The best movies are true. So true, that its characters aren’t necessarily heralded as heroes or reviled as villains. The players are neither perfect nor irreparable; somewhere in between, they walk the plank of life in synch with their audience. Though such films may sing off-key a time or two—because that’s how life goes—they are pitch perfect in terms of telling the truth. Away From Her, a movie written and directed by Sarah Polley and featuring Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, and Michael Murphy, is one such film. It did not make my list of the best of 2007, but only because I viewed it in 2008.
There isn’t anything complicated about the story. It’s about an aging couple, still very much in love—that make a decision to send the wife, played by Julie Christie—to an assisted living facility. She has shown clear signs of Alzheimer’s Disease and wishes to preserve her own dignity and spare her husband the pain of care giving by entering the facility before her decision making skills vanish with the rest of her mind.
Though the husband (Gordon Pinsent) intellectually understands his wife’s logic and tacitly agrees, he—of course—wishes to preserve their physical union and passively resists it. It’s easy to empathize with Grant Anderson’s hesitation. They have a dreamy existence; a rustic but cozy house in the country, time on their hands, side-by-side cross country skiing, warm coffee, interesting books, a beautiful balance of scintillating and meaningful conversation, and a weathered, mature love.
It’s clear that this couple’s love—like a fractured bone that becomes stronger when broken—has evolved from the breathless excitement that comes from the first discovery of mutual attraction, when all is right with the world—to something infinitely more substantive, rich and ripe with age. With each touch, with each knowing smile, each unbridled laugh, I felt that ambiguous mixture of joy and pain. The joy of witnessing lives well lived; the pain of knowing one of them will likely end prematurely. It’s a rare family that hasn’t been faced with the repercussions of Alzheimer’s Disease or related dementias.
My mother-in-law lived with vascular dementia for over six years before it took her life in March of 2007. When she was no longer able to safely care for herself, we moved her into our home. The slow, methodical horror of witnessing the insidious deterioration of a loved ones mind is torturous. It’s a dilatory death, fraught with the pain of loss. Freedom wanders off with the patients mind: first driving, then cooking, and later—when to visit the bathroom. To a large extent, life is placed on hold while the sick family member receives care. Work and play become secondary to the safe care of the ill family member. One learns to pray for patience. Expectations are lowered. A family of believers is nearly forced to place a full measure of faith and trust in God—not because they are naturally pious—but because there seems no other choice. They draw on hope that God has purpose and providence wrapped in such a perverse, painful package.
When Julie Christie’s character Fiona states, “I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace,” any family that has walked the hazy corridors of dementia related illnesses will cry out “Amen,” in full unison.
Further dramatic tension develops when Julie Christie’s character forms a relationship with another nursing home patient, Aubrey, a wheel chair-bound mute. Grant Anderson can’t help but feel jealousy and pain when Fiona favors her new friend over Grant. He visits her religiously but she leaves him sitting by himself while doting over Aubrey. He fears that she may, on some level, be punishing him for a long-ago dalliance with a beautiful student from his days as a professor. Nevertheless, he shows up every day, watching the lady that inhabits his wife’s body dispense kindness and attention to another man.
In the later stages of the illness, Alzheimer’s patients forget even the most basic things, like what they are doing at the moment, what a bowel movement means, or the importance of reciprocating the phrase, “I love you,” when rendered by a family member. Consequently, caregivers spend significant time redirecting the patient, cleaning up messes, and giving of themselves when little tangible reciprocation can or will be offered.
In the last few days of her life, as my mother-in-law drew her final labored breaths assisted by the noisy ventilator, my wife smiled and quietly said, “I love you, Mom.” Fully expecting to face the aching, deafening silence that she had come to expect for so many months, we were stunned and quietly ecstatic when my mother-in-law stated in a tone that sounded like she had just realized something new, “Well, I love you too, Honey.”
As the cruelty of the illness evolves, Fiona remembers less and less of her former life. Still, in one of the final scenes, Fiona seems to recall her husband and the emotional depth of their relationship when she says something akin to, “You could have left me, but you didn’t. You always came back for me.”
Before I ask my wife to marry me, I ask her the silly question, that could only been crafted by an insecure 21 year-old man: “If I wrecked my car and went into a coma for two years, where would you be when I woke up?” Without hesitation, she said, “By your side.” I didn’t think I needed to ask, but I needed to hear it. Out loud.
I will never forget her response. Or will I?
Among the most noble of characteristics that we see from family of dementia patients are loyalty and enduring love. DC Talk sang, “Love is a verb.” And yet, how deep is the pain that might result from realizing that the only choice in the name of love is to let go: of demands, fear, expectations, and reciprocity?
Away From Her is a film that sensitively addresses the odd tension between letting go and holding tight. This movie seems to exhibit Alzheimer’s disease as a metaphor for married life; what do we grasp, what do we release; what do we remember, what do we forget? And finally (and maybe most importantly), what do we forgive?