The night I had to help change my grandmother’s adult diaper, we both cried a little. At the time she was 94 and living with my aunt and uncle in suburban Maryland. My cousin and I were asked to keep her company for the night. The woman who had helped raise my siblings and me, who had changed my diapers, dressed me, fed me, and “kept me company” while my parents were away, was now in my charge.
I will never be sure of exactly why she cried. I assume it was partly from the humiliation of having to be cared for in such an intimate way — to be in the role of a vulnerable child while the woman she once held as an infant changed her diaper. I know that was partly why I cried.
But I also recall that it was an oddly sacred moment: I was given the opportunity to care for my grandmother in her declining years, and rather than feeling burdened, I felt entrusted. I had the opportunity to love her in a deeply personal way, to pay her back just a little for all that she had done for me. Just a couple of months later, she passed away.
That night was on my mind as I watched Florian Zeller’s film, The Father, based on his award-winning play of the same name. The film immerses us in the mind of 80-year-old Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) as he navigates the onset of dementia and his increasing dependence on his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman). Zeller told me in a recent interview that the play was based on his own experience of caring for his grandmother as she battled dementia when he was just a teenager.
“Everyone has a grandmother and everyone has a father and everyone will have to deal with this painful dilemma: What do you do with the people you love when they are starting to lose their bearings?” Zeller said. “… And I think that there is a consolation to feel that there is like a fraternity in that pain and there is something cathartic about it.”
It was indeed The Father’s universality that touched me; I cried for a solid half-hour after viewing it. In its final scenes Anthony, now fully in decline, says, “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves. … I have nowhere to put my head down anymore.” Anthony, a formerly powerful, wealthy, and accomplished man is now at the mercy of others, crying out for his mother.
Anthony cries out for the person who shepherded him into the world; he needs her as he prepares to leave it. It is a sobering thought and also a bleak one. Death is inevitable, as is the circle of life coming to a close. We are dependent on the loving care of others as we are ushered into new life.
Thousands of years before Zeller or I cared for our grandmothers, or this film was made, the author of Ecclesiastes attempted to capture the universality of aging and death. In chapter 12, the “Teacher” says:
Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7)
This beautiful ancient poem came to mind as I pondered the film. Throughout it, we watch as the “golden bowl” (Anthony’s mind) breaks, though his other faculties are still functioning. Immersed in Anthony’s decline, I thought about the Teacher’s admonition to “remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come.” How can you remember your Creator when you’ve lost the ability to accurately remember anything? No, we need to be catechized into this remembrance from our youth so that the knowledge of being a beloved creature is a comfort in the days of trouble.
But this is not just a word for the Anthonys in the world. It’s also a word for their caretakers, for the Annes.
As Anne, Colman masterfully captures the distress of a child forced to grapple with the twin griefs of facing her father’s inevitable death and their role reversal. After a lifetime of being the child who is cared for, she must decide whether to put her life on hold to care for her aging father.
Remember your Creator ... before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them …”
We’re in a season of Lent in which we’re asked to remember that “from dust you came and to dust you will return.” My former priest used to add “And remember you are beloved.” The Creator, in the person of Jesus, died on a cross, calling out for his father, and entrusting to a beloved disciple the care of his helplessly watching mother. We are beloved and cared for by our Creator, not only in our dying, but in the pain and grief of being entrusted to bear a burden that isn’t ours with love and dignity. We may be asked to join with our Creator to lovingly shepherd our loved ones home. Sometimes there will be no pleasure in that work. But it’s ultimately that Creator, our Holy Parent, our Good Shepherd, who knows the way through the “valley of the shadow of death” for both the dying and the grieving. Remember your Creator, who lovingly remembers you.
The Father will be released in theaters nationwide on March 12. For more information visit sonyclassics.com.