by Kyle Price-Livingston
My favorite film of the year? Birdman. And not because I love Michael Keaton (though I do), or because I love superheroes (though I REALLY do), but because of Sam Thomson (Emma Stone).
Sam is the fiery, brittle daughter of Michael Keaton’s titular hemidemisemi-hero. She is angry, self-destructive and in pain. She is torn between a desire for her absentee father’s attention and a need to punish him for the years of suffering his selfishness has caused her. Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is vaguely aware of this, but can’t quite tear his focus away from himself long enough to help, so instead Sam watches impotently (Ed Norton pun intended) and angrily rolls herself a joint as her dad spirals toward a complete meltdown. And yet Sam gives me hope.
I’m writing this piece on a tiny pocket notepad which has the words “Foxy Lady” emblazoned on the cover along with a neat sketch of a fox. It was by far the coolest notepad available at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’m sitting on a cement bench along a nature trail maintained by the facility. I am resisting the urge to poke cacti. I am hoping to see a roadrunner. I am trying and failing to ignore how much I miss weed.
My mother is inside receiving another of her weekly chemo treatments. I am outside because I would much rather be listening to bird song than sitting in a hospital waiting room, and because I’m too angry at my mom to stay in one place for more than a few minutes. It’s not that she did anything specific today, but being at the clinic with her brings up a lot of things I normally try not to think about. Well, I’m thinking about them now, and I’m about to make all of you do the same. Sorry.
My mother and I have seen each other twice in the last 4 months, once in December, a few weeks after her diagnosis, and now this week because my aunt is out of town and somebody needs to drive my mom to the doctors and to her AA meetings. This is the most frequently we have visited in years.
Mom’s inability to drive herself to these things has nothing to do with her cancer. A combination of psychological disorders, drug and alcohol abuse have stripped her of her coordination and of her ability to care for herself. Over the last 2 years she lost her job (subsequently granted disability retirement, thankfully) her car, her pets, her home, and also surrendered control of her finances. It’s actually a testament to her (now decayed) support system that she held on to those things as long as she did.
About a year ago I flew back to the Northeast to help her move the few of her possessions not covered in vomit or animal feces to sunny Phoenix, AZ, where her saintly sister, a psychologist and nurse practitioner, had agreed to take her in and help her get clean. Mom wasn’t thrilled about this plan, but another looming eviction and a sudden hospitalization due to an “accidental” overdose left her without much choice.
The trouble started long before I was born, of course, but I don’t remember being aware of it until I was about 12. I think it was my dad’s concern that first drew my attention to it. Unlike me, Dad was aware of her psychological problems, and of her long tradition of treating them with hard drugs in her youth (crystal meth mostly; young mom didn’t screw around) and booze as an adult (she would later begin to abuse prescription psychiatric medications as well). It’s not as though I hadn’t been to other kids’ houses and seen how their parents acted, I had just always accepted that my mom was…well…kinda weird.
Please don’t think I’m ascribing her weirdness to drug use (kinda the opposite, in fact) but I, in the selfish way kids have, could not comprehend that she even had problems, let alone that she was so miserable in her day-to-day life that she felt there was no recourse but to numb herself insensible. I mean, in my mind, my brother and I were supposed to be the central features in her existence. How could she be miserable with such great kids?
That’s the kind of insidious thought that leads a young mind down a long rabbit hole, ending in the painful conclusion that if she was miserable I must have made her that way, and that I, then, was definitely not as great as I had always assumed.
Realizing you aren’t the world’s foremost genius and artistic talent is part of growing up, I know, but I don’t think you’re immediately supposed to shift your beliefs to the opposite pole. But that’s what happens when your self-image is challenged before you have a fully developed self. My perception of my own value was still very much wrapped up in what I thought she thought of me. This isn’t supposed to be a long piece (hah!) so I’ll spare you the gory details of my formative years, but suffice it to say it took me a long time to untangle my identity from hers. In some ways, I don’t think I’m done with that yet.
I don’t totally buy into the 12 Step Program. Even at the best of times I am leery of organized religion (or organized anything) and the idea that something as intricate as mastering addiction can be broken up into stages is contrary to the way I think most people work. Our brains just aren’t that tidy. Still, when my mother announced, shortly after her arrival in Arizona, that she was rededicating herself to the AA system, I had to work pretty hard to fight off a glimmer of hope. She’d said this before, after all, and never even earned the 1 month coin.
Were Riggan in Alcoholics Anonymous (or Acclaim Seekers Anonymous or what have you) he’d be somewhere pre-Step 1. He might agree to attend a meeting, might chat with people at the punch bowl, but he wouldn’t share, and he definitely wouldn’t agree that he needs to be there. He, like all addicts, is convinced that if he can just hold out long enough, the universe will rearrange itself to fit his needs, and he’ll get everything he ever wanted or deserved. He doesn’t have a problem, the world has a problem. Unfortunately for Sam, “the world” includes her, whether Riggan would ever admit it or not.
