Crying over a movie, cancer and innocence lost
“What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” this is how Erich Segal’s “love story” begins. This bestselling novel came out just before my 14th birthday on February 14, 1970. Knowing nothing about love or cancer at the time, I was nonetheless mesmerized by Oliver’s memories of Jenny.
I happened to read the novel from beginning to end while drying my hair, which is how I ended up reading it dozens of times. Her story, in which a young woman falls in love and dies of cancer, has never failed to move me. Then, on December 16, a sentimental film starring Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal was released. My piano teacher also gave me lessons on how to play Francis Lai’s beautiful theme song.
I still have the sheet music for “How Do I Begin?” I take it out sometimes to get nostalgic with my piano keys.
What can you say of an older person who becomes nostalgic for “Love Story,” especially one who now prefers literature like Anya Silver’s poems about life and death from metastatic cancer to pulp fiction? From the time I became obsessed with Jenny’s love story as it unfolds until her death from leukemia, I am no longer young and innocent. I know so much more about love and death.
In fact, I’ve lost way too many friends and family to cancer (not to mention people I admire from afar). I also experienced cancer firsthand. My introduction to cancer in a novel therefore expanded to include broader, more worldly influences. Therefore, the last time I played the “Love Story” theme, I started wondering how I would react to the story with more hindsight.
So, dear reader, I did what it is possible to do nowadays: I saw the film again. Watching it on a smart TV from the comfort of my home, I was both a viewer and a researcher, curious to see what had appealed to me as a teenager.
I wanted to both time travel and witness history with wiser eyes. The film did not fail me in this exercise. (The only thing that surprised me was seeing Jenny give up her year abroad to study in Paris to marry Oliver, when Oliver could have taken a year off and gone with her.)
In fact, you would have thought that all of my life experiences would have caused me to lose the ability to cry at the end when Jenny snuggles up with Oliver and dies after a photogenic spell in the hospital. I cried, however, with tears that taught me that 50 years can pass in the blink of an eye.
“Love Story” is a simple, almost mundane story, but it’s also a bit deep.
Long ago, before hair dryers and movie theatres, Aristotle coined the term “catharsis” to explain why witnessing someone else’s tragedy through a performance is emotionally useful. The tears we shed when we watch a tearful like “Love Story” help us overcome deep emotions. While crying for a fictional character isn’t the same as crying for a loved one dying of cancer, it does remind us that we are human.
Sometimes we just need a good cry.
Every death is different. Each grief is just as different. Because grief evolves, I understand that the grief I feel now for my brother John, who died of lymphoma a few years after watching Jenny die of leukemia when I read the novel, is not the traumatized grief that I lived to be 20 years old. I cried for Jenny this time, I cried for my brother and everyone I’ve lost to cancer. I cried my heart out.
After the movie and my crying was over, I longed for my pocket book with multicolored letters spelling out “Love Story.” Wanting to snuggle up with her and a hair dryer, I went online to a second-hand bookstore to find a first edition to try and recreate my innocent days of drying my hair when I knew nothing about cancer. or lost love. But those days are long gone. I did not buy the book.
My journey into the past had to end. I’m sure, though, that I’ll still play the theme song “Love Story” on my piano from time to time.
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