The Tree of Life: A Conversation With My Daughter About Loss and Life

Posted on July 20, 2011 by


tree of life brad pitt

From "Tree of Life" with Brad Pitt

I swear, this was supposed to be a post with levity. After all, last week we tackled PMS, spanking and a photograph of a migrant worker and her hungry children. This week I decided to make things a little lighter. Or attempt to. Levity isn’t always my strong suit.

After Gail’s piece ran on Monday, I kept thinking about loss. I knew the child Gail and her family lost too early. At the time of her death, my family was embroiled in divorce. I went to the funeral and waited to pay my respects.

I thought a lot and often about the child and her family. I saw them resume life. And wondered how. How could they get out of bed and move? They are remarkable, was my conclusion. And, that I was not sure I would be able to do the same. Not sure at all. To transform grief into action seems one of the highest forms of grace.

It was with those thoughts I went to the longest meditation on grieving and loss and painful family dynamics I had ever seen. I went unknowingly during a visit with my mother and stepfather who are connoisseurs of the unique and culturally relevant art of our time. They took us to see Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

The groovy movie theater playing the film had none of the glitz and lighting the big mall-based movie conglomerates sport. Alternative movie theatres have real popcorn. I told my daughter this, pushing the little bucket beneath her nose.

My daughter reluctantly turned off her cellphone. She was uncomfortably seated next to a professor and his wife. I eavesdropped. I knew both of their professions and just about everything else about them before the lights dimmed.

My daughter watches movies at home. She went to the Harry Potter premier but I don’t imagine film house etiquette was in place that night at the multiplex.

I had to remind her that one doesn’t TALK during a movie in a theatre. She’s a really polite kid and I was genuinely surprised that she didn’t know that. But, why would she? She goes to movies where everyone talks during the movie.

And other than that, she watches movies On Demand and pauses them when she wants to take a shower or eat or do some laundry and resumes them when she’s ready. In other words, she seldom sits from start to finish through a film. There is no reverence for the art in its entirety. In short chunks, sure.

The Tree of Life was LONG and filled with heavy-handed metaphors including a recurring flame for the beginning of… life. Also shown: Outer space showers of fire and CGI mega-landscapes with really fake dinosaurs. Malick is known for stretching scenes into thirty-minute meditations. BTW, the movie was equally booed and lauded at Cannes. So, at the very least, it’s provocative.

The main story line of the film covers a mother’s grief after losing one of her three sons.

My daughter squirmed in her seat next to me. I had to remind her not to snap her gum since there were other people trying to understand, as were we, what the hell was going on.

So the movie played, and my daughter squirmed, and the film’s images sometimes made me cry. There were grieving parents, time passing as sheets dried in the wind on a bygone clothesline in a bygone yard, hung by a bygone women whose ankles we watched being hosed off.

The Tree of Life went on and on. Much like grief. As the lights came up, the film over a woman said loudly, “Watching the film was an act of endurance.”

As we walked into the night, we were awed by an enormous full moon.  When we got to our car, it crawled in after us, lite the place up.

As we drove home, I asked, “Had anyone else cried?” We all had. But nobody could say exactly why.

My daughter said: “It was because the movie was so long.”

But when I asked her what she’d really cried about, she said she thought she’d cried about the boy dying. But she couldn’t be sure.

“What about the passage of time? Did anyone feel time passing?” I asked the car of my moonlit family. My mother had felt the time. She also felt the entire first half of the film could be lopped off. But the mother, the mother’s grief, that pained my mother. We all, in turn agreed.

In the end, life is fragile. My mother offered that thought, as we pasued to discuss again, the enormity of the full moon. But the movie made you think my daughter offered. The movie, she said, made you think about how life began and life ended.

I thought about the woman in the lobby, how she’d dismissed the movie as an act of endurance. But isn’t grief an act of endurance? Maybe that’s what she’d meant.

We like to think sadness has a beginning and an end. That losses are filled in. I think that we are in fact, left to endure losses and move forward with the holes becoming part of our lovely tattered tapestry.