Celebrating Father’s Day: Surrogate Fathers in Pop Culture

No, I am your father.

My father died when I was eight years old.  He died six months after being diagnosed with a tumor in his brain, and it’s simple now to say that my whole world was changed.  That was the same summer that The Lion King came out, and though I was too young to understand that it was based on one of the greatest works of drama that has ever been written, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the subject matter touched me deeply.  I felt that Simba had it easy: Scar was responsible for killing Mufasa, and though he avoided his past for a long time, he was able to convert his grief into action against Scar and triumph.  I wasn’t able to comprehend the breadth of what cancer was enough to turn my sadness and loss into energy against it; I had no scheming uncle to toss upon his own allies, so though I experienced a profound empathy with the character, I also found myself competing with his pain in a way.  The scene that stayed with me was when Rafiki confronted Simba on facing his past and not running from it anymore.  In this way Rafiki became my first Mystic (as an archetype).  The following scene with Mufasa’s spirit brought me little solace and further distanced me from what I felt was a story not quite enough the same as mine.

This led to me seeking out other stories, ones where I could find a grief and perhaps ultimately a purpose that more fully matched my own.  Sci-fi and fantasy works are replete with lost parents or hidden lineage, so between the subject matter itself (I was still all about swords, demons, and lasers.) and the fact that the children in them found ways to overcome what they had lost and become something more or had been touched by destiny, allowed me to have flights of fancy that I was chosen for something great, balanced by moments of isolation from the kids who were more inclined towards sports and the like, or from my remaining family who were not of the nerdy persuasion.  My mom and sister would watch Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman and Touched by an Angel while I would lose myself in Babylon 5 and my Star Wars novels.  My mother found solace in angels and stories of healing, where I sought solace in the depths of space. 

My father had been a big fan of Star Trek, so when The Next Generation took to the air, it became my Star Trek - a connection back to my father and yet something all my own.  I found Captain Picard to be a man of integrity, deep thought, and bravery.  He was the first major character to become a father figure for me, and in his interactions with Wesley Crusher and Data I found life lessons for myself: allowing myself to forgive mistakes I’d made or finding the strength to carry through adversity.  Picard’s awkwardness with children was actually reassuring to me, as I often had a similar feeling with people my own age as well as men in authority roles in my life.  To see such a strong will humbled by so small a foible made him relatable to me and symbolized the first time any child sees their parent as human and not some great, all-knowing being.  This moment came early in my youth and I did not recognize it as such then, as most of us don't see how our lives are moving and changing because we're too busy living them.

Han Solo in the Expanded Universe (EU) novels became another father figure, because the first EU novel I read was Assault at Selonia, where the children of Han and Leia were not much younger than me and were often in the periphery to great events where I was the same in more mundane matters.  This resonance with Han's kids served a dual purpose: These were kids who were strong adventurers and had a father who may not have been "perfect," but always treated them as the top priority.  Though I've not seen these characters as actual figures in many years, two moments in the novels still break my heart with Han as though he had been a real person in my life: When Han tells Anakin, "You left him," after the escape from Sernpidal in R.A. Salvatore's Vector Prime, causing me to emulate the guilt and shame that must have riddled Anakin Solo in that moment; and Han's reaction to hearing the name of Jacen Solo's flagship - the Anakin Solo - in Troy Denning's Legacy of the Force: Tempest, where he's brought down by the thought and weight of his dead son's name on that ship's hull.  These moments struck me as hard as if I had disappointed and hurt my own father, and each shook me to the core.

The tendency for me to identify and seek out father figures didn't end with childhood, though it wasn't something that I sought knowingly.  In fact, a lot of these realizations have been made while writing this piece.  Alfred Pennyworth (in all the incarnations, though I will say my favorite is a tie with Earth One and Michael Caine's take in the Nolan trilogy) has consistently been a character I've been drawn to; as a fatherly caretaker in charge of an orphaned boy, he fits both the father replacement as well as the grief component of what I sought.   Admiral Adama (as portrayed by Edward James Olmos in the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot) was another strong character who I looked up to, and the finale of that series brought a cruel reminder in a reversal of my own situation.  I was incredibly affected by the moment in the shuttle as Adama and Laura Roslin flew over their new world when she closed her eyes for the last time, and because it was told with such delicate grace and humanity, I found incredible solace in it.

In 2003 Tim Burton directed an adaptation of the novel Big Fish, a story about a man coming to terms with his father who is dying of terminal cancer.  Edward Bloom (Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor) lives a life of tall tales, where every day is a wondrous one, and something amazing is always around the corner.  His son Will (Billy Crudup) only wants to know how things really were, and whether anything his father ever told him was true.  In the penultimate scene, Edward asks Will to tell him the story of how he dies and tells him it starts, "Like this."  This moment of connection is an incredibly powerful one, and the entire movie distills into this one interaction that, above anything else I've ever seen, defines the relationship that I have always yearned for.  This film has become one of two that I have turned into a bit of a ritual on the anniversary of my father's death, and it's because it so perfectly encapsulates the mix of joy, sorrow, and all the little emotions that fly by too quickly to be named that define the relationship of father and son.  This is what I had been searching for, and I treasure the experience of it.

In writing this editorial, I've not mentioned much about my father himself. I never really knew him as a man, just as "Dad."  And another film reminds me of how I should deal with that – with another father figure who is the king of the Dad Joke - Mr. Magorium from Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium:

When King Lear dies in Act V, do you know what Shakespeare has written? He's written 'He dies.' That's all, nothing more. No fanfare, no metaphor, no brilliant final words. The culmination of the most influential work of dramatic literature is 'He dies.' It takes Shakespeare, a genius, to come up with 'He dies.' And yet every time I read those two words, I find myself overwhelmed with dysphoria. And I know it's only natural to be sad, but not because of the words 'He dies,' but because of the life we saw prior to the words. 
I've lived all five of my acts, Mahoney, and I am not asking you to be happy that I must go. I'm only asking that you turn the page, continue reading... and let the next story begin. And if anyone asks what became of me, you relate my life in all its wonder, and end it with a simple and modest 'He died.'

(You can see Dustin Hoffman's incredible performance here.)

These words spoken softly and with great love will stay with me as I turn another chapter and celebrate Father's Day for the first time in many years, and now because I'm the father.  My son has remade my relationship with my dad, made me aware that I'll only have a finite time with him, to guide him and prepare him for adulthood.  The fictional role models that I had chosen over the years, along with memories of my father, will form the basis for how I want to be with him, using their combined experience to avoid the mistakes they made in order to teach him patience, gratitude, and humility while instilling strong values and making the most of every moment to find joy and handle sorrow.  These fictional men, products of writers and actors whose experiences with their own fathers informed their fiction that then influenced me, have laid a defined course that I can follow to make my son into a man that he can be proud of being.

Father's Day will be something very new for me to experience now, and as Robin Williams remarks in Hook, "I found my happy thought.  Took me three days to find it.  Wanna know what it was?  It was you."

Happy Father's Day.

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