Episode 36 - P.S. I Love You (From Wherever I'm Sending This)


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            It may surprise you to know that one of my favorite board games to play as a child was the game, Life. Surprising not in that anything about my personality would suggest otherwise, but surprising because—at least in my experience—very free people like playing that game. And that's to be expected. Probably. While board games have undergone a sort of Renaissance in recent years, older games can be a bit unstimulating, boring, predictable… You know what I mean. And Life was maybe one of the most guilty of this. You would spin for a number and then move that many spaces around the board and land on typical life moments or you were forced to stop when it was (quote) time to get married or buy a house. You traveled along this board until you hit retirement and probably died, though my version of the game was never all that upfront about that caveat.

            When I played it, though it might not have been the official rule—I’m not sure—it’s been a few years. It was however retired with the most money that won. So maybe it couldn't have ended with death because that would then mean that, well, whoever died with the most won. And that would been a little too forward.

            I loved the game likely because I liked consistency and predictability. You have a set path to go down, and the game stops you at certain points to make sure all players hit all the milestones relevant to events that can happen later in the game. I.e. you need a job and salary in order for he payday spaces to mean anything. And you need to buy a house in order to risk having to pay for damages to it later. Well, the marriage spot is a bit harder to justify, to be honest. But, who knows.

            However, setting up the game like this made sometimes boring and feel incredibly artificial to the point of almost being outright condescending. Maybe to that end, the only time my childhood best friend enjoyed playing that game with me was the time she landed on every single child or baby space and needed two cars to haul around her absurdly large family.

            That's when the game was most enjoyable to everyone else. When it was absurd. And yeah, there’s something funny about absurdity, the unexpected or when unimportant plans go awry. I see it that now. I knew it even then.

            Problem is: I just wasn't at that stop with everyone else.

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            Hi. It's M. Welcome to Episode 36.

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            Today, I want to talk about 2007 film P.S. I Love You, adapted by the 2004 Cecelia Ahern novel of the same name. I actually read the book a few years ago, and while I enjoyed it, the movie is what I want to talk about today. Because sometimes the way you encounter the story dictates the personal story you walk away with. And reading, for me, has always been a very personal activity. Which has yielded an episode or two. With more in the works. But not this one.

            P.S. I Love You starts with a married couple trying to make life work in Manhattan. But overtime, the story becomes mostly about Holly, played by Hilary Swank. Gerry, played by Gerard Butler, starts off the movie with her. And then he dies of a brain tumor. Suddenly. Well, when you’re that young. It’s always technically “sudden.” Or it will feel that way.

            Holly became a widow before she’s even had the chance to turn thirty. So now, she’s a little lost. To be blunt, she was never supposed to be widowed this young. No one is. After all, having a spouse die young is a petty and spiteful way for the cosmos to interpret the whole “death do us part” thing. When we get married or make a similar commitment. We want to spend a lifetime with this person. Hence why we made the commitment. We make plans, we dream, we built our new normal with them.

            So if they die, no matter the age, well, that’s a rug ripped out from under you, and if you were young when it happened, then the ripping happened just as you were starting to get your footing. Now, Holly doesn’t know what to do. She’s caught beneath the intense weight of her grief, and she can’t muster the strength to climb out of it or really the strength to do much else. She’s dazed as she struggles to imagine what comes next for her, and she’s alone while all her friends and family struggle to make sense of what she’s feeling. After all, none of them have through this. Luckily, Gerry has arranged for a series of letters to help her navigate her life going forward. All signed with the words. P.S. I Love You. Almost in she forgot

            While she’s getting these letters, her family and friends are deeply concerned that Holly isn’t moving on with her life. Like at all. Sure, she’s not stuck knee-deep in sadness anymore, but this new state of affairs isn’t that much better. They worry that the emotional distress that seized her when Gerry first died is still very much in control of her life. And that his letters aren’t guiding her to her new future but are helping her stay willingly locked in her past. Not that they’ve had any more success getting her to move on, but that’s neither here nor there..

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            At face value, P.S. I Love You is a story of what comes after a spouse dies and the way in which our love for them and their memory can keep us going when the weight of our loss is conspiring to do the very opposite. Ultimately, the movie seems to argue, love is something that can never be taken away because death can’t retroactively strip love from a relationship, and if you have someone’s heart, then you still have it after they die. It came to rest with you, it called you home. So it stayed.

