Making meaning of my relationship with my father via Star Trek.
“Here you are, today of all days, and somehow it seems like the right time for me to finally tell this story. It begins many years ago. I was eighteen and the worst thing that could happen to a young man happened to me. My father died.”
Jake Sisko, “The Visitor,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Season 4, Episode 3)
I was 16 and a half, not quite 18, when my father died, though it is now many years ago. On August 21st, 1995, Raymond Stringer finally succumbed to an 8 year, on-and-off battle with leukemia and almost 15 years of persistent disability. And so today of all days, the 25th anniversary of his death, I want to finally tell the story of my father, and how the diverse tableau of fathers and sons in Star Trek has helped me make sense of my relationship with him and of my complex emotions surrounding his life, and his death.
Unlike the rest of my family, I actually wasn’t in the room the moment he died. After spending another long summer day in the hospital where my father slowly faded from existence, my mother had sent me home to feed Teddy, our family’s Cocker Spaniel. After I got there, evidently reluctant to return to the hospital, I instead lingered with Teddy, turned on the television, and began to rewatch “The Caretaker” — the pilot episode of the most recent Star Trek series, Voyager, which had debuted earlier that year. I was soon thousands of lightyears away in the Delta Quadrant when, like the klaxon of a red alert, the home phone wrenched me back to earth. It was my aunt who informed me in hushed but terse tones that I needed to get back to the hospital, right away. I wouldn’t find out until I arrived, but she had withheld from me, undoubtedly for my own safety, that my father, aged 69, had already died several minutes before. Upon arrival in his room, in an expression of external grief unusual for me by that point in my life, I crumpled into effusive tears which I poured out directly on to his now lifeless chest. I was overcome with guilt for having delayed my return, and I cursed myself for my self-centeredness. I even blamed Voyager. In fact, it was years before I could ever watch the series again because of the events of that day, though I don’t know that I understood that until recently.
But my now lifelong relationship with Star Trek had actually begun several years before that day. I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point in 7th or 8th grade, I discovered reruns of The Next Generation (TNG, for short) on a local cable station. It was a particularly lonely time when, in perhaps not unusual early teen fashion, I felt that I hated the world because I thought all the world hated me. However, every day at 5pm I got to escape for an hour to strange new worlds of adventure where a tight-knit crew of people of all different backgrounds cooperated to make the world around them a better place. This seemed to be the exact antithesis of my daily experience in the Hillside Junior High cafeteria, where students sat in cliques and looked for any reason to make you feel unwelcome. Also, poverty, the most common reason kids found to exclude me, was no longer a barrier in the 24th century, as people in Star Trek strive to better themselves, not to acquire things. Finally, technology, especially medical technology, seemed capable of solving even the most complex challenges in 60 minutes or less. Surely Dr. Crusher could have healed my ailing father. Looking back now, it’s no mystery why I found this particular escape compelling. And from that time on, Star Trek became a constant companion, through good times and bad, helping me make sense of myself, my relationships, and the world around me.
With the benefit of hindsight, I imagine that one of the first things that drew me into Star Trek is that at the center of The Next Generation was Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) — an older, stoic man who bore some resemblance to my own, older, equally stoic father. Like Captain Picard, my father was calm, cool, and collected, and an excellent problem solver. He was generally slow to anger and quick to calm down. However, also like Picard, he was often emotionally distant, especially with children, and emphasized duty and personal responsibility above all else. They were both wise and mature, and quietly nourished a curiosity for history, literature, and archeology. Yet, to engage with my father, even on these topics, you had to go to him in his living room armchair (the equivalent of his “ready room”) — it was almost unheard of for him to come and strike up a conversation with you. Finally, like Picard, my father was a man of settled and secure tastes. Although it was the 1990s, he seemingly had refused to update his wardrobe since the 50s and, much to the embarrassment of my teenage self, he would pick me up from school or football practice dressed like Dixon Hill in a film noir trench coat and fedora.
“Everyone knows, you don’t like kids.”
