I finally watched that movie we planned to see together right before you died.
It wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be. Though I think you’d get a kick out of it because you can definitely make the argument that it’s about how capitalism kills your dreams (but that’s for another letter). What it’s actually about is loss.
Watching it has helped me understand my own grief. It taught me that there’s a lot we need to work on, both in my own family and as a society, but I have hope for us yet. I think you would have really liked this one.
I miss you a lot.
My partner died unexpectedly in June, and now whenever I go to the movie theater, I carry his driver’s license in my breast pocket so that he can watch, too. While I’m there, I drink his favorite type of soda. At home, I speak out loud to him about my home viewing experiences. I watch the movies on our “to-watch list,” which we never finished. I write him letters about the ones I know he’d like and the ones I think he’d hate. In life, we were connected through our love of film. In his death, I’m not ready to give that up.
When Mark was still alive, I sent him the trailer for Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, set to be released in July 2021, which sets up the story of a battered and bloody man (Nicolas Cage) searching for his stolen truffle pig. I remember excitedly exclaiming how this was going to be the perfect movie for us to see—I have a deep and unwavering love for Nicolas Cage, and Mark had a deep and unwavering love for me and truffle pigs. Mark was a trained chef, and though he’d retired from working and running the back-of-house in trendy high-end kitchens, he loved to talk about food and food preparation. Though I could tell that he was unsure if the movie was going to be as good as I assured him it would, as a chef, his interest was piqued by the pig.
We never got a chance to watch the movie together, and then I completely forgot about Pig for several months. And good thing, because had it been top of mind, I likely would have read reviews or the synopsis and discovered that it wasn’t an action movie about a man on a heroic journey that ends with the rescue of his beloved pig.
This movie is about the loss of a partner.
I’m glad I didn’t know that going in. I wouldn’t have watched it otherwise.
For whatever reason, chalk it up to grief brain, I decided to watch Pig on my birthday, four days after Mark’s funeral. Within the first few minutes, I realized that it was about love and loss, yet I didn’t turn it off. The close-up shots of Cage’s hands making dough, the moments lingering on the pig’s face as it oinks—almost as if musing about what her companion is doing—felt really intimate and lovely. I didn’t want to look away. Even when Cage’s character, Robin, handles a cassette tape tenderly but can’t bear to listen to it play in full, I still don’t turn it off. Thanks to the marketing campaign and trailer, I still thought that the story was going to fall somewhere between camp Cageiness and an action movie. Pig still felt safe, like something that wouldn’t absolutely ruin me by reminding me about my loss. The first moment of violence enforced this assumption.
When Robin is attacked, and his pig taken, I immediately assume that Pig is going to be like Mandy (2018), another Cage movie about loss, but also about revenge. Mandy is rage and catharsis driven by grief.
Grief stories are often centered around revenge, perhaps because it’s easier to portray believable anger than brutal and unwavering sadness. At all points of my life, whenever I’ve imagined losing someone I love, I always imagined myself sad but seething at how unfair it all felt. I re-watched Mandy in my grief, and a big part of me wanted to identify with the rage-fuelled action that Cage depicts onscreen, but I was too tired to be angry.
My grief story isn’t a story about revenge. I didn’t really look for anyone to blame, because I knew that there were no evil men that I would be able to have epic chainsaw fights with; even if there were, I could hardly get out of the fetal position most days. I just wanted my partner back, and if I couldn’t have him back, I just wanted to talk about him. I searched for him in so many places: his friends, his family, his colleagues—even near the dumpster where we stood and smoked cigarettes and spoke about whatever meal we were going to prepare next.
So Mandy wasn’t the film that best depicted my grief. But Pig showed this grieving viewer an alternative: when all your anger and emotions and tension don’t turn into revenge and instead turn into talking about feelings and acknowledging the loss as tragic. Pig gave me some hope that I wasn’t alone, that there is life and love that continues after loss.
I remember I once told you that if the cat died, I didn’t think the world would be able to handle me. Then you died, and I wasn’t able to handle the world.
Someone recently told me that grief brings all grief with it. And each new moment of loss, no matter how big or small, will bring a similar feeling which I will come to know and greet as “hello, old friend.” I don’t think I fully understand what this means, but it feels oddly comforting.
I promise to write if I’m able to figure it out.
