Frail as Summer's Flower

On Caitlin Flanagan, Supernova, and the business of dying.

The other day, I found myself in some trouble on Twitter. This in and of itself isn’t an uncommon occurrence, but in this case, I hadn’t set out looking for quite this much trouble.

It began when I was reading this review of Best Picture winner Nomadland, by the ineffable Caitlin Flanagan. Admittedly, the picture is still on my own to-watch list, despite my love for director Chloe Zhao (whom I noticed before she was cool, be it known). But Flanagan, with her usual flair, beautifully conveys the film’s essence.

One scene in particular struck a personal chord for her, an exchange between the protagonist and an older fellow traveler. I’ll let her explain why:

“I’m going to be 75 this year,” a nomad named Swankie tells Fern when she explains why she isn’t afraid of the cancer that will soon kill her; “I think I’ve lived a pretty good life.” She’s headed to Alaska, a place she loves, and when the time comes, she will end her life. (Which is exactly what I would do if I had to shit in a bucket in my minivan, but also what I will do when my own cancer someday runs its course.) “I’m not gonna spend any more time indoors in a hospital,” Swankie says. “No, thanks.”

Something rose in me when Swankie calmly announced her plan, some old inclination. The American Way of Death wouldn’t seem like ideal reading for a 12-year-old, but it was sitting around the house when I was that age, and it was interesting as hell. The American Way of Dying From Cancer could be a companion volume, and for Swankie to take hold of her experience and wrest it from the cancer industrial complex—Big Pharma swooping down to darken the final months of someone who will never make it—was stirring.

I already knew of Flanagan’s terminal diagnosis, but to my knowledge this is the first time she’s made her end-of-life intentions public. I can’t say they shocked me. I would rather expect a woman of her generation, cut from her cloth, to have made such plans. I even share her rebellious instinct against the pressure to jump through every possible pharmaceutical hoop in the face of terminal illness. (I could see myself eschewing chemo one day if, God forbid, I was faced with that choice.)

Still, this saddened me. It always does.

I wavered somewhat, but I decided to share the review with a tweet expressing this sadness, and expressing my strong hope that she might reconsider. Maybe, by some standards, this was a faux pas. Maybe it broke some unspoken rule of Twitter etiquette. Maybe I lost some of my own “cool pro writer” points thereby. Maybe I don’t especially care. In any case, it didn’t go over well, either with Flanagan herself or her other readers. My notifications soon filled up with comments praising her “bravery” and cheering her on to “take control” when and if the time comes.

Flanagan assured me her death is not imminent (welcome news), but then she asked why she would want to endure such a “pointless,” excruciating process when it becomes so. I suggested, per Edgar in Lear, that “men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither.”

“Oh, not with my God,” she said. “Fortunately for me.”

Who exactly Caitlin’s God is, only she can say. I will say, I’m reasonably confident that my God is not Michel Houellebecq’s God, yet Houellebecq apparently shares my view as he surveys the legal landscape of “death with dignity” in France. (Indeed, I should say it’s rather a tossup as to who is currently farther from the kingdom, Michel Houellebecq or the “priests” he prophetically condemns.)

In any case, I spent the rest of that day a bit haunted by the episode. Flanagan’s word “pointless” nagged at me. I proposed in a followup thread that herein lies the value of Christianity: that it gives a point not only to death, but to the act of dying, whatever shape that takes. I tagged Leah Libresco Sargeant, and she didn’t disappoint, coming in with an excellent quote from Father Richard Neuhaus on how Pope John XXIII’s death affected him as a young man:

I recall being deeply impressed as a young man by the death of Pope John XXIII. It was slow in coming, and over the days there were regular news bulletins reporting that he was offering up one day’s suffering for those with cancer, another day’s suffering for homeless refugees, another for mothers with difficult pregnancies and so forth. He seemed to be going about his dying with such purpose, with almost workmanlike efficiency, wasting none of it. And I began to understand what St. Paul meant by rejoicing in his sufferings for our sake, completing what was lacking in the afflictions of Christ. (From Death On a Friday Afternoon)

Leah herself further offered this insight: “If there is no value in the life of someone actively dying, then there’s no value in a lot of other lives, too.” Unfortunately, she notes, this is a chain of logic that can run in both directions.

