The picture stays in the kid: Ghosts

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Illustration by Erin Tolar

 

Monday, October 9, 2017 - 12:01am

In retrospect, it was a bad decision to review “A Ghost Story” for the Daily this past summer.

But in my defense, how was I supposed to know that the film — in which a 30- or 40-something dies in a car crash and morosely yet patiently haunts his widow and home, where successive tenants cycle through until a developer buildings a large tower in its place — would be released in theaters when my grandmother stopped eating, when I learned we would have to put our dog down and when my family sold our house?

That one-two-three punch wrecked me. None of these developments were unforeseeable, but their combined effect was devastating. Each represented a peripheral, yet still critical, aspect of my youth.

I spent nearly every Sunday for a large chunk of my life driving down to Chicago to visit my grandmother in her Michigan Avenue condominium. When Nancy was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia about 2009, for which she paid with her ability to use language, our visits became more frequent, and more important.

We got Wrigley, our Tibetan terrier, when I was in preschool, 16 years ago, and his lifespan defied his own health. Once excessively fat and lazy, surviving off only cookies as my mother relented to his incessant begging, he began to lose weight a few years ago until his ribcage was showing. I called him “Noodle” as a joke, but the reality wasn’t too far off.

I moved into my house on Kingsport Court in the middle of the first day of second grade, boarding the A bus in the morning and returning to a new home on the E bus. It was only about a half-mile away, if that, but the neighborhood felt different. Our neighbors on Ivy Lane were social and amiable; the folks on Kingsport were quiet and private. And yet it was home, behind the police station, with a partially collapsing wooden fence in the back.

The tertiary elements of my childhood — they are perhaps less formative and important than myself and my immediate family — nonetheless felt important, and while I might have been able to handle the loss of one after the other successively over a number of years, the combination at once hurt.

I didn’t feel the effects until a little later. I flew into Chicago in the middle of the summer to attend the funeral and, incidentally, help my mom move into her new apartment. But once back in Washington, with most of my friends soon to be leaving for a break before school started, I felt alone and fell into a depressive state.

I watched “A Ghost Story” about a month earlier and it bummed me out without deeply affecting me. Still, I moped around the house, eating dinner by myself, refraining from speaking, contemplating its messages, which may not have been as deep as writer-director David Lowery had imagined. In fact, I still haven’t truly figured it out, and I’m starting to think that its philosophizing was simply a façade.

But whatever I thought at the time, “A Ghost Story” returned with a vengeance a few weeks after the funeral. I pondered the enormity of time, the inevitability of death and all that I was bound to encounter in my forthcoming years. I needed a friend, though, and in Washington, most of mine had already left. It was awful.

I thought back to the film, which aside from its critical acclaim became notable when it premiered because of its five-minute-long, uninterrupted scene of Rooney Mara, in mourning, eating pie through tears. That scene is incredible not just because of how it depicts grief, but because of how it seemingly elongates time by refraining from editing. The scene feels so long, simply because we’re used to the fast pace of other films. It goes on forever, and yet it’s only five minutes.

I felt her pain in those days. My appetite disappeared. I lost interest in my hobbies. I felt guilt over my lack of emotional expression (I still haven’t cried over any of these events, for which I feel profound shame).

I felt like so much had been ripped from me.

And that lingered for a while. I worried I would spend the rest of my life in this emotional purgatory, contemplating my own mortality, the inevitability of change, of moving on without an anchor. I would recall that my father is about the age when his father died. I would remember I still have one grandparent left, and spry as she is, she is still in her eighties.

But at some point, the depression — or whatever it should be called — ebbed. Perhaps it’s because I returned to school, where the demands of work superseded my ability to feel remorse over any other facet of my life, and that I haven’t returned home to see the carnage of my parents’ divorce, of our move, of the two deaths.

Still, the film hasn’t left me, and like its titular ghost, it haunts me on occasion and reminds me that some other foundation will vanish, too, maybe this time without a warning.