Self-portrait by Mary Jo Steger. 

Stage Four: A Love Story was filmed over the course of five-plus years while Mary Jo and her family rode the emotional roller coaster of her precious last years of life. Almost four years later, the Stage Four Team, siblings Benjamin Steger (Director/Producer) and Kate Steger (Outreach and Marketing Coordinator), intend to contribute to and manage this blog as a way of generating support for and to dialog with others in similar circumstances. We are interested in thoughtful and articulate contributions that enrich our collective understanding of sickness and health, love and forgiveness, life and death, and in the role that film, and other art forms, can play in helping us reflect on and tell even our most difficult stories.

We welcome your voice in this dialog! Please feel free to leave your comments below each post. If you would like to make a longer contribution in the form of an essay, a poem, a photograph or another work of art, or if you have suggested links to other online reading material or resources, please contact us

 

5 Terrific Resources For Hospice and Caregiver Support

We only have five days left in Stage Four: A Love Story's Indiegogo campaign, so we'd thought we'd share 5 great resources for hospice and caregiver support. Please share the post and support the film with a donation if you can. It's tax deductible and helps to ensure that this important documentary will be shared with folks all over the world! Thank you! - The Stage Four: A Love Story Team. 

1) National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization leads and mobilizes social change for improved care at the end of life. 

Mary Jo and George in Stage Four: A Love Story

Mary Jo and George in Stage Four: A Love Story

2) Hospice Foundation of America provides leadership in the development and application of hospice and its philosophy of care with the goal of enhancing the U.S. health care system and the role of hospice within it. 

 

3) Family Caregiver Alliance  illuminates the caregivers' daily challenges to better the lives of caregivers nationally, provide them the assistance they need and deserve, and champion their cause through educationservicesresearch and advocacy.

4) Caregiver Action Network works to improve the quality of life for the than 65 million Americans who care for loved ones with chronic conditions, disabilities, disease, or the frailties of old age.

5) Livestrong Foundation What Cancer Means for Caregivers can give you the information and support you need to provide the best care for your loved one.

The Fairie Queene and the Frog Prince

This post by George Steger, Mary Jo's husband of more than fifty years, was originally published on September 12, 2010 shortly after Mary Jo died. It appeared on a blog created for her friends and family as she was dying to keep them informed and connected as part of her support community. We republish it here to provide a glimpse into the relationship that the film, Stage Four: A Love Story, further illuminates. With the Stage Four: A Love Story Indiegogo campaign to raise finishing funds for the film ending in just 10 days, we hope the story will inspire new readers to contribute, share the story and widen the circle of supporters for this life-affirming film.


By George Steger

 In the last few weeks of her life, Mary Jo became quite interested, even agitated, about seeing and enjoying her good friends once more. As time began to run out and she became increasingly more feeble with the disease, her desire to “play” at least a few times more became more urgent. So we put together a few meaningful events. We had, for example, a “High Tea” for some of her girlfriends and spiritual confidantes, and "A Night of Favorite Things" with our prison ministry group where, by the light of the tiki lamps, each of us shared his or her favorite poem, song, or joke. 

For our “favorite thing” Mary Jo chose an old song which we had learned in college. It was first sung to us by a friend named Art Warren, who eventually became a priest down in the bayou country of south Louisiana. The song was “The Rose of Tralee.” Art liked both of us and he was dead set on us getting married, so he played the Cyrano de Bergerac role and taught me how to sing the song to Mary Jo. By the way, the last line of the song is “That’s why I love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.” Well, I learned it and I sang it to Mary Jo on occasion over the next 53 years – never as good as Art, though, who was an Irish tenor.

That night I sang it to her for the last time, and in front of all those people. I had no trouble getting through the song because I could feel how much Mary Jo wanted everybody to share this significant little symbol of our love and life together with some of our closest friends. Mary Jo was just beaming the whole night long and was mightily pleased with the way the evening turned out.

Then, just a couple of weeks before she died, Mary Jo got this whimsical notion about “the Frog Prince.” It started when she was looking down on me from the deck as I worked to put some water lilies in our beautiful, newly constructed fishpond which our son, Ben, had labored so hard to build for us. I was stripped down to my shorts and waist deep in the water grappling with the plants when she called down “You look like the Frog Prince there among all those lily pads.”

“Thanks a lot,” I said, bristling a bit at the unflattering imagery, “This ain’t easy, you know, and you can’t do it from the bank.” Little did I know that this would be the beginning of Mary Jo’s crowning tribute to “play.”

