Yesterday evening I had the rare pleasure of having the house to myself. I pulled the blinds, locked the door and pulled up a chair in front of the blazing fire. With sole charge of the remote control I set back, put my feet up and started to check what was on the tellybox.
Looking through the listings I saw that ‘Stepmom’ starring Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon was on. My finger hovered on the select button for half a second before moving on. You see, I have watched that movie a million times, well a dozen at least. Each time I have sobbed my heart out at the injustice of it all.
Those of you who frequent my blog page will remember me blogging about my Dad who died when I was eleven. Watching movies like ‘Stepmom’ resurrects many memories of the nine months that signalled the inevitable loss of a man who was the foundation stone of our small family.
So you would think I would know better than to watch such movies. Know that hitting the select button would ensure that an evening of heartbreak and tears would ensue. You would think that I would have the good sense to watch something light hearted and joyful.
And I did. For a while. Then I made the fatal mistake of channel hopping during an ad break. The music was enough! I was hooked and crying and it wasn’t even a sad part.
Made in 1998 and set in America, the movie tells the story of a family torn apart by divorce and thrown into further chaos when the mother is diagnosed with cancer. The thing that strikes me each time I see the movie is the honesty and openness that surrounds telling the young children about their mother’s illness. 1998 New York is a far cry from 1980s Ireland.
While my sister and I knew our Dad was sick and had cancer I don’t remember ever being sat down and told. I remember a feeling of foreboding as Dad was transferred from a regional hospital to a city hospital. I also remember that he felt better being transferred as he hadn’t had a proper meal in days and had been told that the biopsy he would have to have entailed being cut from the collar bone to the groin on both sides of his chest! I wasn’t formally told this information but it somehow filtered through.
I remember the worry etched on Mammy Byrnes face when she rang the Mater to check if Dad had arrived and was settled but was told that no patient by the name of Brian Byrne had arrived or was expected to arrive. Frantic phone calls resulted in him finally being tracked down to Baggot Street Hospital.
He was supposed to stay there long enough to have a biopsy. The team decided he would need building up before they could carry out the biopsy. He had only been in the regional hospital a week! Noticing his anxiety about the procedure they had planned, they explained that it was a simple one, a small incision made in his neck through which they would retrieve enough tissue to analyse.
He told them how it had been described to him. He was never sent back to the regional hospital.
I remember the beauty of the building that became so familiar to us. I can still recall the beautiful façade. The ornate front steps. The huge entrance hall and the corridors and wards and the kindness of the staff whenever we arrived to visit our lovely Dad.
I don’t remember being told the severity of the prognosis, I was only ten. I’m sure I wasn’t told. It just filtered through. Life still went on. Buses, cars, people passed by the windows of that beautiful building unaware that for one little family life would never be the same.
Watching the movie last night I was struck by the lack of outside interference. I know! Life is nothing like the movies.
My Dad died almost nine months to the day that he was diagnosed. It seems like such a short time. It was filled with endless trips to hospitals and visits from relatives most of whom seemed like virtual strangers.
Dad was the youngest of fourteen children. While he was the baby of his family he seemed to be wise beyond his years, to this little girl anyhow. He seemed to hold an inner strength that made him tower above most men I knew. As I have mentioned, he was the corner stone of our family, always looking out for and protecting us. He was also a shoulder to lean on for many others, again not something I was told but things filter through, even to kids.
So, the family in the movie had time. Not a lot of time. However, they had uninterrupted time. The difference thirteen years, a continent and film script make to the precious last moments.
I can still sometimes feel the resentment bubbling to the surface when I recall the times my family would arrive at Baggot Street Hospital or St. Anne’s Hospital after an hour’s drive only to have to join a queue to see our Dad. Having been used to launching myself at this big strong man as soon as he walked in the door after work it was very difficult learning to have to stand back and let people we hardly recognised take centre stage.
I loved the times when his treatment would be done and we could take him home and have him all to ourselves. To sit with him, listen to his stories and just bask in his love. Not to have to share those precious moments with anyone other than my family. Selfish. Yes. But I was ten and selfish was my job. As Dad’s cancer progressed and he began to lose his memory those moments became even more precious.
I really believe Mammy Byrne is a strong, loving and empathic person. She opened her heart and her home to all those who wanted to visit Dad in his final weeks and days.
I hope I could show such grace.
I watched that movie last night and I my heart broke as I watched a mother resign herself to the fact that she had to let go. It was beyond her control.
I wondered how difficult it must have been for Dad to let go. As my sister told me, he had no choice.
Times have changed, and people speak much more freely about illness these days. Children are credited with more understanding than we would have been in the 1980s. Looking back, we probably had as much information as the kids in the movie. We just gathered it as it fell.
We only had him for a very short time. Yet, he has shaped our world and who we are. I can see him in my children and my nieces and nephews. I know he would enjoy them all so much.
I’ve made a new, new year’s resolution! No more sad movies!!
In Loving Memory of Brian Byrne, 1948- 1985, much loved.