I saw Awakenings at the theater in 1990 with probably both my parents and maybe both my sisters but I know with my mom because I always remembered she found this line funny: “I’m sorry. If you were right, I would agree with you,” which Dr. Sayer, played by Robin Williams, says to another doctor. She didn’t remember that line but she laughed at it when we watched the movie again this past weekend.
In my first viewing, the portions between Leonard, played by Robert DeNiro, who awakens from a thirty-year catatonic state, and his mother who’d been caring for him seemed secondary, but in this one their relationship felt the most poignant. I rarely cry in movies. I have emotional reactions that just don’t translate into tears. When the mother and son moments produced the stronger of these emotional reactions, I heard my mom burst into tears. She cried for me. When Leonard woke up and Dr. Sayer found him and sat talking to him, my mother, not usually one to yell at the TV, yelled from her chair, “Call his mother!” And we laughed together.
Awakenings isn’t a movie I forgot but it left me with impressions that didn’t fit with this viewing. Leonard wakes up after thirty years because of an experimental drug, but the drug is rapidly losing its effectiveness. Leonard is again dealing with the accelerating tremors that previously led to his catatonic state. The scene I vividly recalled from my youth is Leonard threatening the doctor and riling up the other patients. I thought the drug must have made him angry, this nice guy had turned mean. Mean? I see now he was having a perfectly natural reaction to his circumstances. He woke up to a missing thirty years and as his disease closed the window on his awakening, he wasn’t even permitted a walk outside without doctor supervision.
What a metaphor! Aren’t we all just enjoying an awakening before the window of life closes? I certainly didn’t find that metaphor in the movie at the age of sixteen. Watching a second time twenty-five years later revealed that element, there all the time. As they say, the movie hadn’t changed but I had. I am no longer a sixteen year old boy who needs his mother. I’m now a forty-one year old man who needs his mother but knows he’ll always have her because a parent is forever in your life as a source of strength and joy. Doctors tell my mother she’s terminally ill with liver cancer and we believe them, even though she’s feeling healthy except for the effects of her treatments that we hope will extend her life for many more years. I was lucky to enjoy a revisit of that movie with her last weekend. I’ll be lucky to enjoy many more visits with her in the future, and if one day she’s gone I’ll still have all those memories.
The movie didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. That’s not really what movies are best at, that’s not what art is best at. Art is a powerful complement to life. It’s not easy to think of my mother as terminally ill and it’s certainly not pleasant, but those unfortunate circumstances made not just the movie profound but made the experience of watching it profound. A moment was born, now a memory. Beyond that memory, moving past it, transcending it, is a shared moment between my mother and me possessing a quality of the eternal.