Wesley Crusher, “Samaritan Snare” TNG (Season 2, Episode 17)
Perhaps it’s strange that I should begin an essay about fathers in Star Trek with Picard, since he is not a father, a fact brought painfully home to him on a few occasions, most notably in the first TNG feature film Generations. However, he certainly has acted as a father figure to several characters in the Star Trek universe over the years, including the android Data, the Romulan Elnor, and of course, Wesley Crusher. Indeed, on a recent rewatching of the second season TNG episode “Samaritan Snare”, I found myself strongly identifying with Wesley (played by Wil Wheaton) who, throughout his run on Next Generation, is often portrayed as aching to find a surrogate for his own prematurely deceased father, Jack. In this particular episode, Picard and the young acting-ensign are forced to share a shuttle craft to Starbase 515 so that Wesley can sit for some Starfleet Academy entrance exams, seemingly the 24th century equivalent of the SATs, and so that the Captain can undergo cardiac replacement surgery, ostensibly a minor procedure by then. The shuttle ride is largely a conceit to force the characters to resolve some tension between the two that had been clumsily set up in the show’s often uneven first season.
The long, awkward journey brought me back to so many similar trips with my dad in the Stringer family shuttlecraft — a 1970s wood-bordered station wagon. I often rode with him on weekends on his errands here and there, probably sometimes even to the hospital for some or other “damned procedure.” And like Picard, he was seemingly more annoyed at the inconvenience of the trip, the potential for embarrassment, the time lost, and, for my father at least, the expense. But instead of Earl Grey Tea and leather-bound novels, it was cigarettes and AM radio that my father used to create distance. So I, like Wesley, would nervously sit and stare, or sometimes toward the end of his life, even drive, never quite knowing whether to speak or to stay silent, what to say or not to say. Though I never had the courage to say it to him, I remember often thinking something along the lines of what Wesley boldly says to Picard during their prolonged shuttle ride: “you don’t like kids.” Which seems odd, since, unlike Picard, my dad had nine of them — five sons with his first wife and the four of us. And I wonder if my dad, unlike Picard, would have protested. I think not — he never seemed to really like any of my friends or ever have much spare time for us. Although, to be fair, between all the demands on his time — work, fixing the car or the house, errands, or trips to the hospital — like a starship captain, he never seemed to have much time for himself either.
But sometimes, just sometimes, my dad would, as Picard eventually does in this episode, lower his shields and talk to me one on one. And I bet, like Wesley, I would light up and feel seen. He, intentionally or not, probably first sparked my interest in history and the ancient world (I’m now a high school Latin teacher). Sometimes on the weekend we would watch “In Search of” (narrated by Leonard Nimoy!) or I might sit near his chair and read through some of his special edition Reader’s Digest books, “Great Mysteries of the Past” or “Unlocking History’s Mysteries,” and ask him questions about things I didn’t know or didn’t understand. I never thought of this before now, but I suppose it’s possible he was ordering those books as much for me as for himself, since, as far as I know, no one but us ever looked at them. There was even one time that he did actually come outside unexpectedly and play basketball with me in the driveway for a while. Which, thinking back, was probably much harder for him than 12 year old me gave him credit for, since he was certainly in some period of remission from leukemia and momentarily free of the crutches or cane he almost always otherwise needed. And, looking back, I need to recognize the times that, even though I was never more than mediocre at any sport, when he was able, he did, in fact, come to see me at Little League or Pee Wee football. At the time I was always too busy being embarrassed and almost wishing he hadn’t come, because he was so different, so much older than the other kids’ dads.
“This weakness disgusts me! …I must feel nothing.”
Sarek, “Sarek” TNG, (Season 3, Episode 23)
Looking back with 25 years of temporal distance, I think some of my father’s emotional distance was likely due to the fact that, like Picard in “Samaritan Snare,” he was afraid of appearing weak in front of his crew. Perhaps my father, just like another famous Trek father, the great Vulcan ambassador Sarek in the eponymous third season TNG episode, was determined to hide his illness, seeing it as a sign of “weakness.” In all the years he was sick, practically my entire childhood since he was first disabled following a nasty fall when I was just two, I don’t remember my father ever once talking about his health to me. It was a topic that was completely off limits. My mother frequently comments, in wistful admiration, that he “never complained. Never asked ‘Why me?’ throughout all those illnesses, all those hospital stays.” And yet, I can imagine underneath his practiced stoic exterior, his inner voice fighting with itself, as Sarek’s does, albeit channelled through Picard following their mindmeld: “No! This weakness disgusts me! I hate it! …But I am a Vulcan. I must feel nothing.”