            Pretty romantic right? Well, when I first saw this film at fifteen I could not have cared any less about that. I wasn’t thinking about love. I was thinking about death. And loss.

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            If you’re new here… Hi. I’m M. My dad died when I was in my early teens, and I have a lot of feelings about it. (Pause) There. You aren’t fully caught up, but that’s the stuff I’ve mentioned in past episodes that’s relevant here. And that way of expressing it is super blunt, but sometimes I just feel the need to say it that way, that unorthodox methods of disclosure feel empowering. Like I’m taking back the sense of control that has been stripped away from me by circumstances just by not sticking to social norms about death and dying and talking about death and dying. So just bear with me when I say things like that. It’s just my story told how I see fit.

            But like I said, I had a lot of feelings about it. And still do. Largely negative, obviously. But the worst of it came and went. Even then, it would always hit me in waves. The tide would come in and nearly drown me only to pull back into oblivion just before it washed me away.

            It’s part of the human condition that we cannot hold onto one feeling for too long before our brain releases it for the sake of its own survival. The feeling of being lost and adrift is what lingers, though. It’s a lot more sustainable just because in it, you aren’t maintain a grip on anything—physically or emotionally. In fact, by its very nature, it’s the absence of anything that requires any sort of effort. But somehow, it’s just as tiring. And it never stops. Even after two year or almost three years.

            That’s how long it was between my father’s death and when I first saw this movie. At a friend’s sleepover, in fact. It was her birthday party, actually. That’s how she celebrated all of them, inviting a bunch of friends over to her house where we promptly took over her family’s living room, much to her little sister’s chagrin.

            It was our mutual friend who suggested the movie, and if I remember correctly, she was the one who brought it over. It was her favorite movie. And she wanted to share it with us. As all good friends would. You see, sharing stories is one of the ways we relate to one another, particularly with other people that we want to bond with or strength bonds with. It’s a way of trying to hold onto someone else because if we can’t, then we’re in serious trouble.

            And that’s one way of sucking all the fun out of an activity. It’s not about joy. It’s about a desperate survival need manifesting itself in one specific way. Yeah, I’m fun at parties.

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            Setting my joyless nature aside for a moment, it’s a thought I first had back then. Not to be pretentious or arrogant or anything like that. It’s just where I was in my life. Because this sleepover happened when I was on the brink of losing these friendships. Not that it was anyone’s fault or choice but an inevitability, the same sort of inevitability the movie unintentionally shows…

            Correction, if you made the assumption I unintentionally alluded to. While death is inevitable as a fact of our biology, I don’t think tragic and abrupt deaths are inevitable in the same way. Sure, for now, there are brain tumors that are going to kill people, but in terms of research, we’ve striving to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore. And if you’re optimistic, you can say that maybe this will happen any day now.

            But I don’t mean to say the initial action is the inevitability. But what comes after: the chain of events that unfold once that first domino is pushed: the very thing you were setting up when you laid out those so-called toys. In this metaphor, I’m not one of the dominoes that fell, not even one of the first ones to be struck by that initial domino that is my father’s passing. Rather, the various pieces of my life were each their own domino. Each fell apart from one another but fell as a result of the same stimuli.

            I fell away from my friends as an inevitable result of losing my father. But at the time, it was a hard thing to explain. Because, like Holly’s family and friends were to her, my friends were trying desperately to hold onto me. Sure, we were kids by many standards, but they were grown up enough to know that I was suffering. That I was in danger of being completely swallowed up by my sadness, and as people who cared about me, they had a chance and a responsibility to anchor me to the real world rather than letting me be swept up by the storm.

            And this is a valid concern. I’ve seen it happen with other people: the sadness of grief abducts you and takes you far away, making for a symbolic death to mirror the real one that struck you in the first place. And in some ways, despite their efforts that still happened with me. But it came later. It came after I was left sitting in my fermenting sadness. And here’s the thing. The problem wasn’t that I had nothing to tether me to my present anymore. The problem was that I was finding it difficult to hold on to them from my end.

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            I went to that sleepover with the full intention of being with my friends and enjoying myself doing whatever activities my friend has planned for her birthday. However, intentions and effects don’t always line up properly. Intentions are born in our heads, in the realm where we—under normal circumstances—have complete control. But when these thoughts leave our head through the actions of our physical bodied, we have entered a realm almost defined by our cosmic insignificance. With so many other things striving to meet their ultimate end or to manifest their intentions, bold of you to think you could win most of the time. In fact, that may be an outright delusion.

