My dad and I have what I tend to think of as a distant, tenuously cordial, relationship. This is an improvement over at least a decade’s worth of animosity. A lot of how I feel about it and the years of tense, sometimes outright hostility between us, are defined by moments in stories that gave me insights I might not have come to on my own.
It’s fitting that this is the way I relate to my father, through stories, because he’s responsible for introducing me to the books and narrative worlds that have shaped my life the most. My dad is the one who read me The Hobbit when I was 5, solidifying my lifelong obsession with Tolkien. My dad is the one who brought home manga for me and my brother from Japan, all in Japanese, as my first introduction to the magic of words and pictures. My dad is the one who took me to the comics shop and let me pick out my own books starting when I was ten or eleven. My dad is the one who let me watch Raiders of The Lost Ark and 7 Samurai and Star Wars and Monty Python when I was too young to “get” a lot of what was going on, but still deeply influenced my outlook on the world.
We don’t talk a lot, me and my dad. I Skype with my mom pretty regularly and he’ll pop in to say hi, but it’s always a little awkward. A little rushed. When we do talk, it’s not about what’s going on in my life or his. We talk about stories because for us they are safe and meaningful and keep us from touching on old hurts and current regrets.
One of my favorite films, that my father first let me watch when I was probably 7 or 8, was Stand By Me. I didn’t know it then, but it was my first exposure to the work of Stephen King, an author whose storytelling I would come to love, admire, and find both inspirational and heart wrenching over the years. Even though I was too young to fully grasp all of the themes and relationships in that film, it stuck with me, and became a frequent re-watch and top film recommendation.
I my 20’s, during a particularly rough patch with my father when I didn’t speak to him for about 6 months, I re-watched Stand By Me as a kind of comfort blanket. It was like visiting old friends you haven’t seen in awhile and staying up late at night to have the kind of conversations that only happen past 1am.
I was watching the scene toward the end, when Geordie is finally breaking down about his brother and his father. His best friend is comforting him with a wisdom and compassion we rarely get to see boys express, when a line from the Chris character hit me like the train hit Ray Brauer in the film, knocking the breath and life out of me for a moment.
“Your father doesn’t hate you. He just doesn’t know you.”
I’d heard this line hundreds of times before. Heard it, but not understood it. Heard it, but not really felt it. Until that moment, in those set of circumstances, I don’t think I could have really grasped the depth and importance of that set of words. Something angry, frustrated, and deeply hurt inside me let go a little that day. I understood my father in a way I hadn’t before and finally grasped something important about our relationship and the guilt and sadness I’d been carrying around about it since adolescence. Until that moment I don’t know that I’d really let myself realize that I honestly thought my father hated me and that it was my fault. Only it wasn’t, he just doesn’t know me.
That line changed the way I thought about my relationship with my father and helped me move past some things that had been eating away at me for a long time. It didn't fix our relationship, that's not something that can be fixed like that. It simply allowed me to see, clearly, something that had previously been buried in emotional fog.
It baffles me sometimes how my dad and I, with so many stories in common, can be so little alike in most other ways. I try not to dwell on things that were said in anger or resentment, that exist in a past that there should be enough distance from now to not matter so much. But it lingers. Even when things are forgiven, they don’t disappear. And some things simply aren’t gotten “over”. I’m not even sure it’s about forgiveness at that point, it’s more about acceptance. Accepting who you are, who they are, and that events have shaped you both collectively and separately that there’s no going back from.
It’s bittersweet, thinking and knowing that, because I personally believe life is too short and grudges and anger don’t make it any easier or better. I also think, though, that people sometimes mistake forgiving as forgetting, or as a kind of do-over for things that can’t always be undone. Sometimes relationships can’t be salvaged. Sometimes it's not about it being "good" but about it not being "bad". Sometimes we are distant because the people involved are too different. Sometimes distant is better than none. And with my dad and I, we at least have these stories that give us some kind of common ground.
This, among many other examples, is why I believe stories are powerful, important, transcendent things that human beings take too much for granted. Our ability to tell a story, to connect with others through thoughts that become words that weave into tales is a remarkable, incredible thing. We can reach through time and space with our stories. We can touch the lives of people we will never know and who will never know us.
A story can radically change the trajectory of your life, it can alter the way you think, feel, and imagine what life can be. A story can get you closer to understanding what it’s like to be someone else than almost anything else, and it can show you who you really are. The stories we love live inside us, waiting to be shared. They are a source of comfort, change, and joy in a world full of chaos, pain, and difficulty. We should use that power wisely.