The Farewell and Grieving

This isn’t a sad story despite triggers like “grief,” “loss,” and “saying goodbye.” It might be about death, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, and choked-back holiday tears – but I type these words with clarified purpose.

I wasn’t ready, on a Saturday morning last month, to deal with emotions The Farewell jostled free about my own “Nai Nai’s” passing earlier that year. Then, as I attended Christmas Eve mass with just my parents for the first time, I couldn’t shake The Farewell from my thoughts. For days I struggled to manifest any awards season pitch focusing on Wang’s immaculately powerful film until Christmas Eve inspired the very prompt I needed. About seeing ourselves in art, recognizing significance, and allowing someone’s scripted journey to unlock something within us that otherwise might remain walled away.

In Wang’s film, Billi, a Chinese-American granddaughter living in New York City (played by Awkwafina) flies home when she learns her “Nai Nai” (Shuzhen Zhao) has been diagnosed with cancer. The catch? Billi’s entire family has decided not to tell Nai Nai her condition, as they instead schedule and prepare for a last-minute wedding. Nai Nai’s spirit remains upbeat, thinking her x-rays are reading “ghost” growths, as Billi toils over the moral ethics of not allowing someone to accept and embrace their coming end.

It’s a back-and-forth fight as Billi, played by an Awkwafina who opens herself far beyond any “sidekick comedian” typecasting, struggles to stifle back her sobering emotions. In America, such “treachery” would be illegal (Changchun doctors lie to a patient’s face). Nai Nai blames Billi’s malaise on jetlag, but in reality, the “child” battles her internal conflict as parents and uncles demand she not spoil their reunion by possibly crushing Nai Nai. The question becomes who is Billi helping by confessing to Nai Nai – the sweet, blissfully unaware elder, or the girl who simply can’t bear such information and wants to pass that hurt onward?

Between Wang’s embracing of mortality through cultural lenses and Alex Weston’s haunting yet reverent score, ethical unease subsides as Billi relishes every last breath with Nai Nai. I could write a separate thesis on how The Farewell positions mealtime as a safe haven or the expression of feelings in different regions of the world, but this is about a New Yorker who carries an impossible weight on behalf of the matriarch she adores. Life into death, time running out, only one last opportunity to create a few final memories. Billi is lucky to have these days; to connect with a special someone before it’s no longer possible.

I type these words as a writer who found himself in a similar scenario, albeit without prior knowledge. My 91-year-old grandmother, ailing in physical appearance yet still sharper than most in wit or spirit, left us shortly after mine and my mother’s joint April birthday weekend. Back-to-back festivities filled with smiling faces, friends new and old. Everyone gathered in harmonious jubilation not knowing if we’d ever be able to bring so many people together again. Maybe our good fortune happened for a reason if you believe in higher powers, as the two-day fiesta turned out to be a miracle of scheduling in its own right.

As it turns out, our family get-togethers would never again be as full.

The Farewell’s tug-of-war tone helped me sympathize with Billi’s predicament, but my own experience counterbalanced “righteous” thoughts. Had my family known “Ruthie” would leave this Earth a few days after our impromptu timesharing, what kind of spin would it have put on what came to be my grandmother’s farewell celebration? Would drinks turn to playful shenanigans and lead to my buffoon of a father being whacked with an elderly woman’s cane (in jest)? Could we have celebrated openly, shared utter goofiness, and helped ourselves from devolving into blubbery mush *knowing* an end to a chapter in all our lives was days – hours – away?

My family and I were given a gift that spring. Relatives from farther reaches to childhood friends my grandmother only knew as rugrats were in attendance. We ate well, never went thirsty, and created one last collage of memories with the woman who brought us all together. Life, for a brief stretch, seemed nearly perfect – then the pendulum swiftly swung back.

Tragically, I never got to say any bedside “goodbye” as there were only two messages in an overnight span after returning to Brooklyn two or three days prior (my own residence at the time). One a text Tuesday night that let me know grandma went into the hospital with stomach pains, then a wake-up call from dad with the news she’d passed onward. As I calmly received the message, I hoped she’d left knowing everything I’d have ended up expressing face-to-face. I still do. 

