I watched a week ago a film I’d heard was good. I was told that Ryan Gosling was in it and that the film depicted the story of Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon. It’s called First Man. My friend Marty told me about it. At the time he told me, I hadn’t realized it was an Oscar-nominated film: I live under a bit of a rock, I suppose.
Anyway, Marty told me that he thought of me when he watched it with his wife a few nights before.
“Yeah,” he said, “I didn’t realize that Neil Armstrong lost a child. It made me think of you.”
It’s difficult to have a conversation like this at work, so I couldn’t quite “get into it,” but I was so glad Marty had shared his thoughts with me. I was glad for two reasons, really.
First, I was glad he acknowledged my baby daughter, Sophia Michelle, stillborn in 2008. There was a time when such acknowledgment would result in my soul wincing, my teeth clenching, my tears brewing or my blood pressure elevating. But now I’m thankful. I have come to understand that Sophia is real — her life in the womb, and her death, and her impact on my life in the last ten years. In this understanding, I am grateful when others also acknowledge that Sophia is “real.”
That Marty also acknowledged was my suffering — or perhaps just my experience. My experience as a dad, for example. Or my experience as a dad so often challenged to bear his grief in isolation. It was nice to hear someone reach out like that. It felt good.
Now Armstrong’s and my experiences are similar — but different. And those differences are so nebulous, so subjective, that I don’t know if they are worth articulating. Simply put, Armstrong’s daughter was just short of three years old while my daughter was just short of – well – born.
First Man is, as I said, about the first lunar landing, humankind’s first steps on an extraterrestrial surface. If this isn’t the single most astounding experience of human history, then I don’t know what is.
In spite of the magnitude of the achievement, I wondered while watching, “Why watch a movie whose ending is historically documented?” We know what happens, so what’s the personal conflict that will make the film compelling? First Man is about, arguably, the single greatest human achievement: the challenges of the crews, the loss of life, the brilliant minds, the personal fortitude, the sacrifices made. What more, what of greater value could such a film be about?
The answer, simply put, is the death of a child.
After an exhilarating first scene of a kiss between Armstrong’s X-15 and the greedy lips of space, a frightened little girl, Armstrong’s daughter Karen, is receiving radiation treatment for a brain tumor. Armstrong and his wife watch helplessly.
There is no lack of tenderness in the film, in spite of Armstrong’s being notoriously aloof, between daddy and his little girl.
Like a wisp of smoke, Daddy’s fingers caress the daughter’s feathery strands of hair while his voice barely audibly lulla–byes the baby to sleep. I sang the same way to our baby Sophia when she was in her Momma’s belly. It didn’t do my wife and me any good either.
No. That’s not true. Maybe it did us more good than I’m admitting. Maybe it did Neil Armstrong more good than he thought too.
And then, just like that, there is a burial, and the mechanical crank of a lift lowers the child-sized coffin into the grave.
Little more of the child’s — or the family’s — ordeal is made in the film. There is the burial (the punch in the gut that I felt as a viewer, that I felt ten years ago as a parent). There is the repast.
And then a sobbing Gosling at his desk in a darkened room.
I felt this scene so powerfully, recalling my own private moments in bedrooms or bathroom stalls, in parking lots or darkened rooms, alone beside a headstone. And Ryan Gosling conveyed the father’s hesitant tears so well that I felt emotional myself while watching.
I wondered how an actor does it. How was he able to capture the sorrow of the father so accurately? The sought-after privacy. The putting in place of things. The organization and placement of environment and the self. The ritual preface to the release of emotion.
I can’t just “let the tears come,” in other words. And then when they do come, they come in staccato, stifled and begrudgingly shed, always aware of masculine shame. And so Gosling’s Armstrong cried for his daughter’s death, just as I cried for mine. Alone. Ashamed. Afraid of letting others — my own family and friends, my own wife — know how hard it is.
Afraid to let them know.
I wonder if Ryan Gosling has ever suffered any loss of such a traumatizing type as child loss to conjure up the demons necessary to effect such emotional complexity. Or is it enough for him to know as a man — or as Neil Armstrong, for that matter — how to behave?
The film was great, I think, in its ability to capture such nuances. The father’s grief —and avoidance — were most notable, but there were other subtly suggested elements of the child loss experience. For example, and I might have to watch a second time to be surer, but from what I remember, there are a few scenes in which children, Armstrong’s sons — one before and one after Karen — and their neighborhood playmates, are carefreely romping around the yard in a twilight game of tag or diving, jumping and screaming in the delight of summer dips and dunks in the backyard pool.
In the middle of one of these scenes, I pressed pause and asked my wife, my partner in the pain of loss, if she were thinking what I was thinking.
“I don’t know. What are you thinking?”
I said that I felt, in scenes such as these, that something “bad” was going to happen to the kids.
“Of course!” she responded, without pausing.
“Do you think that’s because we’ve been through what we’ve been through? Or do you think the director intended to create that feeling?”
“I don’t know.”
Did Damien Chazelle know? Did he know in making this film that even the most innocent family joys, the most spirited play, the greatest joys and expectations of love and marriage and family are sacrileged by loss? Did he know what a prison it is to watch your children playing and repress a smile because in your mottled mind the colors of life and loss are fluttering around like a pinwheel on its hub of death? Everything is painted with that brush in this life.
Again I wonder if Damien Chazelle himself knew that little touch of death. Did he know how deeply penetrating that touch can be?
At the film’s conclusion, Armstrong, standing stoically at the edge of the Sea of Tranquility, opens his space-mittened hand and drops a precious remembrance into the lunar darkness. He held his baby for years. In his heart. Close to him all the time. He seldom spoke of her, but it was she who accompanied him into the horror and isolation and darkness of space.
I guess, in the end, my point is that no matter how we deal with the loss of a child, a couple of things are true: first, the impact is permanent and real and all-encompassing. I think of Sophia every day in so many of the things I do and see.
Second, whether or not we talk about it, whether or not we “deal” with it, the child we lost is with us forever, wherever we go. While it has been valuable to me to speak of Sophia and to examine the emotions I’ve experienced, there are plenty of men and women, fathers and mothers, who have not done so, or who have not found it valuable to do so; however, judging these parents and their private grief — a judgement that occurs more frequently than is fair — is problematic.
We have no idea what distant cosmic nook, what lunar crater, what desk drawer, what mountain top, what day at work, what traffic jam, what early morning run, or what laundry load might be the resting place of such a parent’s loss.
What more can a film hope to communicate than the greatest achievement of humankind? What more can a filmmaker hope to relate? Well, in my view, in First Man the story of the greatest achievement of humankind has been overshadowed, undergirded, flying buttressed, by the death of a child.
I like to think of that: the greatest achievement of humankind is not as great as losing a child.
I don’t know if the director knew what he was doing when he did it, but the pride I had in watching a movie that so skillfully related the boundless grief suffered by a parent of a departed child was immense.
Featured Image: gusgrissom – Tumblr
About the Author: M.J. Flood is a husband and a father of two little girls and a baby angel. He is a high school literature and writing teacher. He is the writer/director of Too Much Noise – a short film in ASL and is currently writing a memoir of his experience with loss and healing.