The movie Cast Away sheds some light
Things have felt……peculiar lately.
I’ve been feeling that half here, half not here feeling. But not the pulverized half here half not here feeling of a year ago, this one is different. I’ve been feeling unsettled. A bit disconnected. Pain, my long time reliable compass, no longer rules my existence.
Regarding the human race’s exclusion and general lack of empathy when it comes to infertility and involuntary childlessness, a dull acceptance for the current state of things now lies in a bed once occupied by rage. I still stand my ground, but I now feel a strong need I can’t explain to conserve my energy. I no longer address every battle that comes my way.
Though grudging and indifferent at times, my capacity to hear of other people’s children and grandchildren has widened. I sense that, in limited doses, it is not inflicting the harm it once did.
I even, for the first time in I don’t know how many years, just experienced a holiday that felt benign. I awoke in the morning, noticing my soul and emotional body content and almost void of that feeling of having been thrown over and over against a brick wall. The ghosts of what should have been sat quietly in the corner of my being, I patted them on the head from time to time as I went about my day. Not to give the idea that our Thanksgiving was some sort of a jubilee – for me what has been working is to be open to what the holidays might be in my life from now on, and just as importantly, to not try and make them something they now aren’t.
And lately I’ve been more occupied with the future. Ahhh, THAT character. The one who morphed from an illusion to chaos to kidnapped and then faded to black during my past 6.5 years of trying to conceive, failed fertility treatments and grief. I noticed a few months back I was able to start making lists of priorities for the upcoming months, farther in the future than I’ve been able to go in ages. And for the first time in probably seven years I have a vision for my year ahead, albeit a playful one as anyone who has grieved a life altering traumatic loss knows full well the true fragility – and humor – of any future vision.
So what IS this place? I’ve found my own wondering strange from time to time, as the loss of my children has quelled my general need for answers in life. But I’ve felt gently propelled to follow it, determined to know where I am so I can honor it. In a life where there will be no sending kids off to school, no activities and graduations with no yearly holiday conveniently set aside to acknowledge my journey and hard work, my phases of grief and healing are now my milestones. I don’t have the need to know them in the form of answers, but rather in terms of landscape. I need to familiarize myself with them in a way perhaps similar to the way a parent knows the texture of their child’s hair, connects to their facial expressions and memorizes the lines in their palms via repeated caress.
Plus, how can I meet my own needs if I don’t know what they are? Attempts I’ve made lately to meet my own needs seem to fall flat as they are tailored to the me of a lifetime ago (which in grief time equals a mere handful of months). That the me of July is now “so yesterday” speaks to grief and healing’s unique velocity.
Conversations between me and myself over the past few months have gone more or less like this:
“Something major is going on. But I don’t know what it is.”
“Chill out, sweetheart. You don’t need to know. You just need to ride the wave.”
“What’s happening? I don’t know what to do.”
“Go easy on yourself. And remember, the loss of your children was not accompanied by an owner’s manual. It’s not like you’re supposed to know.”
“Look at all of the signs that point to healing. Why do they create vagueness and unrest? Shouldn’t healing feel ‘better’?”
“That’s not how this works, remember. It’s all so non – linear.”
“I feel strange. Disconnected. Unsettled.”
“That’s not a failure. It’s what is now. And it’s an inevitable part of the journey of resurrection, a journey you didn’t ask for, by the way.”
Taking a look at a broad three part model of the adult grieving experience commenced my ambiguous excavation. Found on page 96 of Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s “Reframing PTSD as Traumatic Grief” (which I highly recommend, by the way), it seems I’m transitioning, or perhaps just transitioned, from the Encounter phase (characterized by confusion, searching, panic, and the need to express oneself and tolerate emotional suffering) to the Reconciliation phase (characterized by the ability to plan one’s life towards their new future and the need to develop a new self-identity and relate the loss to a context of meaning). The first phase is the Evasion phase, characterized by shock, numbness, disbelief and the need to self-protect. In case you were wondering♥
Ok, so this explained a little. Transitioning from one phase of grief and healing to another is a big fucking deal, even if you are technically “getting better”, whatever that means. I recall how gutting my transition from the Evasion phase to the Encounter phase was about a year and a half ago, I felt as though I was losing my children all over again.
