Late December


If you hang around long enough, you’ll start losing things. Youth, hair, money, your mind, your spouse, your keys, a parent, a sock, a child. Loss throws life out of balance. It demands a reaction.

I’ve been interested in the concept of loss as a storytelling theme since I made my first Op-Doc, “Midnight Three & Six,” about a girl who lost the function of her pancreas to Type I diabetes. Her loss provoked a fierce primal response from her mother, who now vigilantly checks her daughter’s blood levels three times each night to ensure that she does not lose her daughter in her sleep.

“Late December” is the next film in this series about people dealing with loss.

It tells the story of Frank and Mary Jo Havlak, my fiancée’s grandparents, who have been married almost 63 years. Over the last eight of them, Mary Jo has lost most of her memory to Alzheimer’s. Frank still visits her at the Alzheimer’s care home every day he can, and sometimes I would tag along. As I watched him with his wife, those old wedding vows kept jangling through my head: ‘…in sickness and in health…til death do us part’.

In sickness. Here it was right in front of me, 63 years later. No white dresses, no flowers, no tuxedos. Most of the people who attended their wedding are dead. All that remains is 91-year-old man still making good on the promise he made to his wife 63 years ago, even though the part of her that once held the memory of that promise no longer exists.

I believe one of the most basic acts of love is just to keep showing up, always and unconditionally. Sometimes the best you can do is to let somebody know they are loved, not alone, and not forgotten. My goal in making this film was to capture this simple act of love at the end of life. And so, before leaving town for Christmas in December 2015, I showed up at Grandpa Frank’s house with a suitcase and my camera gear, and stayed in the guest bedroom for three days. This is the film we made.

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