So far in this project, I’ve tried to avoid talking about the events of the years themselves and instead talk about the particulars of the texts themselves. I was planning to do the same for today’s and just gloss over why this year will always stand out to me, but then I started looking at what I had picked to represent 1992 and realized there was really no way not to talk about it when all three of these were so tied to it at its core.
In 1992 my dad died of cancer. He passed away on Halloween morning and, I still don’t fully understand why, but that night my sister and I still went trick-or-treating. We were nine and 13 and my mom says she thought we just wanted to feel normal one last time before the grieving really set in. So we went out in our costumes and collected our candy. The next day started a new chapter of my life and a stretch of a couple of years where I tried to figure out my feelings and replaced what I lost with movies, TV, and anything I could find to make it hurt a little less.
I wasn’t an orphan, but I nonetheless felt a deep connection to Jack Kelly and the characters of the Disney musical Newsies because only two of them really have parents at all. Not only did they get by fine without them, they sang, they danced, and they damned the man with their newspaper delivery strike. And they were super cute in that Bop Magazine sort of way. All of the guys did their best to project toughness, even though a lot of them couldn’t exactly pull it off what with their years of dance training and appearances on the Nickelodeon variety show Roundhouse. But they put up a good front.
I did the same thing. Went to school every day, acted as normal as I could. Stayed the outgoing cheerful girl I was before, kept up my dance classes and competition appearances, and even performed in the school talent show to a song from, you guessed it, Newsies. In retrospect, it was pretty compartmentalized. I don’t remember once talking to my friends about how much I missed my dad or how things at home were so much different. Perhaps at nine I just lacked the vocabulary to express it, but at home, I felt it.
As my mom tells it, I cried every day for at least a year. I would come home from school and activities and during that time in the evening before bed, my mom would try to read to me and I would just cry about how much I missed my dad. She bore the brunt of pretty much all of it until she found a group through the local Hospice that put kids who lost family members in a room together once a week to talk it out.
There is a similar hole in the shiny veneer of Newsies. Their leader Jack (Christian Bale long before he became a husky whispering eccentric) is by himself on the New York City streets after spending a night with his new friend David and his family. As Jack walks down the fire escape in a shot straight out of West Side Story, Jack starts to sing the movie’s lone ballad, Santa Fe. He spends the rest of his movie putting up a front to his fellow Newsies that his parents are going to come and get him and move out west, but in reality, Jack is an orphan. This song is a time for him to disclose how he tries to convince himself the freedom of no family is better, but he still acknowledges that he wants a different life and, while he may be singing about a city, the New Mexico setting means a lot more than just a place, it is the ideal life he feels like he might never get because of his circumstances.
There is a section in the middle where he breaks out into a solo dance (with marvelous choreography by Kenny Ortega btw), culminating in him temporarily stealing a horse and belting the chorus one last time, letting it all out about what he wants from life. Then, at the end, he buttons back up, reminding that tough guy exterior of the lie he’s convinced himself of—that families are overrated.
That is kind of how my days went, minus the equine theft. I learned to hide how sad I was from my peers and friends and only let it out in front of my poor mom, who never once told me to buck up or stop crying, she just patiently listened night after night putting on her own brave face about the fact she lost her husband.
This is the point in my life where all of us Welman girls learned to be tough. While some of my other friends were learning how important kindness and demureness were and how to flirt and win boys over, we were extolling the virtues of making it on your own, learning not to ask for help, and faking it until you made it, which is perhaps why my attention turned from American Girl books and tea parties to, of all things, American Gladiators. Reruns of the athletic competition show would come on USA after school and I would watch as mere mortals went up against the muscular gladiators with their teased hair, their leotards, and their names like Ice, Viper, and Diamond.
Using a Nerf Blast-a-Ball I got for my birthday, my friend Jenny and I would turn her cul-de-sac into the Gladiator arena. We would set up obstacles and have one of us race between stations trying to lob tennis balls at our makeshift target while the other would attempt to nail the other with our Nerf Blaster. We played Joust on the curb with broomsticks. We got all of the sports balls we had and with the help of a trash can, staged our own version of Powerball.
We played Gladiators every day for weeks. I watched the show regularly as well, hoping one day I could meet my favorite Gladiator, Ice. At a time when my family members constantly reminded me that my sister and I had to stay strong for our mom, I took it the most roided-out, curly-mulleted extreme I could by making the American Gladiators my new role models. I would approach everything like I was pumped up like Hans and Franz and beat the tar out of it with a giant foam Q-Tip. After all, nothing was as hard as Halloween, so everything seemed like a piece of cake.
In the time after we lost my dad, I tended to try and be the perfect child. I buried my head in books, I tried to be strong and happy, and I tried to be the perfect kid who didn’t need help from anyone, let alone boys. My sister, who was in seventh grade when it happened, handled things in her own way. It is her story to share, not mine, so I will sum it up by saying while I shut down and internalized, she chose to rebel a bit in her teenage years. It isn’t surprising we grieved in very different ways. Honestly, what do a nine year old and a 13 year old really share in common in a family without loss? So during this time, we kind went our own ways, that is, unless the Guns’N’Roses video November Rain came on.
Frontman Axl Rose has said this is a song about unrequited love. While the love I have for my dad is certainly not romantic, it does feel incomplete, like I never had a chance to see where our parent/child relationship was going to go. Really, I was more my mom’s kid while Debbie spent time with our dad. At night, my dad tucked her in while my mom read to me.
Shortly before he died, Dad actually took Debbie and her friend to a Guns N’ Roses concert since they were Debbie’s favorite band. My dad was not into that kind of music at all, but he wanted to do something nice for her while he still had the strength and energy, so they went. That might explain why she would obsessively watch this video every time it was on MTV. Yes, like everyone, we also loved the Slash guitar solo in the desert and the mini/maxi wedding dress (which Debbie insisted she would wear at her wedding), but for her it was probably a bittersweet reminder of one of her last memories with him. Not long after that, Debbie stopped being into so much heavy metal music. Her preference switched to rap, and I often wondered if even a little sliver of the reason was the same reason I started to push away from the girly things I used to love so much—because being reminded of the things that made us Daddy’s Little Girls hurt too much to keep them cropping up day in and day out.
Honestly, I still don’t really know how to explain how I behaved in 1992. At the time, I didn’t think much of my obsession with the Gladiators beyond the fact that these adults seemed to get to play on obstacle courses for a living, which seemed pretty damn awesome. I know I loved Newsies just like any of a number of musicals I enjoyed as a kid, and many girls my age loved Christian Bale just as much as I did, even if they had two loving, doting parents. It is only as an adult that I reflect on why I might’ve been motivated to put on Newsies every day after school for at least a year and a half and the answer seems almost pathetically obvious and cliché. Daddy issues. It really always comes back to Daddy issues, doesn’t it?
As a child, I never thought much beyond the surface of this song and the epic nine-minute video that went with it. I was sad like everyone else, because beautiful Stephanie Seymour dies as a newlywed. As an adult though, I think about all the tears I shed that November for the man I was never really going to get to know and I become pretty sure this song about unrequited love probably sunk in a lot deeper than I ever realized.