But I needed more, my soul was seeking a metaphor for some reason. I kept thinking that this phase is representative of being thrown from the churning seas onto land and I am out stumbling around for my bearings. But something in me knew that wasn’t quite it – I may feel unsettled but don’t feel the point is to settle right now. I may feel vague and lost but I don’t feel at the moment it should be my mission to define. And so it came to me that I have to watch the movie Cast Away, a movie I used to love but haven’t thought about in a decade or more. I knew it was inevitable I’d see it much more deeply and differently than I did in my old life.
“Watch the movie Cast Away” something said to me. “Then you’ll know where you are.”
Although I figure most are familiar with the movie, the skeletal Cliff Notes go something like this: Released in 2000, Cast Away centers around a blatantly conventional thirty – something likely mid management Fed Ex employee (played by Tom Hanks) whose life is ruled by the clock (read: linear time). He barely has time to propose to his fiancé before boarding a work plane that ends up going down somewhere in the south Pacific. As the lone survivor he washes up on an uninhabited island, meets his own basic needs and carves his survival there bit by bit, procures a way off the island 4 years later, gets picked up by a freight ship while floating in the open ocean and returns to his old life which painfully and awkwardly no longer makes sense. Chain of events sound metaphorically familiar? Thought so.
The movie ends with him standing in the center of two roads intersecting that stretch in all four directions for as far as the eye can see. His life isn’t portrayed as “better” because of his trauma (thank you from the bottom of my heart, non – stupid movie makers!) but, like most who have been changed by crisis he is now expanded in capacity and steeped in life’s mystery, at ease with the unknown.
The movie generously doles out metaphors both brilliant and non – obscure. It did not take long for me to realize the island he was on was really grief and so I suitably dubbed it “Grief Island”. “Hey, this is just like being thrown into infertility and involuntary childlessness” I commented to my husband, though I noted I was lucky to have survived my plight on more than coconuts and crab legs. Basic things that used to come so easily in his old life were immensely difficult on Grief Island. Watching him collect random remnants from his old life, Fed Ex packages that washed up on shore, and try to utilize them on the island, felt eerily familiar. Some things were immediately irrelevant, some things got him through a spell before rendering themselves useless, and some things served a completely transformed purpose. VHS tape reel became string, an ice skate blade became a knife. And a tooth extractor. One thing was strikingly certain – nothing functioned as it had before. Nothing.
I reflected on all that I was forced to do differently and see differently and feel differently throughout my journey. Much of the way I used to think and be was entirely unsuitable – and irrelevant – for the crisis of infertility. What I did to get through was other worldly relative to what I used to perceive made up a strong, functional human being. And as the movie so accurately portrays, these differences are not about a lust for transformation, the glory of change or whatever tap dance those who haven’t been there like to twirl. No. These adaptions are about survival. We don’t make them to “evolve”, we make them so we can keep breathing.
Throughout his time on the island, two things are clear. Like the pounding emotions and paralyzing states of grief, his surroundings remain the same. Oh sure, there’s weather, and some days are calmer than others, but the location is the unchanged. His skills, however, drastically elevate. Be it the gathering of water or the gathering of dinner from the sea with a spear, what he was originally clueless and helpless to do he grows to do with finesse. He fights less with what is and his energy focuses. He eventually constructs a log raft and utilizes a flat piece of metal shrapnel that washes ashore as a sail.
His second attempt to pass the breakers, the monstrous waves that result from the island’s interruption of the ocean’s current, is successful. And a far cry from his first attempt, made early on out of rage and flailing desperation on an inflatable life raft from the downed plane. The waves hurled him out of the raft and down onto stabbing coral. But we knew that too, didn’t we, dear readers? Attempting exit from Grief Island before you’re ready inevitably invites re-injury.
But this time, like all good grievers who have had their lives hijacked by events they did nothing to invite, he has been well schooled in both the limits and power of love (his love for his fiancé is a driving force throughout his journey), the universe’s indifference and the lack of control we truly have over pretty much everything. In other words, he was ready to go.
After he crossed that last wave barrier he, for the first time ever, was able to look back at the island and see where he had been (I’ve always said that when you’re in grief’s trenches, you have no broader perspective, and that’s OK). All breath left me, and in a way that is faster and deeper than thought, I knew. I had become so engrossed in the movie and delighted by the delicious symbolism I had forgotten why I was watching it in the first place.
