Way You Can. He took me to see The Empire Strikes Back, which I now realize was either an act of love or an act of surrender, probably a combination of both. He didn’t understand it, but he knew his five-year-old son loved it. And, yes, I’ll never forget that he fell asleep during Ghostbusters. But he always took me. When the local paper told us that it was the last weekend we could see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom before it was replaced in theaters by Cannonball Run II (this used to be a thing), he made sure I saw it (even though I have no doubt he’d much rather have seen Cannonball Run II). He was a country boy and he wanted me to be like him so bad, but I was a future city boy who didn’t like hunting or fishing or camping or any of those things that you’re supposed to like when you spend your childhood in Eldon, Missouri – population 4000 or so, give or take a couple of hundred.
What I did like was watching television, playing video games, and watching movies. I loved Star Wars and G.I. Joe and Transformers. My dad was the life of the party. I was an introvert who always felt awkward, and especially awkward around my father. I always took our relationship as “not exactly what he wanted.” I don’t mean that in a harsh way, but I’m pretty sure it is true. I knew he loved me, but I also knew he wanted a fishing buddy and I was never going to be that. And as his only child, he was never going to have what he had hoped from a son. I can still hear him saying, “You’re wasting your time sitting in front of that damn television all day.” (In later years I would remind him of this and let him know that he turned out to be incorrect.)
My father was not in favor of me moving to New York City in 2004, yet he still helped me move. This seems to be a repeating pattern over the course of our relationship. My dad, actively against what I wanted to do, yet supported me with the heavy lifting (literally, in this case). And he was certainly not in favor of me pursuing this whole “writing thing,” as he used to say. And he was probably right, to be honest. At that point in my life, heading into my 30s, I had never really given him any indication that I could succeed in anything really. So the idea of me quitting a day job to write about popular culture on the internet, to him, was insane.
At one point, in mid-2009 when I was doing really poorly financially and was going into debt in an effort to just stay in New York, he asked me to move back home. He told me there was a room waiting for me until I got back on my feet. In retrospect, I know this was an act of love and he hated seeing me struggle and I think he liked the idea of me moving back to Missouri, but I was furious. “Don’t you think this whole New York experiment has run its course?,” he asked me. After this, pretty much the entire basis of my career was emotionally devoted to, at the same time, trying to both impress and spite my father. It was also around this time he stopped visiting me here. Until the day he died, I wasn’t sure what he thought of what I was doing for a living.
About a week ago, I was talking to Judy, my dad’s significant other of the last 25 years or so, the same person who called me two Saturdays ago to tell me he was, just like that, gone. She asked about my uncle, who I had spoken to the day before for the first time in maybe 20 years. I told her, “I get the feeling my uncle thinks I’m a drifter in some 1970s gritty version of New York City.” She responded, “Oh, that’s not true, your dad made it very clear to everyone how successful he thinks you are.”
In our last conversation, two days before he died, he asked if I could come see him during the holidays. He even offered to pay for the flight. The weekend he suggested, I told him I had to work. I asked him if he could come here, but he couldn’t because they had just built a new house. He then asked what my girlfriend wanted for Christmas, I told him I’d find out. And that was it. Then he was gone. Literally our last conversation was me telling him I couldn’t get away to see him. I have no idea how I’m ever supposed to reconcile with that, but that’s the way it goes.
There was no funeral, he made it clear he didn’t want one. So with no funeral and with no siblings, I do feel very much alone with this. Friends have been great, but most people never know what to say. (I swear, I could write a book at this point, “What to Say to Your Friend With No Siblings Who Just Suddenly Lost a Parent.” The “sending thoughts for you and your family” line, which a surprising amount of people say, is the one that I probably have the hardest time with because it’s like, “Oh, yes, them, I’ll be sure to pass that along.” But I know people are just trying their best to be nice.)
This past June, after a ten-year hiatus, my dad came to visit for a couple of days. The morning he was leaving, I asked if he wanted to get breakfast, just him and me, which is a very unusual thing for me to do. We met at a local bagel shop down the street from my apartment. After breakfast, the ride he was catching back home was a few avenues away and I mentioned he could take the New York City bus, which he had never done before in his life and seemed curious about this mini adventure. But as the bus pulled up, he looked at me and he started weeping. I chose to pretend he wasn’t crying right in front of me. As I watched the bus drive away, something told me that would be the last time I ever saw my father. I don’t know why I thought that, but somehow I knew. And now the most important figure in my life is, all of a sudden, gone. And, still, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.
I do know I probably won’t be watching Return of the Jedi again anytime soon. At least not in public.
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