Death. Birthday. Movie!
A few days ago, it was your eightieth birthday. I’m sitting in a room in a house that is not mine, thousands of miles away from where you are buried. It’s an Airbnb in the apartment that was featured in the show, Californication, starring David Duchovny as the degenerate, but brilliant, writer, Hank Moody. I think you would have liked the show, but it came out after you died, so you never got to watch it. I know for certain you’d appreciate that I am writing in a room, where a writer, who was played an actor who is also a writer, wrote.
When I think about losing you, and everything that came after, it’s like recalling the scenes from a movie that we starred in that I have watched every day since you died, because it plays on a loop in the background of my life. When I learned that an opportunity to take a screenwriting course in Los Angeles with a master teacher started on your birthday, I knew I had to attend. You always encouraged me to write, and your love of movies we watched together so influential to my identity, it was a no brainer. In retrospect, it’s odd that it never occurred to me until now that screenwriting might be my perfect medium.
The teacher said it was impossible to write a screenplay in less than six months unless you had already been writing it in your head for a long time, or perhaps even years. It’s convenient that I have watched the same movie for almost two decades now and know every beat of it by heart. I could probably bang out the first draft of it in a few weeks.
The opening scene is not the one when Mom and I were sitting in the car in the driveway, when she told me that you “might have liver cancer” and I got upset because you were my favorite person in the world and never made me feel bad about myself; when she was hurt because I had said that out loud. After which we took an awkward drive to her work so I could use the car to go to the doctor because my boyfriend at the time thought I should go on the pill.
It’s also not the part when I saw you later that day at the house because you weren’t feeling well and left work early. We didn’t talk about what was going on, because Mom said you guys decided it was best not to tell me, Ian, and Devin until you had the results of the biopsy that had yet to happen, because you didn’t want to worry us, or ruin Christmas. I was being respectful of your wishes then, but I would always wish I hadn’t been, because maybe you’d still be here.
Nor is it the scene where later that night I drove to Mom’s work to pick her up so she could drive me back to the city because I had work in the morning. As soon as we departed, there was a sudden snow squall, making it dangerous to drive. We discussed going back to the house, and how I could take the train in the morning, but I didn’t want to have to get up that early so we kept driving. Subsequent scenes would show how I think the snow was urging me to turn back and how I wished I had, because maybe you would still be here.
Another logical opening scene would be the phone call I got from Mom early the next morning telling me you had collapsed in the night, and I needed to come to the hospital as soon as possible because you were not doing well. But no, the opening scene is the one where I am crossing the Charlestown Bridge from the North End of Boston, on foot, at about 7:00 am on January 7, 2004. I needed to get across the Charles River and down to the Navy yard so I could get to the parking garage where the car my friend agreed to lend me was parked.
I was wearing the new red Patagonia “Inferno” jacket I had received as a gift for Christmas a few weeks before, that I only got because of you, as Mom thought it was ridiculous to spend that much on a jacket. I was relieved to have it on that morning because it was freezing. I’ll never forget how the skin beneath my jeans was stinging from the wind, starting at my mid-thighs, just where the hem of the jacket stopped. She was wrong, that jacket was worth every fucking penny. Propelled by potential thigh frostbite and anxiety, I moved as fast as I could. Since this is the opening scene, I would work in a voiceover to note how unsettling it was to have “I wonder what I’ll wear to Dad’s funeral” pop into my head before I left to get the car, and how I was mad at myself for even thinking such a thing.
Cut to me walking into the hospital; the same place I picked up Mom the night before, except this time at a different entrance. I was the first to arrive; Ian and Lynne, and Devin and Anne, were on their way up from Connecticut. Mom led me into a room not far from the entrance to see you. The room was dimly lit, and you were sitting up in the bed, no machines or anything were attached to you at that point, and you said “Nice jacket, Dolly” when I walked in. You looked happy to see me, but your skin was yellow, and Mom was right back by your side swabbing your mouth with that funny little sponge on a stick because you weren’t able to, or were advised not to, drink water. Sometime thereafter the rest of the family started arriving.
