Last weekend I finally had a chance to watch the movie Beginners with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer. Ewan plays Oliver, 38-year-old Gen Xer struggling to find a stable love relationship. That search really plays second fiddle to his story of caring for his dying his father and living with grief in the year after his death. He epitomizes today’s Gen X caregiver. After forty-four years of marriage Oliver’s mother dies of cancer and his father at 75 years old comes out. His father, Hal, will live four more years with a boyfriend and his son by his side, as well as a loyal Jack Russell Terrier, who we know is deeply understanding from the dog subtitles. Hal too will face cancer, needing to spend long spells recuperating in the hospital, coming home and facing chemo and radiation treatments, finally entering hospice and dying at home. Oliver learns that his mom knew his father was gay the entire marriage but thought she could change him. His father hoped she could too, but also knew better. Oliver simply thought they didn’t love each other. Most fascinating to watch Oliver, as a son, peer into the mysteries of his parent’s world and be able to name the grief he felt in his mother’s longing for love and the joy he feels at seeing his father know great love now in his old age.
The whole film resonates with Gen X sensibilities. Vintage music, multi-media splashes, quiet verging on sardonic wit—for example, to relieve stress Oliver’s friend takes him to tag graffiti and Oliver chooses to graffiti historical consciousness like “1983 Chicken Nuggets Invented.” On a personal note, it was amazing to see hospice taken as a normal course of events and not as something that needs to be explained or as some monumentally courageous choice that takes center stage. Hospice is simply known and accepted. And Oliver faces a situation that some Gen Xers may be facing with parents in a generation for whom being openly gay was not socially acceptable to the levels it is now. In his seventies, Hal becomes an activist for gay rights, writing letters in support of openly homosexual individuals running for political office. Oliver helps him stuff envelopes and as he places a rainbow sticker in each one Hal asks, “You know that’s a symbol of gay pride, right?”
Oliver responds, “Yes, Dad, everyone knows that.”
“Do they? Do they?” Hal asks quietly.
The film presents Oliver’s grief most poignantly; as a force that covers his life like a shadow he cannot escape. As an artist, he spends the entire film working on an album cover for a new band. He presents them his ideas three times and every time they are dumbfounded. In one presentation he presents their album art as a “history of sad” and calls them “the Sads.” We watch them silently look at the page after page of sadness he has created and then say, “We just want pictures of our band members.” He nods in understanding but also knows he can’t create anything but sadness.
Towards the end of the film I was struck by a scene that embodies some of what we heard concerning stepparents after the death of a parent and with what Andrew Root writes in The Children of Divorce on why connections in stepfamilies can be confusing and difficult to navigate for children of any age:
“…many step- or blended families confront the tension of the conflict between the obligatory bonds of biology that form a straight line to one’s identity and the free choice of the pure relationship that constructs identity through intimacy….But children are told to act like these people are family, while having no choice at all. For the child, the stepfamily lacks both the biological correlation and the free choice to be with and for these people.” (41)
Several months after Hal’s death, Oliver needs someone to take care of Arthur (the understanding Jack Russell Terrier) who is especially finicky about who keeps him. Oliver remembers how connected Arthur was to Andy, his father’s boyfriend, and sure enough Arthur is at home with Andy. When Oliver returns, Andy notes that Oliver hasn’t been in touch since the death of Hal and asks, “It’s because I’m gay?”
Oliver looks lost, as he has looked through most of the movie since his dad’s death.
“You haven’t called. I haven’t heard from you,” Andy explains.
“My father loved you so much,” is Oliver’s only response and they hug.
It’s a lovely moment and yet resonates with much of what we heard from stepchildren about how after the death of their mom or dad, from which they were reeling and lost, their stepmom or stepdad receded into silence, unlike most biological, surviving parents. A reminder that a stepparent, like a parent, is a thankless job where no matter how old your child or stepchild is, you are in the place of power and in the place to define the relationship. Reaching out after the death of your spouse to the child of your boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse can make a HUGE difference, and it doesn’t happen that often. I wanted to yell at Andy, who is about the same age as Oliver which can be confusing for a stepparent, “NO!! YOU should have called Oliver!!!”
In the end, Beginners is a lovely film snapshot of today’s Gen X Caregiver. My favorite visual picture being son Oliver sitting in the glow of hospital light reading to his father late into the night. The ways the human voice can ground us and connect us to the stories we tell and that tell us.