Dan and Ruth Dakotas and Margaret Richard backstage with the laundry.

Dan and Ruth Dakotas and Margaret Richard backstage with the laundry.

Our friends, Dan and Ruth Dakotas, live in a world of art and ideas. All Mary Jo had to do was call them, and in no time the Frog Prince Project was launched. I don’t know how or why such a fantastic idea got stuck in Mary Jo’s head as it did, but she was determined to create a tableau of me standing nearly naked in the pool among the lilies impersonating the fabled frog who gets kissed by the beautiful maiden and becomes a prince. And she herself would be “The Fairie Queene” from Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with gown, jewels and wand, bestowing upon the hapless frog the kiss that would transform him.

Dan and Ruth are game for anything, and they set out immediately to create the scene. Dan is a skilled photographer, as well as an “Artist Laureate” for the state of Kansas, and Ruth is a wonderful calligrapher and artist in her own right. Along with another prison fellowship friend and former student of mine, Margaret Richards, and my niece, Lindsay Kersker, who was visiting at the time, they sat out to stage the scene, with an eye to photographing it for posterity.

All the while, I kept protesting that this whole thing was going to seriously damage my personal sense of gravitas. But Mary Jo would brook no whining. “Full steam ahead,” she said, “and damn your gravitas – which you never had much of anyway.”

The Fairie Queen and the Frog Prince

The Fairie Queen and the Frog Prince

The end result was that I got ignominiously back into the pool with a paper crown Ruth had made for me, a pair of swimming goggles to make me look sufficiently ‘frog-like,’ the green shower curtain from the downstairs bathroom as a cape, and no remaining dignity at all. And Mary Jo sat on the bank above the pool in her fine long purple dress, some golden Mardi Gras beads around her head and neck, a pair of beautifully colored paper “fairie” wings on her back and a feather wand in her hand. And Dan took a picture.

I am only now beginning to get an idea of why this last little lark of Mary Jo’s was so important and fun to her. Perhaps, first of all, it was indicative of her desire to end the days of our life together with a gesture of play, maybe to express her satisfaction with the long, full life we had enjoyed together. Or maybe she just wanted to go out with a symbolic giggle. After all, this business of dying is not really such a big deal. It’s just a doorway to a new, and even happier, life.

Whatever it was, Mary Jo had a great time imagining and staging the show. And I went along with it like a good frog, determined to humor my lady, whatever it took. Since then, however, I have begun to look on the whole thing in a different light. The parable of the frog prince, it strikes me, might be a metaphor for our life together. When we first married I started off as a true frog, full of imperfections, ugly habits, and vulgar manifestations. Mary Jo accepted the truly daunting, life-long job of trying to turn me  into a prince. I would like to say that occasionally I have managed to be the prince she wanted, especially when it came to helping her raise our children. Alas, though, I still have a long way to go to complete the transformation. But I can say this much for sure, I would never have made any progress at all or have had any hope whatever without her magical “kiss.”

Fourteen Fantastic Resources for Breast Cancer

With only fourteen days left to go in Stage Four: A Love Story’s Indiegogo campaign, we thought we’d share fourteen excellent resources for breast cancer treatment and support. Please share. Wishing everyone peace, courage, love and a fabulous day,

The Stage Four Team!

1) National Breast Cancer Foundation helps women now by providing help and inspiring hope to those affected by breast cancer through early detection, education and support services.

2) Living Beyond Breast Cancer connects people with trusted breast cancer information and a community of support.

3) Breastcancer.org helps women and their loved ones make sense of the complex medical and personal information about breast health and breast cancer, so they can make the best decisions for their lives.

 4) Breast Cancer Connections supports people touched by breast or ovarian cancer by providing comprehensive, personalized services in an atmosphere of warmth and compassion.

 5) The Rose reduces deaths from breast cancer by providing access to screening, diagnostics, and treatment services to any woman regardless of her ability to pay.

 6) Susan G. Komen for the Cure Since 1982, Komen has played a critical role in every major advance in the fight against breast cancer – transforming how the world talks about and treats this disease and helping to turn millions of breast cancer patients into breast cancer survivors.

 7) Breast Cancer Research Foundation is working to achieve prevention and a cure for breast cancer in our lifetime by providing critical funding for innovative clinical and translational research and increasing public awareness about good breast health. 

breast-cancer-fight-like-a-girl-thank-you-cards.jpg

8) Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is committed to providing adults and children with cancer with the best treatment available today while developing tomorrow's cures through cutting-edge research.