Perhaps much of it has to do with antiquated ideas around masculinity — human or Vulcan. The great Sarek struggled to hide his emotions at the end of his life and his son Spock, being half human, had to work twice as hard and learn twice as well to hide his emotions in order to be accepted by Vulcan society. Sometimes I wonder if all mothers of sons are not somehow acculturated into thinking they themselves are raising Vulcans since I, more prone to cry as a child than my older brother, was often scolded by my human mother for doing so. And, like Spock, I eventually learned to emulate my father and hide and repress my emotions, afraid to ever look weak, even to the point of internally repeating Sarek’s mantra in times of great emotional pain: “I am Vulcan. I must feel nothing.”
But my father was not oblivious to emotions, even if he carefully hid most of his own. My mother has often told me about this one time, near his end, when she was at my dad’s bedside late at night as he lay wasting away. She began to cry. He did not join her. Rather, he simply wiped away her tears and said nothing. I’ve heard the story so many times that even though I was not there, I can see in my mind’s eye exactly how it unfolded. Sometimes, however, I imagine that, perhaps inside, my father longed to speak to her, and to tell her, to tell us all, how much he loved us, as Sarek’s unrestrained ailing mind does, again via Picard: “I wanted to show you such tenderness. But that is not our way. Spock, Amanda, did you know? Perrin, can you know how much I love you? I do love you!” Sadly there is no mind meld through which someone can one day relay to me the deepest secrets of my father’s katra, so if he did have those thoughts or feelings for us, unlike Spock, I will never know.
Much of the problem was probably just that, like many men, my father and I didn’t know how to show affection for one another. Although there are pictures of him holding me and reading to me when I was a baby, I don’t remember ever being physically close to him before the last few months of his life. Much like Spock’s human mother, Amanda, I remember my own mother often acting as go-between for her husband and her sons, trying to get the men in her life to show affection for one another, when she knew the end was near. None of us, my father, my brother, or I, had problems showing affection to her, just as what emotion they do show, as Vulcans, Spock and Sarek reserve almost entirely for the humans in their life: Amanda, or later Perrin, or Michael Burnham. Though it probably happened, especially when I was little, I don’t remember a single hug with my father, until he was dying, and even then it was because our mother forced it on us and it was always awkward.
“I was wrong about you. And I’m sorry.”
David, Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan
But facing death has a way of making all beings, humans, Vulcans, and probably even Klingons, begin to accept touch. It’s perhaps hard to imagine a figure less comfortable showing his vulnerability than Captain James T. Kirk (especially as originally played by William Shatner). In many ways the embodiment of traditional American masculinity, Captain Kirk of the original Star Trek series (TOS) seemingly went through life with such a self-assured confidence of his own righteousness that he never bothered to stop and look at the trail of emotional wreckage he had left behind him. However, at the opening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, all that seems turned upside down, and the indomitable Captain Kirk has a problem that he can’t quite name. From the opening interactions with his best friends, Spock and Dr. McCoy, we learn it is Kirk’s birthday, but also that the problem simultaneously both is and is not about age. As in, it is not exactly the (notably unspecified) number of years that has him down, but how time has seemingly moved him away from the things he did best. Before long, his past begins catching up with him, quite literally, in the form of an ex-lover, an old enemy, and a previously unknown son. The rest of the Wrath of Khan unfolds as a brilliant exploration of facing one’s past to rediscover one’s future, as he is forced to confront in turn, his ex, Carol, his nemesis, Khan, and eventually, his son, David. However, perhaps the most poignant moment of the entire film is one aspect that I never truly understood or appreciated, until I recently re-watched it through the lens of confronting my own past and my relationship with my own father.
