“Memories are powerful things Kubo. Never lose it.” – Monkey
This is a story that comes with great difficulty, but I’m going to share it with you.
Christmas has always been a time of sentiment and nostalgia. It brings a loving warmth, an endless supply of food and drinks and the occasional dose of Michael Bublé’s Christmas album (don’t judge me – it’s a good album).
But for me at this time of year, Christmas has a different meaning. Two years ago, I lost my mum.
There’s a sense of irony about the holidays that brings a conflicting sense of emotions. With an unstoppable smile on her face, Christmas was her favourite time of the year. She loved the lights, the decorations, the festive entertainment and most importantly, celebrating with the family. She would cheekily annoy her daughter (that’s me) asking when she will put up the Christmas tree in the family home. No matter how many times I protested with a proposed date, the comeback line would always be, “but Harrods/John Lewis/Debenhams had theirs up since September!” A flicker of snow outside? No problem. Like a Nigerian town crier, there would be a knock on my bedroom door at 6.30 in the morning with the passionate announcement of “Kelly, it’s snowing outside!” She had no problem kicking her children out of the kitchen on Christmas Day because “apparently” we were crowding the dinner preparations despite our offers to help, but always enforced a strict rule of ‘no present opening until after dinner’ – her way prolonging the festive excitement and entertainment.
But to stop the story in blunt fashion, she also died at Christmas…four days before the main day to be precise.
I wish there were enough words out there to explain what crippling grief can do to someone. If I’m honest with myself, it feels like a wave that builds into a tsunami of emotions. There’s no daylight, only darkness. Your body inflicted with an imagery weight that purposely wants to drown you. Words become bottled-up metaphors, drifting aimlessly until it becomes lost at sea. You want to scream into the abyss to demonstrate your pain but instead find comfort in your life raft aka your pillow, a device that carries the tears as you sleep and the tears as you wake. Losing a parent is one thing. My father passed away eighteen months prior to my mum. Losing two is like receiving a whiplash effect. You’ve barely recovered from one death only for tragedy to stab you in the heart once again and my mother’s death felt like the tip of the iceberg.
I guess with all relationships, our mothers are special people. It’s not just the basics like looking after you, teaching you right from wrong or making sure you’ve cleaned behind your ears type of thing. They put up with a lot of crap from us but somehow know us better than we know ourselves. She was more than my mother. She was my best friend.
She had a complicated medical history (probably too long for a post to hold), but the Thanos in this story was diabetes. She lived with it for over thirty years, suffered the complications and spent her fair share of her life in hospitals. Not that it ever broke her relentless spirit and enthusiasm for life, but the older I got and the more her health deteriorated, the more dependent I became to her. I became her carer throughout the years, working tirelessly as if it was my second job, filled with precise, medical routines and social sacrifices. I didn’t complain because at the end of the day, what wouldn’t you do for your mother?
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of powerlessness. One day, you’re at the hospital, visiting her on your lunch break from work, keeping her spirits high talking about Christmas dinner preparations (with the typical motherly advice about cooking). The next day, she slips away, holding on just enough for her family to surround her until her last breath – a fighter until the very end. Despite doctors doing everything they could and of course it’s no one’s fault, but it’s difficult to shake guilt when your mind resorts to replaying moments for only you to wonder if you could have done more. When you’ve looked after someone for a long time, it’s easy to slip into that mentality. We were ‘two peas in a pod’, with her death forming part of my existence like a scar etched permanently on the brain. I still haven’t had the heart to delete her number from my phone…
Whatever faith or hope I had in my soul died on that day, and I felt like a failure.
Now you’re probably wondering what Kubo and the Two Strings has got to do with this story?
No, it wasn’t my mum’s favourite film. That honour belongs to Coming to America. My young cinephile life was wrapped up in blankets on the sofa alongside my mum, watching a film that celebrated familiar African cultures whilst laughing at Eddie Murphy singing Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All. By definition, Kubo and the Two Strings is not even a Christmas film, and sadly no, I don’t have a badass talking monkey voiced by Charlize Theron. But unsuspectingly, it appeared at a time in my life when I didn’t realise I needed it.
There’s no point in denying that we live in a fast-paced reality, unforgiving at how relentless and unsympathetic it can be, especially when someone dies. You’re immediately swept into the cycle of formalities (and its price tag surprises) consciously forgetting to humanely grieve. Like a fortified routine, we sleep-walk from task to task, distracting ourselves without acknowledging how we sincerely feel.
Kubo and the Two Strings happened to be the first film I watched after my mother’s death. I watched it at work – the perks of my previous job. It wasn’t actively looking for it. I didn’t even read the synopsis! I just thought it was going to be one of those animated films – you know – a few jokes here, ‘a spoonful of sugar’ there, some reaffirming life message about friendship, love, family etc. and ‘Bob’s your uncle’ – a perfect formula of entertainment bliss. But it quickly dawned on me that Kubo was a different beast altogether. Here was a kind-hearted boy who took his mother’s stories to heart. He relied on his passionate gift as a storyteller yet looked after his mum during times of ill-health and weakness, right up until her eventual death.
Sounds familiar right?
Kubo and the Two Strings is a gorgeous, animated tale, descending beautifully into the classic, fantasy adventure full of ancient mysticism and MacGuffin symbolism in feudal Japan. What struck a chord inside me was its profound narrative to convey moments of spiritualism, often taking small, opportune moments to reflect on the past and celebrate the people no longer with us. Flying herons, lighted lanterns and the overwhelming power of memory and the stories they hold became the film’s ultimate source of truth. I managed to keep some composure at work, wiping the odd tear now and again. But as soon as I got home, I allowed the floodgates to open.
