Family

Emma, Aurora, My Mother, and Me

Rewatching Terms of Endearment with my mom helped us finally talk about my dad’s difficult death from dementia.

Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger chatting with each other.
Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment (1983). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Moviepix via Getty Images

Excerpted from Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ’80s Films That Defined Us by Michael Koresky. Out now from Hanover Square Press.

As my mother and I chatted on the highway during the drive home from the Boston bus station, I was talking, as always, about what new movies I’d recommend to her. My husband and I had just seen Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, an independent American drama about a second-generation Chinese immigrant living in Brooklyn. She returns to her family’s hometown of Changchun after her grandmother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The twist is that the family, due to long-held cultural custom, does not plan on telling the elderly woman she is dying; instead, they have all convened under the false pretense of a cousin’s wedding, which they carry out in full, going an extreme length to cover the truth.

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There was a silent pause as the car rattled down Route 3. “You know,” my mother said, “I never told your dad he was sick.”

I hadn’t known this. I had wondered, but never inquired. It was clear that he knew something was wrong with him. That there was a reason he was going to the doctor so much, that they were asking him so many questions, that they were adjust­ing and readjusting endless cocktails of medications, year after year. But the nature of a deteriorative cognitive disease such as Alzheimer’s makes the patient’s knowledge and self-awareness ambiguous.

“Were the doctors OK with that?” was all I could think to ask, a kind of distancing strategy for my own self-protection.

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“I never even asked them. What good would it do?”

Any time my father’s disease or his death comes up in con­versation, I always feel the urge to change the topic, find a quick escape hatch—easier to talk about TV, the weather, movies. This weekend, though, inspired by the therapy I’d begun about a year and a half earlier, I wanted to address the topic head-on. We were four titles into our project, together rewatching women-led films from the 1980s that she had first introduced me to when I was young. I hadn’t yet told my mother which movie we were revisiting this time—not because it was going to be a delightful surprise for her, but rather because I didn’t want her to run in the other direction.

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One couldn’t exactly call the expression on her face elation when she found out what we’d be watching this weekend. There was none of the glee that had accompanied the prospect of watching 9 to 5, none of the anticipatory excitement of descending into the camp hell of Mommie Dearest, or even the curious fascination of revisit­ing that half-forgotten dream Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Instead, when I gingerly revealed that the 1983 title would be Terms of Endearment, my mother let out an “Oh … ” that was like the sound you make when you get a box of raisins in your trick-or-treat bag. “That’s a tough one.”

Though beloved by many, James L. Brooks’ domes­tic tragicomedy starring Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger was an untouchable object in my house, spoken of in hushed tones and head-shakes. I actually cannot remember when my mother first showed it to me; it’s one of those movies that’s just always been there. Its title is so iconic at this point that it even seems to have lost its specific and elegant double mean­ing. Terms of Endearment. It’s just … a title. Out of the almost 100 Best Picture Oscar winners, it’s one of the very, very few that one could ever call a “women’s picture,” and the only one in the history of the awards that centers almost exclusively on the relationship between a mother and a daughter—stories of dads, sons, and godfathers are more the speed of traditionally masculinist Hollywood cinema. It’s not an aesthetically difficult film by any measure, yet my mother remembered Terms of En­dearment as a challenge, even radical in what she perceived as a betrayal of the audience’s trust. “We were sitting in the theater laughing so hard, and then … ” She trailed off. “I thought, what is this? We were shocked. We felt like we got punched in the stomach.”

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As we were about to willingly lean into that punch once more, so many years after she told me she could never watch that movie again, my mother insisted that this was the first film that ever combined comedy and tragedy, paving the way for other tear-jerkers of the era, more shameless emotion-exploiting genre hoppers like Beaches and Steel Magnolias. The snobby film historian in me wanted to correct her, to find all of those instances of tragi­comedies that anticipated Brooks’ film. Even as I write this, though, I’m still trying to think of one. She may be right. In this very par­ticular, American way, in how it swings for the fences as both broad comedy and intense tear-jerker, nothing else before it comes close.