At the very end of the film, in the second to last scene, following Spock’s famed funeral, Kirk’s new-found son David (in an underrated performance by Merritt Butrick) comes to see him in his quarters. The otherwise dauntless Captain Kirk’s first instinct is to run from this awkward emotional encounter, but David bravely obstructs him. Kirk tries a second time to deflect, offering David his drink, but the son he never knew, and has thus far succeeded in not knowing, or really even trying to know, is able to stop him in his tracks: “Lieutenant Saavik was right. You never have faced death.” Kirk, visibly taken aback by this, sinks down into his chair: “No, not like this. I haven’t faced death. I’ve cheated death. I tricked my way out of death …and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity.” Saavik and David were right in that James T. Kirk had never faced nor accepted his own mortality. And without doing that, perhaps one can’t truly love anything. When we think our time is infinite and we are eminently convinced of our own ability to solve any “no-win” scenario, as Kirk was, then any fraught, complicated, or difficult relationship can be patched up later and the risk of confronting these relationships by making oneself vulnerable, surely the essence of love, would seem unnecessary. But the death of Spock had put the lie to Kirk’s professed disbelief in the no-win scenario.
But the scene is as much about David facing reality as Kirk. David had previously constructed a different narrative for his absent father. Met with the choice of a father who could love you but chose not to, or a father who was incapable of loving altogether, David’s psyche chose a narrative that Captain Kirk was incapable of love. However, having witnessed the deep, unfeigned love in Kirk’s eulogy of Spock, he now knows this is not true. He must now construct a new narrative. It is not that Kirk is incapable of love, but having never truly faced mortality, he didn’t know how to love. Not really. Even after laying his best friend to rest, Kirk still hasn’t really come to grips with what he has been confronted with, as he himself admits: “ …I know nothing.” David presses on: “You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.”
KIRK: Just words.
DAVID: But good words. That’s where ideas begin. Maybe you should listen to them.
I was wrong about you and I’m sorry.
KIRK: Is that what you came here to say?
DAVID: Mainly. …And also that I’m …proud, …very proud …to be your son.
This profound, heartfelt exchange is followed by an awkward, uncomfortable embrace. When I was younger, it was this hug that always bothered me. “Your issues have been resolved! Why not a warm, long, loving embrace that is 20 years overdue?” I would silently scream at the TV. Now, instead, through looking back at my own hugs with my father, forced on us by my mother who had faced her husband’s mortality, I understand that David and Kirk’s hug couldn’t, shouldn’t have been any other way. Neither our culture nor Captain Kirk’s ethos had ever trained him, or my father, to demonstrate this kind of love. An awkward hug is the best Kirk and David, or my father and I, could have hoped for. Although I know I had seen this movie a few times before my dad died, I wish I had understood this scene back then, so that I, like David, could have been brave enough to ask my father to face his feelings and so I could have told him, at least once, that I was proud to be his son. Then maybe those hugs wouldn’t have been quite so awkward.
“We explore our lives, day by day”
Benjamin Sisko, “The Emissary,” Deep Space Nine, (Season 1, Episode 1)
But, as a teenager, as much as I admired them all in different ways, I didn’t want Sarek, or Captain Kirk, or even Captain Picard for a father. I wanted Benjamin Sisko. Commander (later Captain) Sisko (masterfully played by Avery Brooks) was the father I wished I’d had. A widower following the tragic death of his wife Jennifer in the Borg attack at the Battle of Wolf 359, Ben Sisko was affectionate and loving with his only son Jake (played by a terrific Cirroc Lofton) in a way that felt so, well, alien to me. The two frequently played baseball together and, while Ben wanted his son to share his interests, he also actively sought to share Jake’s passions, and was even wise enough to give him space when he realized they sometimes did not align. Angelica Jade Bastién has written an excellent piece about the beauty of this relationship elsewhere, but on a recent rewatching of the series premiere, “The Emissary,” what immediately leapt out to me is the physical intimacy of Jake and his father. In the opening scene, Ben comes to find his son fishing on the Holodeck. Upon learning that they have almost arrived at their new home, Jake nervously asks if there will be other kids there. Ben responds with a big laugh and a wide, reassuring smile and the two walk out together with their arms around each other, ready to face this new adventure together. Even now at 41 I am jealous of Jake.