There’s a special bitterness around these questions in the context of dementia—what some would call “death before death.” By chance, more than one prestige film plumbed these dark waters in 2021. The same night Nomadland won Best Picture, Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for his performance in Florian Zeller’s adapted play The Father, an unnerving piece that unfolds almost like a horror film. Meanwhile, early favorite Stanley Tucci was snubbed for his performance as a gay man with young-onset Alzheimer’s in Supernova.

The two films can be seen as companion pieces. Hopkins’s character is a winter lion sliding into full Lear-like decline, doddering and erratic, volatile, confused. Tucci’s character, Tusker, is still in his prime, vigorous, full of charm, and able to apprehend the horror film of his own future. And in his mind, secretly, he makes one resolution: He must not, he will not, become Anthony Hopkins.

Unlike The Father, which is constantly shifting scenery and even swapping out actors so that we feel as if we ourselves are losing our minds, Supernova is elegantly simple in its construction. Many scenes have a play-like quality, following Tusker and his lover Sam (Colin Firth) on holiday as they pilot an RV through autumn-tinted English countryside. Their dialogue is understated and deft, surprisingly not the work of a veteran but of young actor-turned-director Harry MacQueen. In interviews, he’s said he wanted to write the screenplay out of his experience as a young man working with dementia patients. It marks the beginning of what promises to be a long and successful career. When it comes to writing dialogue, you either have “it” or you don’t. Harry has “it.”

Firth and Tucci’s delivery doesn’t hurt, of course, as they channel the chemistry of their real-life (straight) friendship into gay lovers’ banter. So warm is their off-screen bond that it made me wonder whether it needed to be gay on-screen. (Though, since they couldn’t pass as brothers, for plot purposes they would sort of need to be bachelor best mates, in which case other questions would distract, such as “How did Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci come to be middle-aged bachelors?” But we digress.) As others have noted, the film benefits from the fact that MacQueen set out to write a story about dementia and decided to hang it in a same-sex frame, rather than setting out to write a story About Homosexuality per se. In fact, MacQueen says he had interviewed exclusively straight couples in the course of his research, and so on the principle of writing what one knows, he had initially planned to write a straight couple’s story. But he decided this would be edgier, particularly since gay dramas are overwhelmingly youth-focused.

I’m no great fan of progressive edginess for its own sake, but MacQueen puts his finger on something profound here. Stories about aging are a generally hard sell, but in gay lit it’s an order of magnitude harder. Unless someone is dying young and romantically of AIDS, death is not a popular topic. Below-navel-gazing indulgence-fests like Call Me By Your Name go over much better. But, like the better specimens of gay fiction, Supernova has more than one thing on its mind.

Tusker’s illness peeks through in brief hairline-crack flashes—the way he pauses and searches for the word “triangle” (“the shape, it’s a shape”), the way he hesitates in the middle of the phrase “between your thumb and…forefinger.” He skips a button while doing up his flannel shirt and fumbles with it in sudden deep confusion. “It’s tricky, you know,” Sam says lightly, helping him. Tusker gives a hard smile, a coughing chuckle, “Ehehehe.” He’s working on a novel but keeps making excuses not to write. Sam is unhappy to discover that he deliberately didn’t pack his pills. “What? It’s my choice.”

We learn of Tusker’s intended final choice along with Sam, in a brilliantly shot scene where Sam slips out of a family reunion to go through Tusker’s lockbox in the RV. He first picks up and flips through Tusker’s manuscript (probably one of MacQueen’s own writing notebooks—the word “hinterland” briefly flashes on a page, the title of his first film). The first pages are full up, bursting with creative energy. But as Sam keeps turning them, the writing becomes progressively less legible, the words losing their shape like stretched elastic, until the last page where there is only a squiggle, signifying nothing. Then, lying at the bottom of the box, the bubble mailer, wrapped tight around its hard, bottle-shaped cargo. And lying beside, a cassette tape. (Colin Firth’s silent progression from curiosity to shocked pain is a masterclass here, recalling his best work in the much inferior A Single Man.)