The next pivotal scene, which is likely the climax of the first act, is the one where they lead us away into a small room so we can talk about you. There, we would learn that you have a tumor on your liver the size of a grapefruit and that during the night it ruptured. The reason you collapsed when you tried to get up to go to the bathroom is because you were bleeding to death, from the inside. There was nothing they could do, because there was no way to make it safe to operate, and even if they could stabilize you for surgery, your liver could not be repaired. The doctor described it like trying to sew together an overripe melon; there was no there, there. At this point, I would work in a flashback to illustrate why your liver was so damaged.
You were a Captain in the Army during the Vietnam war, and a man in a foxhole shot you high up on the back of your left thigh. The bullet severed both your sciatic nerve and your femoral artery, and you almost bled to death. While surgery and blood transfusions would save your life and your leg, though it was irreversibly paralyzed, they would also cause you to contract Hepatitis C. I would be sure to show the audience that we always knew at some point you might have a serious problem with your liver, but that despite that knowledge, it didn’t justify what was happening at that point in the movie. You were only sixty-one, still working full-time, your health closely monitored, and you had literally been at the doctor for a check-up the day before.
Cutting back to the room post-flashbacks, the doctor would then explain that the only thing that could be done was to transfer you to the ICU and make you as comfortable as possible while you remained conscious, so we could all have a chance to say goodbye. Then, when we were “ready” the morphine drip would make you fall asleep, and we would wait until you stopped breathing. Fade out.
At this point in the movie, the audience is gutted because this story is grimmer than they were expecting. Yes, it’s a movie about your death, but no one likes to see how a loving father, a disabled veteran no less, gets taken down while the family sits by powerless because it’s hopeless. They’re thinking, “He was at the doctor’s office the day before with a gigantic tumor the size of a cantaloupe or whatever on his liver and the doctor didn’t notice? This is bullshit. I want my fucking money back”. However, their patience will pay off because there are going to be some moments of levity and optimism in the story as well.
Like the screenwriting teacher taught us, it’s all about positive and negative value charges; how the beats of the screenplay create the turning points throughout the film, that make up the scenes, building tension, putting pressure on the protagonist to react to the changes, alternating between positive and negative, and keeping the audience engaged in the story. For instance, that scene where months after your death you made contact, constituting the second most profound change I have ever experienced.
For the first few months after your death, I was a shell of myself; actively crying in public, and eliciting concern from well-meaning strangers anytime I was near a bridge or oncoming traffic, which in Boston, occurred multiple times a day. One day at a bookstore, browsing the cookbook section, a book caught my attention. It was called Talking to Heaven, by the medium James Van Praagh, and it was definitely not a cookbook. Taking it as a sign, before I believed in signs, I bought it.
That was my introduction to the possibility that there is no death and that our lost loved ones are still with us, just in a different form. One day when I was laying in my bed reading it, I started yelling about losing you out loud to no one in particular. At that moment, a small sphere of light appeared on the pages on the book, and I froze. It moved around in small circles across the book as the most comforting, warm energy washed over me. I knew it was you because you always had a book with you, and because the book described those experiences as the departed’s hand reaching in and patting the heart of the bereaved; and that’s how it felt. You patted me on the heart.
The funniest parts of the movie come later during the “Funeral Scene”. It starts as another frigid, gray, January day. The service was held at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Lowell, where you and Mom would be buried together with her parents, Mimi and Bumps. I was wearing black pants and a black turtleneck sweater that I think belonged to my roommate at the time. A friend showed up at the hospital with a duffle bag full of clothes that my roommate had packed, thoughtfully including something black to wear, thereby answering that question about what I would wear to my Dad’s funeral.
I had not cried at the wake the night before, or since, despite being so broken that all I was capable of the few days before the wake was crying and selecting photos of you to glue to poster boards. As if a few poster boards of photos displayed at the wake could ever do your life justice. Cousin Jon, who was teaching high school band at the time, brought his student to play “Taps” on her trumpet, while we all stood by in silence.
