Last Saturday I decided to attempt yard work. I am not and have never been good at yard work. Eric and I purposefully planned the landscaping at the house to be as low-maintenance as possible, but even with low-maintenance landscaping, sometimes you just have to get out there and pull weeds.
My mother gave me both my thick hair and clear skin, but she also gave me her utter lack of melanin. My dad and sister can work all day in the yard and turn into two brown hazelnuts. Mom and I walk out to get the mail and come back looking like red-and-white striped candy canes.
I have long dreamed of tanning booths where, instead of paying to get sprayed a splotchy orange, one can get into a booth and come out thoroughly coated with 10,000 SPF. Front and back!
Okay, I mixed my Ross Geller references there, but you feel me. (Screeching: I’m an eight?!)
So weeding. I donned my largest, most obnoxiously large sun hat. I painstakingly applied sweat proof 70 SPF to every visible part of my body. I set an alarm to reapply in two hours. And lo, thusly coated, I went forth to eradicate grass and weeds in what would become an 88°F day without a cloud in the sky.
I listened to my audiobook, startled at garden spiders (screamed every time #arachnophobia), and amassed a growing pile of evicted greenery. When my alarm went off, I dutifully went inside to reapply sunscreen. With some dismay, I noticed two red stripes on my legs. I hoped I was just a little pink from the heat, but used both the spray sunscreen and the lotion variety, and thereafter, tried to position myself in shadier spots.
I don’t know if I rubbed the sunscreen off crawling around in the grass or if I somehow missed large swaths of flesh on the first slathering, but I am sporting one of the worst sunburns of my life. 😭 The left leg, for whatever unfathomable reason, is ten times worse than the right, and, being the supreme snowflake that I am, I also came down with sun sickness (sun poisoning, whatever you want to call it).
Sun sickness is this real dumb thing that happens when you burn badly enough that your immune system is triggered and you come down with flu symptoms. Body aches, chills, fever, nausea. It’s just the absolute best, let me tell you. For three days, I could do nothing but gingerly lay in bed with a spray bottle full of black tea (the tannins in it are supposed to help). I wept any time I had to get up to mince painfully to the bathroom.
None of my sunscreen miracle cures (and I have a host of them) worked and I now have a constellation of tiny pin-prick white blisters from my knee to my ankle. I am still the red of a freshly boiled lobster. The air hurts, as does fabric. I am typing this pantsless, obviously, and keep crying because in an hour I’m going to have to put on my loosest pants for my therapy appointment.
All of this very dramatic whining is just build-up so I can tell you that while I have been passing the time watching the standard sick fare (Austenland, Jane Eyre) I also took a chance on a film I’d never heard of called The Fundamentals of Caring. And guys, Paul Rudd is a vampire and has not aged since Clueless, and Selena Gomez is so adorable I want to boop her on the nose, etc, etc, but above and beyond, this movie is pretty amazing. It was a book first, and I’m going to read it ASAP.
My daughter (recently diagnosed with autism) longs for more books where “it’s just people doing stuff.” She doesn’t need a big adventure or annoying manufactured conflicts that could be solved if the characters just communicated a little; she likes stories where people are largely just living their lives. (Seraphina [affiliate link] is currently scratching this itch for her; I am going to suggest she read Eleanor & Park next.)
This movie is kind of like that. It’s just people living their lives. Paul Rudd’s character, Ben, is dealing with profound loss and the dissolution of his marriage. He decides to take a six-week course to become a certified caregiver. His first client is Trevor (Craig Roberts), a young man with Duchenne muscular dystrophy who has become housebound and terrified of change. (If I have one quibble, I wish they’d used a disabled actor. Craig Roberts does an incredible, award-winning job, but it does feel like a missed opportunity.)
Neither character undergoes some kind of incredible metamorphosis here. They start out as caterpillars who have spun themselves into cocoons, but the movie doesn’t end tidy and neat with the emergence of two breathtaking butterflies. They’re still sloshing around in primordial goo, and that’s the whole point.
This article in Variety interviews the director and he sums it up so beautifully:
[T]he caregiver was just as injured as the person he’s caring for. Neither will get over their circumstances, so how do you make something heroic when they don’t really want to help each other? The growth is microscopic, but I love the little celebration in life. They go from not living to living just a little[.]
NEITHER WILL GET OVER THEIR CIRCUMSTANCES. Do you know how refreshing it is to watch someone carrying heavy grief not end up fixed at the end of the movie? And don’t get me wrong, I like a phoenix rising from the ashes just as much as the next person, but so many movies and books either view real life things (disability, grief, weight, corrective lenses) as things to be fixed… or, they gloss right over big and real burdens in a rush to get to the happy ending.
Tom Hanks’s widower in Sleepless in Seattle is happily relationshipped with Meg Ryan’s Annie by the film’s end—his young son thrilled rather than worried or concerned that this ‘new mother’ will replace his old one. Avatar’s wheelchair-bound Jake Sully ‘gets’ to escape a life without legs and go live happily mobile as an alien on another planet.
Butterflies, butterflies, they’re everywhere. But for most of us, we live primarily in the goo.
Rather than write a plot where Ben ends up with Trevor’s mom or where Trevor flies to Mexico to receive dodgy stem cell treatments and can magically wipe his own ass, instead, the story focuses on broken characters who are still broken, but feel a little more alive by the end of the movie.
That’s beautiful. That’s real life.
Even if I someday meet someone on the top of the Empire State Building and we walk into the night, stealing wondrous glances at one another and holding hands—my children magically okay with some new dude in the kitchen flipping pancakes Sunday mornings—our story doesn’t end with the swell of music and a cross-fade to the New York skyline. Grief doesn’t vanish into the ether, kids don’t automatically acclimatize to big change; there would still be ups and downs and ins and outs.
When movies stay with me, I tend to wonder about what happens to the characters long after the credits roll. Just because Trevor goes on a road trip and lives a little more than he ever has doesn’t mean his life won’t continue to be challenging; he may still find comfort in his familiar routine of waffles and television. Just because Ben has found connection again doesn’t mean he won’t cry in the middle of the night wishing things were different or sit at the cemetery feeling hopeless and lost. Even after triumph (no matter how big or small), it’s normal to dip back into periods of not living much.
Our lives are not inspirational movies that pause permanently on a triumphant frame hold. As awesome as it was to see Trevor pee into a pit standing up (trust me, it’s a very moving scene), he can’t stay there forever. He can’t live on that balcony strapped to a stretcher. That would be weird.
Maybe we are lucky and amass a few trophies during our lives; maybe we have a few shining pee-standing-up moments. But most trophies are shelved amidst a veritable curtain of faded black ‘A for effort’ ribbons and peeling ‘honorable mention’ stickers. There are big gaps where we didn’t enter the painting or run the race at all. And that’s okay, too. That’s life.
The whole internet has written about the passing of Heather B. Hamilton, aka Dooce and though a lot of you reached out to make sure I’d heard the news, I’m not sure the world needs my words added to the pile.
I shared this in an instagram story: “Sending so much love and compassion to her loved ones, as well as some special hugs for those of us in the bizarre OG mommy blogging community who understand just how complicated it can be to attempt to support someone struggling so profoundly. I was only ever a dim and distant star in Heather’s epic orbit, but she undeniably affected me and my trajectory in ways that are difficult to express.”
Maybe one of these days I’ll figure out how to express it.
If you ever loved Heather and would like to help, special 529 funds have been set up for her children’s college funds. Please see this post for more details. Direct links to donate for Leta and for Marlo.