THAT’S WHERE I AM.
“Holy shit – you’re IN the ocean sweetie! You’re leaving grief island!!”
I sat back, somewhat stunned, taking it all in. Then I tried to understand.
“What does it take to be in the ocean?”
“Skill. Acceptance. Wisdom.”
I note the place and circumstances he is in are unsure and completely unstable. Any equanimity involved is internal and bloodily earned. This place may be different, and he is much more prepared for it than the shock to the system that is Grief Island, but it sure isn’t easy. No wonder I’ve felt so adrift lately!!
“He may not have been in a sustainable place, but it was everything he knew and worked so hard to survive. Now do you see why leaving is so hard?”
“Yeah. I think I see.”
The other thing about Grief Island in the movie is that its beauty is both striking and unwavering. This isn’t because he’s “finding himself”, because it’s “happening for a reason” or any other such idiocy. It’s that grief is rife with paradox, the main one being that grief is born from love. Grief Island is the worst place I’ve ever been, it’s also, without a doubt, the most sacred. And no one can leave a sacred place, even a terrible one, without a bit of reluctance.
I pretend I am him for a moment, me watching me, because really, on an internal soulful level, I am. Anyone leaving grief island is him.
“Look at YOU, bobbing around in the ocean. Oh, and nice raft. BRILLIANTLY fashioned, I must say. Hey, look back at it – you LEARNED grief island. Yes, you. You learned that. One of life’s toughest classes, a class you’ll be reviewing notes on for the rest of your life. Good job.”
I had been feeling the gravity of where I am, now I understand it and value it more deeply. It’s not a typical every day state that can be written off with “well life is always changing” or any other expression of inexperience cloaked as insight.
“Your soul is in transit. Be kind. And be gentle. It’s okay.”
I tell myself this now as I awaken every morning. It’s a welcome change from my “what in the hell is going on??” morning greeting of the past few months. A bit more grounding, too.
I don’t know what this next phase holds. Nobody does. I now know I can honor my travels though, wherever they do or don’t lead.
“What a shitty deal” I pointed out to my husband. “Grief Island sucks to land on, you have to stay on it but practically have to kill yourself to survive there, and then you have to endure the treachery of leaving it. Seriously.”
The most notable thing about Grief Island is that it’s a place no one would ever CHOOSE to go. “Hey, I’ve got an idea – throw me on a beautiful deserted island with nothing and no one, please. And I’d love to forfeit any training or preparation that would help me when I’m there. I’d like to wing it, and see if I live or die. It’ll be fun!”
I remind myself of this when I find my fellow humans feeling like nothing more than a distantly related species from another millennia. The places I and many others have been thrust are places no one would ever go on their own free will. Therein lies the difference.
Of the many scenes in Cast Away I could mention, there’s one at the end I find so brilliant. Mundane, but spot on. Tom Hank’s character is back on main land and is ushered into a “celebration” with an array of food and his friends and co-workers who he’s seeing for the first time since his rescue. What is normal for everyone else does not resonate with him. After 4 years of living on coconuts and catching his own seafood, he of course does not share people’s obliviousness to the abundance around them. Not unlike the way one feels a stranger in a room full of people with children after years of trying everything under the sun to have them and not getting to.
When everyone is still present, they bombard him with their trivial bullshit as if nothing has changed. It’s classic but oh so typical. From plans for the next few days to fishing, no one is capable of making the tiniest intuitive leap ever known to man that 4 years alone on an island just might change the way a person sees things. Kind of like 4 years of trying to conceive, over 1,000 needles, 15 catheters rammed into one’s uterus, 10 “I’m sorry I’m not calling with better news” phone calls, the loss of parenthood and grandparenthood just might change the way a person sees and is able to relate to pregnancy, child birth and motherhood. Fucking DUH. “Uh, he just spent 4 years by himself on a freakin island” I yelled at the guy who tried to bond with him over conventional fishing. “He just might see fishing differently than you, ya damn genius!”
This scene is awesome as it conveys one of the toughest and untold grief truths of them all – post trauma and loss most people will be either unwilling or unable to relate to you. There are only a few rare birds who will meet you where you are at. Hang onto them – they are special. In this case, it happens to be an old friend whose wife was sick with cancer when Hank’s character left and died while he was on the island. Someone who gets it on a level.