In this life, I have been blessed by the love of my parents. They raised me in a small house from an old neighborhood, and though we never had very much in terms of money or possessions, we made up for any deficient in the love we shared. My dad, Bernie, has always been the kind of guy who teaches lessons with an open heart. When I was young, he’d come home from work after fourteen hour days (he was a site manager for a construction firm) and sit with me as I got ready for bed. Any question that I had in mind was fair game, and worth a level-headed answer. He’d tell me stories from his youth a thousand times (more than I would ever ask for), but always give them the spirit they deserved. He always admitted what he didn’t know, and encouraged me to seek them out for myself. “Always protect your brain,” he’d say, like a prayer, a mantra, before I’d leave for a high school party, before just about anything. The mind was the seat of the soul, the wellspring of knowledge, humor, and art. All the things my father loved that he’d never been told were open to him.
I looked up to my dad in a lot of ways. He was always popular, able to ingratiate himself to strangers in a room through his charm and wit. He knew the right stories to tell, what the vibe of the room was, what was needed to make people happy and how to do it. For a shy kid like me, it was a skill set something close to magic. He lived his life like a comedian, or rather, a character in the movies that he loved. The man gardens with a flamethrower, built his own go-kart out of junkyard scraps, and ran for town council but was forced out after an on-mic joke about our town’s propensity for politicians with last names ending in an I or an O. The man is a walking Coen brothers script in action. I loved that he was legendary among my friends, but I loved the man he was beneath the stories even more.
When I was a teenager, my father was driving when his car veered off the road and collided head-on with a parked car. The accident was a blessing in disguise, drawing immediate attention and getting him rushed to the hospital. But thankfully, that wasn’t how he’d die. If he hadn’t totaled that stranger’s car, the stroke that no one could see coming might have stopped him for good. Instead, he lived, but in a way, fundamentally changed.
He came home after weeks of healing barely able to speak. Sentences could take him minutes to compose (if he could muster up the patience), as the simplest of words and phrases became obstacles. Furious with the limitations of his mind, his temper skyrocketed. His entire soul had been reset and silenced, and nothing he could do could change that.
I was happy to have him alive, more than anything. My father was my hero, in the simplest and deepest understanding of the word. But as thankful as I was to have him still in my life, I feared that what I loved most within him was gone. And I know he feared that, too. It was a strange state of living, for him and all of us.
It was around this time that I found Big Fish. I was expecting a beautiful story, something to give me hope, to guide me. Instead, it felt like I was watching my own heart pinned out on screen for the world to see. I understood the tension between the elder and the younger Bloom so well. That desire to know the truth between the stories that you’ve heard a hundred times before, of the intimacy and the distance of a hero for a father, and all that that entails.
No movie ever made me cry so hard. Just hearing that final ten-minute suite destroys me in a way that almost no song can. It’s not just that the end is sad, that the parallels are there for me to see myself. It’s the hope the strings provide that make it special. It’s that walk into the river that makes the ending of Big Fish feel so full of life. Iit made me feel something that I’d been looking for, something I needed to carry on. I needed to find my place beside the father I remembered and the father I had now before me. The joys of stories of family and love are in bypassing the walls between us, in putting our lives in a greater, beautiful kind of context. It preserves what was beautiful and what was true in the tapestry of things, so others can know what we have known, and can feel what we have felt. It saves us.
At some point, every story that I write and every thought and vision that I share is shaped by the life my father gave me. The pains of yesterday have passed, and my father’s grown so much closer to his original whole (he’ll talk for hours on the phone if he gets started,) but the memory of that loss stays with me. I better understand my father, and in everything I do, I try to live up to his example. Not just who he is today, but who he was and who he’s always been. To quote the Blooms, “A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.”