Saturday, May 23, 2020

I Never Thought It Would Be Today: Thoughts on My Own Grief Observed.

1942-2020

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS OF MY OWN GRIEF OBSERVED

Wednesday, May 6, 2020 was meant to be an ordinary day. My mother, Socorro Aragon, was going to have a simple CT Scan with Contrast, then after resting, we would go to her church where she would pick up the weekly grocery giveaway and give her tithe. She had more tests and appointments scheduled, all of which I would drive her to.

I enjoyed driving her to and fro. It gave us a lot of time together, more now with the lockdown in full effect and my employer, the City of El Paso, having officially furloughed me on Tuesday, May 5 even though I had not been at the Library for over a month.

We woke up early as the appointment was at 9:30 a.m. She could not have breakfast due to the test but she, like always, made me a little something. As I ate my egg burrito, I saw her: hair all perfectly made, with a nice short-sleeve blue blouse with frills on the ends. She felt a bit bad about not having any makeup, wondering if it would affect her test. "I didn't even put cream on me," she said.

"Don't worry Mom, I'll bring some with me for you after".

She had been diagnosed with breast cancer less than a month ago, a surprise at her age. There were two lumps on her left breast, one on top of the other. As such, she would require surgery, then chemotherapy and radiation. She was not looking forward to this. Still, she was forever optimistic about her prospects.

As we chatted, I observed her: a bright smile and sparkle in her eyes. "Mom, you look beautiful", I told her. She immediately but cheerfully dismissed such things. "Ay Ricardo, como te sales" she said in Spanish (loose translation, "Oh Ricardo, how you exaggerate".

I fussed over her, making sure she drank the liquid required for the test, packing the medication she needed to take afterwards, bringing some water and chips for her to drink and munch on after she finished.

The Texas Oncology Center we were sent to was clear across town, so we left early. I played the Sirius XM Escape station for her as the easy listening music was her style. I would take glances at her as we drove to the Westside, and I could see her reading her Bible, lost in the Word.

We get there a little before nine. Obviously I couldn't go in, but I walked with her to the door, both of us wearing our masks. She took with her a jacket, saying "Siempre hace frio adentro" (It's always cold inside). She gave her name to the waiting nurse at the door, who took her temperature. "You have your phone?" I asked. "Si", she replied. "OK, just call me when you're done".

Despite the mask I could see she was happy and smiling, her eyes again bright.

I waited outside, reading a magazine and seeing more people come. Soon the Sun was starting to hit me hard, so I went back to the car to drop off my bag and maybe take a walk around. I casually noticed the fire truck and ambulance pulling up but didn't give it much thought.

I then got a call on my phone, marked "Possible Scam". I opted to answer it just in case. The caller mentioned something about "Socorro Aragon", and I was briefly puzzled as to why they were calling my cell phone. It was coming from the Texas Oncology and I was more puzzled as to why they didn't realize she was already inside.

It was then that the voice became more frantic, telling me that I had to go inside immediately.

I went in and my daze started to grow and grow. The physician in residence looked stunned and confused. The details are now a bit muddled, but from what I remember she told me my mother had an immediate reaction to the dye, her heart had stopped and had lost consciousness. She was being rushed to Sierra, less than five minutes away. I was, if I remember well, given the option of riding with the ambulance or going in my own car. I went in my own.

Inside, I was handed her purse which also had her jacket and bra. Outside, I was handed her shoes and got a quick glimpse of her. The paramedics were working feverishly to get her heart started again, and that quick glance just hit me into an almost paralyzed state. Still in a daze, I drove to the hospital.

Finding parking, rushing to the emergency room, still having to have my temperature taken, I was made to wait in the deserted emergency waiting room. I called one person, then another, the first one asking if he could call me back, the second I had to cut off when I was allowed inside.

Between filling out forms and trying to remember if she had a living will I could see the emergency staff huddled as they tried desperately to revive her. Eventually, the doctor came up and said they did everything they could but after half an hour could not restart her heart. Nodding my head, they finally stopped.

"Time of death: 10:15", I heard.

My mother was dead.

I then was allowed to go inside.

Perhaps this is my projecting, but her expression was the beginning of my falling apart. It looked to me as though she was stunned at what had happened. Again, this is probably my reaction, because I was not expecting this.

It was a simple, routine test, one that as far as we both knew, had no risks.

I closed her eyes, not wanting her to see this. I hated the way she looked now: her blouse and hair a mess. I held her hand, feeling the warmth of life slip slowly into the coldness of death. I just needed to hold her hand, to let her know I was there. I just didn't want her to be alone.

For an hour I cried, snot coming down all over me, yet I could not let go of her hand. "Mommie, Mommie, I love you and am so proud of you," I said. I caressed her hair, kept looking at her, thinking.

So much drifted into my mind: our long life together with trips and hopes for others, her deep love for our fractured family, little private memories.

Despite my growing grief, I knew we needed to take care of many things. The first thing I did was call my cousin Sylvia, whom I consider the smartest person and probably the most capable person in my immediate circle. It took her an hour to get there, and she too grieved with me.

I could not have done much if anything without her. She was slightly divorced from things, and had a more rational look. We contacted the coroner's office and the attending nurse helped us there. We knew we also had to contact the funeral home.

In that respect Mom was very realistic and prepared. After my grandmother's death Mom had paid for her funeral, even having foresight to buy the adjoining plot. Many times she would say, "Ricardo, ya tengo 77 anos, ya estoy vieja" (Ricardo, I'm 77, I'm old), so the reality of death was not lost on her. Mom had picked out her casket, made the arrangements, and was even a bit grumpy about not being able to prepay the flowers on the casket. She also had been very clear: no open casket.

Eventually, once assured that the funeral home could come and collect the body, we went to the funeral home, masks on. We were attended to and fortunately they had all the documentation as when we called we had set the appointment at 2. They treated us very well and I made the decisions on the memory book, the prayer cards, the newspaper announcements. Sylvia took a hands-on/hands-off approach: sometimes asking specific questions, sometimes saying she was there just for moral support.

There were about two things I disagreed with Sylvia on. First was on the date for the service. The first date offered was Sunday, May 10, but there was simply no way I could hold her service on Mother's Day. The fact that both Mexican and American Mother's Day fell on the same day made such a date simply unacceptable and unbearable (in Mexico, Mother's Day is always May 10 no matter what day of the week it falls).

The second was on the tithe. Mom had made out her monthly tithe check the day before. She had it in her purse but had not placed it in the envelope, which she was using as a bookmark. I wanted to honor her wish to give her last tithe to the church she so loved. Sylvia thought otherwise.  As I am furloughed she at first thought it was a waste of money. However, here is where I think the Holy Spirit worked on her even if she is not a woman of faith. She got around to seeing the tithe as an unofficial honorarium for the pastor.

I had to call her church, Nuevo Pacto El Paso, to see if the pastor would be available to speak at her service. The pastor's wife, a pastor herself, answered. When she asked for the name, I said, "Socorro Aragon". Rocio de la O was the first to say what I heard many say in the days after, "No, no mi hermanita Socorro/Socorrito, NO" (NO, not Sister Socorro/Socorrito, NO!). The pain each of them expressed was in a strange way comforting. It made me feel a little at peace knowing how much she was loved.

