Absent From Felicity

[alternate title: Thinking Makes It So]

I’m working on a novel that is a retelling of Hamlet as a modern-day coming out story set in an arts college in the Midwest.  George Dean, father of the main character Henry, was the college president and chair of the film department. George’s brother Clay was a theatre professor there. This is Henry’s eulogy at George’s funeral:

“Dad used to always ask me, ‘do you see it?’ we could be walking down the railroad tracks with nothing but cornstalks in our view, or driving in the car on the way home from the grocery store, or sitting in the editing booth loading some film, or he could be tucking me in at night, my eyes already closed. Once he even asked me right after we had a fight over my curfew.

“for the longest time I didn’t know what he meant, but he was so involved in seeing it himself I didn’t feel like I could ask. I just said ‘yes’ and tried really hard to see whatever the ‘it’ might be. His response was always, ‘yeah, me too.’ and we would sit quietly for a moment. When I was little I thought he meant a different physical thing every time. Then for a while there, I thought he meant God. I went through a phase in jr. high where I thought he was pulling my leg and didn’t mean anything at all. I used to say ‘no’ then, just to rile him. He would just reply, ‘that’s okay, just tell me when you do.’

“it took me until halfway thru high school to have any idea of what he was talking about. I’d finally gotten my own super 8 camera and was still messing around with how it worked and how to get it to do what I wanted, and I was filming dad and uncle clay playing basketball. Horse, actually. I was gonna just film the shots they took, one after the other and then edit them down really tight to show how each went about the same shot differently. I was really into this idea and was keeping careful watch on the footage meter, trying to get as many shots on a roll as possible. And then, while clay was lining up to take his shot, and I was lining up my own, looking through the eyepiece and fiddling with the focus, I saw a big cluster of cottonwood fluff floating in a sunbeam in the foreground. I thought I could be really fancy and start the shot focused on it, then shift to clay just as he let go of the ball. So I started rolling on the fluff and was about to shift focus when dad walked into the frame, reached out his hand, and scooped the fluff out of the air. If there was sound on super 8 you would be able to hear my exasperated sigh. But I didn’t stop rolling, just stepped to the side so I could still see clay in the background, even if he was fuzzy. The shot was complex and he made it, turning around triumphantly to dad, who was still focused on the fluff in his hand. Clay came over, into focus, and put his hand on dad’s shoulder, checking his face to see why his head was bowed. If you look closely you can see clay mouth the words, ‘you okay, georgie?’ dad broke his concentration and looked up, his eyes clearing, his face opening into a smile and saying ‘yeah, look.’ clay looked down at his hand, then grinned at dad who held it out and said, ‘happy birthday.” clay’s grin broke into a huge, warm, indulgent smile, and he leaned in and gently blew the fluff off dad’s palm into the air. They watched it for a second as clay’s hand on dad’s shoulder squeezed him into a sideways hug, then he handed the basketball over and said, ‘your turn. Come on.’

“i’d gotten so caught up in watching them, I forgot I was filming. I let go the trigger to check the footage just before dad missed clay’s shot, thereby ruining my intended project. The next night, dad and I reviewed the newly developed film together. as we got to this scene he said, ‘oh my god, hal, you saw it too!’ I said, ‘what, the fluff?’ and he said, ‘no, hon. The moment. That pure, true moment. Look at it, it’s beautiful.’ his eyes were shining at me, proud as i’ve ever seen them. He rewound the film to watch it again. I watched him watch the screen, trying to decide which moment he meant. When it was over, he hugged me and said, ‘it’s perfect, son. Well done.’

“throughout my college career working in film i’ve had a lot of theories about that scene and what he saw in it. I’ve seen many things in it myself and have sought to bring them out in my work over and over. But today I think I get what he meant that night, as well as all those times throughout my life. See the thing is, the ‘it’ he spoke of doesn’t exist outside of the question he asked. Asking someone, ‘do you see it’ is like showing them a piece of fluff you found. It’s asking them to take the time to enter the world you inhabit for a moment, to see with your eyes, to share a vision. If you ask it in the right way, or at the right time, you are rewarded by their willingness to join you, just as clay was when he let go of the game of horse long enough to share a moment with dad. It had nothing to do with the fluff. The ‘it’ was the moment when dad held out his hand and clay smiled and played along with him. And that generosity of spirit, that willingness to share something, that saying, ‘yes, I see it’, ‘yes, i’m right here with you’, that’s love. love at its most powerful because it’s felt by two people at the same time for each other. that’s what I unknowingly captured on film that bright june day.

“and that’s what dad was telling me every time he asked me, ‘do you see it’. He was saying, ‘I love you. please share this love with me’. And looking back, i’m so grateful that whether i was conscious of it or not, every time I answered ‘yes’ and even most of the times I answered ‘no’, I was right there with him, sharing the moment, and saying ‘I love you’ back.

“if you watch George Dean’s films, you will notice these moments all throughout them. Film is the best medium to capture these bits of fluff and hold them out to be seen and shared. Dad knew that well, maybe better than anyone, and I believe each of those moments he presented to his audience was a love letter to us. It’s our job now to acknowledge each of them and to say, ‘I love you too’. it’s also time to follow his example and make sure to experience these moments in our lives with everyone we care about. Don’t let one pass by without engaging in it with someone you love, please. think of George Dean,  and how he knew that these shared experiences of love just might be the only things worth achieving before we leave this world. Now tell me, folks. I wanna hear your answer. Do you see it?”


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