Wednesday, February 21, 2007

You Can Run, But...

I was 14 when my dad and stepmom married, so I never got particularly close with her family. Soon, I was in my late teens, totally self-absorbed with making films and music and having this amazing love affair with Samantha. It wasn't until Sam & I moved north to Seattle that I got a little more comfy with the Hitchcock clan. My dad was, of course, very close to them. And they rallied when Sam and my father were in the home stretch. When we were on the edge of financial ruin due to medical debt, they stepped in. When dad was in the ICU at UW Hospital, they kept watch in shifts.

My step-uncle Keith recently had what can be described as a mild stroke. But my stepmom just notified me that the doctors have done a CT scan and have found what appears to be a tumor in his lungs. Cancer? Maybe. Please understand that I want so much to be positive and root for the home team, but every time the C-word comes up, I will readily admit that I brace for the worst. Prayers are welcome.

Perhaps I was already warmed up for the conversation with my stepmom. You see, cold meds can wreak havoc on the REMsleep/dreaming thing, and the last couple nights while I've been fighting off the flu bug du jour, I've been having a bunch of nightmares. So this morning, I awoke early and went upstairs to check a couple films off my list. And as whatever passes for fate would have it, both Elizabethtown and Wit were in my red envelopes.

Elizabethtown is a Cameron Crowe film, and as sappy as his material can sometimes be, I have always admired his way of telling a story. From the Fast Times at Ridgemont High screenplay to Say Anything to Singles to Almost Famous, there's a human commonality to be found. In brief, a young professional man's career and future bottom out - he's finished. His girlfriend breaks it off. He will forever be unemployable. And at the moment he is about to commit suicide, his sister calls to tell him their father just died. The film deals with the son going cross country to deal with obscure relations and supervise the memorial and cremation of his father. In the midst of the journey, he meets a woman who reignites his "pilot light".

What I love about the character is that she doesn't distract him from his pain - she supports him in it fully. The message seems to be: Go ahead and give yourself time to wallow in it - give in to the dark, sweet melancholy. Just remember to surface - and when you do, I'm here. As I watched this guy take the urn with his father's ashes on a road trip home, scattering bits of him at places they'd visited together, I was reminded of scattering my dad in the Pacific Ocean off Santa Cruz, CA, where I spent a great deal of my formative years. And of my stepmom's world travels to scatter some of him in places they'd been together, or where he'd always wanted to go. I didn't buy some of the romantic cheese, but some of it was actually dead-on (at least from my own experience). And although some say the film meanders, I would argue that after the death of a parent, your whole goddamn LIFE meanders. So there. Similar in vibe to Garden State. [EDIT: I know I said "similar in vibe to Garden State", but it's not even close to being in the same ballpark of quality - just wanted to clarify]

Wit, on the other hand, was brutal. I don't know why I made myself watch the whole thing, except that Emma Thompson is undeniably brilliant in the role of a career academic with no family who undergoes radical chemotherapy for late-stage ovarian cancer. It's an amazing piece of work and should be required viewing for anyone wanting to go into medicine. Even though much of the film breaks the fourth wall in Emma's monologues to the audience, the character's experience is frighteningly, viscerally real, and spot-on in terms of what I witnessed Samantha endure for almost three years. And that is why I streamed tears for 98 minutes.

The transformation from flashback college student to middle-aged college professor to bald, dying cancer patient is astonishing to behold. The makeup was so accurate there were times I had to do a double-take to make sure I was watching Emma and not Sam. The sunken, glassy eyes; the yellow splotches of jaundiced skin; the mouth sores; the skinny, frail body; the chest port. Thank God she was able to die in relative peace at home - not mistakenly code blue, being strongarmed by a crash team in the hospital. Once again, it reminded me of my dad, who was intubated by a crash team who attempted to revive him. There were no heroic measures taken, but I still think, regretfully, that it was more intervention than he would have ultimately wanted. In the end, that's just my opinion - not what he signed.

Anyway, some powerful stuff. If you are somehow perversely interested in what a terminal cancer patient goes through, read Sam's blog and watch Wit. There's something of human value there.

1 comment:

Ali said...

My mother in law died of cancer when my Remaliah was 6 months old - she was diagnosed while I was pregnant.

Barbara was a woman of great dignity who struggled with the humiliations of this insidious disease. I felt she wanted to die some months before she actually did.

I'll keep Wit in mind for when people comment they can't imagine what it would be like.