To my surprise, Mom has stuck with the process. She has spent the last 8 months slowly working her way up the ladder, rung by rung, until I actually began to wonder if we might reach Step 9 after all. Step 9 is the amends-making stage, where you apologize to all the people you harmed with your addiction. To be clear, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to forgive her, or even if I wanted to forgive her, but I definitely wanted her to bring us to that bridge, and for me to decide if I wanted to cross it. But that was a long way off. And then she fell.
Last November, seemingly out of nowhere, mom tripped and fractured her left hand. She’d been losing weight over the previous few weeks but that wasn’t uncommon, as her eating habits tend to fluctuate with her depression. The fall itself wasn’t that far outside the norm, either. Mom broke her spine when she was a child and now has fused vertebrae in her lower back. Coordination has never been her strong suit, and drugs and alcohol haven’t helped. Over the last 15 years she’s broken her foot, her ankle, her wrist and her arm along with a host of lesser injuries she hasn’t bothered to mention to me, but which I have seen in her fading scars and bruises. Still, this was her first fall since sobering up, and the injury was pretty severe.
A trip to the hospital yielded blood work with alarming results, and 5 days later we received a diagnosis: Stage 5 pancreatic cancer with metastasis to several other organs. Life expectancy: 1 year with chemo, 6 months without. Mom opted for the chemo, primarily, she says, because she wanted time to work her way up to complete Step 9. I learned all of this in the same conversation. I wish I could tell you what I felt, but I’m pretty sure my brain short circuited for a while there, and I have a hard time remembering it clearly. Sounds healthy, right?
3 weeks later I flew to Phoenix again, ostensibly to do the same thing I’m doing on this trip, but really to give her a chance to have the Step 9 conversation with me. There are a bunch of people on her list, but I was the first person outside of this house to be asked to make the trip, primarily, I think, because Mom thought ours would be the easiest of those talks. In some ways, I was a trial run. A low risk gamble. And that makes me angry. Probably unfairly so.
What is definitely unfair is how angry I am at her for waiting until she’s dying to apologize. It’s unfair because this is not something anyone planned. It’s fucking cancer. It doesn’t give a shit what anybody wants. But I feel like a key facet of Stage 9 has been denied to me. I no longer have a choice about whether or not to tell her I forgive her.
Obviously, forgiveness doesn’t work that way, and I clearly am not yet ready to accept her apology, but I can’t exactly tell her that, can I? And that’s the point. I spent YEARS walking on egg shells around her for fear of upsetting her and setting off a chain reaction of self-destructive behaviors that would then be “my fault” and now I’m finally presented with a situation where she is literally asking me to express all the hurt of the last 20 years and I’m in the exact same boat I’m always in with her. Only more so.
Aside: Don’t worry, Mom won’t read this. She doesn’t read any of my writing. When I was 13 I brought her my first completed short story. She was drunk and depressed and, honest to god, put it down halfway through and told me it was “derivative.” She was probably right, but I haven’t showed her anything since.
I find myself torn, as I always am with her, between trying to make her happy and wanting to make her sad. I want her to feel pain and remorse, but I don’t want her to suffer. The idea that someone might use terminal cancer as a manipulative tool is so disgusting that I can barely bring myself to write it, but I can’t quite force the possibility out of my mind, and that colors our interactions no matter how much I try to ignore it.
So we had the talk. She said the right things. She really did. Her list of offenses was long and detailed, and her regret felt sincere…but it wasn’t enough. I really hoped it would be, but it wasn’t. Still, I did my best to say the right things back. She cried. I cried. We hugged. She moved on to the next person on her list, and I went back to being quietly angry.
It’s not that Sam doesn’t want Riggan’s play to succeed. It’s not that she doesn’t want him to be happy. It’s that Riggan continues to put his own desires ahead of his responsibilities as a parent. The thought that he might receive some validation for doing that without demonstrating true remorse is more than she can stand. He’s not actively trying to make her unhappy, he just cannot fathom why he would put her happiness ahead of his. For Sam, the whole thing is yet another in a lifetime of slaps to the face. (Sidenote: A Lifetime of Slaps To the Face should definitely be the title of a 3 Stooges retrospective)
The final scene in the film is…let’s just say it’s analytically problematic. So EITHER Riggan’s suicide attempt is unsuccessful and it fixes his professional life and relationship with his daughter and, oh yeah, his superpowers are real OR he kills himself and what we’re seeing is what happens to him as/after he dies. I’m not going to try to tell you which it is, because I don’t think we’re supposed to be sure.
It’s totally possible that the latter interpretation is correct. If that’s the case, then I take solace in the fact that by the end of the film, Sam is coming into her own as a person, and trying to think about what will actually make her happy. She hasn’t figured it out yet, but she’s moving in that direction.
My preference, though, is for interpretation 1, for a universe in which, confronted with the possibility of losing him forever, Sam is able to accept her father for the deeply flawed (super)human being he is. The pain of the past isn’t forgotten, but she is able to move past it and find happiness in a new chapter of their relationship. I’m not there yet with my mom. I don’t know if I’ll ever be. I don’t know if I’ll be able to look at her empty hospital bed and then stare up into the sky in wonder and joy because her pain is finally at an end, but I hope I can.