Old James Ryan: [Last lines, addressing Capt. Miller’s grave] My family is with me today. They wanted to come with me. To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.
Ryan’s Wife: James?…
[looking at headstone]
Ryan’s Wife: Captain John H Miller.
Old James Ryan: Tell me I have led a good life.
Ryan’s Wife: What?
Old James Ryan: Tell me I’m a good man.
Ryan’s Wife: You *are*.
Old James Ryan: [Stands back and salutes]
– Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan
One of my favourite films is “Saving Private Ryan.” Set in World War II, it chronicles the journey of an elite team of 8 Rangers, tasked with locating and returning a young soldier fighting behind the front lines in France. Unknown to him, he was the sole survivor of a family of brothers who’d enlisted. The Army had ordered his return to the safety of his home, so that his mother would not be faced with sacrificing her entire brood on the battle field.
Led by the wise and experienced Captain Miller, the soldiers help young Private Ryan’s unit in the crucial last battle to stop the Nazis from advancing and taking a town. The cost proves extraordinary, however, as every Ranger is killed in the ensuing fight. Private Ryan eventually returns home to live out his life, knowing full well that 8 men had freely given their own lives in exchange for his survival.
A poignant scene features an aged Private Ryan, visiting the grave of Captain Miller, his children and grandchildren in tow. For me, the significance of the film is in its capturing of the cost of survivorship. Ryan speaks directly to the ghosts that have haunted his life, asking two questions: “Why am I alive?” followed by “Am I living a life worthy of this gift?”
You see, these questions have dogged me too, as the years of my own story have unfolded before me.
My arrival at the studio ushered in a series of losses that began on the periphery of my life, sending me into a tailspin, forcing me to unlock the tiers of grief I’d been eschewing.
Henni wasn’t the only soul who’d slipped out of my life. As I began yoga, trying to rebuild my life post cancer, more bereavements awaited me.
Family friends suddenly lost their daughter to an ectopic pregnancy. I’d survived one myself, a few years earlier. That easily could have been me, had it not been for the diagnostic eye of a doctor who sent me straight to a hospital after confirming I was pregnant. Blind to the threat to my life, I was saved through the capricious luck that a skilled young doctor happened to be filling in for my own physician. He caught what my own doc was likely to have missed. Ashley, on the other hand, was not as fortunate. Her death rattled me, reminding me that I’d already escaped death’s shadow, before cancer arrived at the threshold of my life.
The following month, friends lost their 21 year old son, Darin, to an aggressive cancer, not easily diagnosed and too far gone to save his life when he began treatment. Against all odds, I’d discovered my own aggressive cancer, before it had a chance to morph into a runaway train. Darin wasn’t so lucky. As we observed the shock and mourning of Darin’s family, I wanted to curl up against the randomness of the universe and hide.
And then, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and began her own battle with this damned disease.
I tried to provide her with as much support as I could muster: accompanying her to appointments, translating the confusing medical jargon to plain English, watching her valiant struggle against the fear that the “big C” engendered. I felt the fury of my own helplessness against the ravages of treatment all over again as my mother bravely smiled her way through her pain, looking to reassure everyone at each challenge that she was fine, thank you very much, and she continued to cook her famous meals for us all.
I saw so much of myself in her, and my heart broke because I could spare her nothing.
It was this point that my denials and bargaining broke down. My mother’s diagnosis was a tipping point, ripping open a psychological scab I’d protected over the years:
These losses pulled on a thread from my past, one that I had buried deep down, and I’d avoided as best I could. I’d insulated myself from its presence, wrapping it up in layers of achievement: completing degrees, marrying a man who deeply loved me, building a family and a career.
I’d spent years running from this moment of reckoning, dodging, denying, bargaining my way around and over and across the core of my grief. Anything to avoid facing it and finding my pathway through the agony of that particular memory, a pattern that had been unfolding over and over again as I built a life, an identity, that plastered over the pain of survivorship.
Yet the safety of the Soft Kitty Chair provided enough shelter for me to finally, reluctantly, peel back the final layer and look this pain squarely in the eye. Gripping the chair, breathing deeply, I let myself stop, and see clearly the circumstances that had shaped my life. It was time to stop running, denying and bargaining my way along.
From the shelter of the studio, perched on the Soft Kitty Chair, I let myself finally return to that moment, at 15 years of age, where I’d first faced death. Like the Old Private Ryan, looking down at the gravestone of the kind, wise Ranger who’d saved his life, I let myself acknowledge that I was alive – but I’d spent my entire life not sure if I’d truly earned the gift that had been given me, but denied so many: the chance to live.