I was looking forward to seeing “The Family Stone” in December 2005, a Christmas comedy movie with an all-star cast that the Wall Street Journal slammed as the ultimate Hollywood liberal family fantasy. The uptight son and his uptight girlfriend leave New York City behind to visit his laid back family in snowy Connecticut. A downhill sled ride into hilarity as this blended family fails to accept the newcomer. But a dark current lurked underneath the hilarity, as the mother has terminal breast cancer. Being the second Christmas without my mother after she died from breast cancer, I wasn’t prepared for this and wept through the end credits.
I haven’t tried to watch “The Family Stone” until this year, the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. I bought a copy on iTunes to see if I could overcome the emotional pain that I associated with the movie. I could not, not then. Between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, which was the second Christmas without my father since he died from throat cancer, I saw the movie a half-dozen times. The emotional pain lessens with each watching. I can now enjoy the humor without being overwhelmed by the sorrow.
The thing that disturbed me about the movie was how I missed all the warning signs in real life.
Several scenes hinted at the mother’s illness in the movie. The pregnant daughter lies down next to her napping mother, who wakes up and asks her who else knows. The laid back son gets his father to admit that something was wrong and wasn’t planning to tell the family until after the holidays. The mother unbuttons her nightgown to reveal a flat chest with a long scar tissue and her husband placing a hand on where a breast once belongs. And, on Christmas morning, the mother tells the uptight son that getting married won’t change the fact that she was sick.
With my parents living in Sacramento after they retired, I saw my mother only three or four times a year when I took Amtrak from Silicon Valley to visit them. Like the mother in the movie, my mother had a waxy complexion that I always associated with old age. When my father called the family together to say goodbye to her on his birthday in March 2004, my mother was nothing but skin and bones on the living room day bed. She died three days later.
Despite seeing him more often after my mother died, I wasn’t aware that he was dying from throat cancer. The only hint that something was wrong was an out-of-the-blue phone call from his older sister about morphine pills, which I knew about but didn’t realize that morphine was a family code word for terminal cancer. On the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death in March 2012, I drove up to Sacramento to discover that my father was nothing but skin and bones. He died six weeks later.
Like the younger adult children in the movie, I was the last one to find out about his illness and his death. Only time will lessen the emotional pain of losing a parent.