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We'll always have Tatooine: On 'Star Wars,' grief, and family

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Everett Collection

Once, when I was a little boy, I tried to explain Star Wars to my Grandma B.

This would have been post-Return of the Jedi, around 1983, when I was pushing 7 and she was about 62. Grandma was a sharp lady, but pop culture wasn’t part of her lexicon. She knew the litany of Roman Catholic saints the way I could rattle off background figures from “a galaxy far, far away.”

This memory came back to me on the day we buried Grandma, who died last week at the age of 93. The funeral was Friday, 10 a.m. on the East Coast, which was the exact same time Lucasfilm unveiled the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, although that was far from my mind at the time.

“This is Han Solo,” I remember telling her, showing her an action figure that looked more like Dave Barry than Harrison Ford. “He flies the Millennium Falcon and helped Luke rescue Princess Leia.”

“Oh, there’s a princess?” Grandma asked.

“Yeah, this is Princess Leia…” I only had her in Hoth battle gear. “She stole the plans for the Death Star. She’s Luke’s sister.” (No spoiler alert. Sorry, Grandma.)

“And who’s this?” Grandma said, picking up one of the stranger-looking dolls action figures from the pile.

“That’s Hammerhead,” I said.

She turned him in her hands. “What’s he do?”

“He…” Well, umm, what did Hammerhead do? Grandma had me stumped. He wasn’t one of the bounty hunters. I couldn’t even say if he was a good guy or a bad guy. Hammerhead just kind of hung around at the Mos Eisley cantina, and someone at Kenner decided that an alien barfly would make a good children’s toy.

As I recounted the entire Star Wars saga, Grandma listened the way you do to someone who’s speaking a foreign language, smiling and staying alert for little visual cues about when to laugh or nod earnestly. She didn’t have much interest in science fiction. But she loved me, so she endured my love for droids, Wookiees, Darth Vader, and Death Stars. Back then, she also did the same for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, M.A.S.K., Transformers, and Back to the Future.

The Star Wars sidelines

Last Monday, Regal Cinemas stole J.J. Abrams’ thunder and announced it would show the new Episode VII trailer the day after Thanksgiving. It would’ve been my job to chase that down and either confirm or debunk it, but that same morning I was scrambling to book a flight back to Pittsburgh to say goodbye to a lady who once told me, “If you needed a heart, I would give you my heart.”

She had died in her home unexpectedly the night before, which brought a halt to my world, even though it kept spinning for everyone else. Whatever I thought I’d be doing that week—here at the magazine, for the holidays, with my kids over the break—simply spiraled away.

For an Entertainment Weekly writer on the Star Wars beat, missing out on the reveal of that trailer was like rehearsing for a play only to have somebody else take the role on opening night. But life—and death—is like that. Rudely insistent. Force-ful, you might say.

Still, flashes of Star Wars news kept appearing on my periphery. I had just settled onto my connecting flight out of Denver on Monday afternoon when I had a moment to scan Twitter and see the latest postcard Abrams sent out about the 88-second tease he had planned for Friday.

In the midst of grief, the mind reaches for escape, and I would have gladly swapped reality for fantasy for a minute and a half. I was heading back home not only for the funeral of someone close to me, but to face an awkward and tense family situation. It wouldn’t be right to get into it here, but suffice to say we rival the Skywalkers in the family-discord department.

Grandma B. was one of the few we all got along with, and her absence brought together people who hadn’t spoken to each other in a long time. In movie mash-up terms, the whole week was a cross between This Is Where I Leave You and August: Osage County.

But we made it through. I said my goodbyes to Grandma B., who got her nickname from me, her first grandchild. I called her that as a toddler because the name “Breznican” isn’t easy to pronounce, even when it’s your own.

The death of a 93-year-old is no tragedy; that’s a long, full life. But it hurts all the same to face your own years ahead knowing someone you’ve relied on for so long won’t be making the journey with you.

“The dark side… and the light”

I didn’t think much about Star Wars the morning of the funeral, although it was in the back of my mind. We said our farewells to this woman who gave so much of herself to so many for so long. The church was mostly empty. (If you want a big funeral, don’t outlive almost everyone you know.) After that, the funeral caravan drove into the countryside, where Grandma B. was lowered into the frosty ground beside her husband, who had died 36 years before.

