We celebrated Robyn’s birthday by extending it from Thursday until Sunday. Our celebration featured plenty of good food and drink, a live performance by the “Drunken Shakespeare” Company, cards, gifts, and cake. By Sunday afternoon we were both exhausted, I think. So, once Robyn departed my home I flipped on the television with every good intention of taking an afternoon snooze on the couch. However, there was Tom Hanks, in Academy Award-winning form as Forrest Gump, running across the American desert, on my television. Love it or hate this film (see “Forrest Gump: Love it or hate it?” at https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20150903-forrest-gump-love-it-or-hate-it), I was hooked.
These scenes of Forrest running hither and yon across the United States arrive about two-thirds of the way through the movie. Mainly it is a plot point. It is the notoriety that Forrest garners for this feat of incredible endurance that prompts his true love, Jenny, to reach out after abandoning him and disappearing for huge chunks of his life. This development leads to the saccharine last act in which Forrest gets the girl, discovers he has a smart, preternaturally mature son, and settles into his happily Ever After. Of course, to reach its denouement, his story requires Jenny to die. The film in fact strongly implies that death is her punishment for having chosen a profligate and dissolute lifestyle.
I was a bit surprised to discover there is much commentary on the inter-Google from people reacting to Jenny’s death, particularly the scene where Forrest visits Jenny’s grave. While some viewers describe this scene as “powerful,” “truthful,” or “emotional,” I personally found it sentimental bordering on maudlin.
In the preceding scene that passes for goodbye, we see Forrest bring a meal on a tray up to Jenny’s room, only to find she is asleep. Naturally, it is sunny, a beautiful, perfect day. Jenny, as played by the beautiful actress Robyn Wright, wakes up from her sleep looking refreshed and, well, beautiful. She calmly reveals to Forrest that she has a deadly virus (while displaying no obvious symptoms of a virus induced illness). Actually, Jenny seems to be quite comfortable in her large bed, surrounded with soft pillows and covered in a soft quilt (which Forrest’s spunky and resourceful mother undoubtedly made by hand).
Jenny touches Forrest and tells him that she loves him. Dull Forrest widens his eyes, trying his best to comprehend the gravity of her words but says nothing.
To me, Jenny’s deathbed scene plays about as artificially sentimental as the graveside scene that follows it. If so, then why am I sobbing uncontrollably as I watch it today?
Whenever I start to think that I safely have navigated the awful fact of my wife’s early death, grief retains its power to jump up and bite me without warning. On this recent Sunday afternoon, this is precisely what happened.
Unlike a Hollywood movie, there was nothing beautiful about Lee’s death. Slowly, cancer ravaged her body. Unlike a Hollywood movie, after nine days of suffering constant and excruciating pain, Lee couldn’t make nice speeches. In fact, near the end of her life she couldn’t muster any words without great effort. She couldn’t say, “I love you” (but then didn’t have to). When the effects of the steady stream of morphine I had to administer would wear off, Lee writhed, moaned, or screamed in pain. If she wasn’t, I’d have to look hard to make sure she was still breathing.
Suddenly, a scene from a feel-good movie had thrust me back in time to feel the pain of her death, reminding me I had sustained my great personal loss. Suddenly, I once more was standing by as Lee overcame her pain and fatigue to open her eyes, meeting mine, and took her last breath of precious life.