Eight years ago, on a hazy morning in August, I woke to the sound of an engine sputtering and then a crash. It was my family’s annual reunion in a sleepy town on the Oregon coast. The first thing I saw outside was my dad, an E.R. physician, sprinting up the street in his bare feet, toward a house on fire. I stood in the driveway with my aunt, who told me about the small plane, how it tipped into a house just one block over. We called 911 and couldn’t get through. It was more than ten minutes before a fire truck came down the street. The men tumbled out, kneeled, and aimed streams of water at the house, already eaten by hungry flames.
We didn’t know who was inside the house until a father returned, and then a mother, from his coffee run and her jog. They’d expected, perhaps, to still have time to read the newspaper before their children woke up, before the fog burned off the beach. When they realized what they’d returned to, they broke. The father yelled for the firemen to save the children still inside. The mother screamed.
After: the burnt hull of the house. My family retreated, our steps jagged and separate. We couldn’t bear what we’d seen or process what had happened. The rest of the town was still waking up, into this new, violent morning.
Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 release, Manchester by the Sea, begins with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) leading an already broken life. He shovels snow outside a building he maintains in Boston. He blacks out in his one-window basement studio, a can of beer rolling away from his prone body. Three framed photographs are arranged neatly on a dresser. There are cracks in Lee’s life, traumas he hides beneath brawls in bars and brusque conversation.
One earthquake, however, does not negate another. Lee receives a phone call drawing him to Manchester by the Sea, a small town a few hours drive from Boston. Lee’s brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), is gone by the time he makes it there.
In the days following the death, a lawyer tells Lee that Joe designated him as the legal guardian to Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee hadn’t been expecting this. He’d never wanted to return to Manchester. We might not know why, but we can see the discomfort the town causes him. The thought of being a guardian to this teenager in this town is almost too much for Lee. He talks about finding another job in Boston, one he can take Patrick along to, but Patrick resists. To Patrick, this would be a double-loss: first his father, then his entire life.
In flashes, we begin to understand. We see Lee’s history: a happy marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams), three lively, demanding daughters. Why this history isn’t his present isn’t clear until, like a knife in the stomach, it is. It’s late. 2 a.m. Five years before. Lee is in the basement of his house, drunk and playing ping pong with the guys. They’re yelling at each other, knocking stuff over, cheering, until Randi comes downstairs and interrupts. She’s exhausted, unhappy, her robe pulled tight across her chest. The group disperses. In the driveway, Lee yells at them to look for Jupiter. “It’s due north!”
When Lee comes back inside, Randi says, “You see Jupiter, you fucking asshole?” She’s mad at him, but she loves him. Affection colors her exasperation.
Lee doesn’t follow Randi back to bed. Instead, he walks to the mini-mart and buys two six packs of beer, milk, and Pampers. On the way home, he slips in the snow. It’s late and cold and he’s drunk. He zips his parka to his chin.
He returns to a house in flames, the fire trucks already there, his wife outside, broken and sobbing, screaming: “Let go of me! Somebody go in there! Let me go! Get them out of there!”
The deaths have been dealt. Lee can’t do anything but join those already watching, still holding the paper bag from the mini-mart.
Three years ago, I left the office early, returned to my loft apartment in Brooklyn, and went on a run. I looped down Dekalb, around the park, and then back, grinning at the warmth in the air, at the dogs I passed, the open day ahead of me. When I returned, I shuttled my keys off my wrist and opened my mailbox. The phone in my other hand rang. My cousin, E, calling. I answered, heart still warm. This next moment I remember, especially: my upbeat voice as I answered “Hey!” and started telling her a story from that morning.
She stopped me. “This is going to be hard,” she said.
She told me about the plane crash my uncle and cousin had been in. I didn’t understand the point. They were okay, I was sure. Why would this conversation be hard? No, she told me. They didn’t make it. She had to say it again, to make sure I’d really heard.
The day swallowed itself. I sat on my couch and watched the local news as they reported skewed versions of my uncle and cousin’s names. I texted my brother, who told my aunt, who disabled their Facebook accounts. My friend, K, came over with wine. She told me what to pack. She listed off blouses, jeans, underwear, bras, pajamas, and I obeyed, tucking them into a suitcase. I don’t know if I slept. I was at Newark before the terminals opened the next morning. One television was on, replaying a true crime documentary about a young girl kidnapped by her Catholic priest.
What I saw that summer morning in that sleepy town along the Oregon coast served as a map. I knew what happened to them, because I had been there on the ground when it happened to someone else, somewhere else. I had felt the heat from the fire. I had seen the grief on the parents’ faces. It was life imitating life, in a cruel, random pattern. A set of knowns I have no interest in knowing.
Grief found a home in my body. I felt the presence of it as a pulse, sometimes along my clavicle, sometimes in my left wrist. My hormones recalibrated; my period returned three weeks early. My body, perhaps, panicked, experiencing that one week as an entire month.
The day after the funeral, my family sat down with a grief counselor. Twenty-five of us crowded into a living room. For two hours, we told him, and each other, what it had felt like to live through that last week, and what we dreaded about every week to follow. One family member said he felt as if he’d been living in a silo ever since the crash: separate from everyone else who was not experiencing the same trauma. Or, perhaps, like he was speaking a different language from everyone else.
