I don’t trust myself. When I write a script or shoot a project, I show it to everyone I trust in hopes that I didn’t waste months of my life, sometimes other people’s money, and always my own sanity, trying to create. But the validation of every person I know has never matched the support I once found in my mother. I read her every single screenplay, every story, told her every idea that crossed my mind since I began performing make believe plays in our apartment living room. I trusted her more than anybody. Her gut instinct was my gut instinct.
I’ve never written about my mother. I’ve talked about writing about my mother but I’ve never actually done it. My mother is Melinda Swanson, born Melinda Louise Roux. My mother was Melinda Swanson. She died on January 5, 2012. She was 58 years-old.
I’ve wanted to write this for a long time but I didn’t know how. Anybody who knows me well enough knows that pretty much every day of my life is spent talking about films, watching films, writing films or trying to make films. It’s the primary way I connect with the people in my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve thought about writing a screenplay about the experience of losing my mother but could never figure out how. I’ve written about her loosely in the series I co-wrote and directed, Talents, but I have still never sat down and written about my mother… who she was, what she meant to me or how her death has defined who I’ve become. It’s only appropriate that what gave me the courage to write honestly about all of this was a film. That film was Josh Mond’s debut feature, James White.
The film follows a self-destructive young man in his twenties as he grieves his estranged father and witnesses the slow death of his mother to cancer. I knew it would touch a nerve, but the final 20 minutes were a revelatory experience. I watched my fear and grief dramatized through the life of the fictional title character and became painfully aware that there were aspects of my mother’s death I hadn’t yet processed. The film is exceptional in its relentlessly realistic depiction of loss and grief, and, as I sat in the theatre, I unraveled in ways I still struggle to understand.
My life has two chapters: who I was before my mother died and who I became after. I was 23 years-old at the time, and, like James White, I was still stumbling into adulthood. I wasn’t young enough to misunderstand what was happening, but not old enough to have a family of my own to find comfort in. Her death was the coming of age I could never imagine.
After she passed away, the one consistent piece of advice I received was to write about what I was going through. This is something people tell you to do when you’re in pain. Family, friends, the eventual therapist I would see in the year following my mothers death. Everybody said, “You have to write down how you feel.” I’ve even offered this advice to friends. If you’re upset about something, if you can’t quite articulate your feelings to somebody face to face, do your best to write them down and work through it. All this advice and I’ve never actually done it.
“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be … Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”
I wasn’t in therapy after my mother’s death. My therapy was staying busy. I directed five short films, the last of which was a full-blown financial and artistic disaster, and I co-wrote two feature-length screenplays. I kept moving. I was single for the first time since I was 18. I met a lot of people that changed my life forever. I slept with more people than I had ever slept with in my life and learned that I didn’t like sleeping around. I finally got my drivers license and, six months later, I totaled the car my mother left behind. I hurt a lot of people’s feelings, often while drunk or on heavy amounts of cocaine. That was my therapy. Movies, writing, women, drugs, alcohol.
Almost a year later, I finally crashed. The holidays arrived and with those my grief, everything I’d buried, found its way to the surface. I invested a lot of time and energy in a short film that completely fell apart due to my lack of experience, a highly unbalanced lead actress and my own personal shit. I drank way too much at a house party and in one fateful, particularly volatile episode, I chased my ex-girlfriend down the street screaming, “I will ruin you,” and tried to fight every single person in sight. I spent the next day making apology calls, but was met with ignored voicemails, unanswered texts and advice to seek help. I still did not. I wallowed, not yet understanding the rhythm of grief. That it comes in waves.
I always thought the hardest part would be the loss itself, but it wasn’t. I was suddenly alone with memories of a person no longer there. I grasped for those final words, those unspoken little moments, the things that would never be resolved. Again and again, I relived the last few months before my mother died. She was diagnosed with liver cancer in September 2011 and died four months later. Those four months were a blur of denial. A part of me thought that somehow everything would work out.
I still dream of my mother, alive and well, but as the dream progresses, I realize she is not well. That she’s slowly dying. If she’s not dying, I can’t see her. I hear her voice, but I never find her. Sometimes things are normal, as if my mother isn’t about to die. I ask her what she wants for dinner and she tells me, but her voice starts to crack. Suddenly, I look into her eyes and know that she is sick. She’s always on the couch and she’s always alone. But as soon as my mind can articulate that my mother is dead but only alive in this moment, I know that I am dreaming. I wake up.