Everyone gathered back at the church for a meal in the bingo hall, one last quiet and uncomfortable get-together before going our separate ways. I’m close with my brother Greg, and we decided to leave together. I had a flight back to Los Angeles in a few hours, and he had a long drive back to Virginia that he hoped to complete before it got too late.

We emerged  from the basement of Holy Martyrs parish into a deceptively bright afternoon, the kind that lures you outside with sunlight then slaps your face and bites your fingertips with bitter cold. My brother stopped me beside the parking lot. “You watch it yet?”

I laughed and shook my head. Greg is about three years younger than I am. We were both Star Wars obsessives as kids, one thing that hasn’t changed about us.

Greg took out his phone, and we huddled close on that windswept hill overlooking Tarentum, Pa., and found ourselves transported to the arid sands of what can only be Tatooine. We laughed at the little ball droid. “Cool,” Greg said when the two mini blades popped out of the shadowy Sith’s lightsaber cross guard. Then we heard the familiar fanfare as we watched the Millennium Falcon perform the kind of aerial acrobatics we used to put the toy through in our back yard.

For 88 seconds (a little longer if you count the buffering) we weren’t two grown men gathered to say goodbye to our last surviving grandparent; we were two little kids back in 1982, with our whole lives in front of us and everyone we loved still together and happy and healthy.

It’s easy for some critics to dismiss genre fare as silly escapism, but there’s a reason this storytelling resonates so deeply, transcending generations, and bringing people together in a community of fans that becomes like a family. It’s about more than box-office prospects and Twitter reactions. Writing about movies as a reporter, I find it can be easy to lose sight of that. You can be too close to it, forgetting the wide-eyed wonder when you’re on a deadline and the thing that is playtime for everyone else is your job.

Standing there, shivering and watching that trailer not as a reporter trying to analyze it, but as a civilian simply geeking out with his brother, I was reminded of a news story I saw recently about the father who fashioned a tiny Iron Man costume for his premature baby boy. He said he wanted to give the frail little child a sense of strength, but of course that kid has no idea who or what Iron Man is. The strength of that gesture was for his mother and father, who got to smile at their little boy (and share it with the world) after worrying and fretting over him for so long.

Zero gravity

For a moment while watching that Star Wars trailer, my little brother and I got the same thing, a lift out of our present, somber circumstance—a chance to feel giddy, child-like wonder. That’s the gift of these stories. When the trailer was over, we both exhaled the same two words: “All right.” We’d probably have been more effusive, but it had been a long, grueling week. No shouts or high-fives. A shared smile was enough.

We gave each other one of those clap-on-the-back hugs, and he walked off to his car while I went the other direction toward my rental. “Hey…,” I called back, and Greg turned around. My little brother isn’t so little anymore. He’s not the chubby-cheeked blond cherub from those old family photos, and I’m not the squinty little dork with the missing front tooth. He’s been taller than me for years, and now has a full beard. When he looked back, I noticed how much gray was in it now. We’re a long way from the little guys who used to play at Grandma’s house.

“You think we’ll ever be back here?” I asked. “Together?”

Greg shrugged. “I don’t know—it’s been a long time since I’ve been back before this.”

I nodded, and we waved goodbye. He and I will definitely see each other again. Individually, we’ll probably return to western Pennsylvania from time to time. But the rest of our family, scattered across the country? It’s doubtful all of us will gather together again, at least not in the place we once called home. It’s a lot less like home now that Grandma is gone anyway.

But you never know. Going to the movies is one of the happier memories I have of growing up. And who would’ve guessed just a few years back that we’d all be venturing into the galaxy again? Thirty years ago, when I explained the world of Star Wars to my Grandma, I could not have imagined I’d be explaining it again, three decades later, to my own little girl.

As that trailer shows us, life has a way of surprising you and bringing you back to where you started.

Whatever happens, wherever we go, no matter who’s gone, my family and I will always have Tatooine.