 9) CancerCare provides telephone, online and face-to-face counseling, support groups, education, publications and financial and co-payment assistance.

10) Fight Like a Girl Club provides a loving, comfortable environment where women battling cancer and other life-limiting diseases, survivors, and loved ones can come together to share stories, experiences, advice, encouragement, and hope with one another. Men are warmly welcomed, as well. 

 11) Hope Connections for Cancer Support offers support groups for people with cancer and their caregivers; educational workshops with top oncology professionals; stress reduction and nutrition classes; and opportunities for people affected by cancer to connect with and support each other.

 12) Cancer Support Community works to ensure that all people impacted by cancer are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action, and sustained by community. 

 13) Mayo Clinic Center for Humanities in Medicine supports the primary value of Mayo Clinic, the needs of the patient come first, by integrating the arts and expressions of human culture into the healing environment.

14) Smith Center for Healing and the Arts specializes in serving people with cancer and develops and promotes healing practices that explore physical, emotional, and mental wellness that lead to life-affirming changes.

 

The Whole Picture - Truth and Documentary

There is an exchange in the 1998 film, Smoke Signals, written by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, in which the protagonist, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, asks his new friend, Suzy Song, to tell him a story. Suzy replies, “do you want the truth or do you want lies.” With a giant grin plastering his face, Thomas replies, “I want both.” I like to recount this anecdote in the classes I teach on storytelling, even in classes on documentary. I think why the protagonist might be grinning so broadly is because, over everything, he desires a good story. He knows that truth and lies are both important ingredients in the mix.

I am frequently frustrated by the distinction in which fiction films are called narratives but documentaries are not. It implies that fiction films are stories while documentaries are some sort of illustrated lecture. I try to dispel this notion in my documentary classes and stress that documentary is primarily a form of storytelling and should contain all the elements of any good story or, for that matter, any good fiction film: captivating characters, conflict, rising tension, unexpected turns, a climax, a resolution and a compelling theme. As my students soon learn, including these elements and creating these structures within documentary form is much more challenging than creating them in fiction.  But what about this recipe of truth and lies that Thomas Builds-the-Fire desires in his stories? Does it hold true for documentary, as well? Aren’t documentaries, by their very nature, truthful? And if they aren’t, shouldn’t they be?

The topics of truth and objectivity are hotly debated among documentary filmmakers and film scholars. In the film, Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary, directed by Pepita Ferrari, Werner Herzog derides factual truth, stating that all the names and numbers in any given phone book are all facts and are true, but they hold no significant meaning in and of themselves. Errol Morris counters that there is absolute truth and that the facts count. He goes on to explain that there is only one person who pulled the trigger and killed the policeman in his documentary, The Thin Blue Line. It was Morris’ duty to figure out the facts and reveal the truth about who that killer truly was, especially since a wrongly convicted, innocent man’s life was on the line on death row.

Though their opinions differ greatly, I think both are right, especially when considering the types of films each are making. Personally, I find myself walking a fine line between the two perspectives in my own documentary practice. I’m willing to bend the facts if it makes a better story but not so much that the truth becomes distorted or false associations are created. For example, I would never edit in a shot of someone laughing in reaction to someone, when in reality they were scowling. On the other hand, though, I might deviate from the factual chronology as I recorded it and insert one scene before another when in actuality it occurred after, if it makes the structure of the documentary more sound or helps the flow of rising and falling tension within the story. It may be a deviation from factual truth, but as long as it doesn’t create false linkages it has little bearing on the overall truth of the story. 

In film school, I trained as a fiction director.  I developed my love for documentary crewing on documentary films. I loved its immediacy, its freedom, its unpredictability, its chaos, and the improvisation it required. I recognized its potential for poetry and immersive storytelling. Like Thomas Builds-the-Fire, story turns me on, I believe strongly in its spiritual power, and I don’t mind some white lies in the mix as long as they are in service of the greater truth.

My sister, Kate, wrote in a previous blog that the story I tell is not the story she would have told, even if given the same footage to work with.  She also mentions that all art falls short of the entire truth. She is right, of course, but I would add that human consciousness falls short of the whole truth. Certainly my parents, like any couple, would give different accounts of the successes and failures in their fifty-three year long marriage, as well different accounts as to the  causes and repercussions of these successes and failures. This much is evident in the film.