In the weeks before her death, I acted as if somehow normalcy, whatever that meant, would be restored. I was distant. I was probably even cold. I emember one particularly awful day where I was angry with my mother because I had to spend an entire day in West Hollywood while she went in for treatment. My girlfriend at the time dropped her off at Cedars Sinai and then we walked up La Cienega trying to find a place to eat. Treatment was supposed to take an hour, but it took almost four. I should’ve stayed with my mom at the hospital and asked questions, tried to better understand what she was going through. Instead I walked around a bougie part of the city complaining to my girlfriend about how long everything was taking. There isn’t a day of my life where I don’t think about that and cringe. I can’t walk down La Cienega Boulevard without thinking about the way I complained to my mother during one of the hardest periods in her life.
Since her death I’ve thought about all the things I wish I’d done and said to her before she died. I think about all the things I wish I knew about her that I’ll probably never know. But I disconnected from her in those last few months, and for a long time I couldn’t understand why. We were always so close. I could tell her anything and, in many ways, I still could, but there was an undeniable distance. An invisible wall rose between us, and I built it. Over time I saw that it was borne out of our tumultuous relationship, one that was co-dependent and often abusive.
My mother had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. She was loyal, supportive, fierce, brimming with life, and she didn’t take shit from anybody. As a child I watched her scream at grown men in supermarkets for bumping into me and not apologizing. She demanded apologies and if they weren’t given, she’d tell each and every perpetrator to suck her dick.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized I was my mother’s life. Almost everything she did, she did for me. When I changed schools in third grade, my mother spent the morning asking every kid in my class, “Have you met Max?” I was mortified. At my eighth grade graduation (the last graduation I would ever have), she cheered a loud, “Yes!” from the back of the church. Mortified. She thought the world of me and always wanted me to be my best self, but she also when knew when I wasn’t giving my all and loved me enough to call me out. Whether in my writing or personal relationships, she knew when my heart wasn’t in it and refused to coddle me. I owe so much of myself to her.
She was the strongest person I’ve ever known. But she was also terrified and insecure and filled with self-loathing. She was self-destructive, angry, and she could be cruel. Her struggle was fueled by a debilitating addiction to alcohol. My childhood was defined by never knowing when my mother would turn on me. I could come home at any time and find her blacked out. Her episodes weren’t a night where she got too drunk and passed out. If she drank I prepared for a weeks to months-long ordeal. She’d lose her job, threaten people, alienate friends and family, hurt herself, threaten suicide, harass and taunt me, and eventually end up in handcuffs, a mental institution or a rehab center.
Ever since I could remember, I knew my mother was different than the other mothers I grew up around. She wasn’t a bad person. She was just sick. But for most of my adolescence, I couldn’t understand that. When I was 5 years-old my mom tried to fist fight my dad and eventually locked him in a closet. My friend’s mother picked me up from camp because my mom was too drunk to drive. One time my mom and her boyfriend blacked out and left my friend and I behind at Universal City Walk. I remember she would disappear for weeks with mysterious friends in Cambria, drinkin and partying. At 16 I packed up her apartment with my friends when she was evicted because the police were called on her one too many times. These moments defined much of my childhood and fed my reckless teenage years. I fell into a deep depression and medicated with weed, coke, mushrooms, meth and alcohol. Both of us, victims of our depression and addictive personalities, lived under one roof.
But it wasn’t just drunken episodes. There was sadness inside of my mother that ruled her life. A month after her diagnosis, my mother’s neighbor mouthed off because she had complained about debris on her front doorstep from the construction next door. When he told her, “Calm down, lady,” my mother got right in his face and said, “I got cancer, motherfucker,” which was of course followed by the inevitable, “So why don’t you suck my dick, bitch.” Sober or drunk, she couldn’t outrun her anger, the same anger I now recognize in myself.
After a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse, my mother got sober in 2008. I was 20 years-old. She remained sober until her death. But before that came diagnoses of Hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. I didn’t know both often lead to liver cancer, but I wish I had bothered to find out.