Some critics say the film begins to slip into the formulaic on the other side of the revelation. They aren’t wrong, particularly as it emerges what direction the story is ultimately heading. There’s a ruthlessness, a kind of villainous chill about Tusker’s resolve as he wears down Sam’s defenses without once wavering, without once raising his voice. He argues his case with language some of which was no doubt taken verbatim from the patients Harry MacQueen personally knew. We conservatives are fond of our narratives about youth straying from the path of their elders, but here is a more terrifying thing: the younger repeating back what the elder wants to hear.

More is the pity, particularly since young Harry steel-mans Sam’s side of the argument more effectively than even he realizes. “Don’t let me off the hook!” Sam explodes over dinner, all raw angry hurt. He wants to “see this through, right to the end.” He insists that this is “what I was put here for.” Tusker is unmoved. He’s doing what is best for them both. “What if I just tell everyone then?” Sam threatens. “What if I just shout it from the fucking rooftops? What would you do then? We’d all be in trouble then, wouldn’t we? We’d all be guilty.”

Yes, Sam. Yes, we would.

“You’re still the same man he fell in love with,” Sam’s sister soothes Tusker at the reunion, like everyone else unaware of his plan. Tusker thinks a moment, then shakes his head. “No, I’m not. I just look like him.” And soon, he thinks, he won’t even be a man. He’ll just look like one.

It occurred to me as I watched that MacQueen would do well to read gay writer Andrew Holleran’s The Beauty of Men, a novel that strictly speaking I don’t recommend, but one that likewise has more than one thing on its mind. The protagonist is living out a lonely Florida retirement alternately cruising for sex and caring for his quadriplegic mother. There is no sentimentality about this. Her disability is a constant reminder of life’s cruelty. Even as a devout believing Christian, she herself is tempted to despair. And yet:

The feeling of joy he gets from helping her is so intense at times, so rich, he’s sure it has ruined his sex life. The love, the intimacy, the affection men search for—whether they'll admit it or not—at places like the baths and the boat ramp, he receives three times a week in a broth so nutritious, so concentrated, anything else seems insipid. The only problem: It’s his mother. A woman he thought he had detached himself from, in a “normal” way, till her accident. A woman he now finds himself rejoined with, reattached to, in a way that only complete helplessness and utter dependency could bring about. “She lives for one thing,” her doctor told him, “the sight of you coming around that corner. That’s it.” Oh God, he thinks, no one should have this power. No one. His mother—once beautiful, charismatic, stylish, witty, athletic, often the center of attention—has now been reduced to only one thing: him. It isn’t right, he thinks, it isn't right.

“What good am I?” his mother has asked on more than one occasion. “I’m paralyzed. I can’t do anything for myself. I wonder why the Lord doesn’t take me. What good am I?”

The question always stumps him. He says, “You don’t have to be anything. You’re you. I love you. That’s all.” And he thinks of Saint Augustine’s definition: Love means I want you to be. What good are any of us, he always wonders when she asks this question. All five billion, or whatever the number is now, increasing daily. Surely it must be obvious to everyone at this point, he thinks, that the species is in no danger of dying out, that we have enough, that we can stop now, thank you.

They could all ask the question his mother asks, and he would have just as much trouble coming up with an answer. When his mother asks it again—and she does, every now and then, when she gets discouraged and depressed—he tells her that she doesn’t have to be good for anything, she only has to exist, and that he loves her, which he does. Which makes him turn back toward her now and raise a spoonful of peas to her lips.

Indeed, were there no “I” in Augustine’s quote, there would yet be that “eye” that remains over all, the eye of God, whose love is not bound by time, who eternally wills us to be even as we each of us lie on our last bed of pain—this one immobile, that one blind, that one senile, mewling for his mum, shouting obscenities at the nurse.

Which, I suppose, brings me round full circle to Caitlin’s reply to me: “Oh, not with my God. Fortunately for me.” And perhaps, without God, this thing may seem impossible. Holleran finds possibility only in a last gasp of humanism, a kind of senseless gamble on the existence of sense. The natural light may be fading, but for some it is still enough to see by. The difference for the Christian is that it is streaming through an open door.

I’ll close with the last scene from The Father, which emerges from its house of horror to deposit Anthony Hopkins, with surprising tenderness, into the loving arms of a care home nurse. As he weeps, she soothes him, promises a walk outside, where they can feel the sun and see the leaves. We must enjoy them, you see. We must enjoy them, while we still can.