Don’t you find it amazing that films have the power to do that? Speak to you and articulate your thoughts that you may not have been brave enough to say out loud. Unsuspectingly comfort you when you least expect it. Memories triggered by jokes or conversations you used to have as you watch unconditionally how a story can be so empathetically relatable that you see a part of your life on the screen. Essentially Kubo and the Two Strings became the grief counsellor that I never had.
It begs the question whether we do enough to talk about the cathartic and therapeutic abilities that films can translate to us, especially during difficult moments in our lives. More often, we turn to art for that short-term escapism and detachment, to switch off from the daily noise. We can happily binge-watch through that latest TV show that everyone talks about or go into a passionate rant about why a studio got a franchise right/wrong and yet find it difficult to articulate our own pain. Perhaps the difficulty comes down to our inability to confront an emotional truth within ourselves which we happily run away from because we’re honestly not prepared.
It’s an understandable reaction, personalised to each and every one of us. For example, I know friends who can’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale due to its spot-on commentary of our current political climate. I know men who have cried at the end of 12 Years a Slave and found it difficult to admit that! But maybe, it comes down to solitary stigmas, unable to open up in fear of being judged or a natural refusal to journey to that place, because sometimes it’s fantastically easier to admit “I’m fine” then to comprehend the reality of your pain – words that not only work in the convention of media but with life itself.
We all had ‘digital parents’ in some fashion, educated through films and TV shows on our devices. Every template example is filed away for future use. But when it comes to grief (with the exception of HBO’s Six Feet Under), it’s often explored as a ‘standstill’ moment without the organic after effects and repercussions.
However, contemporary examples have found an unfiltered model in handling that subject, subverting from the standards we’re used to. It’s not to say we actively seek out misery, grief and death in some over-dramatic notion to feel something. Perhaps it’s merely a manageable feeling of reconnecting, reminding us that we’re never alone in that battle.
I was slightly critical about it on its release, but there are aspects in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea which I can unquestionably identify with. I saw aspects of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and his constant mourning and isolation in my behaviour. Just like Lee, it’s the struggle of picking up the pieces of a life left behind. I’ve had the same, panic attack outburst Patrick (Lucas Hedges) experiences. But the success in its portrayal of grief is showcasing its haunting presence, refusing to quit as if the Eye of Sauron was fixated on you, long after a funeral ends. It was grief dealt on a psychological level and the constant fight to win over the crippling emotion, offsetting the pain with its sharp injection of humour and flashback memories.
Amy Adams in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is underrated but not just from a science fiction perspective. Arrival is naturally applauded for its bold cinematography and direction, revelling in being the ‘anti-alien invasion movie’ by promoting understanding in its subject instead of the ‘guns blazing’ approach. Its greatest strength is how Louise (Amy Adams) comes to terms with the death of her daughter via its circular narrative. It’s the multi-layered and inevitable struggle of time where snapshot memories converge between the joys of life and the pitfalls of death. As the twist beautifully unravels, it’s the acceptance of the conflicting duality to forge a new path forward.
Disney/Pixar’s Coco and Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There illustrated the power of family, finding ways to keep the departed alive in our hearts and minds by connecting us emotionally with the past and the present. Evoking the memories of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, even horror in 2018 found a contemporary palette to explore the effects of grief. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House and Hereditary both share the concept through a generational lens. Shining a light on coping mechanisms and mental illness, depicted characters rationalise the effects of the past but are compelled to confront the darkness to find their answers.
But the one film that made strides with me is Steve McQueen’s Widows. It’s a little unfortunate that it’s not receiving the attention it deserves, but it hasn’t stopped me from declaring it as my film of 2018.
It’s not about the heist element. If you’ve seen enough heist movies, they all follow the same, rudimentary pattern. The politicised and patriarchal landscape of corruptible power, greed and entitlement are notable debate points. But what makes Widows exceptional is McQueen and Gillian Flynn’s honest and free-reign depiction on what grief looks like in women. Gender expectations are typically one-dimensional, and Flynn is no stranger to this philosophy, purposely unhinging those bonds in her examination of female rage. In Widows, grief functions as permission to acknowledge it, to express it, to scream out loud if you need to like Veronica (Viola Davis) does. At times, it’s messy, disjointed and irrational, but then again, that’s a lot like life. As with its female characters, grief places you in situations you don’t want to be in. Whatever methodology we use to confront it (in this situation, a heist), grief became a tool of survival, going beyond monetary value to gain identity, dignity and self-respect.
I’m sure we all have a film or show that does what I’ve been saying, reminding us of moments shared. But what Kubo gave me was that first step in acceptance – going through the darkness to find the light at the end of the tunnel. It normalised my feelings to know my parents still reside within me and find my voice again. When you chip away at its foundation, Kubo is a story about a child regaining his identity. It was only when his parents were lost to him that he found the courage to carry their journey with him. He did so by weaving their memories into his Shamisen, his Japanese guitar.
In the same context in how we talk about diversity and representation, the stories told through film can mean a lot. Perhaps in this convoluted world, films about grief are not credited or celebrated enough. But they are reflections of the world we see. It may never provide all the answers we need, but where films have found that extra resonance is that subtle yet authentic conveyance in showing us a suggestive path forward for when we’re lost. It’s a struggle faced daily but it’s a notion you can’t comprehend without acknowledging the journey you’ve come from. It’s funny how my love of films was the first thing that reached out to me in the same way we gravitate towards films to make us laugh, enjoy an adventure or feel like heroes for the day.
Maybe we need more of those films to exist in our lives, now more than ever. Because as much as they document the pain, they always offer an opportunity to find hope once again.
Love you mum x