Lessons from the Lion King
I suffered from reoccurring night-terrors as a child. I would wake up in a cold sweat, my bangs matted to my forehead, having just witnessed the death of my parents. Naturally, I had to check they were both still breathing. I slept with a nightlight in my room but the hallway to their bedroom was dark. The walls were alive with menacing shadows that inched down closer as I walked by with one hand comfortingly tracing the hallway wall. My dad’s continued existence could be confirmed before I reached their bedroom door. His roaring snores made me smile, Daddy’s okay now I just need to check Mommy. I would open their door as quietly as I could. If I accidentally woke my dad up on a work-night I would be in trouble the next morning. I tiptoed to my mom’s side of the bed, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness so that I could ensure her abdomen was still rising and falling. On most nights this ritual provided me with enough relief to return to my room. If I was particularly shaken up, I would gently poke my mom on her forearm and without having to explain she would make room for me to climb in beside her and cuddle me back to sleep.
The first time my mom and I saw the Lion King, it had just come out on VHS and I was seven years old. She was sitting in her wicker armchair embroidering a colourful table cloth. Sunlight poured in from the living room windows. I sat cross-legged a few feet away from the television. Mufasa reminded me of my father, respected by all, strong, and protective of his family. When he plummeted into a stampede of wildebeests, I knew he would be badly hurt. I imagined Simba would be able to call for help, that he would heroically rescue his dad much to Scar’s dismay. Heroes never die. As a distraught Simba nudged his dad and pleaded for him to wake up, I began to cry, “He’s not dead right mom? He’s just sleeping because he’s hurt?”
My mom looked up from her embroidery, “I think he is dead Sofia but don’t cry. He’s not gone. He’s going to become a star now and watch over his family just like Grampa watches over you.” The injustice of the situation resonated with me. I empathized deeply with the lion cub living out my worst nightmare and I hoped that somehow Mufasa would be okay. Much later in the film, when Rafiki tells Simba his father is alive I felt vindicated; I knew the hero wasn’t supposed to die. The powerful scene that follows changed my perception of death and the afterlife. Expecting to see his father, Simba stares down only to find his own reflection in the water. Rafiki tells him, “Your father lives in you.” Simba’s scepticism is quickly dispelled when Mufasa appears as an apparition in the night sky to give Simba some much needed guidance. “Mom how did you know he would be in the stars?” I asked.
“Because that’s what I know is true. My dad isn’t gone. He’s alive in the stories I share about him. I hear his voice when I need advice. I see him in you and in your brothers and sister.”
After watching the Lion King, my night terrors stopped. Instead of letting my worries about the mortality of my parents take hold I focussed on finding them both in myself. The next time we vacationed in Crete, I asked my grandparents to tell me what my parents were like when they were younger. I discovered that my sense of adventure came from my father who joined the navy as a teen to explore the world before deciding to immigrate to Toronto. My thirst for knowledge and love of reading came from my mother. Forced to drop out of elementary school, she independently studied more philosophical and theological texts than she would have been asked to read in University. Rafiki was right, both my parents live in me.
With my night-terrors defeated, I returned to the typical activities of an energetic child, blissfully unaware that one of the most turbulent times in my life was right around the corner. I was playing with my friend from across the street when my mom came over to speak to her parents. It was agreed that I would stay over for a few hours while they went to a doctor’s appointment. Our play-date had been extended and I was thrilled. Later that evening my mom came to pick me up and delivered the bad news. Dad would have to stay in the hospital for the next few weeks. Five of his arteries were clogged and he needed bypass surgery. The doctors prepared my parents for the worst.
I remember how I felt the next day seeing him dressed in a hospital gown and hooked up to machines. Deflated. As if I couldn’t catch my breath. I sat nearby on the floor, pretending to read my book. I didn’t want my parents to see me crying. Someone else saw me though, the Chief of Cardiology. He introduced himself and after I explained my dad was very sick, he asked me to point him out since we were in a room with three other patients. He reassured me that he would do everything he could to help my dad but there was something important he needed me to do in the meantime. My part was simple, to keep my dad’s spirits up in the weeks leading up to his surgery. I took my role seriously and made sure my dad was laughing even while I was away by changing his daily food requests to what I believed to be the strangest options possible. When I would visit after school he would say, “You’ll never guess what they brought me to eat today!” and we would both laugh about the beet soup or broccoli fritters. Staying true to his word, the Chief of Cardiology did his part. He took over my dad’s case and successfully performed the risky bypass surgery that would save his life.
