(originally published in the Boston Globe, May 29, 2011)
My book group is coming for a meeting, so I take some of the coats out of the downstairs closet to make room for their coats. And there is Franco’s beige windbreaker, dirty around the collar, frayed at the cuffs, stains down the front. Of all his clothes, it may be the thing I remember him wearing the most. I reach into the pocket and I find a small piece of paper. It is a movie theatre stub dated November 6, 2008, and it is for the Mike Leigh movie Happy-Go-Lucky at the Kendall.
My son, a professor of literature and film, has been writing a book about Leigh for what seems like ages. Leigh is a British filmmaker known mostly for so-called small movies, sort of slice-of-life films about the trials and tribulations of poor to middle class families in London. In many of these movies, the characters speak in dialects like cockney or something else that is difficult to understand. For Franco, who grew up in Italy and for whom English was a second language, it was utterly impossible. But every time a new movie by Leigh came out, Franco would gamely say: “We have to go; Mike Leigh is one of the family,” knowing full well that he wouldn’t understand a word of it.
I look at that movie stub and the tears come again: it was the last movie we ever saw together. Later that month, he would go into the hospital, this time with heart failure. We had his last Thanksgiving in his hospital room, though we didn’t know then that it was the last. After two weeks, Franco came home again, albeit with a visiting nurse and home health aide for physical therapy to help him get better. Of course we would go to another movie together.
Then the illness that had weakened him over the years worsened, and by the second week of December he was back in the hospital again. He died three days later.
The day after I found that theater stub, Mike Leigh’s newest movie, Another Year, came out, and of course I had to see it right away. It was the first time I’d been to a movie by myself in 15 years. It was the show at senior citizen time, four in the afternoon, the time Franco and I always used to go. We would sit in a row toward the back, looking out at all the twin sets of gray heads in front of us. And we’d laugh and wonder how it was possible that we had come to fit in with these people. Now in the row where I am sitting there is only one gray head, and it is mine.
As the movie progresses, I discover it is about an older married couple who live in London and often look back on their happy life together. And furthermore, the actors are speaking straightforward English so Franco would have understood it. I think back to all the times I had to keep shusshing him when he would whisper much too loudly, “What’d they say?” And I realize how much I miss shusshing him. Now I have nobody to shussh. I think, Oh, Franco, you would finally have understood a Mike Leigh movie. And you missed it.
How does one get used to being a couple, and then suddenly, a non-couple? After my first marriage fell apart, I was a single mother for almost 25 years. During that time I went to tons of movies by myself and never had a second thought about it. It was a totally normal part of my life.
Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would meet the new love of my life in my later years and then become so naturally and immediately one-half of a couple. But from the moment it happened, Franco and I were inseparable. We went everywhere and did everything together for 13 years.
He’s been gone from my life for more than two years now, and I still cannot adjust to not being a couple any more. How did I ever do it during those many years when I was single? And why can’t I do that now?
I am keeping the Happy-Go-Lucky movie stub from November 2008. It stays in the pocket of the windbreaker, which I hang back up in the closet.