            In reality, I wanted to connect with them. I wanted to maintain our friendships, but circumstances made that hard. Sure, I could see them. They were there in a space with me that lends itself to social interactions, but while I was there with them and could say this factually, there was something about those words that didn’t feel right in my mouth. And it was hard to explain in the moment.


            But I went through the motions. Including a pool segment of the party that I actually couldn’t fully enjoy because I had a fairly bad infection in one of my toes and had been advised by my podiatrist—yes as a teenager I had a podiatrist—to avoid swimming pools until the antibiotics had done their job. But that’s not part of the story, or not a relevant part. You don’t need to know I had a podiatrist.

            P.S. I Love You hit the DVD player later that night. So late that the rest of the house was long in bed, and we were spared a lecture about noise by the simple fact it was the host’s birthday party, her special day. But we were all getting pretty tired anyway. And only the person who had brought the DVD out of her love for it, find it in her to speak at all. And that was almost exclusively to sing the movies praises as a true piece of art. Not that we understood anything about that phrase. I still don’t. Obviously.

            This friend really just loved the romance aspect, that much was clear based on the moments in the movie she cried. Which was surprising. She had built up an identity around rejecting what she called (quote) “romance, commercialism, and commercialized romance.” But I’m not one to talk about constructed identities and their inconsistencies.

            Most people in the group seemed to agree with her. And then there was me, still glancing at any clock I could find, counting down the hours until my mom was coming for me. I just wanted to leave. I wouldn’t say I was miserable. I just felt like I didn’t belong there. And I really hate that feeling.

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            The thing about Holly’s plight in P.S. I Love You is that she was widowed at an age when most people are starting a new phase in their life. Widowhood isn’t necessarily your end, but it is an end. So she was at an end whereas all of her friends are at a beginning.

            It’s a disconnect or a state of dissonance. But when I think of dissonance, I think of music. If you’ve never played around with an instrument, let me break this whole thing down in a very uninformed and potentially wrong way but in a way that will let you understand what I’m thinking. Some pitches work perfectly together. And some don’t. Some notes when played together can bring about almost physical pain. In fact, in my office, the elevators chimes for two of the four elevators are a great example of this. If for some reason they go off at the same time, usually on the ground floor when everyone’s trying to get into work, it hurts me. Genuinely hurts me. The irony is that the closer a pair of notes are, the stronger the dissonance between them.

            By sheer virtue of being your friends, you are closer to them than you are to most people. So when you fall away in the slightest bit, not an obvious way—just a slight way—well, you’re going to feel it. And that feeling won’t be pleasant.


            To this day, none of my high school friends have had to go through the death of a parent. Knock on wood. And I hope this won’t happen to them for many, many years. Partially because of the hurt and partially because of the way it can change you.

            There’s an old adage that I heard from my very old grandmother that hasn’t aged well that goes: a boy isn’t a man until his father has died. To translate it into something more modern and inclusive, the loss of a parent is what truly acquaints you with how cruel and indifferent the world can be. In this realization, you have to rise to the challenge and learn true self-sufficiency. And if it happens when you’re young, well, then you’ve got to toss the number that is your age and do what you need to do to find a new normal. While everyone is on a different normal. The same normal you had just been standing in.

            So now, you and the people you are closest to in the world are in different normal or different stages in your life, focusing on different priorities, and playing slightly different notes.

            The figurative sound makes it incredibly obvious that something is up. What was once a perfect harmony or near-perfect harmony has now completely fallen apart. And it was not caused by anything one person did. So there’s supposedly no cause or reason for any of it. There’s effect without causation. It goes against how human beings understand the world to be. At face value.

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            In some ways, there’s nothing wrong with that. Ignorance should only be condemned with it its willful. In reality, cluelessness and obliviousness define the default state of humans. We don’t even know how to use a spoon when we are first born. All things have to be learned. Including and especially a lesson like this one.

            But unlike utensil-related lessons, this is one that we don’t want to learn and have so many reasons not to learn. After all, it’s essentially an existential crisis just waiting to happen.

I think I’ve said this before, but it’s difficult for us to realize what little control we have in our lives, how things can send us spiraling, and take everything away. Even those relationships that seem unshakeable can always be shaken not by choice but by circumstances.

