I've cried a lot the last two days, for various reasons, and it's made all the difference in my week.
I cried watching a television show set in the 70s, whose soundtrack brought me back to my father's old pinto. Driving home from a family function, lying in the back, looking up through the window at the treetops. Hearing my dad whistle along to soft rock. I just started to cry. I miss that version of us. It's gone forever because that's how time works. But I was overwhelmed with the memory, the happiness of it, the sadness of its passing
When we were with my dad on his first (and last) day in the Palliative Wing the nurse asked me what kind of music my father would like to listen to, since they had a small CD player with speakers in each patient’s room. I was still in shock, still trying to call various people, and still dealing with the unrelenting volume that comes with Italian relatives that I think I uttered something along the lines of “What did you ask about cheese?” So the staff chose Andrea Bocelli, and the moment the music started playing I finally snapped back to awareness, thinking, “This has to be the kindest, most thoughtful example of ethnic profiling ever.”
The music was ostensibly for my dad, but like a funeral or a wake it was also very much for those who had come to visit and grieve. And equally as important, asking us to choose the music was the nurse’s extremely empathetic gesture to allow us a sliver of control in a situation in which we had none, to let us do something for my dad when we really couldn’t do anything at all but be there.
All of this comes in to play over the past two Sally Forth strips. Hearing the music chosen by the staff is what snaps Ted out of his shock. Demanding what music should instead be played is Ted’s way of both trying to do something when he feels can’t do anything for his dad. And by speaking up for his dad, by saying what his dad would prefer instead, he can give his dad a voice and so still emphasize he has not left yet.
Yes, my dad loved disco. Even though he was in his 40s when it the disco era began, my dad loved to dance and so this became the soundtrack from here on out. Sure, he listened to all kinds of music, but disco made him both happy and energetic. So he would play the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack over the outdoor speakers when we were on the patio. He would play it in the car, resulting in speeds that are not recommended on suburban roads. And he played it in the open garage as he silkscreened his line of softer pornographic t-shirts. (In case the sentence itself didn’t clearly indicate, the link is to a post both endearing yet decidedly mature-audience in content. It also involves Bugs Bunny.)
Now, my dad didn’t hate Andrea Bocelli. He would sit through whatever concert footage PBS would show during pledge drives as he and my mom waited to see the next episode of Poirot or Inspector Morse. But he found it all a bit dull. Yes, he liked Luciano Pavarotti in an era when I think all Italians legally had to in the 80s, but he never liked it when he covered pop songs. And my dad didn’t exactly rush to the movie theater or stop flipping channels when Yes, Giorgio came out or aired.
As for disco, I will say mentioning a song by name in the context of the current storyline proved an absolute minefield given just how many of the genre’s most popular titles inadvertently mention death or illness—”Stayin’ Alive,” “I Will Survive,” “Night Fever,” and so on. “Night Fever” was a particularly hard one to skip because I do like the song and it was to serve as the outro music at the very end of this entire story arc, but I thought better of it. In fact, I had written a strip in which Ted, trying to say what song his dad should be listening to, rattles off those very three titles only to realize what he is saying and ask someone to make him stop talking. And it was in the second to last draft of this week’s script (yes, I do a few drafts and not just ramble on the paper as some may think) when I was still wresting with how wrong that would sound. And so it was in the shower (sorry for that image)—where along with walking several miles a day I do my writing—when inspiration struck and I ran out naked (REALLY sorry for that image) and made the changes. I think being able to do that may be one of the perks of working from home. I mean, sure, I guess you can run naked to an office job, but that would have involved me hauling ass for several blocks to BusinessWeek. And true, if that were the case why wouldn’t I just take the subway or a cab instead? But taking public transportation naked seems all too predetermined, deliberate, and completely insane. Whereas just running out naked is far more immediate, extemporaneous, and would lead people to exclaim, “Now there’s a person on the go!”
Let me conclude by addressing a few comments that have come up the past two days. Some have mentioned that during their own visit to a Palliative Wing they never encountered any music or cd player, and so the very situation presented in the strip is patently false. All I can share is what I experienced. As I have said before, just because it happened to me does not make it universal. But because someone else’s experiences differed does not make what is shown here false.