I remember the night my mother told me she was dying so clearly. It was Thursday. I’d moved into a studio apartment a few months prior with a bed, a couple of hand-me-downs, and some wobbly Ikea bookshelves. I was almost through my last few weeks of working in a food court. She picked me up after her shift at the telemarketing company she worked for in the last years of her life, a job I got her when her disability ran out and she’d been blacklisted from make-up artistry, a career she thrived at for 35 years. I remember that we drove through Beverly Glen like every other night, and we talked about movies I wanted to see. How I told her about the script I was working on with Nick, my writing partner. She nodded and listened and asked the same questions she always asked.
When we pulled up to my place, the mood changed. She asked if she could come inside for a minute. She excused herself to the bathroom, and I checked my Facebook for something that doesn’t matter now. She sat on one of my uncomfortable wooden chairs because I couldn’t afford a couch, then she looked at me and took my hand and said, “I have cancer and I’m going to die.” I cried and shook my head and said the word ,“No,” over and over, like if I said it enough times I would wake myself from a nightmare. I remember that moments after she told me this, my eyes still teary, I looked over at my shelves of DVDs–all perfectly alphabetized–and noticed I’d incorrectly placed Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada after Mike Mills’ Thumbsucker, and thought about how I’d have to fix that later. How I remember even thinking in that moment, “Why are you thinking this?” Sometimes when you’re in shock, your mind wanders to mundane thoughts and you wonder if there’s something wrong with you. There should only be one thing on your mind but there never is.
The banality of every day life intrudes on even the darkest moments. After she told me she was going to die, she asked if I had any dirty laundry she could wash. When I stayed with her, I’d come home and find my clothes clean and folded, but I’d lived on my own for three years and she still wanted to do my laundry. I remember I got angry that she would ask for laundry in that moment and she cried. When she told me she was dying she was calm and collected, but my refusal to give her my dirty laundry brought her to tears. During her final month she told me that she enjoyed doing things like that because as I got older, it was harder for her to feel like a mother. She could smell me on my clothes. She could wash them and fold them and present them to me unwrinkled because she knew that the way I folded would wrinkle them.
All of these memories came back to me as I watched James White. There’s no scene in which James’ mother begs for his dirty laundry or tells a grown man to suck her dick, but there is a ferocity between them, an unbreakable bond that a mother and son share, a dedication to each other that is unlike any other relationship. There’s a scene late in the film where James cares for his mother during the worst night of her cancer battle. She’s in her last days and, whether he acknowledges it or not, he knows this is the end. You always know whether you realize it or not. As you grow up you watch your mother, fall in love with her, realize she’s human and then you see yourself in her. You notice when she’s happy, when she’s protecting you, and you know when something is very, very wrong.
I looked at my mother a few days before she died. We watched Beginners, a film about a man losing his father to cancer, and her reactions were unusually empty. She didn’t laugh or cry. She didn’t react at all. She watched. In her last weeks, she became unreachable. Then she just slept. She was on autopilot. She would lie on her couch, TV on, watching but not really seeing. Maybe she knew what was coming. I’m sure she did. But I looked at her and I didn’t see my mother. She disintegrated before my eyes, and I couldn’t help her. I brought her soup, but she couldn’t keep it down. I helped her go to the bathroom. I sat by her side and talked to her, even if she couldn’t always hear me. I showed her movies despite her remaining unmoved by them. I just sat with her. And sometimes I would distance myself. I would isolate. I tried to pretend that none of this was happening.
I took her to the ER two days before her death and the next day my dad called and said he’d like to see her. I told him I’d rather wait till she was back home with hospice care because I couldn’t look at her in that hospital bed. He said, “Your mother’s not coming home.”
I didn’t realize that the last conversation I’d ever have with her would be about what channel to put the hospital TV on. I didn’t know that would be our last semi-conscious evening together. I didn’t know that while I spent the day buying a sweatshirt and moving a couch with my friend my mother was on her last 24 hours of life. I had no fucking clue, and I spent a lot of time angry that I wasn’t with her.
I didn’t know that my mother had been moved to the ICU because nobody from Cedars Sinai called me. I didn’t know that I would soon regret that she died in a hospital with a staff incompetent enough to not call a dying woman’s son as soon as they knew she was in her final hours. I had no idea that her hospital room was the room that she would die in. I didn’t know that when I approached her bed, she would raise her arm and try to hold my hand and she would try to say something to me, but the words would not come out. I had no idea how my life would change.
