The 2017 Heartland Film Festival gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in the visions of filmmakers and storytellers, and this years’ offerings — for me — turned over the good earth of buried memories. In “The Tree,” an 88-year-old widow, living independently, decides to make a 600 mile journey back in time. Her anxious young neighbors, who watch over the woman as an assistance to the woman’s daughter, are of two minds when they see her packing her old car for a trip. The wife wants to intercede and forbid and the husband wants to concede to Dorothy Thorp the grace and respect of age, and the freedom to decide. Dorothy’s trip back to Terre Haute, ostensibly to reunite with an old friend, wiped the dust from an album of pain.
When I was someplace north of 50 years old, my duodenum burst, and I was hospitalized. My sister told me, when I was in the hospital, that my mother was getting on a Greyhound bus to travel from Pittsburgh, to St. Louis, to care for me as I recovered from emergency surgery. I told my sister to stop my mother; I was 55 years old, and needed no care from my mommy. “You try to stop her,” was my sister’s dry response, and I recognized that there was no way for me to do that. My mother had earned the right, in ways both different and similar to Dorothy, to decide what she would do, when she would do it, and where that doing would occur. Dorothy went back to the tree, and my mother came to St. Louis.
In the short film “Me and My Father,” Polish filmmaker Alec Pietrzak explored the difficulties a man has navigating a marriage and chid, a demanding job, and a father with Alzheimer’s. The man does what he can to swim against the tide of inevitability, educating himself about the destructive path of the disease through his father’s brain, working to keep him in his family’s home. But Alzheimer’s is a disease that we’ve not found a way to deny, and David must let his father, Edward, go, just as my sister and I had to release our mother to the diabetes and congestive heart failure that had long established residency in her body. In one moment of lucidity, Edward says that he cannot live with the disease, but it is the failure of his body that ultimately takes him away from his son.
My mother’s body had failed her a long time before June 10th, 2010, and once her right leg joined her amputated left toes, she decided that the quality of her life was too poor for her to continue to live. She refused all nutrition, all medication — she would spit out any liquid she suspected of containing drugs — and while my sister and I kept vigil at her bedside, slept her life away. And when I watched Michael Cusack’s animated short film, “After All,” I recalled my mother’s instructions to me, long before she died. “Look in the dead box,” my mother told me, pointing to a box that contained all of the information her surviving children would need after her death. I refused to do so: “MOM! I won’t look in the dead box!” Like the petulant son in Cusask’s film, I did not want to make the inevitability of her death “real.” Cusack’s character finally took the vase his mother had pressed on him in life, and I looked in the dead box after my mother’s death. Perhaps we both came to accept our new lives without our mothers, but appreciate the delights of age.
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