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When the film came out in 1983, she was roughly the same age as Winger’s young mother, Emma; now she’s older than Emma’s mother, Aurora Greenway, played by MacLaine. She’s also now, like Aurora, a widow whose children have long since moved out of the house. Would time cushion the film’s blows, or would it hit harder than ever?

As we remembered, the movie is funny, often very funny; what we both forgot is just how much of it is funny. For about 90 minutes—which is, after all, the length of a full movie—Terms of Endearment is unmistakably a comedy; yes, it’s couched in the truths and anxieties of everyday lived experience, and yes, it affords its characters the strength and dignity and respect one would associate with what people usually categorize as drama. Yet, as befitting the directorial feature debut of James L. Brooks, who cut his teeth on such centerpiece television sitcoms of the ’70s as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, it’s also a work of screwball idiosyncrasy, packed with colorful characters who spout one-liners in short, expertly edited scenes that get to the point without much fuss. This is a marked contrast from Larry McMurtry’s dialogue-heavy source novel, which, taking its cues from Aurora’s punctilious, long-winded self-satisfaction, feels su­persize with endless conversations and argumentative rapport.

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Once I wished away the anticipation of its horrible revela­tions, the most striking aspect of Terms of Endearment remained the power of its two still-revelatory star performances. A perfect match for the general causticity of the screenplay by Brooks, MacLaine and Winger were far from typical Holly­wood stars. At that point in their careers a veteran and a new­bie, respectively, MacLaine and Winger are hugely responsible for the lack of overt sentimentality in a film that nevertheless had audiences weeping in the aisles.

Terms of Endearment never pulls its emotional punches, and the scene that had most devastated my mother the first time she saw Terms of Endearment remained the killer: Emma, dying of cancer, saying goodbye to her sons in the hospital, and imploring her more difficult older son to not feel bad when one day he realizes he never told his mother he loved her. “I know that you love me,” Winger tells him, sitting up in bed with wide, blue, tearless eyes. “So don’t ever do that to yourself.” It’s the kind of movie mo­ment that can cause gasping, ugly sobs. “This scene was so hard to watch,” said my mother. “I had two little boys about that age.”

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For me, there’s a deadlier scene, and it’s shorter: Au­rora beseeching the hospital’s nurses, with increasingly frenetic movement, to administer her daughter’s morphine. We never see Emma in this moment of pain; we don’t need to, as it’s writ­ten clearly all over Aurora’s face. Finally MacLaine balls her fists together and screams with indignant fury, “Give my daughter the shot!!” It shoots chills up the spine: at once an expression of a mother’s uncompromising love and the ultimate representation of Aurora’s “difficult” nature being used for its always intended purpose—to protect and nurture her only daughter.

I can very easily see my mother doing this if my brother or I are ever in Emma’s situation, and her refusing to take “no” for an an­swer. Of course, life is never as clean as a Hollywood movie, even one that wants to make you cry. Often there is no simple morphine shot that will take away the pain, even temporarily. And there isn’t that perfectly arranged moment when a parent can perform her rehearsed goodbyes to her children. Instead, it can be ugly and sad and chaotic.

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My mother had been in the trenches: a 5-foot-1 woman helping a 6-foot-2 man into the bathroom in the middle of the night, assisting him as he bathed and dressed, dealing with his night terrors and his occasionally threatening behavior bred by frustration. I had the guilt-inducing luxury of living back in New York, surrounded by the distractions of love and friends and films and work and holiday gatherings and the other social commitments that all but weave the loom that is your 20s. With my dad, I could somehow pretend that, despite everything, it would still all be OK. Or at least that he could plateau and we could all live together for a good while, in relative happiness.

