On Fathers Day, or, Why I Sobbed at Big Fish

I remember the first time my wife saw me cry. We’d been dating for some time, and may even have been engaged. Knowing how easily I am triggered into crying, I’m kind of surprised it took that long for her to see it. When I say I cry pretty easily, I mean that if the clickbait headline on social media says you’ll cry when you see this video, I take it as a promise, not a threat. So, there we were, watching Big Fish, and if there was going to be a first time Melanie saw me cry, this was a doozy. I sobbed for probably 10 minutes at the end of the film, and I tried to explain, but I had trouble articulating, the reasons behind my tears. I mean, I literally had trouble talking I was crying so hard – it felt like this Vesuvius of feelings I didn’t even know I was harboring had decided to erupt forth, and there was Melanie, frozen like one of those villagers who never even saw it coming, not knowing what to say or do with this blubbering buffoon sitting next to her on the couch. Thank God for her loving and wise heart; she expressed her surprise, but then simply let me cry it out. I think eventually I offered some explanation about the special relationship between a father and a son, but I knew I wasn’t doing justice to the red hot emotions that had burst forth and continued to smolder for hours after the film ended.

 

Fast forward about a decade, and I think I may finally be ready, on this Fathers Day, to return to that night, to better give voice to what my emotions knew but my mind struggled to grasp. I’m probably still going to fail. When it comes to the biggest, most important, most profound feelings and experiences of life, when have words ever done it justice? For all the work of evolution, for all the work of my development, no amount of language or learning can truly capture certain moments. So, knowing what I write will be insufficient, I still will write. I think there remains beauty and purpose in the struggle to push the boundaries of self-expression; the meaning is in the striving and journey, not the destination. And, hey, even if I fall short, I may have a future writing fortune cookie inserts or vacuous motivational poster phrasing.

 

To understand why I reacted to Big Fish, I have to look to my own father. William Elwood Kyle. Bill Kyle. Little Billy Kyle (LBK). Willie Buns. Spider. Cool Papa Kyle. Pap Pap. I remember every night when he put me to bed as a boy, he would tell me “Thank you for coming to our house to live,” a phrase I now use with my children to express my gratitude to them and to God that I have the blessing and opportunity to be their Daddy. He attended EVERY. SINGLE. game, match, meet, race, play, quiz bowl, and other event of my youth. I know there were probably some exceptions, like some Saturdays he was at an Ohio State game instead of a cross country meet, but there is no way I’m going to hold that against him. Have you ever been to a cross country meet? You’re exposed to the elements (and they’ll run the race in just about any conditions), usually without any stands or seating, and unlike most other sports where you can observe and cheer the whole event, you’re likely there for 2 or 3 times of yelling for about 10 seconds, “Go! Run! You’re doing great! Try not to throw up!” (well, at least in my case, as I had a proclivity for spewing moments after I crossed the finish line).

 

Anyway, he was always there. He even coached my baseball team for 2 seasons. I suspect if he ever wrote his memoirs, his time coaching would be a book in and of itself. He also taught me to drive and lived to tell the tale. He gave me more “sermons” than I can recall; the Right Reverend Kyle liked to preach on life lessons such as hard work, family, and the complexities of why I was supposed to begrudgingly cheer for that team up north when they played Notre Dame or in a bowl game (did I mention we take OSU football seriously in our family?). He taught me humor with all his jokes. He played George Jones and Bob Seger records and instilled a love of music in me that persists, and I still enjoy listening to the Possum or the Silver Bullet Band from time to time. He taught me to question authority, to cut through BS, to be suspicious of anyone in power saying they had good intentions and asking for my blind trust, and to form my own opinions. He taught me the importance of family and being there and saying, “I love you.” He taught me the balance of self-confidence and humility as recognizing your limitations.

 

Yet, perhaps above this all, he taught me the value of narrative, of telling a good story. My Dad is a world class story teller. If you’ve ever had a chance to listen to him tell a story, you’ve witnessed one of the greats. He used to make up stories about a Native American boy named Indecisive who lived up to his name in story after story. Indecisive’s inability to make up his mind created an excellent theme in situation after situation, and my dad’s knack for nailing the internal dialogue really brought the story to life for his introverted son who lives in his own mind much of the time (e.g., most stories began with the alarm going off, and Indecisive had a back and forth with himself over whether to get up or hit snooze – “I probably should get up” “But 9 more minutes won’t make a big deal” “But I would like to get a jump start on my day” “But maybe the extra rest will help me start my day more well-rested” – and on and on he could go, until someone in the story yelled at Indecisive to turn off his alarm). I recognize in my adulthood and “wokeness” that this was probably mildly, benignly racist, but that doesn’t diminish how much I loved those stories as a kid.

