The Myrna Loy
“Our Friend” hits pretty close to home for those of us who have lost a loved one to cancer.
In 2015 in “Esquire” widower Matthew Teague wrote an article sharing the death of his wife Nicole, 34, from ovarian cancer. His story included the happy years, the diagnosis and the final goodbye.
He framed the story differently than most such stories of grief. He focused on his best friend Dane, who put his entire life on hold to provide support for the family.
The original article said it best.
“I think maybe I should just move in with you guys," he said. "Just to help out for a couple of months."
That meant leaving his job, his city, his friends, his apartment, his life.
"OK," I said.
Dane slept at their house, took the girls, 10 and 7, to school, read to them. Dane did anything/everything that would allow his friends space to navigate this journey as best they could.
The friend was the equivalent of a nanny for more than a year. His own relationships suffered and died, because he had only one focus – his best friend Matt, and his wife and kids.
To be honest, the “Our Friend” is neither as powerful nor as touching as it might have been, or should have been.
The litmus test would be whether I was drawn, unwillingly, back into my own grief. While I teared up at some all-too-familiar moments, the disjointed tale kept letting me escape after drawing me close.
The biggest problem is the way it whiplashes back in forth in time. The trips into the past always seems to disrupt the poignant narrative of grief and goodbye.
The focus on the friend, while touching, defuses the power by splitting the focus.
Jason Segel does his best as the buddy, but the power lies inside the long goodbye between Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson). The magazine article more effectively walks this tightrope, and has more power. It’s devastating, actually – and available online.
Nevertheless, the film still packs a wallop because its most poignant moments are heartfelt, honest and raw – without gloss.
I’ll share four.
Diagnosis: The diagnosis was delivered with chilling bluntness.
"It's everywhere," the doctor said. "Like somebody dipped a paintbrush in cancer and flicked it around her abdomen." In his article, Teague added: “I staggered down a hallway and then collapsed.”
Eventually, Matt and Nicole knew they had to be honest with the girls. One day, they climbed into bed with mom, and she held them close while dad told them mom was dying.
That leads to tears and to anger, as the daughters try to imagine life without mom.
Decline: Nicole and Matt determine to maximize the time left. She makes a bucket list and Matt, a resourceful journalist, makes each wish come true: Standing atop a Mardi Gras float, jumping into a downtown fountain, breathing in cool air on the beach.
“We did it all. What her life lacked in length, it made up for in height.”
Determined to prove she’s “still a valid person,” Nicole, the consummate hostess, entertains friends. She pours her energy into denial, and then, when the guests go home, she collapses.
Mom writes dozens of letters to her girls to be opened on special days: On their wedding day, on the birth of their first child, on days when they miss their mom.
The Friend: Dane is unselfish to the core. “You don’t have to do this alone, if you don’t want to,” Dane tells Matt. “I have some vacation time.”
Dane abandons girlfriends and quits his job. He carries the family dog to the vet to be put asleep. He gives so much away, he suffers caretaker fatigue. Dane takes a hike to the Grand Canyon, where he meets a German woman, an angel really, who recognizes his depression and affirms him. She’s been there.
The End: In the final days, another angel visits: a hospice worker, who ushers Dane through the last few pages. In a scene that sent shivers through me, Nicole falls asleep, long before her heart stops.
Finally, the last breath comes. The caretaker sees the beauty of a tender goodbye, but Matt is devastated.
We see dad give Mom’s letters to the daughters.
“Our Friend” has enough power and sensitivity to be worth the sad journey.
But do read the original “Esquire” article for the full celebration of this marriage from “she had me at hello” to the final goodbye.
Post note: My love to Gary and Ron, two unselfish friends who know this journey too well.