I also watched the film "Being Flynn." It is adapted from a memoir, and it's a worthy film if only for the performances of Paul Dano, who plays Nick Flynn, and Robert De Niro, who plays Jonathan Flynn, Nick's alcoholic father. Jonathan is a big-talking and big-dreaming unpublished "writer" who has been long absent from his son's life but who, in the course of the film's events, suddenly bursts into Nick's world and becomes a presence he cannot ignore. It's not an easy film, more difficult if you're the child of an alcoholic who, like De Niro's character, never quite achieved the arc that his brilliance might have afforded him. As I watched Jonathan Flynn rage and rant on the screen, as I watched him live through humiliation and loss of his tenuous place in the world, it reminded me too much of my own father in his darkest hours. De Niro was brilliant, and difficult for me to watch, his brown eyes watery with liquor, his hair and beard scruffy and wild. He hits the perfect notes of hubris mixed with bravado and, ultimately, crushing defeat. The movie doesn't end in darkness, and for that I'm very thankful.
In the envelope of photos, there was also a letter that my father wrote to his father in December of 1984. My grandfather never left Scotland, and the letter is written on one of those tri-fold airmail packets (do they still exist in this time of text, tweet, email and Skype?). My father had been estranged from his father for decades, and I remember being very surprised when I first read this letter, years after my father's death. In it, he sketches our lives at that time, with an attempt to emphasize the positive - think "Christmas letter." My brother was in college, his first year. I was not. I was 20, and I was married (it seems impossible now) to a very nice young man, and working in a drug store, and in this letter my father's regret about those turns in my life, about what he had not done for me, especially, is evident. He was such a proud man. In the very restrained language of this letter I can feel pain and regret between the words, and I want to tell him that it's okay, that everything worked itself out, that those early missteps in my life just set me on a slightly different path. I want to tell him that the combination of Scottish and Irish stubbornness and resilience has served me well. I did tell him all those things, after my mother died. But I wish that I could tell him again now, that I could be assured he can hear me when I'm sending my thoughts out into the ether.
And as I read his letter, crosslegged on a cushy chair in my office and library, I remembered that time so vividly. I remembered the early days, in 1982 when my mother came home from the hospital, when she needed so much care and her recovery was only a murky possibility. I remembered helping her with physical therapy, or with a hundred small tasks. And I remembered running up and down the carpeted staircase in our farmhouse when I had felt restless and scared and trapped, running until I was breathless and my hair was standing on end, alive with static electricity.
My parents have been gone from my life for so long that I've simply lost some details. I don't know, and would like to know, for example, if my affection for simple gentlemanly gestures (having my car door opened or my dining chair pulled out) is because my father did those things, because he did not do those things or has absolutely nothing to do with him at all. And occasionally, my inability to confirm a memory is maddening. After spending too much time trying to remember, I'll realize that the answer simply doesn't matter. We arrive in our 40's or our 50's with the accumulation of our history and our choices behind us, around us, and the specific reasons for such preferences matters not much at all. It's what we will do going forward that matters. So I try to sort them out, the efforts to remember that seem in some way to question why I'd made a choice separated from the efforts to remember that seem rooted in my desire to remain connected to people who are no longer alive. Thus I realize that while it no longer matters why I felt so responsible for things at age 16, 18, 20, 40--it does matter to me that my confidence, my moments of courage, are in some great measure a legacy from parents who simply believed that I could do anything, could be successful at any venture I put my mind and muscle to, and who instilled that belief so deeply in their children that we, too, were compelled to believe.
That belief is what I'm considering as I allow the words on the thin paper of this letter to provide a frame for considering the path I've taken from 1984 to 2012. There is a corollary: in our house, we all knew what it is to be loved, and to love. My father's words on this page, his quiet regret being expressed to the father he was long estranged from, reflect his love for me, for all of us, quite surely. I'm making a new life for myself these days, and it is with all the wisdom I can muster that I'm choosing my path. So today as I am drinking coffee, looking at the drifts of golden ash tree leaves that need raking and the house that could use a good cleaning, I am also simply awash in quiet gratitude and pride for my imperfect and riotously, gloriously dysfunctional family. They are the smart, fearless, sometimes foolish, sometimes drunken and always big-hearted people who first taught me that life is to be lived, that home matters, that joy is everywhere you look, that pride does eventually need to give way to humility, that what we will face will not always be easy but it will be real, and that our kind of love is never (ever) conditional.
Best to all who happen this way.