It's hard for a boy to say "I love you" to his father. I tried for years in different ways, like the Father's Day when I was 17 and my dad was around the age I am now and I wrote him a letter that he said made him think all day. I gave up trying to tell him for a while, then went through a thing a couple of years ago where I told him for about a month straight that I was afraid he was going to die soon and did he know I loved him and I thanked him for all the good schooling and the gift of the curious mind and then I shut up about it but at least now I know he knows.
It's a lot easier to tell your dad you hate him, partially because if it works out the way it's supposed to work out, when you tell your dad you hate him you both know what you really mean is you love him. All dads know this, because all dads were sons who hated their fathers in some fashion, because the only thing sons can see for the longest time in their vast and wild future is their fathers' failure and lameness. Me, I never hated my dad. I just didn't want to be him. Now I do. Now I'm Steve Goodman singing, "I'd give all I own/To know what he said/When I wasn't listening/To my old man."
My son, who is eight years old, told me he hates me last week.
It's not the first time, though I can count on one hand how many times he's said it. We've been locking horns lately, butting heads over homework and chores and the air that we breathe in what feels like a preliminary bout to a pretty spectacular teenage-middle-aged main event. We're trying not to yell at each other. He's been sassing my wife and me, and asking questions about absolutely everything. He's in third grade. He's got a lot on his mind. He went on a field trip to Orchestra Hall the other day and during Fanfare for the Common Man they showed a slide of a gravestone with the word "Father" on it and when he got home from school he told me it made him cry.
I'm sure some of his gravestone tears sprang from the fact that he's heard me talk about some of my friends' fathers who've died recently. They're all handling their grief in their own way: silence, bitterness, red wine, songwriting, work. I don't know what to say to them, other than "thanks": I'm pretty sure that they and their fathers had something to do with why I plopped down $21.99 last Tuesday for the first DVD I've ever bought, Finding Nemo, which is sort of like Hamlet with cartoon fish. My wife thought we should splurge on it, because last year in California, my son and I toured Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, and saw the crude models and other beginnings of Nemo. That's what she gave as her reason, anyway, but I'm thinking that maybe she remembered something about the movie that I didn't. Maybe she knew it had something I needed to hear.
We saw the movie in a California cineplex when it was released, so when my wife and kids settled in to watch the DVD the other night, I stole away to my office to write. I had the headphones on and I was happy enough to be in my cave, and then my daughter pounded on the door and insisted that I come watch with the rest of them. I stored my column and opened the door and they had all the lights turned off, "just like a movie theater." My son, who I think was still feeling chilly toward me about an after-school altercation we'd had that afternoon, made room for me on the couch.
I lay down and he gave up a piece of the afghan that my grandmother made for my kids before she died. We were at opposite ends of the couch, hard knees touching. I draped my hand on his back and was relieved when he didn't flinch. His foot, which I used to tickle with my hair when he was a baby, and which I'm certain he'd like to use to kick me sometimes now, rested in my lap. As the screen filled with the dreamy-vivid colors of underwater aqua-life, he said, "I just love this movie."
Me, too. Nemo's mother is killed at the beginning, leaving just him and his timid and overprotective dad, Marlin. When Marlin embarrasses Nemo in front of his friends, Nemo calls his dad "scared" and mutters, "I hate you." Marlin looks wounded, then Nemo gets fishnapped, and father and son spend the rest of the film fighting sharks, beautiful but deadly jellyfish, their own fears, and the ocean's endless currents and detours to get back together.
I dozed off, but awoke for the good parts, like when Marlin tells a group of fish about how Nemo rebelled and "maybe he wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been so tough on him. You gotta be tough on 'em..." And when Dory, the absentminded blue tang fish, tells Marlin, "Hey, Mr. Grumpy Gills. When life gets you down, you know what you've got to do? Just keep swimming." And all the ones that remind me of the Only Ones song my wife and I met to that goes, "I could swim the length of the ocean if I knew you were waiting for me."
Nemo and Marlin almost die, in fact they almost kill each other, but by the end they find each other and are happy to be together. Nemo goes back to school and Marlin seems less afraid of life because his son has taught him how to weather the storm. As the end credits and bedtime started to roll, my son kept his eyes on the screen and said what Nemo says near the end of the movie: "Love you, dad."
He yelled the same thing to me from his bedroom that night, three times. I yelled it back, three times, even though we're trying hard not to yell at each other these days.
Jim Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612.372.3775.
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