I suffered from reoccurring night-terrors as a child. I would wake up in a cold sweat, my bangs matted to my forehead, having just witnessed the death of my parents. Naturally, I had to check they were both still breathing. I slept with a nightlight in my room but the hallway to their bedroom was dark. The walls were alive with menacing shadows that inched down closer as I walked by with one hand comfortingly tracing the hallway wall. My dad’s continued existence could be confirmed before I reached their bedroom door.
His roaring snores made me smile, Daddy’s okay now I just need to check Mommy.
I would open their door as quietly as I could. If I accidently woke my dad up on a work-night I would be in trouble the next morning. I tiptoed to my mom’s side of the bed, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness so that I could ensure her abdomen was still rising and falling. On most nights this ritual provided me with enough relief to return to my room. If I was particularly shaken up, I would gently poke my mom on her forearm and without having to explain she would make room for me to climb in beside her and cuddle me back to sleep.
The first time my mother and I saw the Lion King, it had just come out on VHS and I was seven years old. She was sitting in her wicker armchair embroidering a colourful table cloth. Sunlight poured in from the living room windows. I sat cross-legged a few feet away from the tv. Mufasa reminded me of my father, respected by all, strong, and protective of his family. When he plummeted into a stampede of wildebeests, I knew he would be badly hurt. I imagined Simba would be able to call for help, that he would heroically rescue his dad much to Scar’s dismay. Heroes never die. As a distraught Simba nudged his dad and pleaded for him to wake up, I began to cry, “He’s not dead right mom? He’s just sleeping because he’s hurt?”
My mom looked up from her embroidery, “I think he is dead Sofia but don’t cry. He’s not gone. He’s going to become a star now and watch over his family just like Grampa watches over you.” The injustice of the situation resonated with me. I empathized deeply with the lion cub living out my worst nightmare and I hoped that somehow Mufasa would be okay. Much later in the film, when Rafiki tells Simba his father is alive I felt vindicated; I knew the hero wasn’t supposed to die.
The powerful scene that follows changed my perception of death and the afterlife.
Expecting to see his father, Simba stares down only to find his own reflection in the water. Rafiki tells him, “Your father lives in you.” Simba’s scepticism is quickly dispelled when Mufasa appears as an apparition in the night sky to give Simba some much needed guidance. “Mom how did you know he would be in the stars?” I asked.
“Because that’s what I know is true. My dad isn’t gone. He’s alive in the stories I share about him. I hear his voice when I need advice. I see him in you and in your brothers and sister.”
After watching the Lion King, my night terrors stopped. Instead of letting my worries about the mortality of my parents take hold I focussed on finding them both in myself. The next time we vacationed in Crete, I asked my grandparents to tell me what my parents were like when they were younger. I discovered that my sense of adventure came from my father who joined the navy as a teen to explore the world before deciding to immigrate to Toronto.
My thirst for knowledge and love of reading came from my mother. Forced to drop out of elementary school, she independently studied more philosophical and theological texts than she would have been asked to read in University. Rafiki was right, both my parents live in me.
The night my dad died, I was more composed than I ever appeared to be in my night-terrors. My mom’s scream pierced through my dreams launching me straight into action. As I called 9-1-1 my mom wailed, pleading with my dad to open his eyes. She was hopeful as we waited for help to arrive, “His hands are still warm”. To me my dad looked different, as though his spirit no longer resided in his body. His face was more relaxed than it had been in years. The strain from battling ALS was now only present in our living room functioning as a hospice care facility. When the emergency responders began their best efforts to resuscitate my father I went outside to wait on the deck.
Gazing up at the night sky I felt my dad give me one last hug. His arms wrapped tightly around me, giving me strength and confirming my changed worldview. The stars can’t be seen during the day but we feel certain we’ll see them again. I knew with certainty, like my mom knew about Mufasa all those years ago, that my hero wasn’t gone. The stars, once stagnantly embroidered in the tapestry of the sky, twinkled with life as they welcomed Daddy into his new home.