Confronting a Parent's Death and 'Stand By Me,' On Its 30th Anniversary
“I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being.”
My mother died in the summer of 1989. I was 13.
A just-barely-a-teenage boy really doesn’t understand death. At that age, we’re all hormones, adrenaline, and idiocy. It took me the better part of a decade to really process and come to peace with my mother’s death — what had happened, why it happened, what her absence meant to me and to my family — but from the beginning, I have always associated my summer of 1989 with Rob Reiner’s 1986 darling Stand By Me, set exactly 30 years before.
That’s not really a surprise, given that the film is in part about a boy coming to grips with death. The main plot thread, of course, is about four young boys using the 1959 Labor Day weekend to go on the kind of adventure young boys wind up taking in the dog days of summer, here to go find the dead body of a missing boy. And while on that journey, one of the boys (Wil Wheaton’s Gordie) begins to really deal with the untimely death of his older brother (raise your hand if you remembered that John Cusack played that older brother) and how it’s affected his family, particularly insofar as his parents have been unable to process it and thereby help him cope. In a truly heartbreaking scene late in the film, Gordie breaks down and confesses the ugly heart of his pain, which is a mix of both missing his brother and dealing with his father’s seeming inability to care for and respect Gordie the way he did for Gordie’s older brother. His friend, Chris (River Phoenix), physically and emotionally surrounds Gordie, giving him the solace his father likely never will.
When I think back on my childhood, Stand By Me is the first time I really encountered death and emotional pain. Sure, there had been other movies, TV shows, and books where characters died and emotions wrecked as a result. But watching Stand By Me, that was the first time I really understood death as a real thing that happened to real people. And so when that real thing happened to my family, I suddenly felt an unbreakable connection to this movie in a way I had never previously experienced, even with my most beloved of books. I understood that I was supposed to be confused, sad, even angry, and that there would be good times, painful times and just plain awkward times ahead. And that was OK.
I watched that movie a lot in the late ’80s and then, for no particular reason, I didn’t watch it again until I was gearing up to write this piece. An interesting thing about movies, like most art, is that they can mean different things to us at different times. There are definitely books I loved for one reason as a kid that I love for a wholly different reason now. Many a youth has fallen in love with Catcher in the Rye only to come to hate it as an adult when they realize that Holden is just the prototypical bratty teen who doesn’t get it yet.
And as I rewatched Stand By Me for the first time in well over a decade, I realized that I had been carrying this film around with me forever, but not for the reasons I thought. Not because of its emotional intersection with my mother’s death, per se, but because the film is really about the type of friendships young boys have. They’re the friendships that help make us into men, and no matter how fleeting they are, whether they’re short lived or long lasting, they are some of the most important relationships we’ll ever have in our lives.
“It happens sometimes, friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant.”
As a burgeoning teen, I spent my summers attending a local-ish daycamp. Almost nobody from my school went there (I recall one or two kids from my grade, at most), and so it was another world for me. At grade school and middle school, I was an unathletic nerd, a somewhat socially awkward kid who enjoyed theater and band, though I wasn’t particularly good at any of it. But at summer camp, I was an athlete. I played sports all day and, for the most part, was surprisingly good at most of it. I was a different boy in the summers, social and sporty and willing to be vocal without fear of ridicule or consequence (though maybe I should have at least thought of the consequences as to others, as I routinely caused inter-camp intramural fights and even got a camp counselor fired). But the biggest difference were my friends. I had a completely different circle of summer friends, two of whom were the Horowitz cousins.
One of the cousins was my age and in my bunk — bunks were our camp equivalent of grades — while the other was a year younger and a bunk below us. I literally never saw either of them during the school year. But in the summer, for a good five or six summers straight, the three of us where thick as thieves. I’ve thought of them from time to time in the years since, but until now, it had really only ever been in the context of telling the story of a single incident that happened shortly after my mom died.
When she died, I took a week off camp. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my counselor had filled the bunk in on why I was gone, so everyone knew my mom had just died when I came back that next week. My first day back, I found myself playing basketball, and in the heat of the game, I fouled a kid. It wasn’t a particularly cheap foul, but it was a foul, and he wound up on his ass. Before I could even try to offer a hand to pick him up, he looks at me with venom in his eyes and says, “You know, I’m glad your mother died.”
You know that scene in Stand By Me when Teddy (Corey Feldman) absolutely loses his shit at junkyard Milo for calling his dad a loon? That. That was me in that moment: Had I previously been hit with gamma rays, I surely would’ve turned into a Hulk right at this second, as I was nothing but pure, unthinking emotion.
The Horowitz cousins were also on the court, and within seconds of me jumping on this kid and beginning to pummel, one of them was pulling me off while the other was dragging the kid over to the restrooms, where the three of us proceeded to beat the living piss out of him. Our counselor eventually caught wind of this mini-teenage mayhem and broke it up, of course asking what the hell was going on. One of the cousins explained (I was too angry and confused to really speak) and the counselor turned to this kid we just laid into, said “I told you to tread lightly” (which is how I learned that there had been a whole talk about me while I was gone) and sent him off to punishment.