As I watched James White and his mother in her decline, I could hardly look at the screen. I wasn’t prepared to be met with reality in a moment where a scene became more than a movie. I saw my life projected on a screen and felt a pain I hadn’t felt since my mother died. There’s an extended sequence where James tries to keep his mother from choking on her own vomit, tries to keep her hydrated, all while feeling utterly helpless. There’s something horrific about a young man cradling his mother in his arms and holding her up as she sits on the toilet. But the scene takes an unexpected turn as he sits on the bathroom floor with his mother and tells her about a life she’ll never see, the life he’ll lead after she’s passed. He describes the wife she’ll never meet, the children he’ll have that will never know their grandmother, and he imagines a way for her to live through this so they can all go to Paris and build a more beautiful life there. They both know it’s a fantasy.
As she faded away, I sat by my mother’s bedside and begged for her forgiveness for things she would never want me to apologize for. I was sorry I didn’t take her to the Griffith Observatory one last time because when we went it was too crowded and we couldn’t park. I apologized for not making time to film her read her favorite children’s book to her future grandchildren. I apologized for every single thing I could recall in my life that I had never spoken to her about. I held her hand and felt it shake occasionally as if she was fighting to respond but had no more strength left in her.
I promised I would do all the things that she wanted me to do. I would never give up on anything I wanted, and I would be as tough as her, as strong as her, and I would live the life she wanted me to live. And I knew that there would be moments she wouldn’t be there for, and that shattered my heart into a million pieces. She would never know my wife or my children. She would never see me living the life we dreamed for me. Whatever successes come to me now, I can’t call my mother and tell her about them. There are still days where something trivial will happen and I’ll think, “I gotta call my mom,” before I remember that I can’t.
Towards the end of James White, James thanks his mother for the life she’s given him because it’s really all you can do. It’s all I could do. The most devastating moments sneak up and paralyze you. They change who you are. They have profound consequences and most of the time, you don’t see them coming.
I wish I knew more about my mother before she died, but I’m grateful for what I know. The person I was then and the person I became after are because of her. I’m grateful for the photographs and the letters she left behind that I can look at whenever I want. I can open a box of her clothes and still smell what her home smelled like. I can read letters she wrote to boyfriends and lovers when she was young. I can see what she wrote about in her journal when she was my age and know that we share insecurities. I can find everything from my kindergarten graduation gown to the first tooth I lost to the first story I ever wrote. She kept everything, and they’re my most prized possessions. They’re how I continue to learn new things about her.
She gave me life and she showed me what it is to live. I wish that I could have given her a better life at the end of hers. I wish she could have read to her grandchildren. I wish she had found someone to grow old with. I wish I could have helped her retire and bought her a home. I wish I could have relieved the pain she felt. I wish she didn’t die feeling as lonely as she was. I wish so many things.
After she died I had to go through her apartment and pack things up. That was by far one of the hardest parts. For weeks I sifted through relics of the past, her smell all around me, as I found what she’d kept over the years. She had a box of movie stubs she’d saved from every movie we went to together. She took me every weekend when I was a kid and encouraged my love of filmmaking and writing. She helped me discover what I wanted to do with my life and finding that box of movie tickets was almost as hard as sitting with her as she passed away. She wrote on the back of every ticket to remember the occasion and noted if we liked the movie or not. She always wrote if I liked it. That was important to her. She always wanted to hear my thoughts and understand my passion. I wish that I had tried to understand her thoughts and her passions as well. I’m sorry that I didn’t.
My mother was my biggest fan and best friend. I miss her every day. I thank Josh Mond for making the film that he made, for sharing his story and his love of his mother with the world. At a recent Q&A he said he made the film so that he could connect. What surprised me the most were the experiences and stories audience members shared with him. Two grown men said that they recently lost their own mothers, both able to connect through what they’d watched. I’ve studied films and loved them as much as I do because all I want to do is connect, and I’m grateful for films like James White and filmmakers like Josh Mond. Those stories are invaluable. They help us understand, they help us grow, and they can heal us. I thank my mother every day for the life she has given me. It’s a beautiful life, and I wish I could share it all with her.