Well, I got a cold for Christmas; how about you? But it’s not a bad week to have a cold, as things are quiet here at the Times and everyone seems to be in that pre-New-Year’s mood of reflection. I’ve done my yearend poem, and my top ten list, and am pretty much ready to put an end to 2009, but there’s a story that I’ve realized I want to share. It’s about someone I know, and is, I think, a beautiful illustration of grace — and, secondarily, of how a movie can inspire something within us. It’s a tearjerker of a story, so bear with me; I think it’s worth hearing.
My friend Carla, who I’ve known since we were a pair of skinny misfits in grade school, is young and beautiful and dying of ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease). She was diagnosed two years ago, and just celebrated what will almost certainly be her last Christmas, with her teenage son and a circle of loving friends around her wheelchair. Carla, who was once a magnificent singer and stage performer, has long had a habit of sending out unique holiday letters at the end of the year, and she sent one out to her friends last week, dictated slowly (she has much trouble speaking now) to a caregiver. Before I let Carla’s words take over, I need to paint a picture for you. Since she was a teenager, Carla has had a visual trademark: her long, wavy, vibrantly red hair, a beacon on gray days and a flag for her bright, electric personality. It’s rare to see someone with hair like Carla’s; I did, just the other day, at the movies and almost burst into tears at the sight, thinking for just a second that it was Carla walking again.
Anyway, this is Carla, pondering the idea of loss
Voluntarily losing things or giving things up is a gift you give to yourself. Think about all of the things in your life that serve as some kind of itchy fiberglass insulation between you and your happiness. Imagine setting those things free, depriving them of their importance. Then imagine how liberating it is to be free of that dependence: just like how sweet it is to taste food after your lips have denied it. . . .
So I have decided to give up something that defines me. It has been the source of my confidence and my self-esteem. It has been the thing, more than all other things, that has distinguished me from the pack. I am giving up my hair, which I will donate to somebody who needs it. It’s the first voluntary sacrifice I have made since I got sick. The other night, I watched “My Sister’s Keeper,” a mediocre film with a central theme, which, while not fully explored or exploited, was worthy of a Greek drama. At a certain point in the film, the young girl who has suffered her whole life from leukemia says, “Just once, I want to look pretty.” And so her mother buys a beautiful red wig, the thickness, color, and curl of which is like my own hair (which, by some miracle, has not yet gone gray). It made me cry. And at that moment, I knew that I had to give somebody my hair.
We need to lose things to know what we have. And I have a strong feeling that when I am a short-haired person, I will be just as strong and just as loved as I was before. Plus, I get the joy of knowing that someone will have gorgeous red hair because of me. Plus, it will be much easier to puke.
That last line is classic Carla. But so is the rest of it — a person who has lost so much, and yet is still thinking of others; and a movie that inspired someone to change the life of someone who needs help. I didn’t see “My Sister’s Keeper” (due to some events in my own life, I steer clear of cancer movies these days), but I love the idea that a movie — or a book, or a play, or any work of art — might inspire us to do good. As a new year approaches, before we get lost in movie franchises and box-office draws, let’s take a moment to hope that 2010 will bring us a few movies that remind us of what we can be.