My Father Lives in Me: On the Lion King, Grief, and Resemblance
“My father, was alive, in me—in my reflection, in my voice, in my posture.”
After my cousin moved out, after my paternal, Korean grandparents moved out, after a previously full house of eight was cut into four, we sat around the dinner table in silence.
The Lion King
My father died twenty-five years ago, and The Lion King made its debut twenty-five years ago. This year, it came back to theaters in the form of Jon Favreau’s version, a computer-animated version that sure sounds like the original, but lacks its depth.
Or at least, that’s what the reviews have told me. I can’t bring myself to see it, not after all of the feelings that it brings up, even years later. I cannot think of the opening without thinking of my family, in that movie theater, watching as the story unfolds.
I do not think I can sit through Mufasa’s death scene again. Mufasa is not felled by cancer, as my father was, but by the machinations of his brother, Scar. Still, the moment when Mufasa plunges, terrified, into a stampeding herd below him, the way that Simba screams, the silence and dust afterward; in that moment, when I was thirteen and in a movie theater, I felt a pain course through my body that I could not name, but now know very well.
But it is not Mufasa’s death scene that haunted me then, and remains affixed to my heart. No, the scene that I still cannot bear to watch, comes later in the film. It takes place in the dead of night, near a pond where Simba reconnects with his past.
“You look a lot like him,” they said to me.
“They,” in this case, was just about everyone in my orbit in the days and weeks after my father’s death. From the mourners who came to gaze at his open casket, who said this to me with a knowing look of both sadness and pride, to family members who held my face in their hands, as they looked for my father, somewhere still alive, in my eyes and nose and hair. They seemed to see him there, maybe, barely haunting my face, but present enough that they were convinced he was there, somewhere.
At his funeral, it was a line I kept hearing. That and “you’re the man of the house now,” another thing that tormented my childhood and ruined my self-worth for decades. I was bad at being the man of the house; I felt like I had to be, that I had to be my father.
Others saw me standing there with my nerdy glasses and firm hair and recalled my dad at his most youthful, most vibrant. They did not see my mom in my face, not around this time. I look more like her now, years later. But at that point in my life, it was too much him, too much dad; he was too visible in the creases and lines of my face, the way my eyes vanished when they smiled like his did. It made people sad to look at me, as if I were the one who was dead.
About a month after my father died, my maternal grandmother came over to our house. By then, I had claimed my father’s old OR scrubs as my PJs. They were comfortable, if a bit too big for me. My father, a surgeon, always wanted me to follow in his footsteps. So I wore the scrubs, maybe to connect back to him, maybe to feel how my future might fit. The pants dragged as I walked, fraying at the ends. The top, overly large on my frame, was big enough for me to get lost in, when I wanted to.
It made people sad to look at me, as if I were the one who was dead.
I was in the garage looking for something when my grandmother walked by. She looked at me, and in a moment of terror, screamed and nearly fell to the floor. In shock, I asked, over and over, “what’s wrong, what’s wrong?” as she stared at me with bewildered eyes. There was the briefest of pauses before she blinked a few times and focused.
“Oh, Noah,” she said, collecting herself. “I thought you were your father.”
“Correction,” says Rafiki, the wise mandrill that serves as Simba’s guide. “I know your father.”
In this moment, Simba feels hope, that perhaps his father is still living. He follows Rafiki across the prairie, the night and the chirping of insects abound. It reminds me, oddly, of the room my father died in. Something about the color palette and the way my father looked at the end, a bluish-greyish memory that won’t detach itself from my mind.
Finally, they stumble on a pond. Rafiki shows Simba his reflection, and Simba says that it’s not his father, just his own face. “Look harder,” Rafiki says.
“He lives in you.”
In the dark of the theater, when I watched this scene, I could not stop crying. My father, was alive, in me—in my reflection, in my voice, in my posture. My eyes, my complexion, the shape of my nose and my mouth, and the tones of my skin—it was all there. It was all him. The weight that had been on me since he fell sick, compounded with his death, and finally collapsed under the weight of this scene. I looked like him. I was expected to be him: a surrogate father, a replacement husband, perhaps even a doctor one day just like him.
I failed at all of these things. But in that theatre, I knew the crushing loss of my father from the earthly plane, but I also knew that he would be alive, always, in my face and in my heart and in the back of my head.
In 1995, months after my father’s death, the Lion King refused to leave pop culture. The music was everywhere, and living in Anaheim, California—home to Disneyland—meant advertising and posters for it lingered.
Disney released not just the official soundtrack for the Lion King, but also a companion album of songs both inspired by and cut from the film. For some reason, I bought it; the first track caught my attention. It’s called “He Lives in You.”
It’s performed by Lebo M, the South African singer and producer who added much of the flair to the Lion King’s music. I first listened to the song in my bed, with my Discman, the one place in the house that felt safe and away from the pain that consumed us.
As the song started, I was swept up in the music. But it was the lyrics that devastated me, that made me cry into my pillow, that had me hitting the rewind button over again to listen to the song over and over again and to really, really feel what the song was saying.
He lives in you
He lives in me
He watches over everything we see
Into the water
Into the truth
In your reflection
He lives in you
I gripped my pillow tighter, thinking of my father’s face, thinking of my own. I missed him—I wished he were alive. I wished it were not my burden to keep his face alive for my family, for my siblings who saw their dead father in me, for me who found my own memories of him awash in the contours of my smile. I was too young, too naïve, too already broken to live up to him.
Because the Lion King remake came out this year, the music has started creeping back into popular culture again. “He Lives in You” is on the soundtrack again, but performed in Lebo M’s native tongue rather than English.
I’m drawn to the music again. When I put it on, I think about how my resemblance to my father has melted away over the years. More of my mother is there, maybe, but more than anything I just look like me. I did not become a doctor like my father, though, as a teacher, I perhaps heal people in different ways. I do not wear his scrubs anymore.
There are moments where I wonder how different my life would have been if he had not died, the paths I would have taken. Maybe I would be more like him if he was actually alive, if he were not just a whisper of reflection in my face.
When I look in the mirror now, I don’t see him as much. But I know he’s there; I know he’ll always be there, a ghost on the planes of my memory, waiting for me to look just a little bit harder to see him again.
Noah Cho teaches middle-school English in the San Francisco Bay Area. His writing has appeared on NPR's CodeSwitch, Shondaland, The Atlantic, and The Toast. He spends most of his free time going on hikes with and taking photos of his doggo, Porkchop.