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Pieces of us, women

By JOANNE RAE M. RAMIREZ, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 04, 2021 4:00 pm

Taking a break from K-Drama, my constant companion during the early months of the pandemic, and taking a break from multi-episode Netflix originals, I recently immersed myself in two movies that first wrung my heart, then released it, like a cluster of balloons unstrung. It was by chance that these two movies revolved around women, women who had plumbed the depths of grief—then conquered it.

The first movie, Penguin Bloom, which I picked from the Netflix menu because it starred Naomi Watts, is based on the book of the same title by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive. Based on a true story (so no major spoilers ahead), it retells the story of Sam Bloom, a happily married nurse with three kids, who meets a shattering accident on a beautiful day while on vacation in Thailand.

The accident transforms her body in ways we would not wish on our enemy, thus crippling her desire to live. She tells her loving husband Cameron (“Cam”), a photographer, after he asks her, “How are you?” in front of their children, to never, ever ask her that question again.

For indeed, to the victim or to the bereaved, the answer is a no-brainer. How are you? (I remember when a dear friend lost her youngest child to a fire, her older sister would make this simple, heartfelt request before her bereaved sister’s friends would see her, “Please, please, do not ask her ‘How are you?’”)

 Naomi Watts as Sam Bloom in Penguin Bloom.  Photo from netflix.com/ph

For how, indeed, did Sam feel at the time? In an essay for Time, she wrote: “It broke my heart to feel so removed from my former life and the people I loved. My accident had made my husband both a single parent and a full-time nurse — even my children had to look after me. I was no longer an independent woman, and I no longer thought of myself as a wife and mother. Bitter, distraught, angry, jealous, and inert, I was everything I despised: the opposite of the active, happy person I had always been. My sense of personhood withered away, as did my will to live.”

They say that when the mother falls apart, the entire home collapses as well.

While still wallowing in pain and self-pity, Sam meets a new addition to the Bloom household. Noah, her oldest child, rescues a crippled magpie that had fallen from a towering tree. No veterinarian would take the injured bird, so Noah takes the noisy, sometimes annoying, bird home, and nurses it. He names it “Penguin” because of its colors. It becomes a symbol of his hopes not just for his mother, but for his entire family, which has all but fallen apart after Sam’s accident.

They say that when the mother falls apart, the entire home collapses as well.

Anyway, the magpie is left home one day with no one but Sam to look after it. She befriends it, and slowly learns to befriend her condition in life. In her Time essay, Sam wrote: “I didn’t realize it at the time but, in a way, we were keeping each other alive.”

After some time, Penguin learns to flutter its wings and fly again. And as it soars to new heights, so does Sam’s will to reclaim her life. Encouraged by her husband, she takes up kayaking. She is asked by her instructor to tip herself over in the water despite her condition, and Sam finds out that if Penguin can fly, she can float. She even won two national kayaking titles in Australia.

One of the most difficult hurdles was facing the world after my loss — knowing people expected to see a baby in my arms, not a pair of sad eyes on my face.

Sam starts to live up to her surname. One fine day on a cliff, she turns to her husband and tells him, “Ask me the question again.” He is puzzled and replies, “What question?” And she says, “The one I asked you never to ask me.”

I leave it to you to watch Penguin Bloom to know her answer.

The second movie, Pieces of a Woman, hit so close to home I was surprised I even had the fortitude to watch it. It was emotionally wrenching, and it scratched an old wound, which though healed, would always leave a scar on my soul.

In 1992, I lost a prematurely born baby girl. She was my second child. It was the saddest day of my life. I do not know why I lost my baby, whom the doctors christened “Joanna” in the delivery room because she lived but a few seconds, in the second trimester of my pregnancy (at 22 weeks). I didn’t know whom to blame aside from myself.

I felt like a failure for not being able to cradle a life that was totally dependent on me. I was devastated and, for years, not a day passed when I didn’t think of Joanna the moment I opened my eyes in the morning.

 Vanessa Kirby as Martha Weiss in Pieces of a Woman.  Photo from netflix.com/ph

One of the most difficult hurdles was facing the world after my loss—knowing people expected to see a baby in my arms, not a pair of sad eyes on my face.

Pieces of a Woman begins with the climax of the movie, so only minor spoilers ahead. In fact, the lead character Martha Weiss’s (essayed by Vanessa Kirby, who won Best Actress for this role at the Venice Film Festival and is also known for portraying Princess Margaret in The Crown) harrowing experience during and after a home birth is part of the movie’s blurb. Martha gets to hold the baby in her arms for a few seconds. Then something goes terribly wrong.

Like me, she searched far and wide for someone or something to blame for what happened. Was it the sushi she had while pregnant? Should she sue the midwife?

I wouldn’t say going through the movie was cathartic. Instead, it was courageous. I faced an old enemy—the ache of a devastating loss 29 years ago. And I found out I could stare it in the eye and live with it, just like Martha Weiss in the movie did. Happiness and grief, or the memory of it, can co-exist. You can survive an thrive even after what you thought wuld crush you.

Boken pieces of your heart, they’re not like Hupty Dumpty. Promise.