What was also very poignant for me is that this episode is, at its core, the story of a man trying to get over a death — trying to leave some of his past behind so that he can start building a healthier future. Ben’s interaction with the Prophets is all centered around an attempt to explain linear time to a species that exists outside of it, and therefore doesn’t understand the concept. In the end, Sisko only succeeds in his mission by demonstrating that Jennifer, his deceased wife, represents his past and Jake is his future. This connection is driven home by Sisko’s use of the game of baseball, a hobby that fittingly he and Jake share a love for, to explain the human condition as one of exploration of infinite possibilities, but the enjoyment of which is predicated on linear time. “We explore our lives, day by day,” as Ben Sisko tells the Prophets.
While exploring Jennifer’s death with the Prophets, Ben is forced to repeatedly face a pain that he has run from for a long time — much as I am doing now in writing this essay. Just like none of Sisko’s past experiences had prepared him for the death of his wife, none of mine had prepared me for the death of my father. Ultimately, in order to successfully communicate, Ben and the Prophets must get in sync in the present moment by moving out of Sisko’s past. When they do, the wormhole opens up again, and Sisko can return to his son and his future. Almost immediately after stepping out of the airlock onto the station’s Promenade, he sees Jake, excitedly shouts his name and the two run together and share the warmest, most meaningful embrace. The type of hug that only people who have long experience with hugging because they know how to be vulnerable with one another can give. I think it was this inability to be vulnerable with one another that kept my father and I from ever having that kind of hug.
“Find something you love, then do it the best you can.”
Benjamin Sisko, “Shadowplay,” Deep Space Nine, (Season 2, Episode 16)
But it wasn’t just Ben’s physical connection with Jake I envied, but also his deep love of Jake as manifested in his respect of Jake’s individuality. In the second season DS9 episode “Shadowplay,” Commander Sisko decides he wants 15-year-old Jake to take a job shadowing the station’s mechanic, Chief O’Brien (venerable TNG alum Colm Meaney). Interestingly, my dad definitely had more in common with O’Brien than Sisko. Like the Chief, my dad was a tinkerer who often spent long hours trying to fix the WoodWarrior Mark I, the older version of the family station wagon which sat immobile in our driveway for years, serving mostly as spare parts for the WoodWarrior Mark II. My father, like Chief O’Brien, had also enlisted, in this case in the US Navy, achieving the rank of quartermaster, third class, on the Pacific Flagship, the USS Eldorado, 1943–46, during the Second World War. And, like my dad, throughout Deep Space Nine we get a sense that, although he very much loves his family, O’Brien is at least as dedicated to his work and his sense of duty as anything else. (Did he have to accept all those ridiculously dangerous away missions?) Anyway, Jake eventually tells Chief O’Brien that he doesn’t want to join Starfleet, but that he’s afraid of telling his father. The Chief is able to convince Jake that he should tell him and, more importantly, that his father will understand. When Jake does get the words out to that night before dinner, his father’s reaction catches him off guard:
JAKE: Dad, I don’t want to join Starfleet.
SISKO: Since when?
JAKE: Since forever. Starfleet is too much like you. I need to find what’s me…
Does that make any sense?
SISKO: Perfect sense.
JAKE: It does?
SISKO: It’s your life, Jake. You have to choose your own way. There is only one thing I want from you. Find something you love, then do it the best you can.
JAKE: I’ll try.
SISKO: Good. Then you’ll make the old man proud.
In fact, the conversation that Jake bravely has with his father is one that I had feared for years. Because of my father’s own Navy record, and that of my uncle, and my older two cousins whom I idolized as a child, I spent most of my teenage years convinced that I had to join the Navy as well, even though I had no interest in doing so. But, in the end, this was another conversation we never had, due to his premature death. I can only hope my dad would have given the same response as Jake’s dad, though I’ll never know for sure. For what it is worth, I did ultimately find something I love, teaching, and I work every day to be the best I can be at it.
“Let go, Jake. If not for yourself, then for me.”
Benjamin Sisko, “The Visitor,” Deep Space Nine, (Season 4, Episode 3)
This rich father-son relationship between Ben and Jake Sisko is, however, probably best articulated in the aforementioned second episode of the fourth season of DS9, “The Visitor.” It opens with a disorienting premise — an elderly Jake Sisko (here played by Star Trek veteran Tony Todd), at some indistinct point in the future (as in, even further in the future than the show’s mid 24th century setting), meets a young visitor who has come to to tell Jake how much she admires his work and to ask him why he stopped writing. Elderly Jake informs her that, because she happened to show up on this very day, he is finally ready to tell his story.
