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I am very protective of my son’s experience of my childhood. When he stumbles across some detail that was shocking, formative, or pivotal to how I related to stories and how they relate to the world I do as subtle a dance as I am capable between revelation and obfuscation. I recognize that this is futile. I do it nonetheless. This was  made abundantly clear to me recently on an evening walk.

My son collects sticks. He thinks they are for his grandfather’s fireplace. The fact that it is in the 100s and humid and the family would collectively strangle his grandfather if he tried to build a fire doesn’t dissuade the collection at all. One might think that, being in Brooklyn, stick collecting might be difficult. One would be wrong. We live near a park that apparently has sticks flown in from all over the Tri-state area. After recent wind and rain storms the sticks on the ground are outnumbered only by the number of sticks in my son’s arms as he screams that they are for grandpa for the fireplace and no he doesn’t care that it’s blisteringly hot, that strangers are grasping our ankles while gasping “water” in death-ridden rattles, that we won’t be seeing grandpa for at least a month.

Normally, I allow him to bring home a stick or two which we then place in a basket for “safe keeping.” The basket then gets emptied a few sticks at a time while certain parties are asleep. (I will be in serious trouble if my son learns to read and finds this essay, so please, no one tell him about this post until he is old enough to handle the truth or I am armed, whichever comes first.) Normally, that’s what we do. However, he recently found the most excellent “Yoda’s Cane” stick I have ever seen. I not only allowed its retention, I actively encouraged it. My wife shook her head with the same sad acceptance of me that she used when I suggested a spot on the wall where we might hang my STAR WARS U.S. postage stamps. They are framed.

While I was the one to suggest that the stick looked like Yoda’s cane, he was quick to agree with me. He has not seen the films, but has seen some of the cartoons. He has a novice’s understanding of Star Wars, The Force, Death Stars and banthas. When subjects such as this come up, questions follow. I give answers both complete and incomplete. This day, as we walked through the muggy evening, he asked me about Yoda. Why does he use a cane? Why does he live in a swamp? Why is he old?

Finally, he stumped me. “Does Yoda die in the movie?” I realized he already knew. My first thought was, “Who told him? Some ‘friend’ at school?” The word “friend” actually floated in my head in quotes, as if talking about spaceships and lasers should be off-limits to five-year-old boys, off-limits until I’m ready to show my son stories that captured me when I was six.

I behave as if artifacts of my youth must be maintained, as if his discovery of them in the wrong way will diminish them. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory comes before Great Glass Elevator. Winnie the Pooh is read in Pooh’s voice (the best imitation of Sterling Holloway I can manage, a difficult task given the man’s effortless, dreamy, depth). Anakin-is-Luke’s-father-is-Vader-is-killed-is-redeemed-kills-Obi-Wan-is-Yoda’s-student-is-Luke’s-teacher-in-secret must not be discovered.

Here he had discovered something, and not just any bland detail of a B or C level childhood element (does it really matter if he figures out that Flynn goes into the computer in TRON? Well, yes, of course it matters, it matters a very great deal, but not as much as Yoda’s death. In the hierarchy of geekdom there are truths and there are Truths. This was the latter). I struggled for just a moment with the idea of lying, flat out “no”-ing it away.

“Well, I’m not sure. We’ll find out when you’re older and we watch the movies.” I patted myself on the back.

The pat was premature.

“Tommy said he dies. He said he dies and Obi-Wan dies and Vader is Luke’s father.”

I almost enacted a Kirk-like “Tommy!” scream from deep within my proverbial asteroid tomb, buried alive in the cave of my childhood’s secrets. Instead, I took the mature approach: I silently cursed Tommy to a pit in Hell and took a breath.

My son was casual in his question, in his discussion of these character’s deaths, in his curiosity about their relationships. I looked at him and in a sad and sudden flash realized that to him this was only information. These characters might mean something to him someday, something wonderful and exciting and dramatic, or, just as possible, they will simply be something that his Dad loves and so he enjoys it because it’s something we can enjoy together. Worse, maybe he won’t enjoy them at all (someone please remove the spear from my side, thank you). Surprises and shocks in storytelling can only really be that for those who consume them at the forefront. Keeping oneself in the dark on the details, especially after decades have passed (God, I am old) is useless and no fun. (Fun fact: I was the boy who walked from EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and excitedly yelled to my mother, “Vader isn’t really Luke’s father, is he?” We were walking past the line of people waiting to buy tickets, people that groaned and swore at me as if I were their Tommy. (Bonus Fun Fact: I recreated this exact scenario after WRATH OF KHAN, simply replace the Vader phrase with, “I can’t believe Spock died to save the ship!” A college-aged man threatened physical pain, swear to God, and my Mother rushed me to the car. There may have been torches and pitchforks.))

