Dying is hard work. Preparing to die is hard work. Watching someone you love die is hard work. It is the hardest work a family does. Want to know another thing that can be hard work in a family?
Big Fish struck a chord because I encounter so many families with crushingly difficult personal relationships with one another. Having a challenging communication struggle with a family member, especially a parent, can sometimes be “managed” to get through family events–holidays, graduations. In Big Fish, the son simply moved thousands of miles away to avoid the issue. Absent a crisis, there are many ways to get through the family communication muddle in closer proximity and make it past the bad times. Known family “work-arounds” are paths well worn. Happily, eventually, people forget that the graduation party was a disappointment because of one family member’s behavior, or the memory fades of the Christmas that part of the family did not show up even though they were expected, and preparations had been made.
But death in the family is different. It just happens once for each of us. When that does not “go well” as we say, everyone remembers. The consequences can be dire and permanent, relationships irrevocably destroyed. At the time a loved one is dying, a lifetime of good family communication is worth its weight in gold. The stakes are the highest they can be.
Big Fish is about many things, but family communication or lack thereof is at its heart. It is about the consequences of talking without really communicating and the debilitating frustration that can ensue. The son’s strategy of literally distancing himself by living abroad crumbled with the news of his dad’s cancer being beyond chemo treatments. The achingly beautiful but fantastical stories Dad tells Will and others about his life (mostly absent from the family home) evoked entirely different responses from his wife and daughter-in-law than they did from his son. Will’s struggle with “believing for too long” and then learning that what his dad told him “was impossible” became too much to bear. Without a lifetime of good communication, Will arrived at his dad’s deathbed with an empty tank. Many of us share Will’s need to set the record straight, to take one last shot at getting his dad to come clean, to tell the truth and to make things right. “I want to know who you really are!” And dad’s frustrated reply “Who do you want me to be?” Will: “YOURSELF, just yourself!” And dad’s angry reply, “I have been nothing but myself since the day I was born, and if you can’t see that, it’s your failing, not mine.” Will stalks out.
Later, Doc gets a couple of the best lines as he enters the quiet room to check on the unconscious Edward with Will sitting beside him. “I am glad to see you are not trying to have a heartfelt talk. One of my greatest annoyances is people trying to talk to people who can’t hear…”
In the next encounter, happily, Will has made some discoveries among his father’s papers corroborating the stories, and his belief window has been re-opened enough to accommodate his new curiosity. His own reconnaissance work has surfaced chunks of truth in the formerly “impossible” tales. Will needed this evidence to allow him finally to embrace his father. While the film is lovely to watch—the use of imagery through water and color and light are eye-popping—the part of this movie for me that makes it unforgettable is when Will finally understands his dad’s need for him to join the telling of the story. Will does so with grace and with the imagination his father longed for him to find. A father’s final gift. And from the Pearl Jam song at the end as the credits roll: “And the road the old man paved, the broken seams along the way, the rusted signs left just for me, he was guiding me. Love, his own way.”
* Linda Ward is the Vice President of the Center for Practical Bioethics
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Bioethics Film Series
From reproduction to end of life, bioethical issues affect all of us. What better and more fun way to think about them than film? The Center for Practical Bioethics is thrilled to partner with the Tivoli Cinema in Kansas City to present the Bioethics Film Series featuring three iconic films. Following screenings at 7:00 pm, Center staff will lead discussion of each film’s major themes. Tickets may be purchased from the Tivoli in advance or at the door (Adults $9, Students $7)
Kansas City, MO 64111