But what if my mom could tell the whole story of her journey with cancer? Would it be the truth? Akira Kurosawa, in his famous film, Rashomon (1950), suggests that it might not be. In Rashomon, all of the characters’ versions of the truth are tainted by their own egos, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and the psychological impulse to revise their stories to fit their own needs (not to mention the fallibility of memory). They are incapable of being fully truthful when relaying their own stories, incapable of being fully truthful with themselves. While my mom was a pillar of wisdom to many of her friends and family, she was also human and as such was subject, like all of us, to her own flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. So, perhaps her story would be just that; another story, another version of the truth told to the best of her abilities. Would it be a truer story than mine? Perhaps. But it would still not be the whole truth.

Documenting a love story… 

Documenting a love story… 

So if all human perspective is tainted by subjectivity and objectivity is elusive if not impossible in documentary, where should documentary filmmakers draw the line? What responsibility do documentarians have to the truth? In my opinion, they have a great one. All great art chases the truth, tries to catch some corner of it and reveal it to the world. This, I believe, is the vital and spiritual function of art.  At the same time, each artist’s journey to the truth is their own, formed and influenced by their own experiences, dispositions and discoveries. It is up for the audience to assess the merits of the truth that the artist presents and to utilize it and apply it to their own lives if they so choose.

Stage Four: A Love Story is a documentary, its medium is reality and it is, on the whole, true. But as the title implies, it is also a story. Its reality is structured and manipulated, certain things are emphasized while others are omitted. Its tensions and themes are constructed in the editing room. Its perspective and points of view are limited. However, the film is also a poem, a song, a dance, a dream, a rumination drenched in twilight. It is first and foremost a story and my hope is that the audience will get lost within it and perhaps, along the way, discover some nuggets of the truth, despite the little white lies and limitations of both the form and the human that made it.  

- Benjamin Steger 

Donate to the Stage Four: A Love Story Indiegogo campaign

Hospice and the Peaceful Home Death

More great news today!

We're very grateful to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization for publishing an article Kate wrote on their blog, Moments of Life. The article shares the story of how hospice supported Mary Jo's family as she reached the end stage of her illness. While Stage Four: A Love Story focuses on Mary Jo and George's relationship, it also furthers the lessons hospice teaches, that quality of life doesn't need to be compromised as death approaches.

“Mom wanted us to know that death was a natural part of life and not an alien, antiseptic, hostile event that had no place in the family home. With help from hospice, Mom was able to give us this final, precious lesson on living well all the way up to the end.”

— Hospice and the Peaceful Home Death

You can read the whole article on the Moments of Life blog.

Happiness Shared is Happiness Doubled

We have an exciting opportunity for our fundraising campaign to announce today: An anonymous donor has offered to match all donations this weekend up to $1000! That means anything you contribute by Sunday until we reach $1000 will be doubled on Sunday night allowing us to add $2000 to the pool in just a few days! Only have a ten spot? Make it a twenty! Turn a Grant into a Franklin! You don't need a lottery ticket to win today! So what are you waiting for? Head on over to the Stage Four: A Love Story Indiegogo page and join the party! 

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On Being Inside the Frame

"Get that camera out of my face!"

The family circus, summer 2010.

The family circus, summer 2010.

Yes, I remember saying that or giving the camera such a searing glare that it wilted and drooped towards the floor. But most of the time, Ben and his camera were like an annoying fly buzzing around the picnic table. You never forgot he was there, but you got so you just quit swatting at it. And because the camera was so ubiquitous, you knew most of it would end up on the cutting room floor anyway. Who was going to watch 60 hours of dish washing, housekeeping and "casserole juggling?" More often, it was "Put that camera down and come and help!" which he usually did, to his credit.

Pool antics, summer 2010.

Pool antics, summer 2010.

Sometimes I was jealous of him and would switch places arguing that it wasn't fair that he got to "hide behind the camera" all the time. Being "in the picture" felt so agonizing that I wanted a reprieve and I would shoo him away and into the kitchen and take a breather "behind the scenes." But not much of what I shot was useable. I never fully understood F-stops and white balancing and my zooms were out of focus. Ben indulged me, maybe because I was his older sister and could boss him around. Birth order is everything, isn't it?

George takes a break, summer 2010.

George takes a break, summer 2010.