Which brings us to a very important point—to have a story be approachable by many I believe you have to be singular in its telling. If you flatten it out too much—if you avoid personal experiences, brand names, a unique perspective—the story becomes so bland as to almost become unreal. But if you go all in on the detail, a strange thing happens. You don’t distance yourself from most readers simply because the minutiae differ from what they recall. Instead, you give them something tangible that they can hold, study, and relate to. It’s like when you share an anecdote with a friend and they respond with “Oh, that reminds me of when…” It let’s someone react, respond, and return to a moment in their own life. In the end, not every story should be a mirror. But every story should be a passageway.
While we have been fortunate enough to see that the positive responses to our current “Sally Forth” storyline far outweigh the negative, I do want to stress that we know that this will not to be everyone’s liking. And people are absolutely in their right to share their feelings about it, pro or con. And I thoroughly understand if someone wishes to skip the comic during this story, which is of course their choice. But to those who say it should not be done—that we were wrong to every address this story and that comics should only be light or pleasant because that is how you understandably wish to start your day—you are standing in the way of others for whom it appears to be helping and who choose to use it as a platform to express their own grief. That, and that most importantly, is why we believe why this arc should be done.
I originally was not going to write anything about this particular strip because I’m not sure there is anything to say that isn’t conveyed in Jim Keefe’s final panel.
I will, however, say that I believe this is the first time I’ve ended a Sally Forth strip on a silent note. And I will also add that such is not a particularly easy thing to do, even though some may see it as an easy way out because, hey, no punchline or wrap-up. (Or simply be surprised that a Sally Forth character stopped talking at length for a moment.) I don’t mention “not a particularly easy thing to do” as a means of articulating my arm so as to pat my own back. But ending a comic on silence is abrupt. It’s not easy for a casual reader to come across because without an ending one can’t move on to the next comic below so smoothly. And ending it in this manner can be jarring to say the least.
And I bring up the concept of jarring to the readers because I want people to know that we are in no way showing Ted’s dad lying in the hospital for shock value. We are not trying to be bold, be grim for grim’s sake, or make a thoughtless grab for your attention. But to not have Ted’s dad present throughout this story—and for those who do not wish to see a character in such a condition, it’s only fair to say you will see it throughout the narrative—I believe would be remarkably dismissive of the father. He would no longer be a person but a point of conversation, an unseen entity, gone before he has really left. This is a strip about loss, and to experience loss you have to know exactly who you are losing. To accept it, to properly say your goodbye, to allow yourself to grieve, you have to look at loss directly. To experience an almost unthinkable absence even when the other person is right there, right before your eyes, is one of the hardest gut punches your soul will ever feel and sadly most likely will experience more than once. Ted has to see his dad for his loss to become mourning to become acceptance to become the memory of the person when they were still alive. We have to see Ted’s dad out of respect to both the character and the grieving process.
I also bring up jarring in relation to those within the strip. When you enter the room of a loved one in this condition, your mind only allows yourself two options—freeze or cry. Because when you first see someone who is still alive but will never be able to communicate with you again, that very separation between you and the person is far too much for your brain to handle. So it protects itself and you by creating a mental workflow chart that only allows two very primal reactions. I was speaking to a friend today about his recent chainsaw accident (and I do not write the phrase “chainsaw accident” lightly). He said that when it happened his mind went dark. It shut off. He has no recollection of the moment it occurred because the brain knows (there’s just something odd or meta about the phrase “the brain knows”) no one could see that and still react when it becomes necessary immediately afterwards. It protected him. And yes, there are so many ways our brains seem to deliberately cause us self-doubt, prevent us from what we can actually achieve, and make us feel bad at the worst moment. But sometimes they step up to the plate and do what’s right by us. (I do wish to add my friend is on his way to a full recovery without loss of any limb.)
So what made landing on a silent final panel possible? That would be Jim Keefe. I am extremely fortunate to be working with two unbelievably talented artists, Jim and Mike Manley with Judge Parker. Their tremendous skill is not something I ever take lightly. But it is something I occasionally take advantage of, perhaps unfairly. I have not always asked Jim to draw the easiest things, whether it’s hundreds of people screaming in panic as their neighborhood blows up, two giant kaiju whipping each other with commuter trains, or this very last panel. But I knew when I wrote this script Jim would capture everything I’ve been rambling on and on about these last several paragraphs with a few expressive lines. He captured everything that needed to be said. And he did it without saying a word.
PS: The next three days are part of a mini arc, so I’ll post again on Friday.