These are formative moments— moments that contributed to the everything that I am. This is a history of me, and a history of him. It might be the hardest thing I’ve ever written.
Let’s start at the beginning.
When I think of my father I think of Terminator 2. Dad had no idea what the movie was about and didn’t even speak English at the time. His friend said I’d probably enjoy it, lent him the VHS, and that was good enough for my dad. I was eight years old and my father looked entirely uncomfortable as the movie started off with a sweaty and naked Arnold Schwarzenegger. By the end we were both in tears over the T-800 giving the thumbs up and sacrificing himself.
Terminator 2, for those unaware, is one of the most perfect movies ever. It is just the right mix of action, humor, and earnest feeling. Forgiving time paradoxes and predestination, it’s just a story about a kid growing up. John Connor connects with the T-800 because he’s never had a father and he teaches it what it means to feel and to be human. It’s absolutely heartbreaking when they have to part.
Every year since, I’ve thought my dad resembled the T-800 more and more. Because that was my dad in a lot of ways— a stoic man who finds it hard to express himself but always well-meaning in the end.
I can’t bring myself to watch that movie these days.
When I was young my father would take me to the park every weekend to play basketball. I always hated that. I was lousy at basketball and all I wanted to do on the weekend was wake up late and play video games. But he pulled me out of bed every Saturday morning anyway and drove me to the basketball court. I didn’t get it at the time. Kids rarely get anything and always think their parents are wrong about everything. Then kids grow up and realize how stupid they used to be.
My dad never said he loved me. But I never questioned that he did. That was just his way. If I’ve inherited anything from him it’s a weakness for words. I find it hard, at times, to convey the entirety of what I feel. Of course it’s difficult for the mouth to speak for the heart. Actions always speak louder and his actions seem so obvious in retrospect. He wanted to spend time with his son while he could, in the limited fashion that he knew. When he started having to work weekends, I suddenly missed being terrible at sports.
When it was still a regular occurrence, the basketball was always followed by a lot of reading. That was the silver lining in it all— the library was right next to the park and while I wasn’t very athletic, I was an avid reader. In the early years, it was books about science, with diagrams and pictures for kids to understand. I wanted to know everything there was to know about the earth. I grew up a bit and the earth wasn’t as interesting any more so I read about other worlds. I lost myself in the fantasy of Hogwarts, and Narnia, and Middle Earth.
My parents liked it. By all indicators I was a gifted young student. I was doing well in all my classes. I was engaged in productive outside activities. I was reading nonstop and always bugged them for new books.
And then I fell in love.
It was lunch time on the yard. I was eleven years old. I saw my friend doodling away in his notebook and in my arrogance I thought to myself that I could do better. I tried. I couldn’t. Nothing has ever motivated me more than having my ego shattered.
When I was twelve I took an art class during an afterschool program. The teacher, Daniel, was a talented young cartoonist, fresh out of college, and eager to work with youth. It occurs to me now that I have become Daniel, minus the beard, French caps, and a large degree of his talent. I was Daniel’s favorite student because I actually spent the hour drawing instead of milling around with friends. I wasn’t much of a talker then. That old weakness for words.
Daniel took it upon himself to get me to open up. I told him what movies I liked, what kind of books I read, and that I wanted to draw like him. Sometime later he placed a big book in front of me and asked me to tell him what I thought of it next week. It had a striking cover— a big smiley face, specked with a dash of blood and the title in big bold letters: Watchmen. I read it all that night. It was the first comic book I’d ever read and it was like I had stepped through the wardrobe into another world. I liked to write. I liked to draw. Comic books seemed so obvious.
It was the little things that got me. The way a scene can be set with no words, just a picture and some colors. The minute visual details that aren’t apparent until a second reading. The difference in pacing and the importance of composition. The juxtaposition of a speech bubble and a thought bubble, one betraying the other. Big panels, small panels, no panels. It was an open canvas, free for experimentation. Even now I don’t think the medium has reached its potential.
That weekend I went back to the library, on my own this time. I read all the comic books they had to offer. I was introduced to Shakespeare via Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I learned about folklore from Hellboy. A lesser known work called The Coffin blew my mind with its musings on the nature of the soul. And in between I read the superhero pulps, the real whimsical stuff that reminded me that behind it all it’s about having fun. Stuff like the X-Men shooting the living island Krakoa into space by reversing the magnetic poles, because yeah that’s how science works. I would know. I read books with diagrams when I was a kid.
The drawing led me to comic books. The comic books influenced my drawing. I was drawing nonstop then. My family had bought a stack of notebooks for my sister and I to use in class. I burned through half the pile with just doodles and drawings. By whatever windfall, this time coincided with a sharp decline in my academics. Across the board my grades were dropping. I almost failed math twice. My parents weren’t happy. They blamed it on the video games, the comic books, the constant doodling. They were probably right, as usual. Dad asked me what was going on, he said I loved math. He was wrong. Comic books were my first love. They’ve broken my heart many times over and I’ll always crawl back to them.
By the time I was in high school my grades were better. But I never wanted to be academic again. I wanted to write the next great American novel. I wanted to direct a blockbuster film. I wanted to be a renowned artist. I used to want a lot. Some dreams are just that.
There was this one day. I was locked up in my room, feverishly drawing away on another notebook. It was a drawing of some monster or whatever. Utter dredge. Dad had stepped in and was watching quietly over my shoulder and said that it was actually pretty good. He said maybe I should go to art school, if that’s what I wanted. I never did end up going to art school, but it still meant a lot that he was okay with me pursuing it further and that he understood how important it all was to me.
I remember visiting home from college a few years ago. I had recently changed majors and felt completely lost. I was out shopping with my dad and we bumped into a family friend who asked what I was studying and what I was going to do after graduating. As I struggled to answer what I wanted to do with my life, my dad stepped in and said whatever it was, he was sure it would be alright.
Everything would be alright.
Two years ago I read this amazing comic book called I Kill Giants. It was the most intense feeling I’d had reading a comic book in a long time. The short of it is that it’s about a girl who fantasizes about— you guessed it— killing giants. Eventually it becomes apparent that her adventures were her way of coping with the reality that her mother was on her deathbed. Reading those final pages of young Barbara Thorson confronting her giant and accepting the inevitability of loss devastated me.
It was only a few months prior that my dad had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. You can probably see where this is going by now. I felt an overwhelming sense of emptiness at the end of the book. It was a cathartic reaction to a pain yet unfelt. I read and watched a lot of things along those lines at the time. I thought that would make it easier when the end came.
Rest in peace dad.