Last night we were flipping through Netflix thoughtlessly, trying to figure out what to watch after dinner, when I saw a thumbnail for Robot & Frank. I was pretty sure I’d seen Susan Sarandon’s tiny head in that moment where you’re scrolling through and not reading, so I said, “Wait, wait. Go back. Is that Susan Sarandon?”
It was, and that was enough for it to be my choice. “Let’s watch it.”
To briefly summarize, it turned out to be about a man suffering from dementia, his children, and the robot they hire to help him with day-to-day tasks. Which turned out to be relevant because the day before, my own mother had called me home to Connecticut so she could sit my sister and I down and tell us that she had been diagnosed with dementia.
The diagnosis was a long time coming, not so much a surprise as a pin in the map of what was already a very well-formed idea. Here is what we call this. This is what it acts like.
And by Sunday night I still wasn’t feeling very emotional about it. No tears, no shakes. Just a righting of the ship, sort of. A, “Thank you, and give me a minute.”
So I was surprised at the coincidence of the movie’s theme, but didn’t think much of it.
It was good — truly — and as I was sitting there appreciating its mechanics, trying to locate what was so pleasant, I couldn’t help but think of who sat down and built that story.
Some son out there, some brain full of uncorroborated memories, making something sweet and hopeful out of what feels so isolating and finite. It felt like something written by someone who needed it.
And the more that I thought about him, and what he needed, and what this movie was for him, the more that I felt the weight of it. It. It.
The thought that is scariest, I guess, is that there are these two people I need to know. There is my mother who is receding, the woman who was there are felt and heard and witnessed, and there is my Mother with an M, who is here in the room now and is bummed it is cold outside and is ordering the chicken, how about you? It is painful to mourn this woman who was my first and most enthusiastic witness. The first person to give me a pronoun, probably. To say, “It kicked.” To tell others, “Here, feel.” Acknowledge her. She is here.
I am here.
It is painful to still be here, and to be with parts of the woman I’ve known at any given time, and to also be with other parts. Changed parts, but also new parts. Parts that are the disease. Parts that are angry and embarrassed and commingling right there inside her with the ones that are fading. I hate that the best metaphor my brain knows is a computer thing, but it’s like watching the opacity slowly drop. Here we are standing with 96% of mom. And now 95%. 94.
Anyway, this movie dealt with all of that, but in a way where the screenwriter wasn’t looking for perspective on any relationships — he had wrestled his daddy issues and said goodbye to them, or at least found them a place where they could sit quietly and nap — this movie was just about wanting to give his dad a trap door. To say, yes this is awful and it hurts. It hurts every day in a gross carnal way like the prongs of a backhoe dragging through you, I know. But we still touch each other and we still see each other and whether you can remember what I was for Halloween that year isn’t everything. You can still live. You can still live. You can still live.
So I had no idea I picked the perfect movie for myself last night, but I did. And I watched it, and I cried afterward, and tonight on the train when a little girl and her mom sat down across from me, I watched. The daughter started showing her mom a song she’d learned for class — one about world peace where they act out the lyrics in sign language as they sing. The mother listened and smiled and told her she had done a good job once she was finished. Then their conversation reached a natural lull, both of their eyes wandered, and the mother looked at me with a concerned smile-frown like, “Honey, are you alright?”
I was. I am. I just saw you see her and it was good.