I have been an emotional wreck this week. I sincerely doubt that I ever shed a single tear in decades of watching the Golden Globes, until this week, when Patricia Arquette took the stage to accept her well-deserved award on behalf of her work in Boyhood. Afterward, I bawled like a baby every time the broadcast played that musical refrain that appeared in the film, “So let me go, I don’t want to be your hero…” I believe my wife may have been embarrassed for me. Well, much as I sometimes like to pretend otherwise, I probably have some unresolved issues relating to the death of my mother, who I’ve been missing more than ever during some recent times of wishing she could have met – and let’s face it, helped us with – her grandchildren.
This post is best read after you’ve seen the extraordinary film Boyhood. If you’re one of those people who saw it but “just doesn’t get it,” read this. However, beyond all that, I sometimes want to say to people who shrug at Boyhood, “Well, I’m glad your life was Mitt Romney-Christmas-card enough that you never had to worry about whether you’d fit in with the other kids or the wider world.” To everyone who knew her, my single mother was more and less than the role Arquette plays in Boyhood, an outspoken, life-loving firecracker that never seemed to settle for mediocrity. One way of understanding my childhood is me contextualizing my mother’s life lessons on a spectrum between “eccentric” and “inappropriate.” People say they want independent thinkers, but if you come up with an original idea or statement, those same people aren’t as receptive as you might think they’d be.
Let me give two quick examples. One day, late in high school, I decided to thumbtack up photos of me and my friends on the interior roof of my car. (It was an old Toyota Corolla and had something like zero resale value.) I don’t know where I got that idea; I believe I came up with it by myself. Well, everyone loved it. My friends would pile into my car and laugh and rearrange the photos and generally discuss the subject amiably. That level of originality wasn’t a threat to anyone. Another time, around the same time, I was speaking to a friend and his father, and in reaction to the father I said something like “I love how parents assume that we pop out of the womb knowing everything they did”; I later learned that my friend’s father considered such a statement deeply inappropriate and de facto banned me from his kid’s life afterward. Those are silly examples, but that’s just life as the child of a free-spirited single mom: you never know when people are going to hate you for the very thing they seemed to love you for five minutes before. Maybe that goes beyond kids of single moms.
One extraordinary thing about Boyhood is that it gets all that. Another thing it gets is the feeling that when you leave your primary parent, as you eventually must, you don’t want her to think it’s because she’s weird. Those lyrics: “so let me go, I don’t want to be your hero…” Is that Mason talking to his mom, Olivia? (As her final scene might suggest?) Or to his dad, Mason Sr.? Or is it Mason Sr. talking to his son? In any event, do they really mean such a sentiment? The movie suggests that familial emotional connections are never as easy as “Let me go. Goodbye.” Instead, the movie demonstrates that the missed and made connections of our lives are often very close to the same thing, and sometimes we don’t know what was our favorite time with a loved one until it’s way too late to replicate it.
Friend and film director Rana Joy Glickman commented that watching Linklater win on Sunday, she “was crying a river of relief and joy and justice.” Yes, that, but also I’m certain that I was crying on Sunday partly because I never really expected the awards-giving branch of Hollywood to recognize a film that was so personal to me. Before Sunrise Sunset Sunday, it wasn’t clear that Boyhood was really the Oscar front-runner; now that it is, the year’s race feels almost too good to be true. Like a mother’s love.
Because of how Boyhood compresses 12 years into 2 hours, it almost inadvertently (but no – it does it advertently) emerges as metaphor for the sense of loss and inconstancy that’s built into every one of our day-to-day familial interactions. And that’s one place where Boyhood connects to Dar’s extant boyhood, because so far, Dar seems to signify loss as much as anything else: loss of a “normal” childhood (whatever that would have been), loss of communication, loss of an independent future where Dar might someday sing to me “so let me go, I don’t want to be your hero.” Sometimes raising Dar is like watching the opening scene of Boyhood again and again and again, knowing that something needs to change and grow, but can’t. As many smarter bloggers than myself have put it, having a special-needs child sometimes compares to being in an extended state of mourning. And then you think: well, at least when I mourned [insert most crushing loss], they were gone and done, I didn’t have to lose them again and again and again, did I?
Well, yes and no. This was just now the tenth Christmas I’ve spent without my mother, and…she’s still here. She’s here in all the ways that I do want to be a hero to my sons, even while hoping that they could let me go when they need to. She’s here every time I realize that I want them to feel free enough to think of something like photos on a car roof and turns of phrases that will offend some people. I want boys who their grandma Norine would have loved with all her heart, if only she’d lived long enough to meet them.
Living with special-needs isn’t easy, but life isn’t easy anyway. Well, except for people who weren’t impressed by Boyhood. For the rest of us, I think we realize that getting out of the house every day with your clothes on straight, ready to face “you’re being inappropriate!!” from another day’s worth of people who are apparently better than you are, is in itself somewhere between an achievement and a miracle. And beyond that…perhaps more importantly…it’s worth it. Mom knew that, Richard Linklater knows it, I know it, someday my second son will know it, and I hope and pray that someday my first son will know it. But until I can be sure, you’ll have to excuse me if I get a little teary-eyed at the possibilities.