I go to turn my computer on but I have forgotten where the on/off switch is. I have had this laptop for three years, but I haven’t turned it on for the past two months. I look on its left side, I feel around the back, I find it on the right and I feel like an idiot. The screen reads “fatal error” and offers to “save” whatever I had typed on it last June 21st, a few weeks before my mother died. I hit CTL.ALT.DEL. and it is gone. Gone. Gone like this long, sad, summer, frozen now, and nothing seemingly matters but everything matters more now than ever before. Why did she have to die? When will this pain stop?
I got up this morning to fly out to Colorado. The Telluride Film Festival is screening my film tomorrow night, the first time it will be shown in the United States. My mother did not get to see this new film. She was always so proud of everything I did, cheering me on every day from the day where my memory begins. I had shown an early cut of the film to my friends last winter in my parent’s living room, and mom would come in and out of the room, catching a scene here and there, saying, “Boy, that’s something, isn’t it!”
I don’t feel right, right now. I have avoided most people for the past two months. I can’t conceive in my mind having to face a crowd of strangers, no matter how supportive or appreciative they may be. Everyone says to me it will be good to get back to work, good to be busy, take my mind off my sadness, as if not aware that what I really might need is for it to be the other way around. At my family’s insistence, I tried going on TV a few weeks ago to talk about the corporate crooks roaming our great land. I had decided to give it a try, and gave it my best shot, and ended up feeling so empty and more alone. I had agreed to go on “Crossfire” and Donahue (thank God for this guy!) on the condition that I would not have to have one of those stupid cable news shouting matches with three rightwingnuts where no one can hear (or wants to hear) what’s being said.
They agreed to the terms, but as Bob Novak asked his first question about aren’t my true motives to destroy capitalism and make America a socialist country, I just sat there for a moment and didn’t respond. I thought I would just take the microphone off and leave – who needs these f-----s! – but then, my dad was with me in the studio and I looked over at him and smiled, and then into the camera I said, yes, Bob, that is exactly what I intend to do and, considering more people have bought my book than any other nonfiction book in America this year, I guess that means that the majority of Americans agree with me on this point, so look out Bob ‘cause we’re going to seize your money first! I asked the studio audience in DC for a show of hands of all those who agreed and I was later told that numerous hands shot up in the air, much to the chagrin of a stunned Bob Novak. I also added that I thought the Pope was onto something when he said that capitalism is a “sin.”
My dad liked that. He is a sweet, strong, smart man and I loved the drive with him back home. We took a spin through the Michigan State campus and he told me how he had come down here after World War II to inquire about going to college but thought it best to return to the assembly line where he had a secure job. His years during the war serving in the Marines were going to be counted toward his seniority. And so he worked the spark plug and oil filter assembly line for 33 years and provided for mom and us kids and gave us all his love -- which, of course, mattered the most.
Dad took me to the airport this morning, remarking on the way how much mom would have enjoyed this simple trip across town to Bishop Airport, how happy she would have been knowing that I was heading off on a new journey in my very fortunate life. I thought about how she came to New York for the screening of “Roger & Me” at the New York Film Festival in 1989, and how I got to introduce her and my aunt as they sat in the front of the balcony, and how mom and Aunt Lois stood and took a long Lincoln Center bow, and how I stood on that stage and felt that she deserved every bit of that applause and more.
It’s a bittersweet memory now, as I’ve just found out that the NYFF selection committee this year is too afraid to show my new film. “Politics,” is what I have been told. Too “populist” for the new elite who now sit in judgment of what is art. “They don’t want to help further your platform Mike,” a person close to the committee tells me. “One of them even said, ‘I know this film is going to be popular – and I don’t personally want to contribute to its popularity.’” So, it was decided that “Bowling for Columbine,” a Cannes prize-winner, knighted by the Chicago Tribune as “one of the most effective political/polemical films ever,” a film chosen by every single film festival around the world this fall – no, this film must not be shown at Lincoln Center just six blocks from the edit room where we made it… 77 blocks north of ground zero. I’ve gone too far this time, cut too close to the bone, stuck my lens where it doesn’t belong – right straight through the heart of an America that is both master and victim of the ultra-violence. It is so sad to see this place where I will always remember my mother taking that bow now cowering to the whims of neos who, like their counterparts in Hollywood, preside over the demolition of a once great art form.
