You know that writing this blog is my cheapo version of therapy, that the writing gives me a chance to figure out what is rattling around in my head, that meaningful reflection for me is found in the translation of rattles to fingers to the electronic ink of fonts and characters and words and phrases. Consider, by the time I work through these inadequate attempts to comprehend my apprehensions, I’ve probably spent six to eight hours in deep reflection on whatever topic is making noise. From a therapy point of view, the writing seems like a good deal although this week I am a little more befuddled than usual, and I think it is all because of Harry Potter.
For the past few weeks, HBO has been showing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II. Whenever I come upon it, mostly through late night channel surfing, I cannot help myself; I stop and watch. I’ll bet in the past two weeks, I’ve seen the last hour of this movie at least 10 times (no groaning please). Beyond the joys of riding the waves of a sleek remote control, wrapped in a reality defined by HD signals crashing through the shorelines of CAT5 cable upon a beach of plasma images and digitally enhanced sound, there is something about this 60 minutes of cinema that really hooks me. Beyond the commercially successful Potter franchise, I cannot help finding this movie to be more than just compelling.
I have loved the Harry Potter books since Ev introduced them to me over 10 years ago. I rationalized this love through statements like, “Anything that gets kids to read these days has some redeeming quality,” or “In my position as a professor in education, I need to know what kids are reading.” I even went so far as to engage in my own Pottermania by accompanying Ev to a B & N release party for the aforementioned Deathly Hallows, so she could celebrate reading with current and former students. As an author, J.K. Rowling feels no compulsion to calcify her characters into the frozen plotlines that accompany the vast majority of literary series. She is fearless in showing the warts, scars and pimples of her most central characters, and each book outlines a new challenge that could be framed in terms of child-to-adult development, while advancing the newest twists in the adventures of a captivating collection of young wizards. I freely admit it; I was hooked on Harry Potter from the first book I read.
In many ways, the movies are just as remarkable. How many casts have held together like this one? To watch the first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone is like peering into old photo albums of family vacations long past. Almost every child that started with the Harry Potter movies remained until the very end. Even the main adult characters, except for Dumbledore (poor Richard Harris; we didn’t know how sick he was), stayed constant throughout. So, as an audience, we were able to witness the maturation of numerous child actors, and of course, by the time the last movie was made, there was such a lovely sense of ensemble in the cast, it was more like great live stage than a multimillion dollar blockbuster movie franchise. How often do we witness such a phenomenon? The continuity has been a treat.
We tend to take continuity for granted until some great disruption like ALS comes along. Then, the only continuity one can count on is that you and your loved ones are going to have to continually adapt to the next loss and the next. In reflecting on the week, the continuity of adaptation to loss is indicative. It happened that as I was writing a memo at work, my left hand, which has been threatening me on and off for a while, suddenly and absolutely refused to respond. My ring finger drooped, dragging along the keyboard so that many “s’s” and “d’s” appeared on the screen like some alien being attempting to communicate by taking over the computer. Since then, while I find that rest helps, recovery is less than ideal. My continued discontinuity of physical capacity, now realized in the act of typing, is just another step on a continuous path. In contrast, Harry Potter’s main characters learn from their past and apply it to their present situations; a continuity that is marked by growth not loss. I have to admit that there is very little in my past that applies to my current dis eased situation, so in many ways, the continuity of Harry Potter is a respite from the discontinuity of ALS.
But I think there is more to it than respite and continuity.
In a later scene of Deathly Hallows II, Harry comes upon Severus Snape, lately an ally of Harry’s deadly enemy, the “Dark Lord” Voldemort; yet to be revealed for his true role in the epic drama. He is in the final throes of death as his master has turned upon him, ostensibly to consolidate his greater magic. As Snape’s life seeps from him, Harry gently cradles his head, trying to staunch the mortal wound that will kill him. This story moment is ironic since Harry and Snape are consistent in their hatred for each other throughout all of the past seven books and eight films. But now, we witness Snape’s ebbing life, and in this moment, tears trickle down his cheek that he signals Harry to collect. In these tears are memory and hard truth, information critical to Harry’s understanding of his own fate, what he must do in the battle to come. For Harry, a different Snape—one who loves unrequitedly, who bravely maintains a fiction so as to protect Harry throughout his entire life—is revealed. The scene never fails to touch me. Harry’s sudden understanding, combined with my own history of misjudging people’s intentions, is an epiphany, and this scene is symbolic of the fact.
But the most compelling sequence in this film for me is when Harry makes the decision that he must allow himself to be killed by Voldemort. In this scene, his dead parents, uncle and friends appear. Harry asks his uncle, “Does it hurt? Dying?” The poignancy of the moment is almost too much to bear. Harry asks the question, or at least a variation of the question, that is never far from my own consciousness. He probes the feeling of death. And then, he voices his desires, my own desires, to his dead family and friends: “Stay with me.” God do I get that one. With these ghosts close at hand, he walks into the forest to fulfill destiny—his death at the hands of the dark lord.
The rest of the movie is pretty typical of the epic plot that befits most action movies and great religions. Harry’s final battle with Voldemort is of less interest to me than his ever-developing humanity on the pathway to the moment. After all, in movies and in life, we know the final curtain. What we don’t know is how we will approach it. I return to Harry Potter because I appreciate the ending framework he chooses. He speaks words I would rather not say. When I imagine my last moment, I like to think that those who have gone before me will be there to help me face my own “voldemort.” I like to think that what I have witnessed with others as they have passed—that they seemed to be in communion with their own saints—will come to pass for me.
Nevertheless, I cannot lose the fact that my dis ease is not a movie, a book, a fiction that can be closed because the story got a little harder to take. Unlike the actors in Harry Potter, my family and friends, my colleagues and I cannot just walk away from our roles, closing down for the day and picking it up where we left off the next time we are together. But that is how it should be, and that is probably the most compelling reason for my repeated return to The Deathly Hallows. Because I know they are acting, I can put myself in total empathy with them.
And then maybe, just maybe, I can come back to pick up where I left off…tomorrow.