Back in the old days, before doctors were able to cure many illnesses, a big part of “medical care” was being with the patient. Just being there says things that can’t be said otherwise, principal among them is, “You matter so much to me that I am spending time with you, comforting you as I am able.”
It seems to me that as medicine has gotten better, the gift of human comfort has gotten poorer. We still do it—we still spend time with the people who are ill—but we think more about recovery than we used to and less, it seems to me, about comfort. Nothing about the medical regime that will return me to health says. “You matter this much to me.”
I got to thinking of this as I watched the bittersweet ending of a very good French movie called All Together. I want to tell you enough about the movie that you might understand what I want to tell you about the end.
Five long-time friends decide to move in together. At first it looks like a simple efficiency. They spend all their time visiting each other anyway. Each of these five people, the three men more than the two women, is having trouble letting go of who he has been in the past. Albert’s memory is going and he flickers in and out of the present. Jean, the political activist, is an old man now and can’t even get himself arrested at a public protest. Sex means everything to Claude, but his heart attack complicates that as well, even with readily available prostitutes. Even so, each of the five is present for the others in a meaningful way.
It is Jeanne, Albert’s wife, who introduces the dilemma I want to point to. She knows that he is so forgetful that he cannot manage on his own. She also knows she is dying of cancer and that when she is gone, the remaining friends will not be able to care for him anymore. She dies and has just the funeral she wants, complete with the bright pink coffin she is shopping for when we first meet her. Albert comes to the service with the other friends. But later in the day, he can’t find her. He has no recollection of the funeral. In his present confusion, he no longer knows she is dead and he goes out looking for her.
The remaining three friends look at each other, weighing the task of telling him, yet again, that Jeanne has died. They decide not to. Albert is quite agitated. He decides to go out looking for her. The other three, worried about letting him wander around on his own, go with him. He begins to call her name. Where could she be?
At that point, an emotionally powerful moment occurs. The friends understand that Albert can no longer join in their life. They decide to join his instead. Each of them begins to call “Jeanne,” just as Albert does. They walk along together. Albert is calling Jeanne’s name and looking for her. The friends are walking with him and calling her name as well.
There isn’t a satisfying end to the story. There can’t be. Albert’s daughter will come and get him and put him in a place where he can be cared for and watched over. Jean and Annie and Claude will go back to their house and live as best they can.
So it isn’t really the ending that got me and that I offer to you today. It is the choice the friends made and that I admire. They do what they can. They walk with him for a long time, honoring a lifetime of friendship by calling out his wife’s name.
This is a situation our medical advances have not caught up to. No one can heal Albert. The best we can do is walk with him for a little while and help him search for his wife. It is an honest choice and a hard one.