He begins where we did, at his father’s death, which happened when he was 18. This bit of information announces to the viewer that Benjamin Sisko is about to die sometime very soon in the show’s ordinary timeline. Elderly Jake goes on to narrate that during a visit to the wormhole to witness it undergo an “inversion,” an accident drags Captain Sisko into subspace, causing him to vanish right before his son’s eyes. After an inconclusive investigation, Ben Sisko is declared dead, the crew mourns him and begins to move on with life — all except Jake that is. In fact, as time goes on, following a series of unexplained momentary visions of his father spread out over several years, Jake begins to believe that Ben Sisko is not, in fact, dead, but rather somehow trapped in subspace. This realization eventually causes Jake to abandon his flourishing career as a writer in order to devote himself entirely to science in an effort to somehow rescue his father. This ultimately becomes an obsession for Jake, causing him to sacrifice his entire life, including his own future family.
Throughout this alternate timeline, Ben Sisko periodically reappears to Jake, and each time he does, he only wants to know how Jake is, what his life is like, if he is happy. Jake instead, at each visit is consumed with fear, grief, guilt, and regret to the point of speechlessness. Like Jake, in my ordinary timeline of the last 25 years, every time I would think of my father, I was filled with fear, grief, guilt, and regret. So at some point, I decided it was better, or at least safer, to confine him to oblivion. Ultimately, after many years and several failed attempts, elderly Jake realizes that the solution, instead of trying to bring his father back, was rather to let him go. Elderly Jake would have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his father and he does so, not just for himself, but, as he says, for the 18-year-old boy that needed him. As the audience, we are somewhat consoled by the fact that, through the miracle of science-fiction, it means Ben Sisko will be returned to life and to his son at the original inflection point. Sadly, there is no such miracle awaiting those of us that have lost our fathers in the real world. But that’s missing the point. It is not that magical return of Ben Sisko to Season 4 of Deep Space Nine we are meant to dwell on, but rather, the moral of the story lies in letting go.
In fact, writing this has also been an exercise in letting go for me. For the last several years, I’ve been engaged in the active practice of Narrative Therapy, a form of talk therapy based on the idea that our emotional distress is often the product of the false or incomplete narratives we have written for ourselves, and that we can re-author these narratives through reintegrating more complete understandings of the people and the events that have shaped us. I wrote about my father’s death once and only once, about a year after it happened, for my college essay. I no longer have a copy and I don’t really remember much of what I wrote, although I recently ran into my high school English teacher at a conference and she said she still reads it to her classes each year as an example of how to write a college essay, so I guess it was pretty good (humble brag). But after that, I largely confined my father to a mental oblivion as far removed from me and as unreachable as subspace or the inside of a wormhole. And though I’ve done much academic writing since then, that was the last time I wrote anything this personal for public consumption.
When Elderly Jake decided on a plan to let go of his father, when he accepted this new understanding of his father as unretrievable, it had the correlated benefit of freeing him to write again. In a sort of inversion of Jake’s situation, for me, it was letting go of the forced repression of memories of my father I’ve engaged in for so long, and rather actively calling forth the echoes of him and reintegrating them into my incomplete narrative of his life and our relationship, that has freed me to process these feelings. It has allowed me to let go of the comfort of oblivion, and, I hope, it will serve as a first step of reintegrating a more complete understanding of him into my narrative and into my life.
Maybe, in fact, our situations are not so different after all. Jake letting go of trying to drag his father back into existence in his timeline was ultimately the secret to restoring Ben to the original timeline. But I think it is worth remembering that this letting go allowed Elderly Jake to “rescue” his father in the alternate timeline as well. As in, this resolution to let go finally allowed Elderly Jake the emotional space necessary to begin writing again, and he was finally able to tell his story to his visitor, the young writer Melanie, and therefore, in some way, to “save” Ben in the alternate timeline as well. Though we never find out what he has written, we can only imagine that it was the story of his father that Elderly Jake gives to her, and therefore, Ben Sisko will live on in that alternate timeline as well. Much as Dr. McCoy says about Spock to everyone and no one at the end of Wrath of Khan, “he’s not really dead, as long as we remember him.”
