What makes you, you?
Is it your body - the unique color of your eyes? The way you walk or your hands? Is it your mind? Your memories? The wealth of knowledge you’ve accrued over years at school, in your job, and with family and friends? Or is it something deeper? Something indefinable which sits at the core of who you are? Something a disease can’t touch?
Julianne Moore (Freeheld) plays Alice Howland in Still Alice, which earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Alice is a Columbia professor of linguistics, a noted speaker, a beloved wife and mom. Most of all, she is a driven, passionate woman who holds herself to high standards and absolutely loves learning. It’s easy to believe her when, after she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, she bitterly confesses, “I wish I had cancer.”
Let that sink in. For those of us who’ve been part of the cancer battle, it seems unimaginable that somebody would utter that phrase.
But, from Alice’s perspective, cancer is at least tangible. People understand that cancer could strike anyone at any time. We wear pink ribbons and run 5ks for cancer research. But Alzheimer’s, especially the kind that comes at age 45 or 50, is a silent, slow, slipping away that fills conversations with tension and confuses even your closest loved ones. There’s no chemo, no hair loss, no radiation. No outward physical signs of physically deteriorating health. Just terrifying, inexplicable gaps.
In the beginning, Alice is sharp, bright, and in the thick of her successful career. Then words begin to slip away; she can’t remember names, places, or instructions. The movie chronicles her gradual descent into the clutches of this brutal disease, and the impact it makes on her husband (Alec Baldwin, Blue Jasmine) and children. Especially moving is her relationship with her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart, Twilight). Lydia, the more estranged child who eschewed college to pursue acting, is used to disappointing her academic mother. But she shows up in a big way during Alice’s illness, asking questions and taking risks. It’s easy to relate to her character arch. After all, who among us doesn’t have a strained relationship with at least one family member?
What would I do if tomorrow a terrifying diagnosis dropped out of nowhere? How would I navigate the waters of disappointment and broken expectations?
Still Alice hits hard, exposing the brutal reality of what it’s like to live with the fear that the next moment, you might not know where you are. Moore’s performance is tear-inducing and worthy of accolade, particularly her frustration at losing the one asset - her mind - she always counted on as her most valuable.
As a married girl, it broke my heart to watch Alice and her husband John’s previously stable relationship take blow after blow. I, too, am healthy and independent-spirited. Could I learn to live with being that kind of burden to my spouse? If my husband became utterly dependant on my time and attention, could I find the right balance between breadwinning and caregiving? How would I feel if it looked like my career was coming to a screeching halt, when I’d banked on another 20 years of working?
My husband is probably more afraid of dementia than of anything. He takes vitamins each morning that boost memory health. I think it’s because, like Alice, he feels his mind is his most precious commodity (typical graduate student, right?). I think we all might live with some kind of fear like that. That massive What if? that would make us feel like the ground has been ripped away beneath us.
But watching Still Alice gave me a burning inside, a reminder that people are so full of love and wonder, no matter what they can remember or accomplish. As I grow older - as I watch my aging parents grow older - I want to hang onto this reminder to look for love in small moments, and to always give dignity to those who suffer.
Because I’m still me, no matter what happens. My mom is still my mom, even when she grows old and sick. My dad will still be my dad, even if someday he can’t remember his own name. It’ll be my job to remember it for him. That’s what family does. That’s what love is.