By the time we, or I, had made as many decisions as I could it was close to five. It was my Longest Day, and yet still more to do.

Sylvia's partner Bertha brought some food, as I had not eaten. It took me days for me to even open the lunchbag, the water and chips still there. I could eat only a bit of the steak and didn't even try to take the potato.

I opted to first call all the people on her cell phone contact list, alphabetical order. It was both painful and therapeutic to repeat the same story, but it made it hard to hear each of her closest friends and sisters in Christ wail their lament at the sudden and unexpected death.

Yes, my Mom was 77, and yes, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, something she kept private from many people. However, the fact that it happened that day, so quickly, with no warning, I know sent many into disbelief and agony.

I had many more phone calls to make the next few days. I called my cousins, other sisters, friends both of hers and of mine. It got to the point where I was becoming physically exhausted by it all, let alone emotionally exhausted. There was one person whom I held back and back on calling: my Mom's only living sister Alicia.

I think a part of me just could not bring myself to call her about this, especially since my Mom was younger. In a strange fate it was my Tia who called me. "Esta tu mama?" (Is your Mom there?) she asked. I had asked my cousin Sergio, her son who was in Ohio driving a trailer, not to tell his mother. I think this should have come from me.

My Tia and I talked, and while I can't remember exactly what was said I do remember quiet sobs. I have no insight into my Tia's mind and heart, but I know that perhaps it was better that my Mom went first. My Mom is extremely loving towards family and perhaps if my Tia had died first it would have been far more than my Mom could have endured.

The night of my Mom's death, if I slept two hours it would have been a miracle. I was numb, overwhelmed with so much. I had a terrible sense of guilt, repeating to myself that it was my fault, that if I hadn't been insistent on her having the test, if I had made her miss the appointment, that if I had told her not to take it.

I do find that maybe people do carry this burden of thinking they could have done something, but again the Spirit came to me and gave me insight. Mom many times had said that she didn't want to die slowly. She had told me and many of her friends and family that she wanted to die quickly. The Lord Jesus Christ, in His Grace, granted his daughter her wish. That she became immediately unconscious means that she knew nothing of what happened, and in a sense she died peacefully, if to me chaotically.

Mom was a woman of deep faith, deep faith. One of my final memories of her are of her watching the YouTube broadcast of the Nuevo Pacto service, her hands raised in worship. My own faith at the moment couldn't match hers. I struggle and stumble through my almost-daily Bible readings, and I rarely if ever watched online Services. It complicated matters that my work schedule had me work every Sunday without exception save for vacation requests or Easter (and there had been a rumor that the Deputy City Manager who oversees Libraries wanted us to be open on Easter too, though last year this did not come to pass).

It got to the point where I had to look up the times for my own church, Cielo Vista, because I simply did not know their hours anymore.

I never joined a Community/Care Group, and the Men's Group met at 6:30 on Wednesdays. I had finagled to leave at 6 on Wednesdays, but the drive from work to CVC was well over half an hour. After a while, and after once accidentally showing up at some kind of children's/teen event, I pretty much left.

Mom's faith was such that she would ask her sisters to pray for me. I think she thought I was not a Christian, or at least one whose faith was almost none. I never really walked away from God or faith but I find it hard to believe. Perhaps there is enough evidence to indict me on the charge of being Christian, but nowhere near enough to convict me, as the saying goes.

It's strange that despite my Mom's death not once have I been angry at God. I'm the type to think that if I have a flat tire, it's a sign that God hates me and wants me to be miserable. In all this though, I've never thought God was punishing me. Yes, I hurt. Yes, I feel guilt. I don't think however that I have asked God, "Why?". I too have that realism about death. "Vivir es una enfermedad mortal" (Life is a terminal illness), Mom would say. Again, she knew death would come one day.

I just never thought it would be that day, that specific day, that May 6, 2020, that simple day where we had plans and that was going to be routine and remarkably uneventful.

I don't think any of us are ever ready for when our parents die. It does not matter whether it comes quickly like it did for my Mom or whether they linger on in pain, as it did for my Grandma. We are never emotionally prepared because a little part of us still thinks that he/she will come back. It is our parent, our Mommie, our Daddy, that person who even when they don't love us or care about/for us we still have an attachment to.

My Mom made a couple of curious though perhaps imminent statements shortly before her death. Earlier in the month, she said that she had dreamed about her mother. I can't remember if it was the same time or not, but she also said, "Todavia estrano mi madre," (I still miss my Mom) and my Abuela has been dead for twenty-eight years.

How then could I not miss my Mom, who has been dead less than a month?

I think here, again, the Lord granted Mom something beautiful. Death is not beautiful for us, but I think for Mom it was. It was quick, it was painless, and she now really is worshiping in the presence of the Lord she so loved. She is also reunited with all those she so dearly loved: her mother, so many of the brothers and sisters she missed, and especially my cousin Jose Cornejo.

Jose was, I think, her favorite nephew whom she had lost contact with for decades. She longed to see him and again, thanks to Sylvia, she reconnected with him when Sylvia found him for her. They talked often, but Mom resisted going to California to see him. Jose was also battling cancer and I think she wanted to remember him as a happy, mischievous child versus the withering old man she imagined.

For months I begged her to take that trip, and for months she resisted. Finally, in late 2018 I flat out told her, "Mom, this literally could be your last chance, either for him or for you". She finally agreed and we went to see him in December of that year. It did her such good to see her Pepito once last time, as it did for him to see his beloved Coyo (his name for her stemming from inability as a child to say "Socorro").

Less than three months later, Jose would be dead.

My Mom was devastated, but she took comfort that she got to see him one last time, hold him, hug him, tell him how much she loved him, and that she saw him in good spirits and relatively good health. After his death, his cousin on his Dad's side sent us a picture of him when he was younger which Mom put in a cabinet in the living room.

Every day afterwards until her own death, she would sit down and turn to his picture and blow him a kiss, often asking him how he was. I don't think this makes her bonkers. She wasn't expecting his photo to literally reply, but I think it gave her a sense of comfort and peace.

When we went to California, I had to sneak a picture of Mom to him (Mom thought it was silly to give him a picture of herself). It is my favorite picture of Mom: she is standing next to her beloved roses wearing a blouse that seems to match the bright colors of her roses. When I called my niece Nina, who took care of her beloved Uncle Jose in his final months, she told me she would place the picture her Tio had next to that of her mother (another cousin also named Sylvia).

"Is that a picture with roses?" I asked. She said yes, and it did warm my heart that despite my Mom's to my mind irrational concerns Jose kept that image with him until his death. I too have a copy of it, and I put her picture next to his, as I think she would have wanted to be next to him.   

Sylvia came by the next day to craft a beautiful tribute video. I did wonder why she insisted on keeping her mask on inside the house when A) I was the only person inside and B) we were more than thirty feet apart for most of it, as I was on the opposite end writing her obituary. She might have had two masks on, something that she has done recently and which she encourages me to do whenever I go out.

