Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Nebraska: The Movie

I have no pictures with this post and it's very late at night, but I just finished watching 'Nebraska' on Netflix tonight.  For the second time.  I don't often watch movies twice, but I think I could watch this one a third and fourth time because I relate to it.  Boy, do I.

Filmed in black and white and set in rural parts of Montana, South Dakota and, of course, Nebraska, the movie is the tale of an elderly man, Woody, with a penchant for alcohol and advancing dementia.  Woody firmly believes the Publisher's Clearinghouse-like letter he receives in the mail declaring him a $1,000,000,000 Prize Winner (is that a million?  You can tell I'm not familiar with the big bucks)  in their sweepstakes.  If no one else will help him get to Nebraska to claim his prize, he will walk there if he has to.  Finally, his youngest son, David, agrees to take a road trip with his father.

Ok, Dad, we'll go to Nebraska.

I won't go into detail about the movie, there won't be any spoiler alerts, but for anyone who has ever dealt with aging parents, this movie is dead-on.  When I started the film, I almost decided against it; do I really need to see a depressing tale of senile dementia and the effects on the family members?  I'm in the midst of that battle myself.  But ok, misery loves company, so I settled into my Lazy Boy to watch.

I figured the movie would either be very sad or there would be slapstick comedy, a couple of car chases and bad 'Depends'-type jokes/mishaps, the usual indignities disguised as knee-slapping hilarity served up in movies about old people.  I was pleasantly surprised, there were no cheap shots, just stark reality.

The reality of watching a parent struggle and his son feeling a duty to do what he can to fix the situation.  I have been there, done that with my late father.

I am there, doing that, now with Mom.

My father was a big, powerful man with a short temper who seemed larger than life, and I admit I feared him.  And I also admit, I did not know him personally.  Not really.  Like Woody, so much of Dad's life abuse and demons were carefully hidden from view only to come out in the drinking and anger.  And as he aged and became more frail, I wanted to reach out and protect him from tripping and falling, just as I would with a toddler learning to walk.  But of course, this was an affront to his dignity, and much like a toddler saying, "NO, I can do it MYSELF!" my frustration, fear and worry were a bother.  Don't coddle, don't hover, but don't abandon them, either.  They are still adults, they have dignity and willpower.  And they know what they're doing.  Until they don't.  And then you have to step in and take charge.  And it sucks.  And like that toddler, they won't be happy with your interference.

Watching the movie unfold, I remembered many drives I took with my father after he had slipped into dementia.  We'd be just a mile from home and he'd peer out the window and say, "I've never been here before," as he gazed out at the farm he'd been born on eighty-six years before.  The same farm he cleared of trees as a child, walked behind a plow with a team of horses, and eventually covered thousands of times on a tractor.   It was all new territory to him.  And I would bite my lip and blink back tears, trying hard not to say, "Now, Dad, you know this is our farm.  Come on, now, be reasonable."

I didn't say it.

"Yes, Dad, it's a nice-looking hayfield, isn't it?" as I slowed the car to look at the acres of alfalfa rippling gently in the breeze.

And he'd continue staring out the window and say nothing more, soaking in the sight of the field almost hungrily.  A few times I  parked the car and we sat in silence watching the swallows dipping in flight over the alfalfa in bloom.  Finally he'd rouse himself and then I would know it was time to move on to our destination. 

He didn't know who I was half the time.  I was the enforcer of rules that made him angry.  Like the time he filled the lawnmower's oil reservoir to the top and was soon enveloped in a cloud of blue smoke so thick I thought the house was on fire when I arrived.  He was not happy with me when I ordered him off the mower and had him shut it off to cool down so I could drain the excess oil.  He reluctantly got off the mower and went to the garage, but before I knew it, he was right back on it again, defiantly continuing to mow, smoke billowing.   And hot in pursuit, there I was, at forty- something years old, chasing an elderly man on a smoking riding lawn mower around the yard.  What a sight we were, to be sure.

Much like being a first-time parent with a new infant, caring for an elderly parent put me into situations I never could have anticipated if I'd tried.  If someone would have told me that by the time I was forty I would be holding my father's hand as if he were my child on our halting walk across a parking lot to a shoe store, no, I wouldn't have believed that could ever happen.  But it did.  So many things happened, good and bad.  Some so comical I'd be weak with laughter, some so frustrating I wanted to run screaming for my sanity, some so sad, I cried on the spot.

When my father went through this stage in his life, I was still parenting our young sons, so I was truly in the 'sandwich generation' trying to be caretaker, wife, mother, and sane all at once and failing more than I succeeded, sad to say.  My mother isn't as much of a handful as my father was, so far, anyway.   This time around I don't have children or a job to tend to in addition, so it is more relaxed, but now I'm older, too.  And I won't sugarcoat it, it's still not easy. 

It seems if we live long enough, we will all go full-circle, from helpless infants to wayward toddlers with a mind of our own to childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle-age, and finally to our elderly years. We may once again become wayward and willful, chafing at the restraints placed upon us by supposedly caring adults who think they know what is best for us despite our protests of "NO!  I want to do it MYSELF!"

Old age is not for sissies.  And the caretakers of the aged can't be sissies, either. 

'Nebraska' was a funny movie as well as poignant, there were a few moments I startled the dogs when I laughed out loud.  Oh, yes, I have Definitely been there, done that.  Oh, how did the writers know?  

It is obvious someone has walked in my shoes.

Woody wouldn't give up.   And his son didn't either.

And neither will I.

L-R: my late brother, Bob, Dad, me, and Mom 1964


Pamela Gordon said...

I am so sorry you are going through this next stage in your mother's life. I've been there with my mother and mother-in-law and it's not easy. It's good to share your feelings with others who have been or are going through this stage of life. Blessings to you. Pam

Pam's English Garden said...

A very moving posting, Karen. I've 'been there done that,' too, but don't know if I could watch the movie -- it's all too raw yet. You and your mom are in my prayers. P. x

Karen said...

Pamela, thank you. As someone who has walked a mile in my shoes, I appreciate your support.

Pam, I completely understand your reluctance to see the movie. I felt the same way, but insomnia had set in, I was in a low state of mind and thought, oh what the heck, might as well have a cry-fest. But it was a breath of fresh air to view, truly a gem. And you are in my prayers, too. :-) There is no easy way to say goodbye.

Alison said...

It's good to see another post from you, Karen, even if it is the result of insomnia. I remember hearing about that movie earlier this year, when I think Bruce Dern (the father) had been nominated for an Oscar. I should check it out. Glad to hear it gave you a few laughs, and touched you.

Karen said...

Alison, Bruce Dern earned that award, he truly was phenomenal in the part. The whole cast was believable, I guess that's what made the movie extraordinary in my opinion. It felt real.

Gardens at Waters East said...

I have heard many good things about this movie. One day I will have to sit and watch it too. Thanks for the reminder. Jack