Parenthood is teaching me to be a better person.
I know it’s just a television show. I’m not divorced from reality. In fact, sometimes I am so wrapped up in reality that I overlook the little magical moments that make life worth living.
I know the characters on Parenthood are fictional. But they behave as if they were real, they talk like real people, and there’s no higher compliment you can give to writers, or to actors.
I’ve had a very bad week.
A crushing work load. Thoughts racing, mind running circles, chasing its own tail.
Then, in the middle of this hectic week, I allowed myself to think that something I’ve poured my heart into for years was finally, maybe, just possibly, showing some signs of progress in a part of my life that means much to me.
Like I said, I’ve had a very bad week.
I came home Tuesday evening, depressed, hopeless and defeated, and flopped down on the couch . I switched on the TV, and watched the Christmas episode of Parenthood.
If you haven’t seen the show, you’re missing something special. Here’s a brief summary: It’s the story of the Braverman family. Two brothers, two sisters, their parents, their children. They have messy lives. They squabble. They disappoint each other. They hurt each other, sometimes. They compete with each other.
Just like real families.
When they talk, they don’t sound like actors delivering lines of dialogue. They stop, they start, they interrupt, they don’t always listen, and even when they do, they don’t always understand. They are noisy, their lives are chaotic. Like most people’s. Like mine.
But here’s the thing. In the end, they are a family. And no matter what arguments or misunderstandings might divide them, the things that unite them are always stronger.
Just like real families.
On this week’s episode, Kristina, a mother of three who is undergoing chemo, went into septic shock and nearly died. On Christmas Eve. By rights that should have been sappy. But it wasn’t. Not even close. The hospital scenes were played with such emotional, raw honesty they made me squirm. They stick the cameras right in the actors’ faces, so there are lots of close-ups, and much of the acting is done with facial expressions. Talented people like Peter Krause, who plays Kristina’s husband, can convey so much pain and fear with just a glance, a wince, a single tear.
On this week’s episode, Ryan, a former solider falling apart after two tours in Afghanistan, broke the heart of his girlfriend, Amber. In a scene near the end, a contrite Ryan showed up outside the Braverman house, where the family was gathered for Christmas Eve, to apologize and ask forgiveness.
Amber went outside to meet him.
“I’ll do anything,” he begged.
“I want to face it,” he said, meaning the emotional demons that have tormented him since his return from a stupid, wasteful war.
She forgave Ryan. On most TV shows, that would have been the moment where they kissed and made up.
Instead, a very smart writer and a very talented actress, Mae Whitman, had Amber say this:
“I’m in love with you. But I watched my mom get completely dragged down by somebody, you know, who just couldn’t even stand on his own. And she just threw everything she had at it,” and there Amber paused, and the tears came, and she continued, “and it didn’t make him better and it didn’t make her better. And I just know … I just know … that that’s not how to love.”
The scene shattered me.
Because the truth is, we can’t fix each other. We can only fix ourselves.
I have always hated the Coldplay song Fix You for just that reason. The lyrics, in part, go like this: “When you try your best but you don’t succeed … (followed by a bunch of other platitudes) … I will try to fix you.”
No. I’m sorry. That’s not how it works.
It has been painful for my wife this week to watch me fall again. But she is smart enough to know she cannot fix me. She can only stand by and support me, and wait for me to fix myself.
I promise I will try. Moment by moment, day by day, I will try to fix myself by concentrating not on the things I cannot control, but on the things I can.
Like the Bravermans, I have a big, chaotic family that sometimes seems a burden to me.
I have a wife who loves me but cannot fix me. I have three grown stepchildren I love, whose problems I am powerless to fix. I have two grandchildren who make me smile, who are lovely and healthy and perfect. They don’t need fixing.
I have three step-brothers I love but rarely see, two half-sisters and two half-brothers I love from a distance. My wife has four siblings, and together we have twenty nieces and nephews and another one who should arrive right around Christmas.
I will try to fix myself, for now, for a little while at least, by spending time over the holidays with as many of them as I can. I will try to fix myself by phoning the ones who live far away. I will try to fix myself by thinking about what all these people, these loud, complicated, sometimes frustrating, occasionally burdensome people, mean to me.
I will try to fix myself by cuddling my grandkids.
And when I get some time to myself, I will flop down on the couch and put on another episode of Parenthood, and give myself another chance to learn how to be a better person.
Be patient with me. I’m not done growing up.