I’ve been sitting on this blog post for almost a month, I wrote it immediately after watching A Monster Calls, and the words poured out of me in a way they rarely have. Yet as usual I was afraid to post what I wrote. Normally that just means it gets buried in my ever increasing pile of drafts that I’ve never finished, but this one wouldn’t stay buried. I kept coming back to it, and unless I post it, I don’t think I’ll ever move on.
This isn’t a storytelling review of A Monster Calls, which I would like to do at some point. Instead this just me talking about how this movie spoke to me and helped me confront the grief and guilt I still hold onto a year after my father’s death.
[Spoilers, I completely ruin the ending, so if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend you do before reading this.]
A Monster Calls
When Stories Speak to Us
A Monster Calls is a beautifully written movie, and the book it’s based is now on my Must Read list. This film is a shining example of the power of storytelling because it can help people deal with their darkest and most difficult emotions.
I know that because A Monster Calls helped me. My father died over a year ago and I’m still struggling with all the things I miss about him. The biggest struggle has been wrestling with my guilt. Not just for missed opportunities or the petty arguments we had. No my guilt ran deeper than I ever realized, and it was A Monster Calls that helped me see it.
In the film, the main character Conor, struggles to come to terms with his mother’s impending death. He keeps having a recurring nightmare of trying to save his mom from falling into a bottomless abyss. When finally Conor finishes the dream, he reveals the reason for the guilt that had been gnawing at him for the entire movie… he let his mom go on purpose, allowing her to fall into the abyss. He was tired of struggling to save her, tired of the fear and the desperation… tired of the pain. He wished to be free of it.
“The most human wish of all.” As the Monster might say.
I wished to be free of my pain too, but my crime was even greater than Conor’s, because I made that wish years before my dad was struck with cancer.
My dad, like me, suffered from depression. Unlike me, however, he never found an effective treatment to manage it. For seventy years he carried his depression with him like a festering, never-healing wound that sapped the life out of him. My mom and I tried to get him to go to a doctor, a therapist, anyone who might be able to help. At least for a while.
Then I stopped trying.
I wanted it to be over. I wanted him to be gone.
I told myself I wanted him gone because he could never see the good in anything. I wanted him gone because of the way he treated the waitress at a restaurant. I wanted him gone because of dozens of petty slights and arguments, real and imagined. I wanted him gone because at least then he’d be at peace.
I wanted his pain to end. That was the lie I told myself.
The truth that I was afraid to speak was this:
I wanted him gone because I wanted my own pain to end.
It hurt to see my father because I can remember so clearly how bad my depression once was. Being depressed was like being a raw nerve with no protection, the mechanisms that most people have to deal with their emotions didn’t exist. Every schoolmate’s insults made my heart hurt as if someone had reached into my chest and was squeezing it in a clenched fist. Every news article I read about endangered animals, the deteriorating environment, or even a passing asteroid sent me into a tailspin of despair about the world around me.
I remember that pain with perfect, piercing clarity. Every time I saw my father I felt that pain squeezing and clawing deep in my chest. He was a constant reminder of my own painful memories. Worse than that, I was terrified that he was a glimpse into my future. As amazing as my medication is at managing my symptoms, there are days that still get to me, where my defenses come down and every emotion stabs into me like a knife. What if one day it stops working? Will I become my father, unable to see the life, love, and happiness that surrounds him?
I wished it was over.
So when his terminal cancer diagnosis came, it was my wish come true. He had a year to live the doctors told us in October, by the following November he could no longer walk. My wish was coming true faster than I could have hoped. Throughout the course of my father’s illness, I never felt afraid or sad, I didn’t even cry once.
This was what I wanted.
It wasn’t until the morning of January 14th, 2016, as his labored breathing slowed to pausing, rattling gasps, that I realized a truth that I had been hiding from myself.
I didn’t want him to go.
It wasn’t until I whispered in his ear that I loved him that I realized the man my father really was.
My father spent his entire life fighting against a chemically imbalanced brain that made him see the world as darker than it truly was. I have no doubt he spent a majority of his days wondering why he should go on, fantasizing about killing himself. For 72 years he fought his depression to a standstill. I remember the pain of depression, and sometimes I still hear the seductive siren call of suicide.
I know it must have taken immense courage to survive that. If ever my medication fails, I’m not sure I’d have the strength to do the same.
My father deteriorated faster than the doctor’s were saying he should. At the time, I thought it was yet another example of his selfishness and weakness.
But I realize now that my father was simply ready to go, he’d fought his war to the bitter end, and now he wanted it to be over.
But I didn’t want him to go.
Here, at the end, as his breath grew shallower and the pauses between breaths became longer, It was too late to tell him that I didn’t want him to leave. It was too late to tell him that I loved him and that I was sorry for all the stupid things that kept us estranged for so much of our lives. So I did the only thing I could.
I told him it was okay to go and held his hand until he took his final breath.
That was the truth I was so afraid to speak, the crime for which I feel so ashamed: In my selfish desire to see an end to my own pain, I wasted the moments I should have been cherishing.
“Stories are how I topple my enemies.” – The Monster
When your enemy are emotions like grief and guilt, stories are the only thing that can topple your enemies.
Thank you, Monster, for helping me topple mine.