Monday, December 13, 2010

Maggie 2010: Allan King

#121. Dying at Grace

Watching this film isn't the hard part, though its subject might suggest otherwise. A 2003 documentary from the esteemed Allan King, Canadian tour de force and influential component of cinéma vérité, Dying at Grace follows five terminal patients through their final days at a Toronto palliative care facility. Not exactly the lightest of themes, I know.

But this isn't a disturbing film. Sad, yes. Human, definitively. But even as it dawns on viewers that all five patients look the same near the end, the dark, sallow lines of their failing bodies and the steady gurgle of their slowing breaths is not depicted as grotesque. It simply is.

The hard part comes after the film, when returning to the usual gamut of vibrant TV imagery: the anti-ageing ads, the eHarmony Marry!-go-round, and show after show teasing apart every conflict-filled aspect of our active lives. What lessons can be gleaned from a film like King's, I wondered--and how can any of us hope to make use of those lessons going forward?

Carmela Nardone, Joyce Bone, Eda Simac, Rick Pollard, and Lloyd Greenwood were kind enough to share their last days with Allan King and his crew. Their offering above all else makes the aforementioned question more than mere mental exercise. Consider, then, the diversity of their stories:

Carmela was a devout Catholic, loved by her family and unwilling to complain about any pain that befell her.

Joyce, at least agnostic and just as loved by her community, was afraid to sleep and expressed much frustration with her flagging body.

Eda was a civil servant who refused to see her friends while in hospice, instead maintaining a fierce hope that she would survive her cancer.

Rick was a man with a difficult past--homeless after a brutal childhood, struggling in later years to improve his lot in life--whose memories haunted him near the end.

Lloyd was a minister whose brain cancer caused him immense suffering, and whose family was never far from his bed.

All looked the same in the end. Despite the wildly disparate paths each had taken in their lives, the great equalizer of mortality made everything but each patient's immediate discomfort a matter of little importance. And why not? The hospice beds turned over regularly. Patients entered and left through the morgue mostly within the month. In this strange world of constant deterioration and fleeting last connections, pain management trumped all else.

Thus those who monitored this new way of life--the soft-spoken staff of the Salvation Army Toronto Grace Health Centre--themselves became marvels under King's watchful eye. As a viewer, and an outsider, I didn't agree with all they had to say in gentle conversation with their wards--I didn't care for one nurse's response to Joyce's articulation of embarrassment, for instance; I likewise didn't care for a counsellor's response to Joyce's frustration about her mental state--but the attentiveness of their care speaks for itself.

After all, the inescapable fact is that we all die, and many of us first undergo a considerable measure of bodily deterioration. In the course of this transformation, from youth and vitality to outer forms in which we hardly recognize ourselves, we then tend set aside our politics, our old quarrels, or attachments and our dreams, and enter a new world--a world that, if we're lucky, is well attended by people who hope to ease our discomfort, our pain, for what little time remains.

In this manner the external falls away. We lie down, and we sleep. To those around us we become frail and strange things, until one day we simply cease to wake up. What we leave in our wakes then is ultimately those who are still alive.

Those, that is, who will endure their own final deterioration in time, but who for now have no reason not to anticipate, and relish, all the unpredictable tomorrows that lie somewhere in-between.

Who for now can say, "Wow, what an incredible film," reflect for a moment on King's unrelenting compassion, and then reach for the remote to see what else is on.

This, too, simply is.

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