But I also wasn't good at staying out of the picture. I couldn't remain detached and uninvolved. If there was a conversation going on, I had trouble just observing it. If someone made a joke, I'd laugh and the camera would shake. If I was interviewing someone, I always made the fatal amateur mistake of giving audible conversation cues: "Mmm-hmm," I'd nod making sound editing impossibly arduous.

Mary Jo in the calm of the storm, summer 2010.

Mary Jo in the calm of the storm, summer 2010.

So this was Ben's thing, and yes, the rest of us allowed it or tolerated it because we loved him and trusted him and wanted to support him and respected his need to process his grief in his own way. All of that is true. But there's more to it. We wanted him to take this horrible thing we were going through and make something meaningful and useful out of it. That's what art does, right? Captures life in all its transitory beauty and then show it to us so we can hold onto it and understand it?

Here was our beautiful mother, full of love and life, a unique and precious human being soon to be gone from us and the world. Here were the beautiful last seasons of her life with the giant, thunderous harvester stirring up dust on the horizon and heading straight towards her. Hurry quick, take a picture before the sun goes down! It's so human.

And so incomplete. Ben's camera didn't capture everything. He wasn't always there, the camera wasn't always on, the moment was lost, my mother's life ended anyway. And even the Google Glass version of her life wouldn't have been the whole thing, would it? Documentary disappoints. All art is inadequate. But how can we keep from trying?

It's July Fourth weekend and I'm writing this in the early morning hours at what is now my father's house, where Ben filmed most of Stage Four: A Love Story. It's all so familiar and so simultaneously strange. There is the same family circus going on. The traditions continue. Stories are told and retold. But we're all older. The "children" are now teenagers. Mom, of course, is gone. Ben's camera doesn't come to the table.

There's a relief in this. Having a terminally ill family member is exhausting for everyone. By comparison, having a camera in your face the whole time was merely annoying at worst. But the realization that all of our stories must one day come to an end makes me sad and understand our absurd impulse to capture them however inadequately. Writing this reflection is another feeble attempt. Then there are footsteps in the hall, coffee percolating, morning voices in the kitchen and the river of another day sweeps me along. 


Grief, art, and a movie camera

Benjamin Steger on a shoot. Photo by Ines Sommer.

Benjamin Steger on a shoot. Photo by Ines Sommer.

It was Mother’s Day, 2005. Even though my mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer, the usual dinner preparation circus act was underway: my sister juggling hot casseroles while mixing salad dressings, my dad balancing forks and knives while popping open bottles of wine, my brother wrangling wild and rambunctious children, my mom, the circus conductor, hustling and bustling to make sure that the whole tent didn’t collapse. And then there was me, a man with a movie camera, videotaping the whole ordeal.

“Benjamin, what are you doing? Get that camera out of my face,” seemed to be the general outcry. And what was I doing? Why had I decided that following my family around with a video camera just after my mom had been diagnosed with a stage-four breast cancer diagnosis was a good idea? The truth was that, in terms of my brain or a logical answer, I didn’t know. But, in terms of my heart, and my intuition, I knew it was the thing I had to do. They say that people process grief in different ways. Perhaps this was my way.  

But what about the people in front of the camera? Aren’t they grieving, too, and is it fair to stick a camera in someone’s face when they’re sad, or anxious, or angry, or depressed? Are they not entitled to their privacy? The correct answer to the last question is, of course, yes, they are entitled to their privacy. My family could have easily shut down the whole videotaping process if they had so chosen. Why then, did they allow me to continue?

From my perspective, I can only guess why they allowed me to continue. The most likely answer is that I was the youngest child by several years and they had all played with me when I was a baby and thought I was cute and had to let me do whatever I wanted to do because of this. Another reason was that, unlike most documentary filmmakers who must spend weeks, months, and even years gaining the trust of their subjects, I had already established that trust through a lifetime of being a son and brother. And, of course, the fact that they loved me helped.

There’s probably one more reason, though. I was lucky enough to grow up in a creative family that believed strongly in the purpose and power of art. We were a hodgepodge of musicians, painters, actors, poets and writers. They all new my thing was movie making, and they respected my need to make art, even if it meant that they would effectively have to act as my paints.

The other big question is then, “what did I want to accomplish by telling this story?” What good can come of turning people’s turmoil into stories? From a detached perspective, the answer is probably fairly obvious. There is conflict in turmoil and any class on drama will stress how essential conflict is in order for a story to be effective. Conflict, in and of itself, is an empty shell, though. Really what is at the heart of good stories is universal truth and connection. Conflict doesn’t stick to our ribs, lay heavy in our guts, or make our hearts swell up in our chests. Truth and connection do this. 

