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Love and other acts of human kindness

By Audrey Apple - posted Friday, 18 January 2008

I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace.

Tonight, my best friend and I went to see Sarah Polley's Away From Her. Based on a short story by Alice Munro, it's the heartbreaking depiction of a man struggling to come to terms with his wife's aggressive onset of Alzheimer's. Married for 44 years, Grant and Fiona enjoy a deeply human love that has clearly been marked by past indiscretions.

With the disease progressing steadily, Fiona decides to enter a nursing home. After her admittance, she and Grant make love one last time before she tells him simply to “go now”. Forced to stay away for a 30-day settling in period, Grant returns to find his wife has no recollection of him and has now formed an attachment to another patient.


His pain is buried as he struggles to stay connected to his wife while accepting that her source of happiness now comes from another man. Polley's direction bears no artifice or pretension; her representation of a love weathered by time and tainted by betrayal is gut wrenching. I wanted to cry violently throughout, but my Anglo roots prevented me from really letting go.

Watching it, I was reminded so much of my mother. Fiona was such an elegant, graceful woman - witnessing her deterioration while Grant stood by helplessly was almost like watching my mother die all over again. You see, her last words to me were the same as Fiona's - “go now”.

My family had gathered for one last night with my mother while she was still of sharp mind and relatively sound body. Of course, I didn't know this at the time. It wasn't until I arrived at my parents' house that my father told me she had decided against further operations and was instead going to exit gracefully in a matter of days. “After tonight,” he said, “she doesn't want any of you to come back”.

I understood that it was because she didn't want us to see her shrink away as Death crept ever closer, but the idea that I had come to say goodbye was lost on me. I sat outside screaming at the night sky, sobbing unashamedly and wondering how on earth I could possibly move forward without her.

Later, I watched her cry for a matter of seconds as my brother and sister left and she recognised it would be the last time she saw them. I heard her tell my sister how much she loved her and how proud she had made her. After saying goodbye to my brother, she kissed her fingertips to him and he walked out. My mother once told me that raising a son was like having a mini love affair, Her distress at seeing her boy leave was clear as she allowed herself those few seconds of release.

I stayed that night, putting off the moment when it would be my turn to walk away. I cried with my father while she slept; I wrote her a letter and made him promise to read it to her. (Later, we would add that letter to the selection of items we wanted cremated with her. It sat alongside teddy bears given at mother's day, flowers, personal effects and other small tokens of our love.) The next day when father told me she was ready to say goodbye, I walked into her bedroom and hugged her for the last time. When I say “her”, I mean my mother, Luciana Rosetta - compos mentos, alive, awake, aware, beautiful and lovely. I wanted to stay for hours but she very quickly told me to leave. I walked away, only to return a minute later, panicked at the idea that this was it.


“Go now”, she urged after a moment. “Go now.”

I think for a long time I've felt resentful of those final words. I wanted to feel like she would have held me there for as long as I'd stay. I wanted to know that despite the control in her voice, asking me to leave was as difficult for her as seeing me do it. I wanted to see the same anguish in her face that I saw when my brother left. What silly, childish rivalry and emotional discontent ... I wanted so badly to see her pain as a testament of love for me; I didn't understand the concealment of it demonstrated greater depths than I ever imagined.

When Fiona checks into her room and begins a 30-day separation from Grant, she farewells him with these words:

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First published at Audrey and the Bad Apples on October 15, 2007.

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About the Author

Audrey Apple began life as a student newspaper editor before discovering the addiction of blogging. She has worked as an English teacher in Japan, an assistant to a prominent Senator and a slave to the most maniacal man in retail. She laments the lack of opportunities for young creative types in South Australia, but is so utterly hopeless at financial planning that she'll probably be stuck there forever. She recently discovered Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Persepolis 2 and claims they, like the discovery of feminism, changed her life. She is giddy as a schoolgirl over the election of our dishy new PM and finally excited about Australia.

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