Television has always been a highlight in my life. As much as I read, that’s how much I watched television. Or at least tried to watch. For me, I’ve let television speak for me in so many ways, especially when I was not able to express myself. I know that’s funny, coming from a writer, but the format of television, being short and to the point and something designed to get a point across in a short span of time, does a better job at times than any amount of words I could speak or write.
It’s hard to think about tv dads when I realize that my dad has never been recreated on television. I guess when I was younger, he was more like Frank Gallagher from Shameless (whether you watch the British or American version, you get what I mean). With mom working past midnight, my dad was an alcoholic that didn’t mind leaving his 10 year old daughter at home alone to care for her younger siblings. I was buying alcohol and cigarettes for him from the age of 8 and it tells you something that I could actually purchase these things from stores in the projects. But he wasn’t all Frank Gallagher. Sometimes he was more like Fred Sanford from Sanford and Son – genial, scheming, verbally abusive, but funny.
My father was not always the best person. Without going into things that require the help of a psychiatrist, there was a time when I disliked my dad enough to use the word hate. He was a crappy father in my 10 year old eyes and I carried that view of him well into my twenties. I remember watching an Oreo commercial in the 90s where the daughter is going off to college, close to the time when I was applying to and being accepted at colleges around the country. The father is sad because his daughter is older and doesn’t need him anymore. She demonstrates that she still needs him by giving him her Oreo cookie to open for her in order to eat it. Every time I saw that commercial, it made me tear up, not only because my dad had not been around when I needed him, but there was a part of me, even with my “extreme” hate, that knew I still needed him to be a dad to me.
When I was growing up, my dad was as in love with television as I was, although I didn’t understand that as a kid. He would watch Westerns like they were going out of style. And cartoons. I remember once thinking “How could an adult be so in love with cartoons?” especially when I wasn’t. Saturday mornings he would watch cartoons and then transitions to Westerns after noon. During the week, it was all westerns. I didn’t get it. But that was because I didn’t know the man. Late in 2007, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died January 2009. After he died, we learned that he was a sniper in the army, came back from Vietnam unfit for peace time activities, suffered severe PTSD – all things he kept hidden from the kids. It shines a light on why Westerns and cartoons were so important to him.
It took some time for my dad’s death to sink in. When it did, I fell into a tv funk. Without realizing it, I found myself watching Cartoon Network on a loop. My television was never off. I wouldn’t let anyone change it. And if I did go to Netflix, I was watching Clint Eastwood and John Wayne movies. It wasn’t until I started watching Longmire that I began to understand a little better. A father with a secret, even if the secret isn’t what you thought it was, becomes closed off and silent. He doesn’t know what to say to you, even though his love is still there. He tries to be the best man he can be and he tries to protect you from the atrocities that play over and over in his head. For my dad, I imagine, Westerns were the last vestiges of black and white. Things were either wrong or right. And even in the grey areas that eventually comes into all parts of life, there were still wrong and right answers to the questions that Westerns brought up. He was a man who had to deal with the black and white consequences of his actions from war so I imagine it was comforting to know that others had to do the same, even if it was all cobbled together from the minds of people who never had to make those types of choices.
In cartoons, he found respite from thought. At least, that is what I found. Even in the avoidance, it helped me come to grips with his death, to hide from it for a while so that time could heal the wound. Television became a panacea for my troubled mind and soul. When I needed to cry, tv gave me the opportunity. I can’t seem to watch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy without wanting to cry about something. When I wanted to laugh, tv game me the opportunity. The Mindy Project or New Girl always came through. When I needed to remember my dad fondly, tv gave me the opportunity in reruns like The Cosby Show or Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Death erases the things that made me dislike him and as he died, he found a way to apologize and build a new relationship with me that I still value. I get to relive the things that made the end of our relationship good, and re-understand the type of man he was through our mutual love of television.