I do know that I could not have gotten through those first days without her. Sylvia's natural efficiency and planning carried me in my overwhelming grief, confusion and fear. I think at times I put too much on her, unintentionally shifting a lot of responsibility on her. I know I pushed her to the edge when another cousin in California sent another tribute. It was the straw that almost broke the camel's back (or in Spanish, the drop that caused the glass to spill). I also could not have gotten through without her sister Veronica. Vero also takes great precautions: she won't set foot in anyone's house and wears many scarves despite the heat.

Vero however, took over the calling of mourners and set out an excellent schedule for visitation. Sylvia commented that it was hard hearing me repeat the same story over and over again, constantly breaking down. However, part of me felt a little relief and release at being able to let this out. Without them I really would have fallen apart, perhaps beyond repair.

I also relied heavily on a fellow furloughed employee, Susan. She was adamant on the day of my Mom's death that I not try to do everything in one night. I had to find the clothes she would wear, causing me to fling mountains of clothes onto the bed (Mom was a fashion plate and very much a girly-girl). I was looking for the burial plot papers, looking for a good wardrobe choice, insurance papers, but again Susan said it didn't have to be done all at once.

She demanded that as soon as we finish talking that I go straight to bed. Eventually I did, and as I said sleep came hard for me that night.

I think I picked out a nice outfit for her, opting for no shoes. I remember the polka-dot blouse, Mom loved polka-dots. I made sure that it was all color-coordinated, she would want nothing less. I did hate the fact that her room was such a mess, and worse that I was making more of a mess trying to put things together, organizing her various blouses and blazers and coats.

Mom was clear: donate everything to Candlelighters, and I fully intend to honor her request. Will I keep any of her clothes? What would I keep? I certainly can't wear any of it, but perhaps the shoes she was wearing the day she died. Somehow, as irrational as it may be to keep them, I can't bring myself to let them go.

I know I will keep a few things: sentiment runs strong in me. A couple of Walt Disney World raincoats we got the first time we went there, her Minnie Mouse ears, a few jackets. There would be no logic in keeping all her clothes, which was against her wishes. There also would be no logic for me to stay in my room.

Mom was adamant about this too: she did not want me to keep her room exactly as it was. The last thing she wanted, she would say, was for me to turn her room into a museum or mausoleum. The idea that I would be in perpetual mourning, that I would try to keep her alive by keeping things as they were at her death appalled her. She believed Life was meant to be lived, and to try to keep things static was unacceptable.

"No me llores mucho" (Don't cry a lot for me) she would say. She understood that I would cry for her. She was my mother, my Dearest Mother she would say, and we both know it is natural to grieve your parent. However, to stay forever in grief, to not move on, that is something she would not have wanted.

I'm not sure how I'm doing on that front. I sometimes am stumbling through days. I've hit that point where I don't want to get out of bed, but I do. I do have fleeting thoughts of using up all her leftover pills or flashes of guns, thoughts that flee from my mind as soon as they come.

It, however, is not her death that causes this quick hysteria and flights into death fantasies, though it contributes. It is the fact that my life has been forced into a standstill. I have nowhere to go. This house arrest is brutal. A couple of times, after I have the boxes I need already in my shopping cart, I wander the Walmart just to get out of the house. I should walk the paths of the nearby park, but I worry the El Paso Police will sweep in and either cite or arrest me if my feet touch the grass.

My despair is compounded by my furlough. It is compounded by the City's firm insistence that the Libraries (along with the rec/senior centers, museums or other quality of life facilities) won't reopen "for years", and the fear that the City may never reopen them (or worse, that it does not want to reopen them). It's despairing to think that the City, which I loved working for all these nearly 13 years with great joy, seems to be fighting furiously to keep me unemployed because "they have no money". Other Texas cities at least say they are working to reopen the libraries, but El Paso seems dead-set against even considering that option.

It may be paranoia, it may be the grief, but knowing that you have no job and fast-fading prospects for one compound my misery. I am thoroughly alone. As much as my friends and relatives are with me, they can't stay with me (and some relatives are so terrified of Covid-19 that they refuse to set foot in my house). I am unmarried, have no children, no brothers/sisters. Despite what might be thought, we all need that human touch.

Charlie, the Men's Group leader at CVC, often says we were not meant to live this life alone, yet I am, I am so thoroughly alone. I am beset by so many forces on so many sides. During the early days of the furlough at least my Mom was here for company and moral support. If perhaps I were working when she died at least I would have had the distraction of work and the sense of security of a job.

Now, I have neither. My sense of worth is all but shattered, and I have voices shouting at me that if I want to go back I want to kill people. I don't want to kill anyone. The closest person in my life is dead, and I can't draw on her wisdom or moral support. I have no wife, no children, no immediate family, no job. What then am I living for?

It is easy to slip into total despair, and I understand all those tragic people who commit suicide, who are so overwhelmed with emptiness and no hope that death is about the only hope they have. Death through their own hand is seen as that release: to no longer worry about things, to go out quickly versus seeing your whole world crash slowly, even if it means "saving just ONE life".

Despite my friends telling me they will miss me and feel my absence, part of me knows they would go on. I understand that desperate despair, that awful, frightening temptation, yet I still hold on. I can't give an answer as to why; perhaps the closest that I can find is that somewhere within me there is a sense that my time has not yet come.

It does not take away the awful tension headaches, the heavy sleep, the impending sense of dread, the rising anger at the endless messages sent about how "we're ALL going to die!" from this pandemic and how their fears are killing me in other ways, the sense that you cannot answer and scream at even those you love and who love you that their sense of doom is smashing your future or your hopes.

I have awful choices: to get a cheap job as a security guard despite my Master's Degree or leave El Paso, a place I dearly love, to leave my home. If at least the City said "we hope to reopen the facilities soon" or "we're working on a plan to reopen", if there were any sense of hope, but there isn't, or at least it appears that way.

All this compounds the grief I bear, I bear alone. I am overwhelmed.

I am working my way through Psalms, and find David often despaired. That brings me some hope, and at times I'm full of worship and faith, and other times so empty. I cry out to God, knowing His ways are True, knowing He has no need to offer explanations or reasons. Charlie warned me that the Enemy would use my Mom's death to question God, but it is the double, triple blow of her death, my career's apparently imminent death and this overwhelming fear that I see around me that does not make me so much question God but feel inept.

Mom never prayed to not have suffering, but to have the strength to endure it. I know she would not have wanted to endure surgery and months of chemotherapy and radiation, but she would have endured it if it was the Lord's will. The Lord, again in his Infinite Mercy, granted her prayer request of a quick death, but had He willed for her to have surgery and treatment, she would have endured through the pain. God was merciful and loving in her death, and I know He did not cause this , any of this, let alone caused or created it to inflict pain, sorrow and misery.

I, however, don't know if I have the strength to endure all this. Mom would say "No hay enfermedad que dure cien anos, ni paciente que lo suporte" (No illness last one hundred years nor a patient that can endure that for that long). Pain is temporary. Physical pain is, emotional pain lessens, grief fades into acceptance. As we go through it, it is intense and punishing, but perhaps my faith is just strong enough to know that I will endure it. It is an awful process, one that causes me to pray for strength to endure not day by day but at times hour by hour, minute by minute, to have enough to get through to the shifting from day to night.

