My father died the same year that I came out of the closet. There is no connection between these two events other than when they happened in the timeline of my life. Pins in different months in the year 2009.
July: come out of the closet.
December: fly home because my father is on life support, in a coma.
Of course, neither of these events were quite so clean, so detached, not like items on a to-do list. They were messy and emotional. The five months between them seeming only like weeks. I was still dealing with coming out, the end of my marriage to a woman, with who was I now that I could seemingly be whoever I wanted to be. This is to say I wasn’t ready to be plunged into the complicated feelings around my father, my family. Before I walked into the ICU, him hooked up to machines, eyes open but staring out, unmoving, I hadn’t seen him in four years. Not since we had gone to see Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
At the time we thought it would be the last Star Wars movie ever. The completion of Anakin Skywalker’s story, his turn to Darth Vader, so that his redemption could be all that more meaningful. My father, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, identified in some way with Darth Vader. He would sign emails with Vader Kornell. I’m not sure if he saw himself as a villain or if he thought that I saw him that way.
It was difficult not to think of how he identified with Darth Vader when he was hooked up to machines that helped him breathe. He didn’t look thin or sick or anything you might think of someone might look like when they are dependent on machines to keep them alive. His face still wide, full, healthy, someone might say, even though he was anything but.
I have written before about my relationship with my father, the violence he caused in my childhood home, my complicated feelings about visiting him in the hospital before his death. The ways he’s haunted me since. If this were a movie these scenes would be intercut with a shot of me riding up the very long, very high escalator in the AMC 600 movie theater just west of Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
Present Day. Seven years after my father died. I am not thinking about him. I am not thinking about my coming out. I am simply waiting to get to the top of the escalator to meet my friend, Jill, for a screening of War for the Planet of the Apes. If I’m thinking about anything, I’m thinking about the snacks I want to get at the concession stand. I’m approaching three hundred pounds, a major gaining milestone, so the consideration isn’t what to get as much as the consideration is how much to get. I need snacks that will pack the most calories.
Jill and I buy our tickets, and head over to the concession line. It is early afternoon on a nice, sunny day, so there are not many people in front of us. A man at the front of the line looks like George Lucas. I consider for a moment that it might be him, but reject it because I figure it is unlikely that George Lucas would be standing in line for concessions on a random day in Chicago. Jill is telling me a story, but I can’t shake the idea that this might be George Lucas in front of us, so I keep watching him to see if I can figure it out as I listen to her, looking over the top of her blonde hair. And then he speaks. I have heard that voice my whole life. It is George Lucas.
All I can say is “Oh my fucking god” over and over again.
“What?” Jill says. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s George Lucas,” I say, trying to whisper, but it is the loudest whisper ever.
Jill looks and confirms that is him. I take a picture of him from my place in the line. I’m too nervous to approach him. What would I say to him?
That one of my earliest memories is being a four year old in 1980 going to see to The Empire Strikes Back. That the line wrapping around the building showed me the power of creating something that connects with people.
That when I was a kid in Catholic school that when my friends and I played Star Wars, I always wanted to play Princess Leia because she was the best character.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a Star Wars fan. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of George Lucas. I remember counting down the days until the Special Editions of the original trilogy were available in a clunky box set of videocassettes. I remember buying multiple versions because I had to have the ones that were the most current, had the most to date changes from the originals. I needed every bit of Star Wars. How do I sum that up in a two second, hello?
As more people arrive, one of the people with George Lucas says that he should go ahead into the movie. He leaves. Jill and I buy our snacks and head into the theater.
I post the picture of George Lucas on Facebook, and text my roommate, and another friend of mine. I want to tell everyone. I never thought in my life that I would ever see George Lucas in person. Jen and I wonder if George Lucas is watching the same movie.
And then I think: I should text my dad. It’s a second where I want to tell him because he would have been excited about George Lucas. Then I remember that I can’t. He is dead. I cry. My shoulders shake, I have to take off my glasses, and bow my head as I cover my eyes.
Jill asks me what’s wrong. I tell her. I tell her this is the first time in seven years that I’ve wanted to tell him something. I realize it’s also the first time I have ever cried about my father being dead. I didn’t cry when it first happened or any time there after until this moment. I tell her I feel stupid for crying.
“No,” she says. “It’s good.”
My boss is upset because one of the other supervisors at work called me “girl,” as in “girl, I need your help.” He is queer. I am queer. I explain to her this is the gay men equivalent of two straight guys calling each other bro or dude. I tell her that I don’t see it as an insult to be considered feminine or to be called girl.
I hung out with the cool kids for one weekend in fifth grade. I had transferred from catholic school to public school half way through fourth grade. I had simply refused to go back. I had had enough of hearing about how I was going to hell. School was stressful and scary enough without the added worry of eternal damnation. My parents were not very happy about my refusal to go. I remember holding onto the banister of my bunk bed as one of them or both of them or maybe they took turns, as they pulled on my arm to try to get me to leave for school. My will was strong, stronger than theirs.
