Saturday, March 1, 2008

Away from Her -- a study of loss

An early scene establishes what this movie is about. Fiona (Julie Christy) is putting away the dishes as Grant (Gordon Pinset) dries them. Taking a frying pan, she slowly looks at it, then puts it in the freezer. Grant sees and realizes something is wrong. And it is with her memory. She has Alzheimer’s disease. Away from Her is a dramatic study of the impact of this disease on a person and on a marriage.

At the start, Fiona appears healthy and satisfied. But little by little we see something is wrong: in the sudden puzzled look in her eyes, in the glance back over her shoulder as she tries to remember what she was looking for. Christy does an excellent job of communicating the apprehension she is feeling, yet masking. Even as she is handling the disorientation, she is reading about the progressive effects the disease is having on her brain. She begins to accept the inevitable.

Though he does not want to move his beloved Fiona into this home, understanding the enormity of the step, it is Grant who explores the nursing home. During the initial tour, when the manager wants to take him to the “second floor,” which is reserved for extended care patients who are have “progressed” in the stages of the disease, he does not want to go there. He is still in denial. But Fiona knows she needs to be there.

When Grant finally drives her there to be admitted, he is facing the harsh reality of “cold turkey” separation. He has to leave her there for 30 days without a visit, and they have not been apart for a month in 45 years of marriage. He is the one who cannot be “away from her.” It is as much his story as hers. He almost cannot handle leaving her but she pushes him, with a note that says simply “Go now.”

He must adjust to an empty home, to a life without her smile, to hours skiing in the beautiful Canadian winter landscape alone. Yet, this is not near the difficulty that awaits him when he does return after the 30-day “settling in” period is over. He finds that Fiona has grown attached to Aubrey, a wheel-chair bound man. She hovers over him, gently caressing his hand. How hard that is for Grant, who begins to feel the pangs of jealousy.

Slowly over time, Grant is losing Fiona to Aubrey. And he is not happy about this. He cannot understand why this is happening. Did she simply need a purpose, and caring for Aubrey is her new sense of purpose? She tells him, “He’s less confusing for me.” She can no longer handle the confusion that her own husband causes her. Unwittingly, she is causing him pain and suffering.

As Grant spends long hours waiting and watching his life-long love drift away in front of his very eyes, he sees his marriage dissolve before him. He sees the second-floor beckoning. He finally comes to an acceptance of his situation.

Toward the end of the movie, Grant reaches out to Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), who is in a similar position, though not due to Alzheimer’s. As their friendship develops, she tells him “You have to make a choice to be happy.” The other option is to remain angry, and Grant is quietly angry. This is indeed a terrific ethical thought. How often do we say we are not happy, when it is really a choice we have made? Paul says in Phil 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” We can choose what we focus on; we can choose our attitude. We can choose to be happy.

Grant pursues Marian and commits an infidelity with her. After the act, the viewer is left wondering if it was worth it. Is there regret? It appears that both commit this sin out of a need for physical contact, the simple touch of another person. Both have been missing this. Both need it. Together, they fulfill this need. Yet, how much of it springs from need, and how much from jealousy? Did it really make him happy?

Away from Her raises some interesting philosophical questions: if we lose our memory do we lose our identity? Are we any less human for not remembering who we are and what we have experienced? Does this impact our heavenly future in any way? And what happens to those who are “left behind?” Is their suffering worse than that of the Alzheimer’s sufferer?

At one point, Fiona says, “I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace.” This line sums up our hope. Whatever our situation, whether we are suffering or not, whether we are losing our memory or retaining it, all we really need and should aspire to is a little bit of God’s grace. As the Lord said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Cor. 12:9)
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

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