It makes me a little wary to get life lessons from Star Wars movies. But it’s also hard to ignore the impact they’ve had on my life and the strange timing in which they pop up. The Empire Strikes Back was the first movie my parents ever took me to as a little kid. On the day my father died suddenly last November, I went to a bar that was randomly playing Return of the Jedi, which resulted in me openly sobbing in public during the final scene with Luke and Vader. (I still can’t help to find the humor in this from a random onlooker’s perspective. “Man, that guy is really into Return of the Jedi.) And then the first movie I saw in theaters after his death was The Last Jedi, a movie that was desperately trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t see that then. I do now. It is this: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”
Allow me to explain…
This past weekend I went back to home to Missouri for the first time since my dad died. He didn’t want a funeral, so there’s never been a specific reason to go back, so days and weeks of putting this off stretched out into months. And I had been putting this off because I didn’t know if in the end it would make me feel better or worse. I had kind of looked at going back home as a last ditch effort and, if it didn’t work, well then I’m all out of options. And, frankly, that was scary.
When I flew to St. Louis last Thursday, I hadn’t even told that many people I was coming. I was going to wing it – just see what happens. Maybe revisit some places that meant something to me as a child and see if that somehow served as comfort now. In other words: I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
On Friday morning, I rented a car. I was just going to drive and see where I wound up. This seemed appealing for a few reasons, but with living in New York, I hadn’t driven a car in over a year and a half so the idea of “hitting the open road” seemed like a whole lot of fun. I even sprung for the satellite radio package. (I haven’t owned a car since 2004, but living with satellite radio for four days was the first time I missed it. Also: I heard a lot more Adam Ant than I was expecting.)
Eventually, I found myself in a town called Eldon, Missouri, which is where I spent my years between second and sixth grade – which are probably the prime childhood years. Here’s the thing: being there again made me feel bad. Like borderline awful. Driving around, at first I did that thing where I’m like, “Oh, that’s the grocery store where we bought my dog some food for the first time after finding her as a stray. Wow, it looks the same!” And then I started noticing everything looked the same, only older and grimier. I drove through the Main Street area and it was all but deserted.
Memories of people shopping at the corner Ben Franklin’s and all of the mom and pop stores that used to line this street were all gone. The newsstand my dad used to take me to buy comic books and look through endless boxes of back issues had been replaced by another store that now also looked closed. I felt like I was looking at ghosts. I was basically living inside the Bruce Springsteen song, “My Hometown.” I sat there in my rented car, trying to feel something. I even put on the ‘80s station! Eventually I just got bored and started playing Pokémon Go. (Yes, I still play. It’s fun.)
I drove past our old house and when I did my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I convinced myself to still go up to the door in a, “Well, you’re here“ way. Now, I know, this is a controversial plan. I guess the hope was they’d invite me in and it would spark some kind of memory. But by the time I got there I already realized that was dumb. I ran it by a few people and about half said things like, “I did this once and it was great! It’s the Midwest, they will totally invite you in.” The other half said, “That is dumb.” While standing outside the front door of my childhood home, I found myself relieved no one answered when I rang the doorbell. I just felt stupid. I then drove around the neighborhood and it looked the same, just a little bit worse. That seemed to be a theme of this trip.
After that, I then drove the short trip to Lake of the Ozarks, where we spent many summer weekends. (You may know this place best from the television series Ozark, a show that I’ve never watched and isn’t even filmed there. But from the parts I’ve seen through clips and photos, I can now confirm it’s not near shitty looking enough to accurately capture what most areas surrounding that lake look like.) Anyway, my experience near the lake was pretty much just a loop of these four things played over and over: I get out of the car; the 96-degree heat and humidity hit me; a wasp flies in my face; I get back in the car.
(I should add, this was my first time back in Missouri since Trump became president. The billboards that line Interstate 70 have always been obnoxious, but they are at a new level now. My favorite one was a billboard that read, “Are You Prepared For The Reckoning?” with a picture of Trump and fire behind him like he’s judging us on our way to Hell. Actually, maybe this is true. And I know this could be read as either pro or anti-Trump, but whoever paid for this billboard I’m certain is a fan of our 45th President.)
The next day I was back in St. Louis. I found myself near the neighborhood where we lived before the house I tried to visit the day before. Against my better judgment, I drove by it and the front door was open, so I knew someone was home. I still don’t know why I went to the door after how stupid I felt the day before, but I did. And it got worse. I rang the bell and a man looking around 70 years old answered the door. (I’m now picturing him reading this then saying out loud, “Dude, I’m 47.”) Anyway, here’s how that conversation went:
Me: “Hello. This is weird. I used to live here when I was a little kid.”
Me: “I live in New York now and I’m in town because my dad died and I was just wondering who lived here now.”
Him: “Okay. That’s me.” [Also, at this point, two incredibly loud dogs approach the door.]
Me: “So, uhh, that window right here, that was my room!”
Him: “Well it’s my room now.”
Me: “You don’t use the master bedroom?”
The Dogs: “Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark!”
Me: “Well, okay, that’s it. Thanks for your time.”
Him: “My condolences.”
The Dogs: ““Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark!”
The Last Jedi’s whole mantra was basically a rebuke of what came before, which has been evaluated at length many times by this point. The past isn’t what you thought it was and trying to go back there is foolhardy. But the funny thing is, going back did help. At least in the sense that it helped me realize how stupid it was to visit all of these places and try to recapture some essence of what I lost last November. And I learned that the person you thought someone was maybe wasn’t entirety who they said they were. Maybe that person you’ve felt so bad about missing purposefully left some parts out of the narrative that changes the way you think about him forever. Going back was stupid, but I also had to go back to learn the truth about going back. I had to go back to learn that I need to let the past die.
Kill it if you have to.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.