As a rule, I dislike music videos, unless they are live concert footage. Doubtless because I am a writer and I treasure words. I prefer to form a mental image in my soul from the words I read or hear, as opposed to having a meaning provided for me.
There have been exceptions, of course, but for the most part I have simply never found music videos to be as impacting, or evocative as the songs they characterized.
Sometimes, though, a director can create a video that encapsulates the lyrics without confining the impact. When that happens the result can be breathtaking.
Such is the case with U2’s Song For Someone.
Woody Harrelson portrays a prisoner, on his release day. He plays the role so well that I wondered if Woody had ever done time. The hesitancy. The fear. The doubt. The arrival of something so longed for, and anticipated, and yet so simultaneously frightening, was played with so much emotion that I wept throughout. There are few spoken words in this video –which is likely why it works so well- and this silence draws an enormous exclamation point on the character’s pain.
This is metaphor at its best. And for me…it was a metaphor for the pain that has come from divorce.
I have been divorced for almost sixteen years. My daughter was eighteen months old when her mom dissolved our marriage. I was thirty-four when she was born and had just turned thirty-six when I was forced into the world of divorced parenting.
For me it was prison.
I remember the first week without her, calling her one night, about three days after her mom had moved them into a house she shared with a co-worker. As soon as she got on the phone and I heard her voice, I collapsed in tears in my hallway. I tried to hide the sound of my sobs. I could only tell her I loved her, over and over. I couldn’t get anything else out.
There are men’s magazines that will prepare you for a fight over custody, and child support, and the distribution of assets, but they can’t prepare you for tucking your child in by telephone. Or how sleepless you’ll be, or the empty, aching hole in your heart.
I watched Woody Harrelson pace his cell, wash his hands, and take mementos off the wall. I did those things too. I took down every picture my wife had put up, but I couldn’t take my ring off for almost three years after the divorce.
I was still a prisoner.
I watched Harrelson flipping through a worn book of poetry, and then read a letter sent to him by his daughter –apparently many years before, when she was young- and I remembered the file folders and notebooks I still have. Every drawing, every note still filed away in a box in my bedroom. Scraps and pieces of the time with her, and the larger portion of time without her.
Divorce is a prison for a dad. For a dad that cares at least. I know there are those who abandon and disappear. I can’t speak for them. But it’s not most of us. Not by a long shot, regardless what the media and the feminists would have you believe. Divorce is a prison. I was its prisoner for 16 years.
The video progresses to Harrelson shaving nervously, trying to look presentable for his release. His jailer comes. He changed from his prison blues to his civilian clothes. The long walk begins. He pauses as he passes an incoming prisoner…maybe seeing himself all those years before.
I’ve done that. I’ve comforted my friends who’ve walked this path and through my divorced dad blog I’ve offered comfort to thousands of broken, hurting dads.
And seen my younger self in every one.
He pauses again as the exit gate approaches. He breaks down in sobs. Freedom is frightening when you’ve been imprisoned for so long.
The final minutes of the video are the most painful. Woody’s daughter picks him up outside the prison and he offers an awkward hug. She shrinks back from his touch and offers a handshake instead. Harrelson understands her hesitance and hides his disappointment. After enough time, you simply accept the things that come with prison…or divorce. After enough time you learn to mask your pain and disappointment from your kids.
They drive off, exchanging small talk and pleasantries and trying to hide the obvious and enormous uncomfortable air they are both breathing. I cried again.
My daughter is seventeen now. She was so young when we divorced that she only knows single parenthood. She had two Christmases with both her parents. She had three birthdays where we were celebrating with her. Once her mom remarried, I was the odd man out. I saw her once a week and every other weekend…but I didn’t tuck her in every night. I didn’t cook her dinner or help with her homework or take the training wheels off her bike. Her mom made sure those things never happened on my weekends or my Wednesday.
Now she is an adult and she lives with me. She starts college in August, and while having her full-time is better, and some wounds are healing, there are some that have simply become callouses.
In 2008 when the world collapsed and I lost my career and then my home, she lost too. She no longer had a home to go to with her daddy. I had to give our dogs away. We had no weekend visits. I stayed when leaving would have been easier, at least financially. I slept in the back of a 1996 Yukon and did odd jobs. I worked at rebuilding my life and mainly, I stayed in hers.
I could have moved back home and worked for my cousins or moved to North Dakota and made a ton of money in the oil fields. But I know human nature. You start making money and rebuilding your life and eventually that is your life. Then you become a telephone father, calling every few weeks to check in, dutifully sending a check and seeing your kid for two weeks every summer.
It’s prison all over again.
I knew this, so I stayed in Nashville, where we lived for seventeen years. I stayed. I shivered on a lot of winter nights and sweltered on a lot of summer nights. I walked. I went hungry. I studied in my car and got my bachelor’s degree. I wrote. I started a business. But I couldn’t do that one thing that would turn the corner for me and get me out of the truck and into a home.
In May of last year, my daughter and I moved here to Lynchburg, Virginia. In August I was hired by my alma mater and we started rebuilding yet again. In many ways, my daughter is the same as the daughter in the video. She loves me, and she knows I love her. But she missed so many important years after the divorce and even more after I became homeless. We’re not nearly as estranged as the father and daughter in the video but it feels that way sometimes, regardless.
I love my daughter. In my heart, I still see her as the ringlet-curled, little blonde girl she was when her mom and I divorced. Or when she was seven and life was great and I bought her a pony for her birthday and we had a nice home and a garden and two Springer Spaniels.
But she is not that little girl anymore.
She is a college freshman, and I will be fifty-two this fall. And in many ways, I’m still that prisoner, hesitantly facing release and wondering what is out there for me. I never remarried. Never really got close. I focused on my daughter, and being her dad. Maybe a few of those prison walls were my own creation because of those choices. I don’t know. But I know that most divorced dads feel this way. Most divorced dads feel like prisoners. Heck they even call it “visitation” when see have our kids.
Just like prison.
Most dads are nervous and insecure as their kids get older and they start staring into the vacuum left by the time they’ve missed. Most dads have some keepsakes and some mementos stashed away to remind them of a time when they felt like real dads.
Not like prisoners.
Woody, Bono, Edge, Larry, Adam…
I doubt you’ll ever read this blog or know of its existence. I don’t know if this is what you had in mind when you wrote the song and created this video. But this is how it hit me. And I think this is how a lot of dads are seeing this as well.
Thanks for that.