Since the accident, I’ve had a series of three recurring nightmares.
In the first, I watch an airplane is it careens into a nearby building. I don’t scream or run toward it. Sometimes, I know someone in the plane or in the building. Other times, there are cats everywhere and I feel hopeless to save them. I can’t do anything to stop the plane. After, I climb through rubble, exploring the excavated remains.
In the second, I’m locked in a room with my entire family and two gunmen. The room is a dining room on a ship, the living room in my mom’s childhood home, a classroom. We’re arranged in a line, our backs against the wall. The gunmen walk down the line, taking out my family one by one.
The third is less of a nightmare, except for the lack it highlights once I wake up. I’m in a group of people, chatting. It takes awhile, but soon I realize that my cousin or uncle or both are there. I know that they shouldn’t be. They don’t belong. But it means so much to have them there. I don’t participate in the conversation. I watch them. I listen. I do my best to experience their ephemeral presence.
Lee’s daughters climb over his napping body. They whisper; they plead; they beg.
“Daddy? Daddy? Can’t you see we’re burning?”
Lee wakes in his brother’s living room, smoke coming from the kitchen. He’d dozed off while heating tomato sauce. The skillet is blackened and singed. Patrick yells at his uncle, but Lee shakes this off. It was a nasty accident, but not a foreign one.
The life Lee built in the aftermath is a punishment, but it’s also a deliberate conscription. If he doesn’t love anything, if he doesn’t own a house, if he doesn’t have children or a wife, if all he has is kept within a small, concrete box, then he’s safe. He can’t fuck up what he doesn’t have to fuck up. If he forgot to check on the sauce in his studio, the only person he’d hurt would be himself. He can’t fix himself or change his destruction. All he can do is keep it in a box.
This changes when he’s forced to stay in Manchester by the Sea, forced to look after Patrick. Lee understands what it means to Patrick to have him there, and he tries. He tries to create a new life for himself, tries to find a job, but the town has closed itself off to him. He goes to visit a friend on the docks; after he leaves, the friend’s coworker comes in and says she never wants to see Lee Chandler around again. No matter Lee’s level of fault, the other town residents have decided. They don’t want Lee Chandler walking around, a living reminder of what can go wrong when you turn your back for a minute.
Patrick’s life still has elasticity; Lee’s doesn’t. Lee’s life has borders he can’t cross; Patrick is still working to figure out which landscape he wants to inhabit. Neither understands the way the other exists, or the way the other handles the grief after Joe’s death. Patrick and Lee are learning what it is to exist together, while both are grieving in their own, barbed ways, colored by circumstance and history. Patrick has Lee, his girlfriends, and his friends; Lee has Patrick and his memories.
Patrick tries to look away from his uncle’s self-destruction—the empty bottles that fill the recycling bin, the purpling bruise on his temple—until he can’t. He goes into Lee’s bedroom, expecting to yell at him, only to notice the three framed photographs Lee has taken with him from Manchester, to Boston, and then back to Manchester. Patrick pauses. Three photos: one for each lost daughter. His experience of Lee’s grieving shifts. He leaves the room.
It’s hard to accept the others in your family as human, too, to know that they are suffering the same losses, though their suffering may take different form. It’s an extra wound, to know that they’re hurting like you’re hurting. Patrick can’t do anything to fix Lee, but he can learn to accept the presence of Lee’s open wound.
In the three years since the accident, it’s become the norm for my cousin, E, and I to warn each other about movies: “Gravity might give you a panic attack” (it nearly did), “Manchester will break you in half” (true), “Jackie is about planning the funeral, so, be careful” (I’m sitting this one out, for now), “maybe don’t sit through a trailer of Sully.” Often, we risk the movie, despite the warnings. Sometimes, though, reliving trauma isn’t worth it. We’ll put down the book, walk out of the theater.
My trigger points have shifted, but I don’t hate pressing on them, especially when the movie engages with grief and loss from a place of honesty and humor, as Manchester does. Manchester tells the story of Lee, Patrick, and Randi from a place of inevitability: these events happened, they cannot unhappen, they won’t ever not have happened, so what do we do now?
It’s this compounding of grief, especially, that gets me: the doubling of it, within the movie’s story, but also without, filling in shades of my own experience, shining a light on the pieces of it that I haven’t engaged with recently, allowing for the wound that still exists. Understanding the landscape of an original grief doesn’t help with the second or the third. Each are unique, strange, impossible. Manchester understands this impossibility.
“But why can’t you stay?” Patrick asks, after Lee explains about his new job in Boston, and how Patrick will be staying behind with some family friends.
“Come on, Patty.” Lee doesn’t want to explain this. He’d rather keep the dark, wooly truth of his unruly grief to himself. But, again, for Patrick, he tries. “I can’t beat it,” he says. “I can’t beat it. I’m sorry.”
Summer mornings along the Oregon coast are still gray. My family wakes out of order. We take our dogs for walks. We sip coffee on the couch, a blanket pulled tight across knees. A game of croquet begins on the lawn. Another pot of coffee is put on. The news plays muted on the television. We take selfies and read books. We settle in for a day with each other.
There is a photo on the mantle. In the evening, two candles flicker on either side.