Most of us struggle with the big questions in life: love, death, and the meaning and purpose of our existence. I would be, of course, an utter fool to even pretend to be able to answer these questions. But by embarking on this documentary, I thought I might at least be able to explore some of them and perhaps offer up some corner of the truth.

And then there is the deep-seeded need to connect with one other. We are floating in a vast, deep universe and it’s very easy to feel sometimes as though it is going to swallow us up. This is especially true in times of grief and despair. Knowing that we are not forlorn in these feelings helps to assuage the pain and reminds us of the joy, love, and life we share with humanity and all creatures and life on earth.

You can support Stage Four: A Love Story at Indiegogo.com.

Another Motherless Child

This week, someone who read my recent post on my mom's birthday sent me a link to this article by 19-year-old college student, Ruby Dutcher. Not only is it beautifully written but it's also a powerful demonstration of our need to share our stories, no matter how gut-wrenching. The website that published it, Modern Loss, is an excellent hub for frank talk about death and dying or as they put it, a "Candid conversation about grief. Beginners welcome." They provide personal essays, lots of resources, and how-to advice on dealing with the taboos around mourning in our daily lives. I wish I'd found their website sooner! 

'I'm Only 19' by Ruby Dutcher

I’m in an armchair in my dorm’s sixth floor lounge when I get the call. My mother is dying in her hospital bed in Los Angeles. She’s terminally agitated, trying to stand up and pulling at her IVs. It means her organs are shutting down. Come home, come home now, they say, we’ll try to keep her alive till you get here.

Happy Birthday, Mary Jo!

A few years ago, Ben emailed me the private link to the first rough cut of Stage Four: A Love Story. I clicked on it right away, but after the first few frames, I shut it down, closed the computer and walked away. It was a weeknight and I had to go to work the next morning. I wasn't prepared to stay up all night crying.

A few weeks later, I finally screwed up my courage and went back to it. I did cry, but to my surprise, I also laughed. It wasn't the somber dirge I'd expected, but rather, it was poignant and playful. It was so Ben, I thought.

Practically tone deaf, Mary Jo was never known for her musical talents, but she always gave it her creative best.

Practically tone deaf, Mary Jo was never known for her musical talents, but she always gave it her creative best.

I couldn't have made this film. After five years of what hospice workers call "anticipatory grief," which I'd experienced while Mom was dying, I needed to STOP grieving and remembering. I needed to "walk off from it" (to quote one of my dad's heroes, Gus McCray from Lonesome Dove).

But if I had sat down with the same footage Ben used to create Stage Four, I'm sure I would've made a very different documentary. It would've been so Kate. I'm sure my other siblings and my dad would've each had a different story to tell. And perhaps most interestingly, there would be the story my mom would've had to tell.

When I was young, I always thought of my dad as the creative parent. He was a fabulous story-teller and performer, entertaining us kids on long car rides and boat trips with cowboy trail songs and adventure tales lifted without apology or acknowledgment directly from books like Huckleberry Finn and The Nibelungenlied.

Mary Jo and George as Bonnie and Clyde, 1968.

Mary Jo and George as Bonnie and Clyde, 1968.

My mom, on the other hand, shunned the spotlight and stood much more in the recesses of the family stage. Modest and self-deprecating, she was embarrassed to be in the eye of Ben's camera and would never have chosen to be the subject of a movie for her own sake. She did it for Ben and for the rest of us who were desperately trying to grasp ahold of her and keep her from slipping away. She did it because she understood our need to storify our grief experience. 

What my family gravitated towards by instinct or propensity in dealing with Mom's death has been legitimized, in the last decade or so, by the emergence of a new field of study in medicine. Narrative medicine looks at the ways patients communicate with their physicians and seeks to understand the role of storytelling in the fostering of health. Simultaneously, other artistic disciplines are also finding ways to enhance the healing process as art and music therapy programs become more available in hospital settings. Cancer support communities have started to encourage the culinary arts and gardening for patients and caregivers too.

Like my mother, many patients and caregivers don't consider themselves "artists" and may come to artistic endeavors on the advice of physicians or hospice workers awkwardly and as amateurs. But all of us are more creative than we think and while we may not have the talent or skills to edit films for theatrical release, write novels for publication or paint art that will hang in museums, creativity--the ACT of creating--is by definition life-giving. What better self-affirming gesture can we make in the face of illness and death, but to continue to create ourselves and our stories?