Sometimes I do pray in thanksgiving for waking in the morning and lasting to the night. Other times again I fight not to stay all day in bed. I do know, however, that Mom never wanted a defeatist as a son. "No eres hecho de crystal" (You aren't made of crystal) she would often say. I do fight to remember that I will not shatter, that I will get through. That is what probably keeps me alive even when I don't want to go on, when I see nothing before me but desolation and despair.

Perhaps knowing that I would disappoint my Mother so very, very much if I did take my own life is what keeps me alive to see as many sunrises and sunsets as the Lord has decreed. I don't judge those who have killed themselves. I understand their desperation, their sense that they are helping those whom they know. I think many suicides think they are doing good for those they leave behind. It is a terrible temptation, but like all temptations one that finds in those vulnerable a great sense of appeal.

That is what temptation is: something that appears good but that does lead to destruction. It does not matter what that temptation is: sex, food, money, death. None of those in and of themselves is terrible: even death is good as it is the natural closing event with the hope of things unseen. However, the temptation comes when it is presented as something for yourself versus something that comes from God. The lure of speed, of pleasure, of release, of comfort, of want: all can overwhelm us. We are all tempted and capable of succumbing, and those who do kill themselves fall into that temptation of false release from pain, despair, hopelessness.

Again, perhaps despite my overwhelming sense of grief and agony, I keep going. I've been down several times, and Mom was at heart a very optimistic and hopeful woman. I would dishonor her if I failed to follow her example. It does not take away that temptation, that fear, that lure of a fast solution, but perhaps that love that transcends time and space will keep flowing to me to allow me to go on one more day.

Dear Job: so close to my heart. If memory serves correct he never did get a firm answer as to his miseries despite having cause. Susan, an atheist, said that God caused Job's miseries. No, I said, God allowed miseries, painful awful miseries, to come to Job. There is a difference, a hard lesson I have learned. God does not cause miseries and pains. God allows them to happen. He could easily step in and fix all our problems. He could have stepped in and stopped the Holocaust, 9/11, this pandemic, my lost job and lost mother.

Yet, is that His job: to spare us pain? To give us perpetual paradise? To never let us suffer? God, I don't think, would be such a parent, one that would spoil us to where we would not be able to confront hardships, let alone know how to handle them. God is our Father, but just as we cannot expect our actual fathers or mothers to remove every stone from our path, why do we expect our Heavenly Father to do exactly that? God does not inflict pain. He asks us to trust Him to endure the pain of life.

I find that hard. Why lie? It would be wonderful to say, "Oh, I firmly believe that God will carry me through and my faith is unshaken". My faith is very much shaken. My faith has been for most of my life as a Christian built around circumstances: if things were going great, God loved me, if things were going badly, God disliked or even maybe hated me.

Now I'm facing the greatest set of crises in my entire life, dwarfing all those petty moments that I thought were a matter of life and death. How have I responded? With constant crying out to God, sometimes in anger, sometimes in despair, sometimes in grief, sometimes in misery and sometimes, surprisingly to me, in hope and adoration. I claim no great insight in God's mind, but despite my awful and contradictory faith I do see His Grace and Mercy. It is an Awful Grace because it is born from pain, sometimes almost unendurable pain.

At times I am positive that God will carry me, and I have seen the Holy Spirit work in these awful, awful days. I used to feel such awful guilt about not having children, knowing that Mom wanted to be a grandmother. It wasn't for lack of wanting children, but I just never had success with women, never found someone interested in me, let alone interested enough to build a life with me. However, the Spirit has been a true Comforter there: it showed me that through my cousins, Mom did serve as a grandmother. My two youngest nieces Janina and Cynthia have taken Mom's death very hard, as they were close to Mom.

I have been released from that guilt, from that burden and sense of failure. That is God's Mercy coming through.

It does not take away the exhaustion of it all, the sorrow and grief coupled with the despair of the future, but it's a little something that I hold onto.

Eventually, the visitation was set for Tuesday, May 12. To placate my cousins continued fear that the older Mexican women who insisted on coming would hug me and automatically inflict Coronavirus on me, I wore a long and heavy coat inside the chapel as an added layer of protection. It is an awful time to not have had the chance to let my Mother have her family and friends grieve her collectively, to have to set out a schedule, but such is the state of the world.

Before Sylvia arrived to set up for the video tribute she crafted, which was quite beautiful, I had a few minutes alone, completely alone with my mother. They did do a beautiful job on how they prepared her body, though to be honest I don't think she would have liked the amount of lipstick on her. I always thought of her as a beautiful women who never looked her age. Many of my friends who knew her expressed surprise that she was seventy-seven. They told me they thought she was at least a decade younger.

It helped that she took great care in how she looked and that she was still active and mobile and lucid. Another of my final memories are of her ostensibly moping the living room floor with music playing on the radio. I walk in and see her moving to the rhythm joyfully, then she pulls me in and we have an impromptu dance.

That is the type of person Socorro Aragon was, and how she would like to be remembered: joyful, happy, smiling, loving life, loving shopping, showing me the endless blouses she picked up at bargain prices from thrift stores and J.C. Penney's, one who loved life, good music and had a joie de vivre. For the longest time she said she wanted enchiladas, and on the last Sunday of her life we were able to go to a nearby restaurant once the restrictions were lifted for her to enjoy them.

It was the last time she drove too. I had been doing the driving exclusively but that day I told her she should drive, and drive her Explorer. I joked that I hoped she remembered how, to which she responded "No seas payaso" (Don't be a clown/don't be silly). God even in that way blessed her too, by allowing her this tiny treat before calling her home to His presence.

As I was with her, admiring how well they did her nails, lightly caressing her hair, I took advantage and slipped into the pocket of her blazer two objects which I got from her wallet: my cousin Jose's prayer card and a picture of my graduation photo. She carried those with her in her wallet and as silly as it sounds, I wanted her to have them with her in eternity.

It seems strange but in all this time, I still don't have the courage to go through her purse and empty it out. I've gone through her closets and drawers, packing almost everything away, saving the scarves for my cousin's wife and daughter as they too wear them for protection. Yet for some reason, the purse she had on the day she died is still somehow something I can't empty out. It feels almost disrespectful.

There was a Family Hour before the visitation where the casket was open. Due to the limits on people we had to split the family in two. I'm not proud of my initial actions. At first, I had ordered certain family members not to come. I was holding on to things in a misguided idea that I was protecting my Mom.

However, Mom many, many times was clear: she did not want anyone forbidden to come. We had fights about that. I should have honored her wishes immediately, but I had told my Tia that I did not want certain people to come. A couple of days after Mom's death I had a long, long conversation with her, about three hours. We talked about my Mom, the tribute, and so much. One thing that particularly hit me hard was when my Tia softly asked if she could touch her.

I immediately said yes. Why would I object to such a request?

