I missed The Lion King the first time around, but they re-released it for people like me. Parents with young kids looking to kill an afternoon at the movies. A new generation.
“Jeremy Irons is in it,” my wife says, trying to generate enthusiasm.
“Oh yeah. Him. And Randy Newman songs?”
“Elton John. You know, Circle of Life and all that. Hakuna Whatever.” She scans the computer screen. “Huh. It says here the story’s based on Hamlet.”
It’s enough to persuade me. Hamlet? That at least will give me something to look for while the boys are plowing through popcorn and candy and I’m holding a pile of napkins on my lap that nobody ever uses. If I get bored, I can always think about Hamlet.
So there I am, sitting in between my boys, six and four, watching the cute little lion cub play with his awesome dad. And then he goes running off into the jungle against his father’s instructions, hmm, that’s obviously not good, and—oh come on!—the father lion runs after him and… the father gets killed! And really, he’s not waking up! He’s actually dead!
And suddenly I can feel the air conditioning blasting away and freezing everything. Because what’s going on? This isn’t Hamlet! Oh sure, in Hamlet the father’s dead, he appears as a ghost, we all know that. But the play does not start out with a cute little boy romping around with his awesome dad. Hamlet does not show the awesome dad getting killed because of something the cute little boy did.
Suddenly I’m not imagining myself as Hamlet, gazing at a skull and thinking dreamy thoughts about my romantic soul and artistic temperament and the vengeance I may need to carry out against my uncle. No! Somehow I have become the father who gets killed. Whose only hope of any kind of existence is to be a ghost.
And look at poor Simba, who lost his awesome dad because he didn’t listen. What a tragic loss, not to have his awesome dad around! And think of the remorse that will weigh him down for the rest of his life!
And the more I think about Life, the more I realize how insane it is that we even bother. Circle of Life? What a lie! There’s nothing circular about Life—it all goes one way and always, always, always ends! Having kids doesn’t make it a circle! Life is a relay race run on a straight path by generations of runners who all die!
And Hamlet, stupid Hamlet, that sneaky, stupid play, is not just a tragedy because of the carnage at the end—the tragedy starts even before the play does! How appropriate, because isn’t that was what life really is too? Oblivion before! Oblivion after! And short little lives burdened with grief and sorrow and remorse in between!
And suddenly Elton is singing at me, asking whether I can feel the love tonight. Yes! Yes I can! Love for my wife, love for my boys, love for life itself. I can feel it tonight—and I want to feel it tomorrow night too, and the next night, and the next night, and on and on forever. Except that won’t happen!
My boys are gorging themselves on Hi-C and Dots. My wife’s checking her phone. And I’m sitting next to them, freezing in the air conditioning, rubbing my legs with napkins to make sure they’re still there, my mind demonstrating once again that if left alone too long it will overwhelm itself for no good reason at all.
As soon as the movie ends, I shed the gloom and emerge from the theater like everyone else, smiling and blinking in the light and humming the catchy tunes. What kind of ghoul thinks about Death all the time? That’s no way to parent. Besides, the weather is fine; it’s a beautiful late afternoon in the city; we’re headed to the pizza parlor. A great day to be alive and to celebrate life. Hakuna matata! No worries, people!
And isn’t that the point? So what if we die eventually? We can feel the love tonight. No sense dwelling on what we can’t change. Far better to enjoy the moments we can. Life is too precious to waste it away by dwelling on our mortality.
On the sidewalk, the boys are so excited they can’t help but race ahead. Their enthusiasm is inspiring.
“Boys!” I call out. “Make sure you wait at the intersection!”
“We will!” they call back.
Sure, it would be nice to hold their hand and have them close beside me, the best way to keep them safe, but I have to let them go. It’s part of their maturing process to venture forth, and part of mine to give them their freedom. It’s the progress we all make.
I smile. They’re walking on the imaginary tether that keeps them just the right distance ahead. I’ve spent years developing this tether: first by carrying them in my arms everywhere, then pushing them in a stroller that they are literally strapped into, then by holding their hand, then by letting them walk a little bit ahead, never too far. They’re like puppies who have learned not to leave the yard, only this education wasn’t done in a weekend. Years of solid, attentive parenting have gone into creating this.
It was not so long ago that my youngest used to test his imaginary tether by stopping and turning around every few steps. He would always look a little scared by the newness of his freedom, a microsecond of panic before he saw my face, which would cause him to break out into a huge smile. Just wanted to see if it’s okay to move this far ahead of you, Dad. Just wanted to make sure you’re still there.
And I would always smile back. It’s okay, son, don’t worry. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.
Now they just run, looking forward, never looking back. As I watch them head to their next destination, I feel proud that they no longer need me quite as much. And besides, what does it matter? We’ll all get to the same place eventually. Hakuna matata.
But then, at the next intersection, the walk sign flashes and they cross with a crowd of strangers and my heart jumps. In an instant they’re in the road, unprotected. Off the imaginary tether! If there were a jungle nearby, they would be in it, tempting the hyenas.
I rush toward them, my wife only a step behind. As soon as I see that they’re going to be okay, my fear turns to astonishment. How could they defy me? Did they forget? Didn’t we just see a movie about this? What if they’d been hit by a car? Or what if I had chased after them and a bus had run me down? They would be Simbas! They would need to live with that heaviness for the rest of their lives—the very point of the movie we just watched!
At the other side of the intersection they realize what they’ve done. They await the reckoning.
“What was that movie about?” I ask. “What was the theme of that whole movie we just saw? What was the point?”
They look at me with frightened, penitent faces. I decide to let the moment ripen. Most of the time my advice falls on deaf ears, but this is different. Here we have just seen a movie about a boy who fails to heed his father’s warning, with disastrous consequences. It’s not often that a teachable moment coincides so perfectly with the very wisdom you are trying to impart. In parenting, good timing is everything.
I raise my index finger and lift my eyebrows. The boys gaze up at me with wide-open eyes, eager to hear what I have to say. Waiting in awestruck silence for the pronouncement of the Dad King—
“It’s you will replace your father,” my wife says.
I stare at her, aghast. The boys nod: lesson learned.
Still stunned, I watch the three of them stroll down the sidewalk without me, getting smaller as they recede into the distance—but of course, that’s a matter of perspective. From their vantage point, I would be the one who is getting smaller, standing in place as they travel farther away.
Eventually they turn the corner. And as soon as I can no longer see them, it is as if I am the one who has disappeared: the ghostly father, vanishing into the shadows as the hero takes the stage.
I know, I know, I know: Enough with the bleakness, Jacke! And yes: parenting is full of light moments too. Not every paper sailboat on the pond sinks under the weight of my angst. Can I redeem myself by telling you I cut thousands of words from this one, mostly elaborate metaphors for Death? (You’re welcome!) How about I tell you that the number 10 is optimistic and full of hakuna matata? In the meantime you can read the others in the series:
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits turns a child’s dreams to nightmares
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season
Are you a reviewer? Free review copies are available! If you’re interested in posting a review on your blog, or if you’re willing to write a review at Amazon (or anywhere else), just let me know and I’ll ship you a book. And many thanks for helping to get the word out!
Image Credit: The Lion King, courtesy of lionking.org