So, why so protective, why so certain that I must keep information from my son until he can experience it “first hand,” experience it, in short, as I had? Because those things had meaning for me, they felt not only important but real. They were the images my childhood language aspired to convey. I wanted us to have those same visions. I wanted his childhood language to be like mine. Yet, I am slowly learning to let go. As we walked from the park, my son doing a remarkable impression of Yoda on the cane, I took a breath and I said, “Yes, he does, but it’s not horrible. He dies because he’s so old and he’s done teaching Luke how to be a Jedi.” This prompted questions about Luke and the Jedi and Death Stars and we had a lovely walk home.

Days later, leaving a theater after watching Toy Story 3, I realized that my son has his own discoveries. On the way home from the film he excitedly reminded me that in Toy Story 2 it was revealed that Zurg is Buzz Lightyear’s father. Missing was any recognition that this was a Star Wars joke, that the joke was for me and not for him. Growing was my realization that it’s always been that way. It’s why people create new works that steal and remake and improve upon what came before. My son will have his own heros and discoveries. They might be like mine, or they, more likely, will be stories being written now. One’s that don’t yet exist. If that’s not a fantastic reason to create something new then why bother creating? We are the crashing wave of culture. We are the newness that awakens other’s need to protect the discoveries of their childhood. We write tomorrow’s spoilers. We write to recapture that surprise in ourselves, to control that piece of culture that shocked us as children. Someone, right now, is making that thing that will give my son’s childhood language.

Still, it can be hard work remembering that my son’s childhood discoveries will be his, that they will be unrecognizable to me. Part of me still clings to the details that have value for me. For him to unearth artifacts of my childhood isn’t wrong. Those details are already out there, spilled by those who can’t help but share the details. I have forgiven Tommy. I had to. I was the one who ruined Spock’s death. I, too, was the one who released Luke’s paternity upon the world.

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Sean Ferrell SEAN FERRELL is the author of Man in the Empty Suit (Soho Press, 2013) and Numb (HarperPerennial, August 2010). His short fiction has appeared in The Cafe Irreal and won the Fulton Prize from The Adirondack review. He lives and works, in no particular order, in New York City. You can find him online at www.seanferrell.com

19 Responses to “Dead, I Am.”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Oh dear. Me too.
    I remember being in the U.K when ‘Empire Strikes Back’ was released and the shock of Vader being Luke’s father prompted me to run out and buy ten postcards on all of which I wrote the same message.
    ‘Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s Father.’ I then posted them back to NZ to ten of my friends. Given that in those days it took months and months for new release films to make it to the shores of NZ, I’m pretty certain I ruined at least a dozen kids’ movie going experiences.
    Ah. But it felt so good to spoil the surprise…

  2. Jude says:

    And Santa still lives on… amazingly so. Until some rotten little kid comes along to spoil it and spill the beans! I’m never quite sure who is the most disappointed when the truth comes out – the child or the parents. I suspect it’s the parents.

  3. There are three movies I feel this way about; movies that brought me laughter and tears and enlightenment as a child. As I’ve forced a younger generation to sit through them, I’m nearly always disappointed at how little they laugh, or appreciate the sarcastic humor in Tommy Boy – they’ve been weaned on the obvious, loud humor of Will Ferrell. It astounds me when they think When Harry Met Sally is boring – how can the most ingenious dialogue ever written for the screen be boring? Just because crap isn’t blowing up, it’s not a good movie? Last, but not least, It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s in black and white. It’s long. It’s about traditional values, and heaven, and treating the people you meet every day with dignity and respect. I cry, without fail, every time I watch it. The teenagers I’ve watched it with fall asleep, without fail, every time.

    It saddens me. These are the films and writing that made me love movies, caused me to understand the impact simple storytelling can have on a person’s life. I really loved your story about your son, Star Wars, and Toy Story 3. It reminds me that, with any luck, there will be new stories that capture kids minds, teach them lessons, and expand their horizons. The important thing is that the wonder and excitement trickles down to a new generation, not that they have an experience identical to my own.

    Thanks. It’s a good reminder. :)

  4. Gloria says:

    Sticks and little boys. I wonder if this is an inborn thing. I was walking with my eight year old sons two nights ago. One of them had a stick, which he was using as a wand (pointing at things and saying, “Leviosa!” etc.) As we were walking, I saw a family playing nearby. They had two kids. One of them was a very little boy, just barely walking – and he had a stick, too. The little boy and my son just sort of looked at each other and gave one another a knowing nod, the way bus drivers or motorcycle riders do when they pass one another. It’s a thing.