I don’t remember seeing “The Visitor” when it was originally on. I imagine I did not, because I’m quite sure I would have been far too raw not to remember it if I had — it originally aired on October 9, 1995, just six weeks after my father died. Rather I first recall watching it about 10 years later in reruns on a visit home from my life in Italy (ca. 2005/6). And when I saw it, I cried and cried, as I have every time I’ve summoned the courage to watch it since, including just a few weeks ago to write this essay. Part of the genesis and process of writing this essay has been about figuring out why. Of course, the writing, the acting, and the direction are all sublime, and so I think it’s a safe bet even Vulcans have to choke back tears upon watching it. Also, I cry for Ben and Jake, who often feel more like friends and family to me than fictional characters. And, even though I know Ben is coming back to Jake at the end of the episode, I also know (spoiler alert) that a slightly older Jake will ultimately lose his father again at the series’ end. In an interesting bit of symmetry, “The Visitor” stands almost exactly at the midpoint of the series, and both calls back to the first episode, the aforementioned premiere “The Emissary,” in which Ben Sisko is briefly thought to have been lost inside the wormhole, and the series finale, “What We Leave Behind” where Ben will again leave Jake by disappearing into the same wormhole around which all of Deep Space Nine revolves.
So of course I cry for the Siskos, but I also know I also cry for myself and for my loss — for the lost time and the lost relationship with my father. I sometimes have asked myself, on the rare occasions I have allowed myself to think of my father, if he were to drop in on me from time to time, as Ben does in “The Visitor,” what would he see? What would he think? Would he like me? And maybe the question that bothers me most: would he be proud of me? And I honestly don’t know, nor can I ever know.
“It’s difficult to explain. It’s not linear.”
Benjamin Sisko, “What We Leave Behind,” Deep Space Nine
(Season 7, Episode 25, Series Finale)
A recurring question for me throughout this process has been, “how do I honor my father and the man he was, and yet still be the very different man that I want to be?” Certainly there were and are things I admire about him and seek to emulate. His courage and steadfastness were a source of strength for us all, and I readily admit that many of the choices and opportunities that I have had available to me in life are due to his and my mother’s hard work and sacrifice (he seemingly did not believe in the “no win scenario” when it came to money matters). My father was bright and curious, generally very patient and kind, even to acquaintances and strangers, and, when at ease, could be quite silly and quick witted. In those ways, I think I am much like him. I am hard working, curious, and resilient. I am patient and kind, and I, at least, think I’m hilarious.
But, there were things I didn’t like about him too, things which have in some ways shaped my own personality, mistakes I’ve sought not to repeat. When angry or disappointed, he could be excessively harsh, especially on my older sister, and he was generally much too distant with all of us. He ruled by fear more than love, and was often as parsimonious with his praise as with his money. These are all traits I’ve proactively sought to avoid. Certainly my politics don’t match what I remember of his — he was always seemingly suspicious of government, education, and unions, whereas I am a progressive public school teacher and a strong proponent of organized labor. And I have made very different choices than he did — he was married twice and had 9 kids, I’ve never been married and I have none. And so sometimes I think our relationship wouldn’t be any better now than it was back then.
So how do I reconcile these things? How do I synchronize the relationship I had as a boy with the man my father was, and the relationship I have now as a man with my father who no longer is? As Ben Sisko says after disappearing into the wormhole for good in the DS9 finale, “It’s difficult to explain. It’s not linear.”
But if Star Trek has taught me anything, it is that people and relationships are complex and that life is about loving and appreciating each other because of our differences, and that love need not be limited by space and time. So like Elderly Jake in “The Visitor,” now that I have accepted that my father is gone forever, at least from this timeline, I get to write the narrative of our relationship as I choose. And so, for the boy who lost his father twenty five years ago and for the man I am now, I’m going to start by choosing to write that, whatever differences we may have, he would be proud of me — as I am proud of him.
Raymond E. Stringer, November 18, 1925 — August 21, 1995.
Requiescat in pace.
Special thanks to my readers, for their time and useful edits and suggestions, first and foremost my therapist, Bailey Schendell, as well as my dear friends, in alphabetical order, Nick Danis, Katie De Boer, Amanda McCombs, Amy Pistone, and Skye Shirley.