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That wasn’t to be. After many years of slow disintegration, he suffered a rapid decline. By early 2010, things finally felt ir­reversible. Too many bad scares, too many potentially destruc­tive moments. He had to have a gallstone removed, for which his doctors had given him anesthesia—a risky decision for some­one with dementia—and he never quite recovered. I remember coming home in April that year and my mother surreptitiously telling me that he had mistakenly peed in the backyard bushes. She took him to the doctor again, but this time was different.

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“I was sort of in denial,” she told me. “Hoping they’d find a drug combination as they had last time and that I’d be able to take him home. I remember sitting in that room, and the doc­tor came in and said he can’t go home. After that she left, and I was in the room all by myself; I just lost it.”

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When she told me this, we were having dinner in the dining room: corn on the cob, string beans, tomatoes—as many fresh summer vegetables as we could find at the local farmers market. Our re-viewing of Terms of Endearment was still humming in our brains from the night before. The movie had proven effec­tive as ever. Watching it all these years later, we didn’t feel that Emma’s cruel fate—to die of cancer while still a young mother of three—was the machination of sadistic screenwriters an­gling for tears, but the natural expression of life’s unpredict­ability. “If there had been foreshadowing,” my mom said, “like if it had been a childhood illness coming back, it would have been a different film.” This made me think of Steel Magnolias, in which the tragic death of Julia Roberts’ diabetic Shelby is telegraphed from the beginning. Of course this doesn’t make it any easier on the audience when her mother, played by Sally Field, is screaming “Why??” at the burial. The pain and cathar­sis of such movie scenes function like the adrenaline of action movies or the anxious anticipation of horror movies: Psycholo­gists have connected such emotional responses to the release of oxytocin hormones, which make social interactions and even sexual reproduction possible. It’s a workout for your empathetic nerve centers, as well as for your tear ducts.

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Life snuck up on my dad. It snuck up on all of us. By summer 2010, he had been moved into a nursing home about 20 minutes from the house in nearby Lowell. When he went in, he was mentally unwell but still relatively physically fit. Whether it was being out of his routine and element, or the combination of sedatives and other medications he was getting, he became a different person almost overnight, largely vegetative. He would live in the nursing home for only a year and a half.

My mother had lost her father when she was 28. When my dad died, I was 32. Before that day, such a loss always had been an abstract notion to me. Nothing would make his death more tangible than seeing his body at the funeral home. My mother couldn’t bring her­self to do it, so I took on the responsibility. He was downstairs, at the end of a room that surely isn’t as long and tunnellike as I remember it. The lighting was dim; I don’t recall seeing any­thing other than his tuckered cheeks, so thin, and his enshrouded form, which looked light as a feather.

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In movies I’m always distracted by the image of a dead body. I simply wait for its eyelids to flutter accidentally or its chest to quietly heave, something to break the illusion.

The day after we watched Terms of Endearment, my mom mentioned that retirement isn’t quite how she and my dad always expected it would be: “We didn’t have any huge plans, but we wanted to see the country. He loved to drive. He just wanted to drive all over the place and see the country. Everywhere. That would have been fun.” Neverthe­less, life is far from dull, considering her friends, her singing, her books, her occasional travels—she finally saw Paris during her first trip to Europe—and her tireless helping out of neigh­bors and friends with their own life challenges.

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My mother has put her foot down about ever dating again. This is just one of many ways she’s nothing like fellow widow Aurora Greenway. It goes beyond not believing she’ll fall in love again; she says she also doesn’t want to end up taking care of another elderly person. She’s been through that, even if my dad never got to be technically elderly. She’s seeing it everywhere now: Her close friend’s husband has a bad form of Parkinson’s and is now in a nursing home; one of my dad’s best friends from high school has also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and his wife has to care for him.

“I enjoy looking after myself and not having to answer to anybody,” she told me while munching on an ear of corn, certify­ing her independence.

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“So do you like being a widow?”

“Well … no,” she snorted. “It’s a lousy word.”