Who’s the hero?

Are Westley and Buttercup happy about the remake of the swashbuckling 1987 classic, The Princess Bride?

Maybe. But I’m not. It’s one of my favorite films, and I don’t want to see it toyed with, or worse, ruined.

But to be fair, the 1987 version was a labor of love for people who already knew the bestselling William Goldman novel on which the movie was based. Similarly, I suspect the current remake is a labor of love for this generation’s fans of the film. Even Rob Reiner, the director of the original, is involved in the project.

So who am I to stand in the way of a creative homage?

Inconceivable.

When I think of examples of heroic tales, The Princess Bride leaps immediately to mind. That’s probably because Goldman (who originally wrote the story for his kids), in trying to both honor and poke fun at the genre at the same time, has given us the narrative essentials. The Princess Bride is both an adventure story and a romantic comedy: the dashing hero rescues his lady love from the evil prince, outwitting and outdueling anyone who stands in his way.

We don’t have to do “heroic” things, however, to be the heroes and heroines of our own stories. Our stories may be everyday and mundane, or worthy of song and legend. But each of us can be, in a sense, at the center of our own narrative universe, especially in such a highly individualistic climate as the United States. We are the main character. The drama revolves around us. We are the ones confronted with the challenges, the personal and moral dilemmas. We are the ones who must triumph over adversity, make the right decisions, and fulfill our quests.

It can make for great storytelling. But every once in a while, we get a glimpse of what we lose by always being at the center of the tale.

As I wrote about in a previous post, my mother died of COVID and other complications this past Christmas. Since then, my wife and I have been taking care of the necessary details, such as dealing with the mortuary and the bank, cleaning out her apartment, getting things into storage, and finding homes for all the worldly belongings that might still have value to someone else.

One of many…

One of the tasks that fell to me was sorting through old photos. There was a large stack of albums, with pictures dating back to my youth and childhood, my mother’s youth, and even my grandfather’s. There were hundreds of pictures; we couldn’t keep them all.

But which ones should we keep?

Some of the decisions were easy. At times, it seemed as if every picture on a roll of film had to be printed and put in the album, even if it was too fuzzy or dark to make out the faces. There were many near duplicate shots: Okay, I’ll take the picture with you in it, then you take the picture with me in it, then… There were even actual duplicates: the exact same picture appeared on consecutive pages.

Other decisions, however, were harder. Throwing away pictures of family felt disrespectful, even if they were pictures of people I barely knew. And with every album I picked through and then threw away came a sense of regret: What if I change my mind later? Once these pictures are gone, they’re gone, and there’s no getting them back... But trying not to overthink it, I persevered, reducing the entire stack to one smallish box of memories.

I discovered quickly that I had an intrinsic bias in deciding which photos to keep and which not. Pictures of people I didn’t know, for example, were out. After all, with both my parents and all my grandparents gone, there’s no one left who can tell me who these people were. I favored pictures of my own life. Here’s me as a goofy looking baby. Here’s that family vacation to Lake Tahoe. Here’s one of the few Christmas presents I remember from my childhood. Here’s me in my high school ROTC uniform. Here’s our wedding reception…

I saved fewer pictures of my parents’ younger days, or my grandparents’ — and of course, there were fewer of these to save in the first place. But as I looked at the pictures of Mom through the years, it came home to me in a new way: She had a life before I was born. She had a life independent of motherhood even after I was born.

I think of her as “Mom.” But she wasn’t just Mom. She wasn’t just an important character in my story. She had her own story of which she was the heroine, and I was a character in it. She had her own joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams, long before I existed.

Well, of course, you might say. Doesn’t everybody know that? Perhaps. Sort of. But “knowing” it as an intellectual fact isn’t the same as knowing it personally, existentially, to the point of being humble and curious enough to want to know deeply what it was like to walk in her shoes.

I know some of the stories. Looking at the pictures, however, I realized that there were so many more stories to tell. In recent years, as my mother’s health declined, I had thought of looking together at old pictures, and asking, “Who’s that, Mom? Tell me a story.”

Later, I thought to myself, and put the idea out of my mind.

And now, there’s no more “later.”

It is perfectly normal and natural to walk through life as the protagonists of our own dramas, as the heroes and heroines of our own stories. But in so doing, we may miss opportunities for a deeper and more compassionate connection with those around us, with those who are closest to us. And some opportunities, once gone, are gone for good.

Who knows? In the process of learning someone else’s story, we might discover the need to rewrite our own.

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