However, it was something else that happened that immediately caused me to both repent of my own sin and showed how God does work all things for good. My cousin, one of those I forbid from coming, called. My Tia puts all her calls on speaker, so I could hear my cousin. I could hear the pain in her voice and hear how hurt she was about my banning her.

It was then that I told my Tia that everyone was welcome to come. I was wrong, terribly and awfully wrong to have tried to stop anyone. The Lord worked wonders in my anger. First, He gave me time to repent and stop from causing my Mom's spirit great pain. She would not have rested in peace if I had gotten my way. Worse, I would have regretted that to my own dying day and would have caused pain for others, something my Mom would never have done.

The family issues that caused so much misery in life faded, particularly with my Mom's embrace of Christianity. She truly lived out that idea to "forgive as you have been forgiven". It took time, but my Mom forgave my Tia and my cousins for years of hurt. It was my Mom who built up relationships, restoring them and rebuilding burnt bridges. I mostly stayed out of it, but I see my Mom's gentle nature and acceptance of things gave her peace.

Yes, sometimes my Mom and my Tia would get mad and argue. Mom would hang up on her and say, "I'm NEVER talking to your Aunt again!" At that point, I would laugh and say, "Oh, Mom, of course you'll talk with her again. Why even bother telling me otherwise? In a few days you'll call her or she'll call you". Needless to say, that's exactly what would happen.

In the end, I found Mom's way was better. She forgave and found peace. I forgave and found peace. The Lord even allowed my foolishness to come to good use: thanks to my initial ban, I found out that my cousin had looked into whether the funeral home offered Virtual Services. I'm surprised Sylvia and I didn't even think about that. The Virtual Service allowed my California relatives and others to see the Prayer Service, so something good came from my awful actions.

I felt for my Tia. I pretty much left her alone, though my cousin insisted on staying with her mother, fearful of what would overcome her. I did see my Tia touch her younger sister. I can only speculate on how hard it is to be the last, to have outlived all your siblings, including two younger ones.

Once their half hour was up, they left and in came Sylvia's side, where again I left them pretty much alone. I also allowed my Mom's best friend for close to fifty years to come. Most of my Mom's friends and church sisters accepted that it was a closed casket, but Lily was in near hysterics. "Please, I want to see her, I want to see her", she kept pleading. I figure Sylvia was coolly tolerant of my granting Lily permission to come before the casket closed, though not thrilled with it. However, like Mom I am simply too much of a soft touch.

The Pastor's wife spoke, and I think Sylvia was a little anxious about how we were pushing the limit of people inside. It was a lovely message about Mom's faithfulness and her hopes that I be a Christian. As I said, there isn't enough evidence to convict me of being a Christian, though perhaps enough to indict.

Nuevo Pacto was so special to and for her. She so loved her sisters, and had been there for eighteen years. It was a special, beautiful thing for her. She so longed to go back in person, talk and laugh with all her sisters. She so enjoyed the "Ladies Night" and loved the parties and baby showers she would be invited to.

It would be wonderful for me to have had that connection to my own church. It is hard though when you have to work every Sunday, when you can't find a space for a Community/Care Group, when the Men's Group is almost beyond your schedule. I do miss that connection to the Body.

It was so wise and prudent of Mom to have everything arranged, and I cannot tell you how much that saved us both in money and grief. As I said, Mom was very realistic about death, about its inevitability. By arranging as much as she could, we were spared in having to make every choice. We also saved so much money, money that right now we simply don't have.

The final cost of her funeral was about $3000. When they were showing us the costs now, it would have run up to almost $7000. For a moment Sylvia and I were worried we would be asked to make up the difference, but it was explained that everything was covered save for things that couldn't be prepaid (the prayer cards, the memory book, the flowers). It ended up costing about maybe $700, and I should say it ended up costing Sylvia that much.

Like Mom, I am not fond of people paying for me. Many times Sylvia and Mom would duel it out to see who paid for their meals. I asked Sylvia if she really wanted to put it all on her card. "You're on furlough, you're on furlough", she kept repeating, dismissing my concerns by insisting I had no money. Same for the burial and nameplate, which ran into I think $1200.

I feel awful about the high cost, but she insisted, and I hope my other cousins do help her out financially.

Mom, in that respect, was both wise and forward-thinking. She spared me so much, and I hope others talk to their parents and/or children about their own funeral plans. This is a road we all have to walk, Mom would say, and to her enormous credit she did not fear death. She feared a slow death, but the Lord was gracious unto her in that regard.

Talk to your families about your funeral. If possible, plan and pay for it ahead of time. After my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr.'s death, I was convinced to pay for my own, something I am paying for even now. Once I am off the furlough and back working, I will buy my own plot. It must have been a simply awful burden for Fidel's parents and sisters to pool their resources in a terrible time of grief to do all that, and if I could spare kin from that it is something I should do.

Mom is next to my Grandmother. I know it will take time to put my Mom's nameplate on the grave. I expect to see it there when I go on what would have been my Mom's 78th birthday in July. That should be enough time, I think.

I have been to her grave exactly once since her burial. My Mom's best friend from elementary school had sent $100 that she had originally paid for flowers. The florist hired had not been able to complete the order and returned the money. I could not find a florist who could make a floral arrangement for less than that which could be done without a glass vase. A wreath struck me as silly given I could not leave it at the grave, so I opted to buy three dozen roses and place them on a vase that Mom put up (after having many fights with the cemetery) for my Abue.

I placed the two white dozen and one red dozen roses there and had a long talk with both Mom and Grandma. Again, yes, it might seem absolutely absurd to bonkers to do all that, but it gave me a beautiful, calming sense of peace. Cemeteries are quite peaceful places, sad places but peaceful ones, especially if like Mom & Grandma you are under lots of shade and have a nice, soft breeze coming to you.

In that time, I told Mom about her friend, how fortunate I was to find her thanks to a lovely Mother's Day card she had sent with the obvious expectation that Mom would see it. I could not find her phone number anywhere and despaired that she would not know about Mom's death. Thanks to that card, my cousin George could drop a note at her home, asking her to call me immediately. She did, and again I heard the devastation in her voice. Many times Mom had expressed a desire to see her physically and not just talk to her on the phone or exchange notes. For some reason or another they could never work out a schedule.

It's a shame they didn't get that chance to see each other, and I think this pandemic has caused so many moments like that. I know many if not all of my relatives are absolutely convinced that death will immediately strike them if people set foot in other people's homes, and I agree this is not the time for keggers. However, I also see how important that human touch, that interaction between people is. All those embraces from Mom's friends, from my friends, were balms unto my heart and soul. I cannot live in perpetual fear of coronavirus. I can take the precautions of masks and gloves, of social distancing (a phrase I despise), but I cannot go without an embrace, a held hand.

I especially cannot go without it now, when the only person who could do that is gone. My relatives won't touch me because they are so afraid, a handshake would be tempting fate. Yet they might forget that they all have people they can embrace: spouses and children, both of which I do not have.