It was a blessing, those final smiles shared with a magnificent woman who lived every day selflessly, and to the fullest. My “Nai Nai,” as she reflected so many of the qualities in Wang’s character (spitfire attitude towards men her age, family-first devotion, etc.). That’s why The Farewell left me an utter Humpty Dumpty in need of reconstruction before an all-day bar crawl since I could easily put myself in Billi’s shoes. Knowing why she’d want to tell her grandmother, also understanding why no one would. The Farewell is beautiful, tragic, and so exceptionally performed by actors who unite as their own family on screen. To the point where their fantasy and my reality became a heartfelt blur.

Enough cannot be said about actress Shuzhen Zhao’s zealous hostess, her vitality unaffected by age. As my own grandmother told stories about the grey-haired suitors she’d politely decline in the doctor’s office, Zhao’s words about her live-in companion rang like a comedic echo. Their ability to care for everyone but themselves a tie that binds, Zhao’s aged charisma transplanted from too many grandmothers come and gone. I don’t think there’s a more honest film in 2019 than The Farewell, which is a testament to Wang’s proficiency in uncorking me like a twist-off bottle of champagne. Filmmaking this “real” boasts maturity wiser than its bottled “best by” date.

Cut to Christmas, 2019. I began to feel tears welling mid church service because we weren’t going back to my own mother’s hometown, where Ruth lived, for another honey-glazed ham dinner (or ravioli with homemade sauce, if my dad – a Christmas Eve birthday boy – was lucky enough). Yet, the sadness was fleeting. I thought of The Farewell while our chapel’s priest addressed his congregation – sorry padre, a bit distracted – and Billi’s journey. Specifically, the breathing exercise she learns from Nai Nai that keeps the latter so youthful at heart. When Billi bellows her exhaled “recharge” back in New York City, loud enough for Nai Nai to hear across the globe, it’s a remembrance and acknowledgment that Nai Nai will always be with her. What’s left behind, and never forgotten.

I thought of my grandmother’s “exhale” moments. I thought of her lifesaving sense of humor that this fortunate wordsmith inherited from early babysitting influences when mommy and daddy were working hard. Her measured (eh, measured enough) ounces of wine every night, heart-health approved, impossible to not think about when swirling a glass of red. Muffling sobs in the shower the first time Flogging Molly came on my Spotify shuffle after my grandmother’s death (a musical taste we both “shared,” because she ruled). Tokens I’ll still have as long as my lungs keep breathing, which became clearer as Billi welcomed the same remembrances.

At my grandmother’s funeral, I didn’t outwardly cry. The repass lunch, viewings, intimate conversations with those paying respects – I was at peace. My guardian angel showed more life past her 70s than most do in a lifetime – but grief, it’s a complicated emotion. I didn’t know what I was processing during her final years before seeing The Farewell – knowing these dimmer days would come – and seeing Wang’s story unfold also stirred something inside myself. Did I visit enough, call enough, what else *could* I have done. More importantly, it allowed me to feel forever thankful for an outro that can only be described as deserved. What matters, when it matters, and how we ensure moments count even when we aren’t aware of their importance.

Nothing can prepare us for the ways cinema influences our lives or illuminates personal darkness. We’re never ready for films of importance to crack us wide open, and yet artistic catharsis somehow always presents itself at the necessary times. I needed The Farewell, frankly. I needed Awkwafina to show me how you can hurt but also be grateful. I needed Lulu Wang to translate human experiences into a deeply moving overture paid towards not feeling helplessly alone when in agony. I needed every muted outburst, commiserating dinner glance, and longing gaze into Nai Nai’s eyes. I needed all of this to write a remembrance for someone who’ll never be able to read a single word, but then again, I wouldn’t be immortalizing these irreplaceable and withstanding commemorations if “farewell” truly meant “goodbye.”

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