On Friday I was on a plane heading home and deciding how to fill the time when I noticed a Brittany Spaniel service dog, Bella, in the row ahead of me. Her owner told me they were returning home to Atlanta after months of being away, and it was clear Bella was a seasoned traveller. As we all got settled in, I decided to watch The Whale, which I found in the critically acclaimed films category Delta offers. The main character, Charlie, gives up on himself and ends up obese and alone, and the film is shot entirely from his apartment with a handful of characters coming and going. The movie has received its share of criticism—narrowly depicting the grossness of obesity, unlikable characters, and so on—but I find this single room filmmaking interesting much like I found My Dinner with Andre. The two movies couldn’t be more different, but this cinematic style works when you’ve got a smart script and exceptional performers in the room.
There were stories within this story, and I was taken aback by its triggering effect, and after the credits scrolled off the screen, I was left choked up and teary. What was it? Isolation, loneliness, being different, tasting love and then losing it, the memories that haunt us from sweeter times, or estrangement and painful family relationships? It then dawned on me that seeing Charlie’s struggle to breathe and with tubes in his nose flooded me back to my mother’s battle with emphysema. At the end, she was on oxygen 24/7, and I still wince seeing photos from those days with her breathing paraphernalia so in focus. Most days she sat on her couch at an angle with her elbows resting on her knees to take in what precious little air she could. Her medication left her a swollen blown-up version of herself, and her long, beautiful legs developed permanent elbow-sized divots above each knee. I always thought things would get better despite her deteriorating health unfolding before me.
It was in December a month before she died that I took her to the Fox Theater to see the Nutcracker. Her breathing was now regularly labored, but I thought a little Christmas cheer might bounce her out of this slump, or at least table it for a few hours. She looked festive when I picked her up and we made our way south down Peachtree Street. As I pushed her wheelchair down the theater’s incline, groups of people making their way to their own seats parted ways, opening our path. Here, my mom appeared less like my mom and more like some hunched over woman on oxygen I’d begun wheeling into the theater. She graciously smiled away this worst kind of attention, occasionally interjecting that she can walk but this is more convenient, which wasn’t a lie.
It seemed as if the incline’s momentum grew exponentially, and my slight frame strained to grip the resolute runaway wheelchair. I never wanted her to see me struggle on her account, so I locked eyes with an usher who kindly stepped in to get us to our spot and the chair into park. I was enormously proud of our efforts to even be here and for our festive girls’ night out, but my mother’s self-consciousness was real. Perhaps sitting higher up in the aisle separate from those in the rows below, each unaware of their glorious bottomless breath, she thought about earlier times here with her husband on her arm at Christmastime. Here now did not align with where she imagined she’d ever be, yet for me she’d always be the creative, spirited woman who squeezed the most out of each day, all the while talking up a storm but with breath to spare.
The Nutcracker performance was predictably good, but I was distracted, forcing a smile when she’d look my way, and focusing on the logistics we faced leaving the theater. I noticed there were side exits, and after the show we negotiated our way outside where an attendant stayed with her while I got the car. Among other things, her illness brought incontinence, and these hours with no bathroom break left the car seat underneath her damp. I doubt she even knew, and I didn’t dare mention it, and honestly, to hell with the seats in this convertible I bought with my inheritance from my father’s passing. In a matter of weeks she would become the second parent I’d lose in a span of two years when I was all of 31.
The film’s central character confined to his home with his best years behind him, brought memories of my mom’s last years living in her apartment. Her decorating flair accompanied her everywhere she went, in health and in sickness, and though the apartment complex seemed a bit dowdy to me, she made her space warm and elegant like she did all her homes. It was the right price and in the perfect location, but there was one detail she decided to overlook. The lease stipulated no pets, yet her gorgeous orange tabby, Izzy (short for Isadore), was coming with. Full stop. The work around proved more work keeping Izzy away from the windows and sequestering him when management occasionally knocked, and in time, Izzy grew bored and craved an outside view. And so my mom began to give him one. Eventually either it was a resident who snitched or an apartment staffer who discovered him, but in any event, Izzy had to go. Amid her declining health, witnessing my mother’s lonely longing for Izzy and defeated tears brought me to my knees.
At the end of our lives what is it we most want? Is it to know we were loved, made a difference, felt supported by our body which remained strong, or is it possibly simpler? Maybe it’s nothing more than to have a creature to love and live with and hold close. The Whale dove into deep waters of sadness and longing and life’s meaning and cravings, but it also hovered near sunnier themes of strength, connection, and triumph.
I had simply wanted to while away a few hours and get lost in a movie, but I got much more. With perfect timing and a nose for just what I needed, Bella came by twice for kisses. And then we touched down.