Back To The Present: Tobolowsky, My Dad, and Me

Originally written in March 2010:  I rarely cried in front of my father, and if I did, I was probably too young to remember specific instances in which I showcased my vulnerability to him.  Likewise, the only time my father broke down in front of me was when I was in the hospital, and doctors had informed him that I was dying.  Dying of a rare fungal disease that had rendered my left lung useless.  Even after they removed the lung, the disease was still spreading, and when my dad was instructed to inform me of what the doctors had told him, that’s when he lost it.  Despite being duped up on morphine, I recall the visual of trying to console him, but I forget the words I spoke entirely.  Of course, I was saved by a wonderful antibiotic and radiation treatment, but there was something about witnessing my father’s vulnerability that really strengthened our connection.  He shared everything with me, from elaborating on his infidelity to his days of Navy bootcamp where he would hide away from everyone else in the “head” and shake profusely.  But not once did I actually see it with my own two eyes.  Seeing him cry lead to me a rather obvious epiphany:  My father was not the superhero that I built him up to be; he was a man that couldn’t help but express his feelings in the realization that his only son, might no longer be around.

I know I speak of my near-death experience ad nauseum for most folks, and there are even times in life, when I exaggerate things because my interpretation is often emotionally amplified.  But this is what a traumatic experience does; it replays itself, for better or worse.  Most people don’t understand that, because for the most part, things have not been that chaotic.  The most you can hope for after enduring trauma, is that you learn from it or turn into something positive.  First and foremost, almost every individual on the planet will eventually experience the loss of the person that’s closest to them, and it is the hardest thing that anyone will ever go through.  But the realization that the people you are close to leave particles of energy and life-affirming memories, is worth a thousand prayers.  Recently, I listened to an episode of a sublime little podcast, entitled The Tobolowsky Files and recalled a wonderful incident once again.  I was lucky enough to hear about this podcast through someone who has supported and helped fuel my love for movies, WGN Talk Radio Host, Nick Digilio, who had Tobolowsky on as a guest.  In episode four, entitled “The Alchemist,” I found myself moved beyond words by the craft of Tobolowsky’s storytelling abilities.  He paints a scene from memory so vividly, you’d think he was recalling a moment while looking directly at a video screen as it plays back right in front of him.  He brushes a portrait of time with strokes of structure, pathos, impeccably-timed comedy, and most importantly to me - a sense of realism.  Tobolowsky knows his life better than most people know their own lives, but the best part about listening to people tell their own stories, is that you can learn things about yourself in addition to possibly learning more about the nature of humanity. It’s a constant give-and-take process when listening.  A lot of folks, yes, have the tendency, to take more from folks or wait until they can speak, but Tobolowsky gives so much of himself, it’s easy to find an important piece of your life in his words.  Well, okay, at the very least, you will be undeniably riveted and entertained for 40 minutes with each episode of Tobolowsky’s podcast.

Episode 4 got me to thinking about my father, the movies, and myself.  These are three things I know about pretty well, which is why I talk about them a lot.  In this episode of Tobolowsky’s podcast, he discussed what it was like standing in a room at the hospital, during the final moments of his mother’s life.  I think most individuals, whether you’ve lost a parent or not, will be utterly moved to tears.  (I had to literally pull over to the side of the road).  For those of you who have no idea who Stephen Tobolowsky is, he is one of the most recognizable and talented character actors working today.  Most recently, he has starred on the TV show “Glee,” but he’s most remembered as Ned Ryerson in “Groundhog Day."  Which brings me to the reasons behind this little journal entry.  My father was not a movie buff like myself.  He didn’t go to the theater every week, like I did, probably since I was about 7 years old.  In 1985, he took me to see ”Back to the Future“ when I was 7 years old, and it was the first movie that my dad and I actively talked about afterwards, laughed at together, and got us talking about what it was like for him growing up in the late 50s.  We were both huge Christopher Lloyd fans because of "Taxi,” and I got suckered into watching “Family Ties."  So aside from this being my first exposure to the concept of "time travel,” we both enjoyed the film on several levels.  For many years that followed, we enjoyed certain movies together, but aside from “Back to the Future,” only two really really stick out for me, as being the two movies that we both saw in the theater and equally loved.  We both adored the films “Sneakers” and “Groundhog Day” to the point where if they ever popped up on TV or cable, we would put down the remote, and start watching them until they had ended.  They were the kind of movies where if either of us were coming home and saw the other watching it, we’d just sit down and enjoy watching them all over again.