What should have been a moving and poignant moment was objectively ruined, though subjectively improved from my perspective, by the fact that she was not very good at playing the trumpet. The song blared on, grossly out of tune, which only served to crank up the absurdity of even being at your funeral in the first place, let alone while a crappy rendition of Taps was played by a bespectacled band geek in a pastel pink cable knit sweater. On your death bed, you told him to lose weight and find a woman, and guess what? When the trumpet player came of age, and after he lost the weight, they got together, and he married her. Then, the comedy gods, perhaps at your instruction, decided to take the absurdity to eleven.
I am not sure I noticed him before he started the eulogy, but as soon as he started talking, I realized he was the same Priest from when Mimi died years before. I remembered Cousin Brian whispering to me during her eulogy that he reminded him of the Priest from The Exorcist because he was wearing this outrageous black wig. And that is where I lost it and started to laugh uncontrollably, powerless against the hysteria. I pulled the turtleneck up to my eyes to cover my mouth and mask my shame; it absorbed the tears streaming down my face because then, technically I was crying, but from laughing so hard. Devin leaned over and said, “Let it go”, and I choked out, “I can’t” and he said “not you. The hair. He needs to let it go.”
Once we were in the limousine waiting to leave, I dreaded what Mom would say about laughing at my own Dad’s funeral. She got in, sat next to me, and said “Jesus, it looks like a squirrel died on his head”. I’ve always wondered if the Priest knew he looked ridiculous and wore that wig deliberately to distract the grieving families from what they were doing at St. Patrick’s. in the first place. If so, he’s really good at his job.
The audience will love the “Funeral Scene” because at some point they will have to watch the part where I had to say goodbye to you. In the moment, all I managed to weep out was that I loved you and didn’t want you to go. You called me Dolly one last time, said you loved me and then said, “Just do your best.” After that, Lynne hugged me and said, “I think he was trying to tell you that you were his favorite”.
For the remaining hours of your life, I stayed in the room with Mom, but everyone else left. It was late then, sometime after 8:00 pm. The room was dark, you were on the drip, and while I am sure you were hooked up to a heart rate monitor, it was quiet. Mom was in the chair, and I sat on her lap and rested my head on her shoulder, like a twenty-six-year-old toddler, and we just held each other and watched you while you breathed. When the rhythm changed and we knew the end was near, I sat on the bed next you and unconsciously matched my own breath to the same rhythm. When the next inhale didn’t come, I held my breath. That is the beat when the beats stopped.
I remember laying my head and chest on your chest and sobbing. My left hand was stroking your head, feeling that you had a dry patch in one spot, and I just kept running my hand over it gently so I would remember even the smallest details. For years later, I had a recurring itch in that exact spot on my head and wondered if you were saying hello.
I don’t recall how long I stayed that way, but I knew as soon as I let go nothing was ever going to be the same and I was not ready. You were my Dad, myhero, my favorite person. How could I leave you in a hospital, alone, with strangers who were going to touch you and put you in a freezer? Probably while they talked over your body about the weather or complained about whatever paperwork they had to do when someone dies during their shift. Then, it was the long walk down the corridor, just me and Mom, our arms around each other; me in my red jacket. The two of us step back out into the cold; end of scene. That was the absolute worst moment of my life. That’s the part of the movie in my head I always skip.
Sometimes, I think about your death in the greater context of how Vietnam veterans continue to die from the injuries they sustained there, the diseases caused by exposures to chemicals used, or by their own hands because they never recovered from the trauma. Ultimately, it was that war that killed you too. You bled to death from a gunshot wound you got in Vietnam; it just took forty years for you to bleed out. You had the luxury of not dying alone and terrified in a jungle halfway around the world and I had the luxury of having you as my Dad.
Since you left, I have tried to do my best, but mainly at the wrong things, so I don’t think it counts. Perhaps this is a good place to end the movie; when I decide to start doing my best at being my authentic self; at being a writer. It could end just like this: I am middle-aged, sitting in room in a house that I don’t own, where a writer, played by an actor who was also a writer, wrote, and I hit send on a submission to a writing contest. I lean back satisfied at having finally produced something, and also because I have shared it. At that moment, the downstairs neighbor starts blasting That’s Life by Frank Sinatra and I just smile. And that’s where it ends because audiences like movies that end on an upward trajectory. They will feel hopeful, even though they don’t get to see if I win the contest, because the movie is not about that.