My dad would later say that he fought to stay alive for the chance to spend more time with me. He was a beacon of strength throughout his recovery. His staple stitches started from his ankle and went all the way up to his collar bone. His scar was purple and pronounced. Even though his body still had plenty of healing left to do, Dad felt ready to begin exercising. My mom suggested I accompany him on his walks in case he ever needed me to run home and call for help. I was more than happy to oblige.
I remember traveling at a snail’s pace on our first walk and only making it about 200 meters up the street. Before we turned back, Dad put his closed fist up in the air and said, “Zeto Hellas” (Long Live Greece). It became our catch phrase. Our walks together became longer and longer, and they all included a proud exclamation of “Zeto Hellas” at the half-way mark. Eventually Dad was able to walk faster than I could keep up, so I biked by his side while he completed his 7-kilometre power walks. In the winter our walks continued indoors. We would arrive at the Scarborough Town Centre around 7:45am before all the shops opened. The mall used to have an indoor hot air balloon installation and we would bet on which balloon would get to the top first. Now looking back on it, I realize he would always let me win.
When Dad found out he needed heart surgery he couldn’t change the beginning of his story, the years of inactivity, the smoking, the weight-gain, the unhealthy diet, but he made it his mission to change the next chapter. He quit smoking cold-turkey in the hospital. He followed the heart-healthy diet prescribed by his cardiologist and he exercised every day. He got into great shape. Sometimes, when I’m struggling during a cardio workout, I think back to how hard it must have been for my dad to change his entire lifestyle overnight but how he made it look so easy. He never complained. He never made excuses.
I wish I could tell you that now I call him after every tough workout and say “I did it Dad. It was a crazy one, but I got it done!” That he smiles and says, “Bravo Sofia, I’m proud of you!” like he used to say when I aced a test or won a track meet. But just like we saw in the Lion King, being in peak physical condition doesn’t make you immune to unpredictable circumstances. Mufasa suffered an unthinkable ending and I’m afraid to say the same tragic fate awaited my dad.
Flash forward a decade, I’m in my second year at the University of Toronto. Dad notices a tingling sensation in the toes of his right foot; the partial numbness is causing him to limp slightly. He makes an appointment to see his family doctor and have it checked out. None of us are worried. Daddy is our fearless hero. Whatever the doctors suggest, we are certain he will follow through like a model patient and bounce back in no time.
But what if all the specialists agree that there’s nothing you or anyone can do? What if they tell you that what started in your toes will only continue to spread? That soon you’ll be in a wheel-chair and then paralyzed in a bed. That you’ll become a prisoner in your own body. That you have ALS and that you’re going to die. Not even my dad could change that ending…
In the face of death, he stayed positive. He did what he could to make the most of the time he had left. We found him an unlimited long-distance phone plan so he could keep in touch daily with friends and family in Greece. While I studied in the library downtown, he sent me motivational emails. He composed poetry. Even in his final days, he continued to be supportive and impart parental wisdom.
Life is much less predictable than a Disney movie. The comforting notion that we and all our loved ones will live well into our nineties is just that, a comforting notion, not a guarantee. Starting to consider my own impermanence, I went in for a physical and asked my family doctor if I could have my cholesterol levels checked. She said, “If I told you the test came back already and that your cholesterol levels were a little high what would you do differently?”
I thought about it and said, “Well I would exercise regularly and eat better.”
“Great, then just do that!” she said.
No one can control what tomorrow brings, but we can take steps towards giving ourselves the best chance to live long and happy lives.
The night my dad died, I was more composed than I ever appeared to be in my night-terrors. My mom’s scream pierced through my dreams launching me straight into action. As I called 9-1-1 my mom wailed, pleading with my dad to open his eyes. She remained hopeful while we waited for help to arrive, “His hands are still warm”. To me my dad looked different, as though his spirit no longer resided in his body. His face was more relaxed than it had been in years. The strain from battling ALS was now only present in our living room functioning as a hospice care facility. When the emergency responders began their best efforts to resuscitate my father I went outside to wait on the deck.
Gazing up at the night sky I felt my dad give me one last hug. His arms wrapped tightly around me, giving me strength and confirming my changed worldview. The stars can’t be seen during the day but we feel certain we’ll see them again. I knew with certainty, like my mom knew about Mufasa all those years ago, that my hero wasn’t gone. The stars, once stagnantly embroidered in the tapestry of the sky, twinkled with life as they welcomed Daddy into his new home.
About the Author
Sofia completed her undergraduate degree in English Literature at the University of Toronto and her MA at the University of Waterloo. Her forthcoming publications include Fiction in Cloudbank, nonfiction in Toho Journal and the Rappahannock Review and poetry in Chaleur Magazine and the Tiny Seed Literary Journal.