Death and Dragons

” This is a nonfiction piece about making a connection between my grandmother’s death and the movie Dragonheart. “

By Amanda Spangle


Dragon.

It is a word that can evoke thoughts of fear, whimsy, religion, or wonder. Usually an image of a giant long-necked lizard with horns, bat-like wings, four legs, and a spiked tail come to mind. They have appeared in legends throughout human history, from South America to the frozen Arctic.

The dragon from the 1996 film Dragonheart was designed to have the classic look of European dragons. Scales, wings, talons, and the resonating voice of Sean Connery. The creators of Draco wanted to remind us of medieval tales of knights and magic. None of them could have imagined that their Academy-Award-nominated CGI masterpiece could have helped a little girl understand death, and thus change her life.

 

On August 23, 1953, Walt and Doris Spangle gave birth to Corine Rhey Spangle, affectionately known as Connie. She was the classic beautiful baby, with round cheeks, tufts of toe-head blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and a red button mouth. In photos she is either grinning happily or gazing intently into the distance, as if trying to understand the meaning of the universe at three months old. Like most new mothers in the 1950s, Doris followed the doctor’s orders and put Connie into her crib on her belly.

In January 1954, Doris found her lifeless baby in her crib. A “crib death,” was the diagnosis then, now known as SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. According to Child Heath USA, 26 of every 1,000 infants died of unexplainable causes in 1955. By 1980, this statistic dropped to 12, likely due to the change in policy that infants should sleep on their backs. Though there has been extensive research, nobody is sure what causes SIDS.

Walt and Doris went on to have four more children, all boys. Their youngest, Walt, Jr. showed me where the Draco constellation was when I was three years old. I can still find it on clear nights, just off the Big Dipper. In Dragonheart, it is the dragon heaven.

 

In Dragonheart, the protagonist, Bowen, has to kill Draco in order to kill the evil King Einon. A piece of the dragon’s heart is inside the king, rendering him immortal. When Draco dies, he becomes a glowing ball of magic and beauty, presumably a star. He moves up through the night sky, completing the constellation and making the sky explode with stars.

I always cry when Bowen looks up at the star before it shoots away and asks, “And now, Draco, without you, what do we do? Where do we turn?” Draco’s voice replies, “To the stars, Bowen. To the stars.”

 

In 1990, Walt Jr. brought his new girlfriend home to meet his parents. Brandi was quickly a favorite, with her sharp humor and good nature. During their “getting-to-know-you” conversations, Brandi revealed her birthday as August 23rd. Doris became very quiet for the rest of the evening. The next day, photos of Connie were all over the house, photos Walt Jr. had never seen before in his life.

 

On August 4, 1993, Walt and Brandi Spangle gave birth to Amanda Corine Spangle. She was the classic beautiful baby, with round cheeks, no hair, big blue eyes, and a button mouth. In her first Christmas photo, she is grinning like she knows a secret. Like most new mothers in the 1990s, Brandi followed the doctor’s orders and put Amanda into her crib on her back.

By now, Walt and Brandi lived an hour and a half away, but they visited frequently. Doris loved Amanda, but Walt always had a feeling she was confused about whether the baby was theirs or hers. She looked too much like Connie, and Doris’s mind was fading. As Amanda grew, her parents were not allowed to punish her in front of Grandma. When she fell off the tire swing, Doris demanded it be taken down.

Photos of Connie were still up.

 

Dragonheart was debuted in theaters in May 1996, earning a little over $51 million dollars. This was just short of the $57 million dollar budget used to generate a detailed CGI dragon voiced by Sean Connery, and provide the salaries for big-name actors such as Dennis Quaid, David Thewlis, Pete Postlethwaite, and Jason Isaacs. In the New York Times’ review on May 31, 1996, Janet Maslin writes, “In “Dragonheart,” the story’s central fire-breathing creature is so well realized … that the human cast faces an uphill battle. In a film geared to extra-patient 8-year-old viewers, it’s hard to compete with a giant flying toy.”

I wasn’t an 8-year-old when Dragonheart was released on VHS, but my review of the movie was that it was spectacular. I was three, watching it for the hundredth time. The underlying themes of religion, extinction, and disillusionment were slightly above the comprehension of the three-year-old before the screen, but I understood that Bowen the knight was good, King Einon was bad, Brother Gilbert was hilarious, and (most importantly) Draco the dragon became the final star in the constellation from which his name was born.

My parents assumed I liked the movie because I had been obsessed with dinosaurs up to this point, and dragons were sort of like dinosaurs. It inspired my father’s decision to buy me my own TV and VCR, so I just watched that and Dragonheart back to back all day in my bedroom.

Thinking back to those movie binges, I can only recall Draco’s profound final words.

“To the stars.”

 

At 8 AM on April 13th , 1997 my mother got a phone call. My father was working night shifts at the power plant and was asleep.

My parents packed us up and drove the hour and a half to my grandparents’ house. I was very quiet, thinking about the news. When we got there, Stan and Glorianne Weigan, old family friends, had already arrived to comfort my grandfather. Before too long, Uncle Floyd and Uncle Don showed up with their families. Hank was living in Germany.

I followed my usual routine while we were there: I took the box of toys from the guest bedroom and began to play by myself. One toy in particular was my favorite, and I have watched my baby cousins play with it dozens of times: an old Fisher-Price phone on wheels with a bell that dings every once in a while and a red string in the front to pull it around. I would sometimes talk to people on the other end, as all children will, and so the adults ignored me.

This day, however, I hung up the red phone, walked into the living room still dragging it by the red string, and said, “Grandma said everything is okay and she’s with Draco now.”

My parents have talked about this instance often, about how strange it was. Their three-year-old daughter making a connection to death in such a clinical, profound way. About her having a conversation with her just-passed grandmother. I was very serious, and made sure to tell everyone I was not joking. I was serious for a long time afterward.

 

I have two tattoos: a dragon crawling up one shoulder, my father’s initials in the space beside its curved tail and a dragon shaped from the letters of mine and Belle’s initials. They were inspired by my love for my family and my long-lived obsession with mythological fire-breathing lizards. In boxes labelled “CAREFUL” back in my father’s house, wrapped carefully in newspaper, are dozens of dragon figurines. Sculpted glass Chinese dragons, plaster creatures from sketchy gift shops, and two soft plastic figurines of Draco the dragon from the Dragonheart themed birthday cake my mother ordered when I turned 4. All through school, I was the “dragon girl” who drew fire-breathing lizards on scratch paper and read the fantasy books, especially if they featured the D-word in the title.

I think after the events on that day, I was drawn to dragons through a desire to have my grandmother back. Through the years, things change, and I just evolved to keep my childhood love with me. When I try to remember Doris, I can only recall warmth and joy.

My next tattoo will be written in Celtic font, with a constellation behind the words:

“To the stars.”