About two months ago I was playing in the pit orchestra for a small production of the musical Big Fish, an adaptation of the movie directed by Tim Burton which itself was based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, and if you know anything of the story you know that it is similar to the events in my life last year. I was familiar with the story when I took the gig, but I had no idea how emotionally painful an experience it would be.
Without even realizing it I had withdrawn internally into a sad and angry place all while keeping a cheerful and unaffected exterior facade. I felt empty. I had nothing to give to my family and friends, and I felt as if I was barely keeping my head above water. I had reached another emotional low point in my life, and upon realizing that I knew it was time to do some more self-work.
I dug into my self-help toolbox to see what I could use to work my way out of the darkness, and after observing the consistent thoughts that were circulating my mind, I knew it was time to revisit some inner child work.
Big Fish weaves a story around a father-son relationship and throughout the production there was an image and story from my childhood that kept coming to mind. The image was a photograph of me holding a catfish that my dad and I caught while we were on a family vacation, and since I have my childhood photo albums in my house I dug them out to find that picture. I wanted to use the energy in that photograph to help me connect to my inner child at that age.
I didn’t remember how old I was in the picture, but after looking at where it was in the photo album I determined that it was taken in the summer of 1986 which would have been right after 4th grade making me 10 years old at the time. Now to be honest I don’t have many memories from that year except for the time I got detention for not having my math homework (I did it, but forgot it at home. Honestly!), and so I thought I would look in my 4th grade yearbook to help jog my memory about my 10 yr old inner child. The weird thing was that when I looked through my stack of kindergarten through senior year yearbooks, the only one that I did not have was my 4th grade yearbook.
Why don’t I have my 1985-1986 yearbook? Did I lose it or did I never get it? So many questions started coming up that caused me to dive deeper into what was going on with my 10 yr old inner child.
I sat with that photograph and began turning inwards into his story. I never really thought too much about 1986, but 1985 was a different story. That year has always stood out in my memory as a tough year because I remembered attending three funerals that year. The first was for my great-grandmother, and the second was for a great aunt. But it was the third funeral that was the hardest. My best friend was hit by a car that was being chased by the police while he was riding his bicycle in the neighborhood where we would play, and after a few days of being in a coma, he passed away. I wasn’t riding bikes with him that day because I was with my aunt playing with the kids she was babysitting, and I was so lucky that I wasn’t there. But I lost my best friend, and that funeral was hard on me.
With 1985 being such a heavy year, you could see how it could easily overshadow 1986, but I think psychologically my mind chose to suppress a lot of 1986 until I would be able to process it because I was too immature to understand what was going on with me at the time. And that’s why all of this was coming up now. I was in a gig where I was constantly being reminded of my father’s death which was making me sad and angry. As I was in these emotional states of grief I was reminded of the catfish picture and the deeper memory that was attached to that picture. As proud of that catch as I was, there was a dark spot on that memory because when my dad cooked the fish at a party when we got home I got into an argument with him about something and he sent me to my room. By the time I returned to the party, there was no fish left for me to eat. I never got to taste the fruit of my labor.
That was the only memory I recall ever having an argument with my dad or him ever punishing me, and now I know the bigger reason that I have held onto this memory.
Grief is not an easy process, and having gone through it last year (and continually) I understand it more clearly for myself. But I am much older and experienced than that 10 yr old Brian was. He didn’t know how to process all the emotions he was feeling after losing his friend. I could only imagine how he lashed out, talked back, and acted like a brat over that next year. He must have been hurting so badly inside, and yet did not know how to express that. My parents may or may not have been aware of what was going on, but again, I can only imagine how frustrating it was for them to deal with his rollercoaster of emotions. I’ll bet that explains why I didn’t get a yearbook for that year, and why I had that argument with my dad.
Having pieced all of this together I was able to stare into that photograph and send that little 10 yr old boy so much love for all the pain he must’ve experienced, and send apologies to my parents for all the trouble I created at that age. I was able to integrate the unsettled grief into my life’s story, and also be with the grief that I was re-experiencing while playing for the musical.
The biggest takeaway for me was the awareness as a parent to now pay close attention to my son’s life experiences so that I can get a better understanding into his behavior as he grows and develops. I wish for myself to remember this as he faces his own hardships in life so that I can help him or get him the help he needs on his journey.