    I totally understand the need to prevent your kids from learning things out of order. The boys and I are currently reading the Harry Potter books. We’re on book three. I only have the boys every other week and we read a chapter a night. The boys have seen all the movies that have been released to date and I am in a mad rush to get these books read before the final installment comes out. The can not learn (SPOILER ALERT!) that Dumbledore and one of the Weasley twins (and others) die or that Snape was a good guy all along before I finish reading the books. They have to hear all of this from the story on the page! Not the movie! The second installment of the last movie comes out in a year. If figure I can get all the books read by then. I have to!

  5. Patty Blount says:

    Three things came to mind while I read this. First, you are my candidate for dad of the year. Truly. You bring tears to my eyes with these glimpses of your little guy’s childhood. Second, we have the same tastes in movies. In fact, Empire Strikes Back was my first date with the man I later married. I was fourteen. And third, never see movies in Brooklyn – just in case you happen to be walking out as I’m walking in. (You didn’t see The Crying Game??)

    Aside to Gloria – I read the first 3 or 4 Harry Potter’s out loud to my youngest; he took over from there. He’s 15 now and last night, told me he thinks they’re destined to be assigned reading in his kids’ English classes.

    Wouldn’t that be something? I’d be happy to be published, but could you imagine writing a CLASSIC, or as Sean said, the stories that are being written now.

    Great, great stuff here.

    • Gloria says:

      I hope, hope, hope that I’m still reading to my boys when they’re fifteen. I may have to strap them down, but I’m willing to do so.

  6. dwoz says:

    Whatever you do, DON’T tell your little tyke about the twist in “The Crying Game.”

  7. Dana says:

    Enjoyed this Sean, especially the last paragraph.

  8. Harley May says:

    This essay, and your geekness, are perfect.

    I think what I love most about being a parent is watching my children have adventures. I see what makes the light in their eyes shine and know that moment will be with them the rest of their lives.

    Great all around. Thanks

  9. angela says:

    Darth Vader was Luke’s father?!?!?!

    just kidding.

    my friend ruined Thelma and Louise for me by casually referring to their (SPOILER ALERT) suicide jump at the end.

    • Gloria says:

      The whole (SPOILER ALERT!) thing is totally polite. You’re a kind lady, Angela.

      My daughter had THE WORST habit of telling what happened in movies she’d already seen. She couldn’t help herself. It was like a tic. It was really annoying.

      • angela says:

        i totally followed your lead! :)

        i hate it when people give away endings. i also hate reading stuff “by mistake” before i’ve had the chance to watch a show or movie.

  10. Joe Daly says:

    What a fun read. You made me tap into my inner sci-fi geek, which I was not ready to do this morning.

    My most vivid memory of Star Wars was when my father had talked it up a bit, and he was clearly excited to take me to see it, thus making me doubly thrilled for the experience. This was, of course, when it was first released in the theaters- I was 9 years old. I ran from the kitchen, out of the house, and into the front seat of the car to wait for him. He followed, got in the car, threw it into reverse, and then we heard the “THUMP THUMP THUMP.”

    You guessed it- flat tire. No “Star Wars” that day. I had to wait an excruciatingly long week to finally see it. I’m pretty sure all was forgotten when I finally saw the flick.

    As a single guy with no kids, I think it’s a testament to your style that I found myself really attached to the bond you have with your son. Thanks for a great read.

  11. Simon Smithson says:

    I have a certain asshole friend who, for as long as I can remember, ruins the ending of films, especially if it’s a twist.

    His logic (read: assfaced reasoning) for this is that if the whole film hinges on a single plot point, then it can’t be a very good film.

    Idiot.

    Star Wars, man. It’s a cultural institution. And some discoveries have to be made for oneself.

  12. Irene Zion says:

    This line just about broke my heart, Sean.

    “Still, it can be hard work remembering that my son’s childhood discoveries will be his, that they will be unrecognizable to me. Part of me still clings to the details that have value for me”

    I feel the same way with my kids.

  13. [...] week, though, you all out-did yourselves. Sean Ferrell’s sweeter-than-sweet essay on how he protects his little son’s experience of Sean’s own childhood memories was so [...]

  14. Marni Grossman says:

    Oh, Sean. You sound like a wonderful father. And funny, too! (“We live near a park that apparently has sticks flown in from all over the Tri-state area. “) Your son is a lucky boy.

  15. [...] week, though, you all out-did yourselves. Sean Ferrell’s sweeter-than-sweet essay on how he protects his little son’s experience of Sean’s own childhood memories was so [...]

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