It didn’t take long for me to feel regret over this moment. And director Rob Reiner, in such a small moment, so perfectly captures the confusion and heartache a boy can be forced to carry when it comes to family (here because Teddy’s dad was a fucking loon, ear burning and all that). It breaks my heart to watch that scene, and yet I get it. Teddy can say and think the worst about his father. But not Milo. To hear someone else say it, that’s a whole different kind of pain. And for me, in my moment, it probably wasn’t even the fact of the insult itself as much as it was hearing someone refer to my mother as dead, someone who wasn’t family or friend. I understand why I reacted the way I did and, frankly, that physicalized emotional outburst was probably the first step on my long path of healing. But it doesn’t mean I don’t regret it, feel bad about it, or wish I could go back in time and apologize — he was just a dumb kid himself, who made the mistake of simply saying an ugly thing at a very poor moment, and I wish I could have been in a state of emotion and mind to have taken the high road.
But all this isn’t what I really thought about while rewatching Stand By Me. Rather, I suddenly started remembering all of these summer adventures me and the cousins had gone on over the years, our version of a Labor Day weekend adventure in the ’50s, looking for a dead body. The Horowitz cousins and I ditched camp activities to go exploring in the area’s massive woods, being the first people (as we were told while being scolded upon our return) to cut a path through two separate wood sections surrounding the camp lake. We tried to find the rumored burnt marijuana fields. We snuck off to the metal carcass of an old VW bug, exchanging stories of why this old car husk was riddled with bullet holes (in retrospect, of course, I’m pretty sure there were just holes where the metal had rusted through). When we weren’t at camp, we explored anything we could in our suburban neighborhood, culminating in a day long trek through the sewers.
“Legend had it that Milo had trained Chopper not just to sic, but to sic specific parts of the human anatomy. Thus, a kid who had illegally scaled the junk yard fence might hear the dread cry, ‘Chopper, sic balls.’ “
Legend had it that, deep in the woods of our camp, there was a cabin. The Cabin. In the way only a summer camp legend can dupe a kid, we were all led to believe it was occupied by a solitary, crazy murderer with a penchant for shotguns. Nobody had ever seen The Cabin, but we all just knew it was real. And in one of our greatest adventures, we would find The Cabin. We would come back with tales of what it looked like, how we got to look the crazy old man in the eyes just before he raised a shotgun at us, how we outran his shotgun blasts as we retreated to the woods. We would be heroes. Legend. Instead, just as Chopper turned out to be little more than a relatively sweet and unimposing pooch, so too did our vision of a legend fall short. There is of course no Cabin, and all we really got for our adventure was some poison ivy.
What Rob Reiner and his screenwriters did with Stephen King’s novella The Body is package together a different kind of nostalgia movie. Sure, the film is a period piece, very much in and of the late ’50s, and some may watch it and think back fondly on that time. But really, it’s all about nostalgia for a moment. That moment in time that, as Vern (Jerry O’Connell, who, no matter how swole he gets and how long he remains married to Rebecca Romijn, will always be “the fat kid from Stand By Me”) puts it, was “really a good time.”
“Vern didn’t just mean being off limits inside the junk yard or fudging on our folks or going on a hike up the railroad tracks to Harlow. He meant those things, but it seems to me now it was more and that we all knew it. Everything was there and around us. We knew exactly who we were and exactly where we were going. It was grand.”
Frankly, I don’t know how Reiner did it. Sure, he had a King story that was perfectly adapted to work with. But even still, he had to cast these four boys and coax these performances to give us four characters who each, in their own way, remind many of us of different aspects of ourselves at that age. We each knew exactly who we were, and yet we didn’t know a goddamned thing. We would talk about stupid kid things one moment (like pondering whether “Mighty Mouse could beat up Superman” and hearing tales of Lard Ass’s revenge, “a complete and total barfarama”), and face serious life issues the next. Folks look back on their lives and often say that their youth was a simpler time. Fuck that. The problems may have sometimes been simpler, but the impact and import was never greater. That’s the time when we learn to enjoy the fact that, as Gordie says, everything is there and around us, and then we take that everything and use it to make ourselves into grownups.
“Although I hadn’t seen him in more than 10 years, I know I’ll miss him forever.”
That line. That’s it. Written by an adult Gordie (as portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss) shortly after learning about Chris’ untimely death: that’s it. I can’t think of a truer concept given simpler voice in a film. The Horowitz cousins aren’t “gone.” As I wrote this, in fact, it took me all of five minutes to find them on Facebook and see that they’re seemingly healthy and well. But those aren’t the guys I knew. I’ll likely never see either of the cousins again, and even if I did, I wouldn’t really be seeing my Horowitz cousins. I miss those summers, and I miss those cousins. While I regret that moment of rage when a boy said the wrong thing at the wrong time and got his ass beat for it, I love that these two cousins, though not violent types, knew exactly what I needed at that moment, just like Chris seemed to always know exactly what Gordie needed. And they gave it to me, without pause, without comment, and without expectation. And then when it was done, we picked ourselves up and went on our next adventure. Those are the Horowitz cousins that I’ll miss forever.
“He can’t be a dog. He wears a hat and drives a car.” … “God, that’s weird. What the hell is Goofy?”