This is not to condemn or ridicule them. As Susan has pointed out, if it makes people comfortable and brings them peace to wear a mask under another mask while outside that is good for them. Perhaps I appear more "reckless" because I sometimes think I have little to live for: no job, dimming prospects for one, no wife, no kids, no mother. I know they love me, that they are concerned for me, but they cannot carry my burden, my grief for me.

That is something I have to do alone, though I should as they say, "let go and let God". I can see where people would say God should bear my sorrows, but part of me thinks I have to carry them. Right or wrong I am not strong enough in faith to see or think otherwise.

Now that it has been almost three weeks since my Mom's death, coupled with my unemployment and growing fears of it, I can at last allow myself time to pause and reflect.

So much of my time has been spent on clearing out my Mom's things, and part of me despairs at seeing what I see as semi-organized chaos. I hate seeing the endless boxes of shoes and blouses and blazers and coats, of hair extensions and hoses and hats and caps. I see endless hangers (oddly though, hardly any wire hangers, mostly plastic ones). I hate seeing so much clutter on the dining room table and living room, so many scraps of material for perhaps an addition to a blouse or blanket that she never got to.

I'm in pain to see newspaper ads or flyers for vacation spots she wanted to go to. Sometimes, when folding a polka-dotted blouse I get a quick sniff of the scent that reminds me of her and I either want to or do start to sob, if at least briefly. I wasted too much time staring at her work name-tag when she was a Nurse's Aide, a job that she loved and was so proud of.

My mind quickly shifts to the day before her death, May 5, 2020, when I was forced to turn in my badge to a somewhat sympathetic officer, and the double shot of May 5 and May 6, 2020 threaten to overwhelm me in a depth of despair that I fear I may never emerge from.

I find more and more pictures, always of her smiling: with her work friends whom she loved, on a trip somewhere, when she was young and beginning her naturalization to citizenship. The ones I find of me or of us when I was a child, celebrating a birthday are the hardest for me. I start weeping again, even now, reliving those happy times when your Mommie was your security, sure that she would never leave you and would love you forever no matter what.

Making it harder is that I know I have barely touched the surface. There are boxes of papers that I know I have to go through, which right now I am leaving for much later for a variety of reasons: time, energy, emotional fortitude.

I know many people think I have all the time in the world to go through everything. After all, I'm not working and you're getting unemployment. Here's the thing: I can't spend all day every day going through her things. It is exhausting physically and emotionally. You do need time to rest yourself. As Susan said, I can't do it all in one night. I still need to function: pay bills, clean, keep clean, make my bed, do the dishes and laundry.

I simply cannot go without making my bed. If I am still in my pajamas at 10 a.m. I feel I'm falling apart. Despite not going anywhere I still get dressed, even if it is a slightly used shirt. It would be wrong of me to just shuffle through the days, either not clearing her things or doing nothing but clear her things.

I imagine that family and friends may be horrified that I drove all the way to Downtown El Paso for an extra-large mocha frappe at the Coffee Box, and worse that I met up with Susan there. Perhaps they think I have a death wish, putting my life and theirs at risk for immediate death for some coffee. I don't think they realize I do it because I need human interaction. I need to help a business that has always been good to me stay afloat. It was wonderful to see the ladies at the Coffee Box again, who still remember me and remember my usual.

I am helping them keep their jobs and business which they need to live. It would be useless to survive this pandemic and have nothing to live for, which perhaps is why my despair and grief is doubled at the prospect of not having a chance to return to work, to see the place where I was happy closed "for years" per the Chief Financial Officer of the City of El Paso. I am happy that their jobs and business was spared and am genuinely concerned that so many, fearful about the coronavirus, would let the jobs and businesses die so long as they themselves "live".

It is true: man does not live on bread alone, but man needs bread to live (metaphorically). I'm sure many will tell me I'm risking my life, their life and perhaps civilization itself if I opt to go the movies when they reopen. However, to be permanently hunkered down within these walls for fear of what might happen? My fear of unemployment, of poverty, of potentially losing my home trumps the fear of a virus that may or may not hit me.

This is not to mean I walk around without a mask when I go outside. I even wear gloves and carry hand sanitizers wherever I go. However, I will not and could not wait until there's a vaccine to emerge into the sunlight of life.

If I learned anything through these awful days, it is that life is unpredictable, with no guarantees or total security. Mom lived wisely: living every day but living out her life. She made plans, she had hopes and dreams, yet she knew that they may not come. She hoped that they would come, that she would get to see Italy or go back to Walt Disney World again.

However, I think she also accepted that such things were not guaranteed or promised to her. If things had gone as I expected them, I would have been this week in Houston, planning to see the Houston Cheaters and stopping by the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library. Instead, I filed my first unemployment claim and placed roses on my Mom's grave.

How could I have expected that a few months ago?

Now, I see so many paralyzed with fear and terror about this virus. It is serious, it is scary, but having lived perhaps the worst month in my entire life, it's an odd thing that this pandemic is the least of my concerns.

Mom lived her life trusting in God. Her trust, her faith were rewarded and redeemed on May 6, 2020, even if it came as a crushing blow to me. I'm thankful that one of her final memories are of me telling her how beautiful she looked, and of her in the Word, drawing strength from her faith. Mom never prayed for a life free from pain. She prayed for strength to endure it.

Perhaps that is why I do not fear Covid-19 the way so many do. It's an awful way to die, and having seen death this close this soon I cannot imagine the agony of those who could not be with their loved ones as they were ravaged by Covid-19. However, as someone who has had dark thoughts enter his mind, as something of collateral damage of both the virus and the fear of it, I do not fear to such a crippling degree.

As I think of all that I have lost this awful, awful year: job, parent, a lot of hope, baseball, I again pause to reflect. People have been very kind with gifts of food and money, and I am grateful even if at times I also want to flee. Every day is a struggle: as I said some days I simply don't want to get out of bed, others I'm zipping about. I shudder at all the cleaning, and how unorganized my home looks. I fear for the future.

Most of all, at the moment I feel such awful exhaustion, as if I really can't go forward even though I need to.

Mom was very clear: she didn't want me to cry a lot for her. Maybe my crying is both for her and my job, the utter devastation of a one-two punch that has left me all but dead. Simultaneously wanting and shunning company, feeling the need for companionship and desperate to get away from loud crowds, even those filled with friendly faces.

A lot of things are still raw, still painful. Scripture says that every day has enough trouble of its own, but I feel as if at least three days worth of troubles collide with each other the same day: Covid-19, my lost job, my Mom's death. I was blessed with a wonderful Mother. These were the happiest years, ones that had the least amount of struggle or strife. If we got mad at each other, it was certain that before the day was over we would forgive each other.

These last few weeks of her life were probably the happiest she had. She had her enchiladas. She had the chance to see The Call of the Wild via video on demand, which she had wanted to see before the pandemic hit. She was at peace with her family. She was at peace with her God.

It's painful to know she isn't here. It was all so sudden, but that for her was how she wanted to go. Many times she told her sisters that she wanted to die quickly.

I'm sure I repeated myself often, but I just wanted to let myself explore all that I am undergoing. No one goes through life without some kind of pain, though many pains afflicted me simultaneously. I am so tired.