There were, of course, a group of cool kids at the new school. I was not one of them. That hadn’t changed from my old school. One of them, Julie, lived a few houses down from me. Her last name also started with a K, so we were always in the same homeroom. We were both also on the safety patrol. I don’t remember having a lot of interactions with her, but I always remember her being nice to me.
On the weekend in fifth grade, the one where I would end up hanging out with the cool kids, I was at my neighbor’s house, in the front yard, when a basketball rolled down the street and into my neighbor’s ditch. Julie stood in street with Eddie. Eddie was shorter than me. Blonde. His face was pock marked. He was a wrestler. He was very much a boy. And in 1987 in a suburb of Cleveland, OH, if you were male, there was pressure to be a stereotypical boy. If you weren’t, then people, sometimes your family, didn’t know what to do with you.
My mother stopped taking me to have my haircut by her hairstylist because he waxed and plucked his eyebrows until they were very thin lines arching above his eyes. She was afraid I’d see them and want the same thing done to my eyebrows.
My grandfather, upon greeting me, would sometimes grab my shoulders, squeeze them, and say, “football shoulders.” He would then lament that they were being wasted on me, on my complete lack of interest in the sport.
How the basketball had rolled down to here from Julie’s house was unclear. I took the ball out of the ditch and took it down to them. In the back of my head, I hoped this would somehow get me in their good graces and I would finally stop being a misfit.
And it worked. I don’t remember how. In many ways, it feels like a dream, where some parts are very clear and others are just an impression, a ghost of a memory with some of the connective tissue missing. Somehow giving the basketball back, turned into them asking me to hang out with them for the rest of the day. I essentially, abandoned the kid across the street I had been hanging out with. I remember I kept waiting for them to make fun of me, but it didn’t happen. Somehow that turned into Eddie wanting to continue hanging out with me after the girls had to leave to go somewhere else.
We rode our bikes around the neighborhood. He’d burp and say it was blue or green or some other color. He didn’t say excuse me when he burped. He burped a lot.
“Don’t you get in trouble when you don’t say excuse me?” I asked.
“Why would I?” he said. “That’s stupid.”
Around dinner time, we knew we had to go back to our houses. Eddie wanted to spend the night at my house, which surprised me. I said I thought it would be fine with my parents. It was. Eddie went home to eat dinner and to get his stuff. He would be back later. My father went to the video store, picked up a movie on VHS for us to watch that night. This was during my Space Camp obsession. I wanted to watch the movie at least once a week. My father figured I’d want to watch it with Eddie, so he rented it. I remember being excited to watch it.
But then I second guessed if it was a good choice. Maybe a movie about a bunch of kids who want to be astronauts would be too nerdy. Too uncool. I’d damage my reputation as a cool kid before I really had the chance to enjoy being one. I didn’t process then how accidental, how temporary this time with Eddie would be. It would be just this weekend.
When Eddie came back, his mother dropped him off. She met my father in the foyer of our house. It turned out that my father and Eddie’s mother had gone to the same high school, had dated briefly.
As they caught up, Eddie I went up to the living room to watch TV. I told him my father had rented a movie for us to watch, but didn’t reveal the title. He said there was some game he wanted to watch. I don’t remember what it was. Maybe baseball. I remember us sitting on the couch watching it. I remember my father sitting on the floor next to the couch to watch it too. Him and Eddie talking about what was happening, cheering on the team they wanted to win. I knew then that this was the type of boy my father wished I was, the type of son he had hoped for.
I have always been a sensitive boy. I don’t remember anymore from that night. I have a sense of Eddie leaving the next morning to go home. The next thing I clearly remember is being sad because I had seen how relaxed my father had been with Eddie. How much he had enjoyed talking to a real boy. I don’t remember him being this way with me. I laid on my bed, sobbed.
My father passed by, asked me what was wrong.
I didn’t know how to express all that I was feeling, so I said, “Sorry, you’re stuck with me.”
“What does that mean?” he leaned against the jamb of the door. He had the kind of face where you couldn’t predict if he was going to smile or scowl, so there was no way to know if I had said the wrong thing or not.
“You wish I was like Eddie,” I said.
He sat on the edge of my bed. Took sighed, and said, “No, I don’t.”
Even though I didn’t fully believe him, it was reassuring to hear at the time.
In the movie, Jackie, Natalie Portman, as Jackie Kennedy seeks comfort in a priest after John Kennedy is assassinated. She details to him the problems in her marriage, how she felt less than, unwanted, and how she wished she hadn’t married a man that wanted to be President. She then shares some good memories. Memories of them dancing, being happy. The priest tells her to take comfort in these good memories.
I imagine some people would tell me to do the same with my father, focus on that instinct to tell him about George Lucas or him telling me that he didn’t want me to be like Eddie. Good memories; take comfort in them. However, as Jackie says toward the end of the movie: I can’t because they are mixed up with all the others.
Brian Kornell’s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review online, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, Older Queer Voices, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. He received a Lambda Literary Residency fellowship to attend The Sundress Academy of the Arts residency as well as chosen as a Jane G. Camp fellow by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). His essay “Goodbye: A Trilogy” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.