 

But my dad’s best stories are the stories he tells about his life. He can inject humor into almost any tale, and his super-duper accurate memory for some details, especially when he links life events to random sports moments, is phenomenal. When were in Cooperstown touring the baseball hall of fame, almost every major moment in baseball memorialized had personal significance for him (“That was the time I faked sick to stay home from school to listen to the World Series,” “That was the day I got bit by a stray dog. I was afraid of dogs for years afterwards.”). I figure I was simply carrying on a family tradition when my wife got her epidural during the birth of our first child as ECU made a comeback in their 2013 bowl game (for the record, I didn’t turn the TV in the hospital room on to the game, and no one else in the hospital turned it off).

 

I recognize some people might think of stories like my dad tells about his life as tall tales, or legends, or even exaggerations. The son in Big Fish certainly felt that way about his dad’s stories, which then always allowed him to take center stage. Part of me could recognize that jealousy. Not of my dad being the center of attention – he’s a relatively private person – but of how enviable his stories are and wishing I had stories like that. However, in my years training as a psychologist, I have learned that memory doesn’t work like a video recording, where a crisp and clean accounting of reality exists, and we either tell exactly what happened or we lie. No, memory is malleable. It’s like a puzzle, where we only have some fragments here and there, and we have to do our best to guess and put the pieces together and fill in the remaining gaps. Also, each time we retrieve a memory and tell the story, we change the memory moving forward. In other words, our stories we tell about our lives are how we make meaning of our lives and make sense of how our pasts weave through our presents and into our futures.

 

I actually think my dad’s stories are probably more accurate than many, as he has such a knack for those sports-related details. However, I don’t see the accuracy of his stories as the point anymore. His stories make sense of his life, and they communicate that story, that meaning, to others, including me. Also, I can incorporate his stories and his narrative into my own, and continue that story forward into future generations.

 

And that, I think, is where the movie got me. The son realizes, as his father’s life ends, that he can continue the story, that his father’s story becomes his story. It’s a bittersweet reckoning with death; the body may die, and a person may be literally gone physically. However, figuratively, and perhaps in a way that can matter as much (if not more), a person lives on in stories (I’m not going to get into my religious beliefs here, but I’ll just be explicit this is not my spiritual/theological/religious understanding of death). The son’s inheritance is his father’s story, and my inheritance is my father’s story. The story become the foundation of my own stories, which one day when I die will become my children’s stories to tell as part of their own. And what a blessing, what an awesome gift, then, to have a great story teller for a father. What richness I inherit, what meaning and purpose my life is already infused with from his stories, if I will simply set aside my jealousy at his legend and allow myself to join in. And, paradoxically, in setting aside my pride, I get to have an even more epic story because my story is all of my father’s story, PLUS my own.

 

That’s quite a head rush, and when the weight of that hit me 10 years ago, no wonder I became Captain Crybaby Von Sobbing. Returning to that night with the perspective of years, and my own fatherhood, allows an even deeper appreciation and gratitude, though, and I’d like to conclude with that here. When my dad tells stories about his father, my Pap Pap, it quickly becomes clear that he was a strong man, and he did at least 4 things right his life: he served his country in WWII, he was smart enough to marry my Granny (a lovely soul whose name is my daughter’s middle name), he raised my uncle, and he raised my dad. However, it’s also clear that fatherhood was perhaps not his strong suit. For example, my dad used to praise me over my report cards (and, not to toot my own horn, but since the first nine weeks of 5th grade when I got a “B” in math – which I totally am not bitter about and harbor absolutely no regrets or resentment about and certainly am not keeping score about – I have given him plenty to be proud of by being “B free since ‘93”). He let slip more than once that if he’d shown my report card of 4 As and 3 A+s to Pap Pap, Pap Pap’s response would like have been, “You could do better in 4 classes.” When I ran 5 miles on Thanksgiving with my dad one year when I was about 10 years old, I asked my dad where he found the motivation to keep going, and he said he could imagine his dad saying, “Ain’t no way you’ll ever run that far, fat boy.”

 

In other words, the story of fatherhood my dad inherited was not the model of the kind of father he wanted to be. And he wasn’t anything like his own father when it came to me. Where my Pap Pap found shortcomings, my dad focuses on my accomplishments. Where my Pap Pap motivated through discouragement (perhaps reverse psychology), my dad motivates through encouragement. Where I doubt the number of times my Pap Pap hugged or kissed his sons, I embrace my father still whenever I greet him in an unashamed hug. My dad had to learn to often do the opposite of his narrative about fatherhood to be the dad he wanted to be; he started behind and had to work all the harder to be the dad he wanted to be. I, on the other hand, generally just need to follow the example that was provided to me in his story. How much easier this has made parenting for me. When I am up in the middle of the night, or when I am tired after a long day of work, and want to operate in default mode of simply following my narrative of parenting, I can trust the default mode my dad instilled in me with his own parenting is the kind of parent I want to be. I love my children, I encourage them, I praise them, and I always am there to hold, hug, and kiss them when I know nothing else to do. That is the story of fatherhood I inherited from my dad, and what a gift my father’s story is to me and my children. Happy Fathers Day, Bill Kyle; I love you, Dad!

On Fathers Day, or, Why I Sobbed at Big Fish