            It’s hard to admit that the things we hold most dear, specifically our connections with our friends are largely just the product of chance and circumstance. That rather than being destined or pre-ordained to be friends, it just happened. All dictated by chance.

            And maybe you can see the poetry in that, depending on how you want to look at it. But if it’s all by chance that everything fell together, then it is also by chance that everything could fall apart. It’s a more fragile balance. And something we cannot sustain by our own choices. It’s a balance in which your desires and capabilities are completely irrelevant. I would say that’s factual, but it’s not a set of facts we’re inclined to admit.

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            I didn’t like the movie when I first saw it, but I was fascinated. I was fascinated in a way that I struggled to explain. Because it’s not like I sought out a copy of my own to watch at home or looked online for clips or interviews. And while I was more aware of the leading actor and actress, I still wasn’t seeking out their other work.

            At the time, I thought it was just the love story or the idea underneath it that caught my attention. To be left letters by a deceased loved one. To keep a connection after their death. Obviously, it’s a good idea for a story. So kudos to Cecelia Ahern for that one. I mean, maybe it’s not entirely original. All ideas are derivative, to some degree, though. Cue the interconnectedness of humanity.

            While, obviously, my dad hadn’t done that, I hoped that maybe he had thought about what he could leave me to bring me comfort after his death. It would have meant a lot to me had he pulled a similar stunt, but I get it: logistically, that’s a difficult thing to do. And, you know, a lot of his attention was devoted to the state of dying. As a last insult, the process of dying is incredibly difficult to manage. And it would have been even worse if he had to think about his kid during all of it. Or so I imagine. But yeah, I’ve noticed we tend to avoid the truths that are the hardest to take.

            And here’s mine. It wasn’t about the love story. It wasn’t act of declaring love or care regardless of the romantic connotations. It was about the maybe unintentional subplot. About the moment when you realize that we aren’t going to hit the same mile-markers that our friends will in a nice, orderly, board-game like fashion. That life is both a board game with rules and a sense of fairness as well as a state of being defined by chaos and perceived injustice.

            I can’t explain the scene in which this all clicked for me: the only scene I remembered from this movies year after viewing it, though I do re-watch movies when I review them on this show. I can’t explain it without… Well, I’m not sure technically if that would be considered spoiler, and it’s a very dangerous game to play to say that the term “spoiler” is somehow subjective. But it can feel that way. Like I can think there’s a scene or moment in a piece of media that maybe isn’t critical to the plot but that will only hit you with its full force if I don’t tell you that it’s coming. And this is one of those moments.

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            It was hard dealing with my dad’s death. But I shouldn’t need to say that. His passing forced me to reevaluate my childish understanding of the world. Through a child’s lens, so obviously it wasn’t accurate and a mental health professional needed to help me sort through it all years after the fact. But that’s not the point. Unless it encourages you to seek out help for yourself. In which case. Very relevant. You should go do that. Maybe even if you don’t think you need to. Because, I can say this a thousand times without getting tired of saying it, no one gets through life unscathed so tend to your wounds when need be. Preferably, long before they get infected.

            In the wake of his death, I had a list of things to sort through. In the meantime, my friends were getting part time jobs to earn money for their first cars. I wasn’t doing that. I was going through my father’s final documents with my immigrant mother. And that adjective is only relevant because English wasn’t my mother’s first language, and English legalese is no one’s first language, but some people have a better chance of getting through it than others. At sixteen, I couldn’t drive. I didn’t want to. Teaching me to drive had been a parental activity that my dad had called dibs on when I still was a child. I know that because he told me so. And he would have been a good teacher, but that’s not the point.

            Here is the point. At this point in my life, activities changed meanings. Just for me. The innocent became a field of emotional landmines. So in some ways, my friends and I could stand next to each and still be in very different worlds. Like being on different frequencies made it possible for my world to almost be super-imposed on theirs. Only I could see my world. So when I pulled back from an object only I could see, my actions looked irrational and concerning. That’s what breaks from rationality are usually: causes for concern. Fair enough.

            But it made reaching me difficult, and when my friends could manage it, I took their inability to fully understand me as an offense. My hurt wasn’t just real; it defined my life. So rejection of that was hard to not take personally.

            In fact, I still think they don’t fully understand why I pulled away so harshly when we were teenagers. I just did it. And I could tell them that my dad’s death just changed me or messed with me, and that will sound more like an excuse than anything else. Because in their world it is. And it’s nobody’s fault that we’re playing such disharmonious notes.

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