Now there’s a connecting thread between “Sneakers” and “Groundhog Day” other than the fact that one stars Dan Aykroyd and the other stars Bill Murray.  (Yes, we both enjoyed “Ghostbusters” and early SNL too).  And yes, you may have guessed by now, that both films have the same above-mentioned actor/podcast host creating very memorable characters - both being eccentric, slightly annoying nerds that are incessantly quotable.  But I remember leaning over to my dad during an advanced sneak preview of “Groundhog Day,” asking who that guy who played Ned Ryerson was.  Low and behold, dad remembered right away and reminded me that “He’s the guy who played the nerd in "Sneakers” who said the word ‘passport.’“  Obviously, he didn’t know the name Stephen Tobolowsky, but we both had bonded on remembering who "that guy” was.  It’s strange how this particular memory wasn’t really in the foreground at all, until just recently, I heard the guy that played the nerd in “Sneakers” and “Groundhog Day” tell a story on his podcast about what it was like losing his mother!  But there you have it.  You will never ever lose moments like that from your past, because they will always make a cameo at some point in the future.  You’ll consider these moments of total recall… as being a gift… as being a present from your mind.  And there’s nothing wrong with going back to them, especially when it makes you feel good all over again. There are rarely any negative moments involving Michael Laczkowski as a father figure whatsoever.  He had always encouraged me by saying things like “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Here’s where the final act comes into play.  As my father was lying in his bed, at Hospice, during his final moments fighting kidney cancer, his last words ever spoken to me were “I want you to go to that movie."  You see, I had a free pass for the Chicago Film Festival to see the premiere of Richard Linklater’s ”Waking Life,“ which is an existentially-driven film where all the characters talk and contemplate life, death, and dreams.  For many folks, it’s annoying to sit and watch a movie where people theorize and converse about big ideas.  Not for me.  It’s not like I wanted to go see "Waking Life,” actually for very apparent reasons.  At the time, all I had was a free ticket. I didn’t know what the movie was really all about other than liking Linklater’s previous work.  And obviously, if my father was on his fucking deathbed, the LAST thing I wanted to do was go to the movies!  I couldn’t imagine sitting in a theater, when at any minute, my father could breathe his last breath.  I’d be too distracted to not think of anything else.  But everyone in the room, both family and friends, said that I should go because I had been there all day and I could use a break.  Then I went up to my father, and took his hand, he said that he would be “okay” and said that I should go to the movie.  We really didn’t know when he was going to pass on - it could’ve been days or minutes.  It was hard to tell how fast the cancer was spreading.  Now, despite my reservations, I am extremely glad that I went.  The final image of “Waking Life” involves the lead character ascending to the skies, who may or may not have passed on.  Movies, music, and the arts have always been my favorite therapy, and seeing “Waking Life” had a profound effect on me, mostly because of the emotions I was feeling at the time - questioning life, death, and dreams.  When I returned to Hospice after seeing “Waking Life,” my father was no longer able to speak.  He passed on about six hours after I came back.  Apparently, “I want you to go to that movie” was what he was going to leave me with. 

Recently this past weekend, I had thought that attending the “Back to the Future” reunion showing at Hollywood Palms in Naperville, would destroy me.  And it did at certain moments, but luckily I had friends there who loved the movie as much as I do (plus it’s easier to not tear up when friends are around for fear of making them feel awkward).  Again, it was hard not tocry when Doc thanks Marty for all he’s done for him.  In addition, Marty gives Doc a note about the future, in order to try and save his life.  How insane it is to watch “Back to the Future” now, thinking that if time travel were possible, I could go back to 1955, give my father a note begging him to never pick up a cigarette because it would give him cancer and cause him to pass on at far too young of an age.  But time travel is only possible in the mind, where I thought back to how we bonded over this movie, in addition, how we bonded over two films with the same co-star, “Sneakers” and “Groundhog Day” too.  At first, I was hesitant to go, for fear that I would make a blubbering fool out of myself, but I know my dad would’ve gone with me with the same enthusiasm I had, and his final words were still in the back of my mind.  So I went to that movie.  And as life goes on, for myself, for my amazingly talented friends, we all have to remind each other that if we put our minds to it, we can accomplish anything.  Including a legacy we each make in different ways - whether it’s by raising a family, making our own movies, or cuddling with someone close to remind ourselves that we’re never alone.  Thanks to my father, the movies, and to Tobolowsky’s podcast, it’s hard not to be grateful for the fact that I have survived the two worst experiences anyone can ever go through:  The near-death of my own life, and the death of the person closest to me.  As much as I tend to travel back to the past both to myself and to my friends, I feel like by doing so, it’s given me a future to look forward to, in which I can accomplish anything.  But this feeling wouldn’t be here, if it weren’t for the guy that brought me here in the first place.