a still alice ash wednesday

I did not make it to an Ash Wednesday service this year. It was cold and icy here, and the service I was going to got cancelled.

Some years ago at an Ash Wednesday service, the minister smudged my forehead and, I assume, spoke the traditional “from dust you came, to dust you will return.” But I did not hear him. What I heard instead were these words repeating in my head: all of this is going away from you. Your wife, your kids, your friends, this congregation, this building, all you possess, all you know, your body, your breath, your you. All of this is going away, and the going away has already begun.

And see? This year the Ash Wednesday service went away, too.

But yesterday, four days into the forty of Lent, at the Fine Arts Theater downtown, I got ambushed by Ash Wednesday.

I might should have seen it coming. Jeanine and I were there to see Still Alice, the story of a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. I heard a film critic on NPR call it a horror movie for adults. So it is testament to my powers of denial and possibly to my shallowness that, even knowing the serious nature of the film, I was in a decidedly unserious mood beforehand. To wit, I had this exchange with our ultra-funny friend Missy Harris outside the theater:

“You’re the best,” she greeted me. This is Part One of an inside joke we share.

“You’re the best,” I returned. This is Part Two.

“What’re y’all doing?”

“We’re going to the movies, going to see Still Alice.”

“Oooooh. I hear it’s good.”

“Yeah, but don’t ask me later what it was about.”

“Got it.”

“’Yeah, we just saw this great movie! Still . . . Still . . . Still Something.’”

“’Still Magnolias?’”

“’That’s it!’”

The movie opens in a mood as blissful and unknowing as I was. Alice and her family are celebrating her fiftieth birthday in a bright Manhattan restaurant. Her husband toasts her as the smartest and most beautiful woman he knows, and she is undeniably a woman in her prime:  professor of linguistics at Columbia, wife to a medical researcher, mother of three attractive kids, owner of an apartment on the Upper West Side, and inhabitant of a body still able to go for a run. One thing only, it seems, resists the force of her will and ambition:  her youngest child, Lydia, who breaks from the family script, eschews college, and attempts a career in acting that Alice considers unrealistic.

The world is her oyster. And then the world begins to crack. She starts forgetting words. She gets lost running. She can’t remember how many eggs go in the bread pudding she makes every Christmas. Eventually she consults a neurologist, who diagnoses her with Alzheimer’s. (In his initial evaluation, he tells her a name and address to remember, that he’ll ask her to repeat later in the exam, and I promise, you can hear the brains of every adult in the theater straining to remember them.) We then watch the crack in her world become a chasm, and this remarkable woman, whose academic specialty was language acquisition, slides then stumbles then plummets through that crack become chasm, into an underworld of de-acquisition. Words, memory, dignity, the ability to recognize her daughter and remember where the bathroom is:  all of this goes away from her.

I am only fifty-three. Only. I still run. I still remember the phone number from the house where I grew up and the phone number at my best friend’s house. I’m still getting better at the work I do. I’m still ambitious. (After the movie, at Doc Chey’s across the street, my fortune cookie confirmed it. “You are ambitious,” it read. But so did Jeanine’s. “You are ambitious,” it also read. I wonder if everybody at Doc Chey’s last night was ambitious.)

Holding on as I am, and in some ways still acquiring, I am beginning to see it all going away from me, too. Small and large gaps in my memory. Aches in my feet and knees after I run. Near total deafness in one ear. People I loved who are gone, and others I still love, I know not who, who will be leaving before I do.

What the movie asks is, when all of this is gone, the empires we acquire and treasure, the people we love and rely on for sanity and comfort, the bodies we’ve come to trust, the sense of self that feels inseparable from knowing and doing and gaining and having, when all of this is gone, what is left? What is still Alice when Alice’s mind and identity and pride are gone? What remains of us when we return to dust?

When Alice declines to the point of being almost speechless (spoiler alert!) when her husband and older children are pulled from her by the call of their own lives and ambitions, it is Lydia, the youngest, the one whom Alice did not fully understand and accept, who comes to care for her. (And how often is this the case, that the stranger is the one who comes to help? See To Kill a Mockingbird and The Good Samaritan.)

In the final scene, Lydia is reading to her mother from Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s play about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. “Souls were rising,” Lydia reads, “from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who’d perished from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web — a great net of souls. And the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired. Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress, a longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”

There Lydia stops and looks at her mom. Alice’s face is slack and dull. Lydia asks her mom if she liked it, and Alice manages a slight nod. Lydia then asks her, “What was it about?” Alice labors hard to speak, and what she says is difficult to hear, but it is this word, mumbled twice: “Love. Love.” And Lydia replies “Yeah, Mom. It was about love.”

Julianne Moore plays the role of Alice, and most critics predict she will win the Oscar for Best Actress tonight at the Academy Awards. I hope so, because she is incredible. The critics are less kind to the movie, though. They like it, but they point to some shortcomings, like the way the supporting characters are not as fully developed as Alice, and the way the harshest realities of Alzheimer’s are merely hinted at and not presented in all their grit and gore.

They’re the critics, so let them critique. I say, who needs a perfect movie? I’ll take one that tells me an Ash Wednesday truth:  count on loss, and count on love.

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