My dad drops me off and goes to park in the short-term lot. He comes inside just as the airport personnel are taking everything out of my suitcase for inspection. They don’t ask to see the print of the film, the only thing I might have had on me that is poised to do any real damage (to all the right people, of course). My dad and I stop short of the metal detectors and the next round of inspectors who are anxious to look at my smelly feet. We hug, and he kisses me, and I am trying hard, so very hard, to not break down in the middle of this airport. He tells me not to worry about him, and I tell him I’ll call him from Detroit when I am changing planes. I go through security and as I am being taken aside to be searched again, I look back and see him still standing there, watching out for me. My dad.
I’m on the plane and I’m thirsty, but I took the water bottle out of my bag when I packed it this morning. The bottle, half-drank, had been sitting untouched in my untouched bag since I stuck it in there the night we had to rush my mom to the hospital. The bottle was still there in that overnight bag where I put my t-shirt and sweatpants, the ones I had on for the night and day I sat by my mother’s side in the hospital as she struggled to live, holding her hand, holding her head, trying to comfort her, strands of hair on my sweater. I can see the stains from where my tears and mucus ran uncontrollably down my face and onto that sweater. The doctor said she had an 80% chance of making it. An hour before she died, another doctor said the chances were 1 in 100. That was good enough for me. One in one hundred! I’ve had those odds! I won! Don’t let her die! Please do everything you can do! Don’t let her die.
The priest came, then another priest came, and when the priests left my dad asked us three kids and the three grandkids to all join hands and say our goodbyes to mom, say whatever we wanted to about what she meant to us. (I am sorry… I cannot complete this paragraph right now, I can’t see the screen through the tears…maybe someday…)
The night before we rushed her to the hospital I had a little surprise planned for her. I had brought a copy of my new movie and I was going to show it to her. As the end credits would roll, she would get to see what she has seen at the end of all of my work: her name along with my dad’s in that list of credits…and, to me, it's the only real credit that ever mattered -- because without them I would not have the life they gave me, the way they raised me… it is all a privilege I will never cease being thankful for.
I never got to show her the movie that night. “Mike!” she called out from the porch, in a pitch of voice I had never heard. “Get your father! I don’t feel good.” She was, without warning, dying. Within 48 hours she would be gone.
I’m walking through the Detroit airport to gate 75 for the flight to Denver, and I hear someone say, “OK, Mr. Stuckup, just walk right on by!” I turn to see it is one of anchors from the local TV station in Flint. I apologize. My sunglasses are on. I have been crying since I left my dad at the Flint airport. I explain this to her and she starts to get tears in her eyes. “My mom died in October,” she says, and I realize that this pain that feels so solitary is, truthfully, a shared experience amongst us all. No one is immune from this loss. But instead of taking the time to tell me about how rough it has been for HER, she asks about how I am doing and how is my dad doing and did we get the flowers she and the others sent. She gives me her number and says to call anytime if I feel the need to talk. At that moment I remember what she told me -- that her mother also died this year-- and I think, man, get over yourself, Mike, you are not alone in this, and so I ask her how she is doing. “I think a lot,” she says, “about all the things she won’t see my two children grow up to do, to be. But I believe she is in my heart, right here, right now, and she will see it all.”
They call my flight and I rush over to the payphone to call my dad to see if he got home OK. He tells me that when he left the short- term lot he got talking to the person in the tollbooth who told him about her mother getting cancer and how she was caring for her. “She said that her bill in the hospital came to $60,000,” he says with astonishment. “They won’t be able to pay it. She makes six dollars an hour, no health insurance. I gave her a tip along with the toll.”
“You gave the tollbooth worker a tip?”
“Well, you have to. That person could be you or me.”
That is my father. That was my mother.
PS. Thank you, all of you, who sent me your condolences and who contributed to the local poverty program in my mother’s name. I was so moved by your generosity and by your words of love and kindness. It will never be forgotten.
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