I hope, trust and pray that Mom was proud of me. I think she is. I was always proud of her. I think that perhaps keeps me going, keeps me alive: the sense that I cannot disappoint her. I know in time I will laugh again, and there will be days when she does not occupy my mind.

It's strange that when I went to be furloughed, she both laughed and was enraged at my all-black ensemble. "Now I know how you'll look at my funeral," she declared, and demanded I change. To please her, I put on a white shirt with the black pants and black tie. I told her that it did feel like I was going to a funeral. I never figured I would literally wear the same thing to her funeral less than a week later.

Despite this my Confession of Grief, I have still kept things too personal, private and painful locked away. She was not a woman who liked to talk about herself. I am so tired.

I don't think "time heals". Time helps us endure, helps us move on but a little part of you will always hurt. The death of a parent is always hard. Add to that the death of your job and it makes it harder, yet I pray the Lord shine His face upon me. I pray that God search deep within to continue granting me his peace.

Mom's favorite Christian song was "Dios Siempre Tiene El Control" (God Is Always in Control), and she would sing me bits of it. I've heard that song often, and it has brought me some peace, especially knowing that for her these weren't just words set to music but Truth Eternal. It is hard, very hard, to see through the storm, especially when you are seeing the windows rattle and you fear everything will crash upon you.

I miss her. I miss my job. I miss the life I had a few months ago. I pray that God not spare me pain, but help me endure it.

Forgive my long ramble. I pray to emerge from this awful Dark Night of the Soul, and I figure some people's lives are harder than mine. In time, I will renew myself, review films and television. I thank you for allowing me this extended time to grieve for so much that I have lost in the course of one month.

I'm reminded of King David when his first child with Bathsheba was dying. He wept, he prayed, he would not eat. After the child's death, he cleaned himself and ate, puzzling his servants. David was realistic about it all: as long as the child lived there was hope, but now with the child dead why should he continue fasting? I don't think it was callous of him, or that he did not mourn. Instead, he accepted the will of God.

I pray too to accept the will of God, despite what I fear is an awful toll on me, and that all this come for His glory. I am so overwhelmed with exhaustion and grief, with anxiety and listlessness.

I want my Mom to know that I love her, I miss her, I'm proud of her and that I pray for strength to endure, to make her proud, to live up to her expectations of great things. She never lost her faith or her optimism. I pray to follow in this example.

Yes, I rambled, repeated myself and perhaps at times sounded incoherent. I'm just so glad to have been able to finally speak this peace, and to pray that soon, this double agony of a lost parent and a lost job is at an end. I again pray not to be spared pain, but through the Grace of God, to endure it.

To My Mother, Socorro Aragon...Amor Eterno.


Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex: A Review


THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX

For being The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I had more than her fair share of romances. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex has two great leading performances and as lavish a world as could be photographed.

Powerful but arrogant Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) has returned to England in what he thinks is triumph, but Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis) is not amused. She finds her courtier has failed and brought near-ruin rather than shame. After openly condemning him down to slapping him before the whole Court, Essex leaves this "King in Petticoats".

It's clear Gloriana misses her paramour but both are too proud to seek forgiveness. Elizabeth's shrewd courtier Francis Bacon (Donald Crisp) finds a way to recall Essex to Court: take charge of a floundering military campaign in Ireland, but as State Councilor versus military head. Elizabeth all but leaps at the chance to be reunited with the younger man as is he.

Displeased is Lady Penelope (Olivia de Havilland), smitten with Essex. She joins in a conspiracy after Essex's arrogance gets him the title Lord Protector of Ireland and a chance for military glory. Not only does he fail militarily but believes Liz has abandoned him in every way. He mounts a rebellion that almost succeeds, but the wily monarch has a few tricks up her own elaborate sleeves. Tricking him into surrendering his men, she has him imprisoned. Their pride prevents them from seeking or granting pardon, and Lord Essex is beheaded.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) - Funny Scene ...Bette Davis initially dismissed Errol Flynn as an actor, only much later upon rewatching The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex realizing she had been wrong. I put it down to Davis' own great ego that she failed to see Flynn was more than her equal. Their scenes together are absolute knockouts, full of fire, fury and passion between rivals and lovers.

From their first scenes together as they argue the merits of Essex's Cadiz campaign the intensity in Davis and Flynn's performances are filled with fireworks. They were equally able to play tender lovers, their scenes exuding gentle emotions. They even have a few laughs in the way intimates can.

Separately both do great work also. Davis makes Gloriana into a mercurial figure: part vain woman aware of the passing years, part lonely figure hungry for love. This Elizabeth is aware of the wicked ways of courtiers, but we also see that Essex's betrayal wounds her deeply. It wounds her vanity and ego, but it also wounds her heart. At times raging, at times at a loss, at times genuinely kind, Davis delivers an exceptional performance.

Flynn is a master at being dashing and daring, but he brings a surprising vulnerability as Essex. A strong point is when he realizes that his Irish rival the Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale, doing a great job himself) has defeated him. The conflicting emotions all flood at him and Flynn delivers Essex's private agony and shame just through his face.


Celebrate QEI's Birthday With The Private Lives of Elizabeth and ...

A surprise is de Havilland, who was often paired with Flynn in swashbuckling films. Though their few scenes, maybe one, was strong, it is a nice turn to see de Havilland be essentially an evil, selfish figure. Her palpable hatred for Elizabeth when her name is mentioned is shown in how her face, and when she ridicules the aging monarch via song we see just how nasty Olivia could be.

In smaller roles, Crisp and Vincent Price as Sir Walter Raleigh do strong work well. Crisp in particular does well as the ever vigilant Bacon, a man who is able to ride out the whirlwind due to his own ability to go whichever way the wind blows.

Director Michael Curtiz simply has not been given enough credit for being a master of his craft. He keeps everything moving quickly, making effective use of shadows (such as withholding revealing Elizabeth early on) and camera movements (such as the slow close-up to Elizabeth at Essex's execution). He is helped masterfully by Erich Wolfgang Korngold's lavish score, which shifts from majestic to intimate to tragic with equal ease.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is both lavish historic film and intimate love story. Excellently acted and grand to a T, it is worth watching these private lives.

DECISION: B+

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Call of the Wild (2020): A Review



THE CALL OF THE WILD (2020)

Before the Covid-19 pandemic closed down theaters, The Call of the Wild was already struggling financially. As I had to chance to see it during my house arrest, I now see that it is not either as wonderful as some have told me nor as horrible as some have told me. It's somewhere in the middle, with some problems but not without some positives.

Based on the Jack London novel, The Call of the Wild is about a St. Bernard/Scotch collie dog named Buck. He lives in luxury in California until he's abducted, sent to the Yukon Territory during the Gold Rush and sold. There, Buck has to evolve and adapt to the various circumstances. He goes first from the spoiled pooch to first a pack member to pack leader of a mail sled team headed by Perrault (Omar Sy) and Francoise (Cara Gee); next he heads a pack for a thoroughly stupid faux-prospector/dandy Hal (Dan Stevens) and his doomed party over Buck's "objections". Finally, he reencounters John Thornton (Harrison Ford), with whom he bonds.

