Sometimes it takes a story to get a point across.
Today is the first anniversary of the death of Terri Schiavo, a young woman whose vegetative condition divided the nation in the final weeks of her life. Some of us activists tried to tell her story, but it was generally countered with her husband’s account of her last wishes. Never mind that this “husband” had been living with another woman since shortly after Terri’s accident and had fathered two children with this girlfriend while apparently spending large sums of money intended for Terri’s care.
After weeks of protests, news conferences, press releases, and federal legislation, we took part in a national death watch that lasted thirteen days. Many of us felt guilty every time we took a drink of water during those days because we knew that Terri couldn’t even have ice chips. One of her last visitors told me of the frustration experienced upon realizing that the closest Terri could get to water was the water keeping her flowers fresh. In a sense, her flowers had more care than she did.
And still we didn’t get the point across to mainstream America. Much confusion was created by the various experts who used words like “life support” when Terri was only assisted by a feeding tube.
Five months after Terri’s death, Just Like Heaven (a sleeper of a chick flick) was released. After overcoming the title, the movie poster, and — for some — the dislike for actor Mark Ruffalo, it turns out that the film effectively communicated the value of a human life that was lived as Terri lived hers for more than a decade.
Granted, it wasn’t until the film made it to DVD that I overcame the initial obstacles. (There weren’t any new episodes of Law and Order the night that I rented the movie.)
The film tells the story of Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon), a young doctor who’s aiming for a promotion to attending physician. On her way to an almost mandatory blind date set up by her older sister, she has a terrible car accident.
Flash forward three months. David (Mark Ruffalo) sublets a furnished apartment with a great view of the San Francisco Bay. David has a recent drinking problem, which becomes temporarily exacerbated by a “petite blonde control freak” otherwise known as Elizabeth’s spirit. He’s the only one who can see her. She has come back to her apartment, which is the one David has sublet, but she doesn’t realize this and thinks he’s a derelict who has decided to camp out in her home.
In an effort to make Elizabeth go away or perhaps to make his drinking problem look less serious, David goes to an occult bookstore where he meets Daryl (Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite fame). Daryl works in the bookstore because he has a gift for sensing spirits.
As his efforts to get rid of Elizabeth intensify — and repeatedly fail — David invites Daryl to the apartment. Daryl senses the presence of Elizabeth’s spirit and suggests to David that he move because Elizabeth is “one of the most alive spirits I’ve seen. She’s not dead.”
And so begins the quest to discover who and what Elizabeth is. A series of events jog her memory so that she recalls the accident and her life as a workaholic doctor with no life of her own. She also learns that her body has been in a coma for three months.
BY THIS POINT, A BIT OF ROMANTIC tension has developed between David and Elizabeth. Upon seeing her vegetative body, the reality of her condition overwhelms Elizabeth. David comments out, “It’s way better than [being] dead,” but she sees little reason to have David’s hope.
She looks at a bedside monitor and says, “The monitor doesn’t agree.” David responds, “Machines don’t know everything.” But Elizabeth struggles, “Everything in my training tells me they do.” David trumps her by asking, “Then how are we having this conversation?” She can only respond, “I don’t know.”
The challenge to reunite her spirit with her body intensifies when the hospital decides to remove life support because she had signed a release requesting to be removed from life support in the event that she might be in a vegetative state. Elizabeth’s spirit protests, “That was before. I’m completely for it now!” But only David can hear or see her.
And so the drama unfolds, raising questions about life choices. Do we live to work or work to live? Have we duped ourselves with an excess of empirical knowledge that allows no room for knowledge that can’t be “scientifically” demonstrated?
The movie pushes the audience to realize a simple fact that’s often forgotten in the modern technological age: as you learn more, you should realize not that you know so much but that you know so little. Knowledge, understanding, and advancement should never destroy our own sense of wonder and the openness to a reality beyond our own experience.
MADE FOR A SECULAR AUDIENCE, the movie demonstrates no religious awareness except for a scene in which a priest tries to exorcise Elizabeth’s apartment. This scene actually raised the ire of at least one conservative reviewer, who considered it sacrilegious when Elizabeth remarks to David about the holy water on her apartment floor, “You’d better pick that up.” In fact, that’s theologically correct from a Catholic perspective because the holy water would have no effect on her since she’s not a devil or an evil spirit.
Its secular tone allows the movie to tell a love story that involves the spirit of a woman whose body is in a coma. Casual conversations suggest that this sleeper of a movie did more to communicate with those who might have polled in favor of the removal of Terri Shiavo’s feeding tube than our activist efforts.
Unfortunately, none of us seemed to notice this movie when it came out. Both the activists and the general public missed a fairly decent movie with some good acting. But it’s not too late. Movies like this are an inexpensive tool for reaching the general public whether it’s informal, by encouraging friends and family to look past the title and the DVD cover and rent it anyway, or more formal, by using it for a discussion group with a youth group, young adult group, study group, classroom, etc.
A suitable tribute to Terri on the anniversary of her death would be to watch the movie, let this story tell the story that was hers, and encourage someone else to watch it, too. You’ll find it with the new releases in your video store and there will probably be lots of them available. Don’t let the cover deceive you — Witherspoon and Ruffalo don’t look like that or even wear that clothing in the movie.
In the future, we should probably do a better job of following good films; not just the ones we find problematic. After all, some very well-known teachers have used stories to teach quite effectively.
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