Today--June 19th--is my mom's birthday. She would be 77 years old if her story had continued. But in a way, it has. As a full-time homemaker, my mother's great artistic talent was creating her family and community. She threw her whole self and all of her strength and efforts into her art, and she did so with tremendous joy and love, even though it often stretched her to her limits and sometimes broke her heart. This is what artists do and their work survives them and lives on after their bodies have gone back to the earth. Mom's story continues in the lives of her children and grandchildren, in my dad's story as it thankfully continues to unfold, and in the growing community of people connected to Stage Four: A Love Story as it comes to fruition and finds a place in the world.

Mary Jo with a few of her works-in-progress, 1965.

Mary Jo with a few of her works-in-progress, 1965.

In the past few days since we launched this website and the Indiegogo fundraising campaign, I've watched the social media chatter about the film grow to include friends, and friends of friends, and increasingly people who are complete strangers from all walks of life. I can't think of a better way to celebrate my mom's birth and life. Thanks, everybody, for joining the party by taking the threads of Mom's story and weaving them together with your own.

In scientific terms—if we make sense of the world by recognizing patterns and thinking in categories—being able to narrate a coherent story is a healing experience. In psychological terms, stories keep us connected to each other; they reassure us that we are not alone.
— Miriam Divinsky, Stories for Life: Introduction to Narrative Medicine

A Phone Call From Mom

Mary Jo and Benjamin, 1973.

Mary Jo and Benjamin, 1973.

In the spring of 2005, I got a phone call from my mom telling me that she had been diagnosed with cancer. After hanging up, I had a good cry and then decided to move back home for the summer. I was freelancing in video production and teaching college part-time at the time and didn’t have a family of my own so, luckily, I was able to do so. I had left home when I was 18 and hadn’t lived there since. Reflecting on the scenario, I realized that, although my mom and I had been very close when I was a child, I had neglected my relationship with her in my adult life and hadn’t been as close with her as I should have been. I guess I had assumed that I would always have time to make a stronger connection. Knowing that her diagnosis was stage-four emphasized to me that time was indeed precious and that I needed to make the most of it.  Fortunately, I was able to reestablish the connection to her that I felt so strongly as a child and be close to her over that last five years of her life.

Over the course of making the film, I lost four friends to cancer. All were younger than my mother and all had less time than she from the time they were diagnosed until their deaths. Jennifer Sullivan, a family friend who lived a very healthy lifestyle and never smoked, was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a little over a month later. Susan Stursberg, my favorite bartender from my favorite Chicago watering hole, Gold Star Bar, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died at the age of 45. My girlfriend's cousin, Beatrice Bodzinksi, passed away two weeks ago at the age of 44 from colon cancer, leaving behind a partner, Paul,  a daughter, Diana, a mother, Tamara, and a grandmother, Cecilia. Dan Stock, father to a four-year old daughter, Charlie, and husband to his high school sweetheart, Angie, died of melanoma at the age of 37. Dan was the sound designer on my two previous films, Great Bend and Left Field. When I began this documentary, I always assumed it would be Dan who would be mixing the post-production audio and it makes me so sad that he will not.

Death is a hard teacher but it is also one of the best. I learned many things from my mom’s passing and the passing of my friends. One is that cancer does not discriminate; it takes the old just as easily as it takes the young, and both women and men alike. Further, life is short, time is precious, and it’s important to make every moment count.  My mother was graceful in dying and I can only hope to emulate her whenever that Grim Reaper decides to call me home. She didn’t spend her last days battling death or wallowing in anger or fear. She enjoyed the last years of her life, even while knowing that death was imminent. For her, it was a time of reconciliation, joy, and maintaining dignity. I hope that by sharing her story others may share in that joy, make opportunities for reconciliation in their own lives, and find solace in the fact that all of us will some day pass through that door.

It is my hope that this film and blog can help foster a community of people whose lives have been affected by cancer, terminal illness, or death. We’ll be posting weekly here in the months to come so, if you’re interested, please check back often. We also invite you to be a part of this community and its discussion. Please post comments and contact us if you have a post, story, or artwork that you’d like to share on the blog. If you wish, you can also contribute to the film’s completion by donating to our Indiegogo campaign. Thanks for taking the time to read this. Wishing you all peace and joy.