Buck and John head out to a previously unexplored section of the Yukon, where John can both pan for gold and find peace after his young son's death. John's surprised to find much gold there, finding the rumors are true. He, however, has little interest in gold itself, while Buck starts finding his wild side with a pack of wolves. Unfortunately, Hal has traced them both, leading to a fiery conclusion and Buck eventually surrendering to the "call of the wild".

The Call of the Wild trades frontier realism for goofy CGI animal ...The most I can say about The Call of the Wild is that it is "acceptable". I found it neither thrilling or terrible but pleasant enough. I read the book in my youth and loved it, but I cannot recall enough of it to say whether Michael Green's adaptation sticks close enough to the source material.

It may be because, if my memory serves right, The Call of the Wild comes from Buck's point-of-view. As such, the idea of a dog narrating his life story would be almost laughable on film, at least in one working to be naturalistic. To compensate the idea of having either Buck "voice" his life or have a silent film, The Call of the Wild had Thornton serve as narrator, and frankly I think this is one of the film's two major problems.

Ford's growly voice is already hard to handle at times, but the bigger issue is that he has access to information Thornton could not have known. How for example would Thornton know Buck had been abducted or his exploits with and against the mail sled pack? I wonder if perhaps a quieter approach would have worked, especially as the sequences where we see Buck travel back and forth between Thornton and the wolf pack worked well.

Hal (The Call of the Wild) | Villains Wiki | FandomThe second, and perhaps larger issue is with Stevens' Hal. No matter how hard anyone tries, Hal does not come across as any kind of serious antagonist, let alone threat. Everything went wrong with this character. Stevens' characterization can only be seen as deliberately comical: the exaggerated eyes, manner, speaking all look like bad farce. Dan Stevens, judging from Chris Sanders' direction, was told to play Hal as if he were Snidely Whiplash. You could not take Hal seriously, and every time Stevens is on screen your reactions are either to burst out laughing or groan that he's there again.

If not for Stevens hammy melodrama, The Call of the Wild would have been much better. It is to Sanders and the various producers credit that they went for a more multicultural albeit perhaps ahistorical casting. These were excellent choices as Sy and Gee were a highlight of the film as the intrepid mailmen/women. It allowed for moments of comedy, such as when Perrault fought against Buck wishing to be the new leader of the pack or Francoise's rescue.

As for Ford, he did well on the whole, voiceover notwithstanding. It is difficult to act with a real dog, let alone a CGI one, but Ford did make it if not completely believable at least plausible. He reaches for Thornton's tragedy and brings out the pathos of his backstory; he even has a few moments of levity as well. If not for the voiceover work again I would have thought better of things.

With regards to the CGI Buck, to be honest I didn't find it as awful a distraction as others. Yes, at times it was clear he was not a real dog (the rafting down the river section a particularly weak point), but if you suspend disbelief you can accept the unreality of it all.

On the whole, The Call of the Wild was pleasant enough: not overtly violent to where children would be frightened, not sugary sweet where adults would be bored. It's more good dog than bad dog but not top dog.   

DECISION: C+ 

Friday, May 1, 2020

Lancaster Skies: A Review

Lancaster Skies (2019) - IMDbLANCASTER  SKIES

The Second World War continues to serve as subject for filmmakers three generations later. Lancaster Skies has a major drawback on the budgetary limits, but it did force the filmmakers to focus less on the daring-do of the war and more on the characters when not on the battlefront. If not for one very bizarre final decision Lancaster Skies would have been a much better albeit cheaper film.

After the death of a Bomber Command squadron commander comes his replacement, former fighter pilot Douglas Miller (Jeffrey Mundell). He is a pretty stiff figure, a loner who is haunted by events surrounding his brother Ron (Eric Flynn). George Williams (David Dobson) is Miller's more informal equal, one who gets along with everyone and who balances the responsibility of being in command with an informal and friendly way with his fellow squadron pilots.

Miller's more by-the-book manner does not endear him to his fellow flyers, but eventually he softens a bit towards them with a lot of guidance from George. Miller also catches the eye of a Women's Auxiliary Air Force officer, Kate (Joanna Gale), whose BFF Jo (Rosa Coduri) is sweet on George. Their lives mix and mingle as they await the next bombing mission. On the date the men fly off to bomb their target in Germany, secrets are revealed and perhaps not everyone comes back.

Lancaster Skies (2019) / AvaxHome
Lancaster Skies is highly reminiscent of a low-budget television movie or even a filmed play, and again it is due to the limited budget the film has. The film certainly cannot afford major war sequences, leaving it mostly to the actors and the viewer's imagination to think they are on board a bomber. I would not blame anyone for thinking that the opening and closing scene airplanes were the same ones that Ron played with. Many scenes had a sense that they were all but filmed in people's actual homes and that despite co-writer/director/editor even co-star Callum Burn's best efforts his ambitions were larger than his budget allowed (the film was made for the equivalent of $100,215.20).

What Lancaster Skies has in spades is total sincerity. It is a thoroughly uncynical film, one that is a throwback to films made in the immediate World War II and postwar era that saw the men as brave but flawed, the women strong but romantically inclined and the cause a noble one. The film openly and unabashedly celebrates the fighting men of the Royal Air Force, a film that minus a few points would easily have been made at the time.

Trailer released for Lancaster Skies, filmed in LincolnshireThe film also has some excellent performances. At the top of the list is David Dobson as George. He was a standout in the cast as the outwardly cheerful man who worked to integrate Miller to the other men but whom at the end we learn carries a heavy burden. Dobson's scene where he appears jocular against an infantryman while explaining via coin flips that his men ran the risk of death every day was just the start of one of the best performances I have seen this year.

Dobson hopefully has a bright future where he is allowed more chances to showcase his talent.

Mundell at first appears incapable of emotion, but we see that Miller is capable of human interaction particularly when he's on his "non-date" with Kate. He allowed a moment of vulnerability and even humor when he does a Stan Laurel impression. If one looks at how the role was written and directed, you will see Mundell played the part correctly.

The two women were also quite strong: Gale as Kate, the outspoken WAAF quickly smitten by the brooding Miller and in a sadly smaller role Coduri as Jo, her more upbeat friend and friend with benefits to George.

Lancaster Skies should not be penalized for its minuscule budget. It can be penalized for some odd decisions. While George's secret allows Dobson to show a strong dramatic side and comes as a genuine surprise, its connection to the finale is a genuine head-scratcher. The fact that it leaves everything connected to the lives of George and Douglas just open without even a hint of a conclusion is downright puzzling. Another subplot involving two other bomber pilots whom almost appear to be romantically involved came out of nowhere and led nowhere, while another pilot's subplot dealing with his own guilt came across as almost whining more than genuine.

When I think of Lancaster Skies, I appreciate its sincerity and some good performances. The ending was what knocked it down a bit for me, but I don't hold its very low cost against it. That it could do as well as it did with the limited funding is a credit to Callum and his cast and crew. I'd like to see Lancaster Skies remade with a larger budget and other actors save Dobson. Its sincerity and heart elevate it, though again, that ending...

DECISION: C+