From the moment that Robin’s pig is taken from him, he searches for her with Amir (Alex Wolff), a buyer of Robin’s truffles who is trying to make his way into the industry of dealing in luxury ingredients. Amir is perhaps Robin’s only contact to the world, but they’re a bit of an odd couple: Robin, nearly a hermit in the woods with no perceived interest in status or fame; and Amir, a status-driven young man who drives a yellow sports car because he wishes to be seen. What this odd couple shares, however, is loss.
Throughout Robin’s quest to find his pig, we get confirmation that he has lost someone else. The voice on the tape that he so lovingly handled is that of his departed wife. We don’t learn much about what happened to her, but can piece together that her death was the event that made him quit the restaurant industry and move into the forest. Robin never tells Amir any of this.
Amir has experienced loss, too. Over breakfast with Robin, in his ultramodern apartment, Amir speaks lovingly about the memory of a meal that made his parents put aside their marital strife. Robin had cooked that meal for them, the type of well-prepared meal that reminds you about love. Amir says nothing about where his parents are today; the story he tells is in the past tense, but all memories are past tense. There’s nothing in his diction to suggest that his mom is no longer around, but he has this look.
Robin knows the look. It’s the look we all get when quietly contemplating someone we love who is no longer with us in the way we want them to be. Robin recognizes it because he is what I like to call ‘in the know’—one of us who has experienced a deep loss.
Everyone’s grief is different. Just as each love is different. Robin lost his wife, and then he lost his pig. Amir lost his mom, though not in the way you think: she’s still alive but on life support. Darius (Adam Arkin), Amir’s dad, lost his wife, and the mother of his child, but refuses to let her go, though Amir wishes he would.
Even when you can’t get out of the fetal position, grief is active. It keeps you running, either to or from memories and emotions. I fled into the arms of friends who would let me talk and choke-sob into their chests. Robin fled into the forest to be alone and away from the world. Amir fled into trying to prove himself to his father in a world that is all about being seen. Darius fled into himself, building up his walls and even stealing Robin’s pig, all to keep his son at a distance.
When Robin discovers that Darius is responsible for the theft of his pig, he has a visceral reaction. He screams at Amir, demanding the location of his dad’s home, kicking the only other thing we’ve seen Amir love, his yellow Camaro.
Robin loses his shit in anticipatory grief. He steals a bike off a porch. He screams at a stranger. He rides off to Darius’ home. All of this happens while Verdi’s “Dies Irae”—a piece of music specifically for funerals, which also sounds like a soundtrack to an act of vengeance—plays in the background. We’re treated to a close-up shot of Robin’s beaten and bloody face, an intentional nod to the unhinged quality of Cage’s performance that the trailer led us to believe we would see. But instead of seeking out vengeance, Robin harnesses his emotions and attempts to solve his problem with love: he recreates the beautiful meal that Darius and his wife shared, the one that Amir had told him about over breakfast. Sometimes you have to stomp off in anger and gutturally scream at a stranger before you can prioritize solving problems with love.
Grief is a trip without a map. Though every journey is unique, each journey shares two things in common: the experience is active, and it brings all other grief from the past with it. Robin allowing himself to feel his emotions about his pig (which is really just a symbol of the loss of any love) activates the grief he has for his wife, and the grief of Amir and Darius. Seeing Robin’s visceral reaction prompts Amir to visit his mom at the care facility where she lives on life support. He whispers to her his story about meeting Robin, and wishes that his dad would just let her die. Darius’ grief is activated by Robin’s meal and he nearly shuts down completely, leaving the room in tears after only a few bites. Presumably, the memories are too much.
It’s here that we discover the fate of the pig. The playing of “Dies Irae” was foreshadowing. The pig is dead.
Ever since you’ve been gone, my relationship with my father has been rocky. I always considered him and I close, but since my grieving, we’ve been fighting a lot. I know he’s experienced a lot of loss in his life and because of that I thought he’d be someone who could help guide me through this experience. I think instead my outward grieving has been triggering to him. We just seem at odds. He, wanting me to “get over it,” and me, wanting to know how.
His walls have gone up and now so have mine. I feel like I lost you and then I lost him immediately after.
Everyone will experience loss in their life. I guess we all just carry it differently.
We live in a culture that doesn’t really know how to talk about grief. Friends, family, coworkers, even strangers are usually armed with well-intentioned lines like “Just think of all the time you had with them.” Or they don’t say anything at all, waiting for you to bring it up. Even with people who have experienced loss themselves, it’s still hard to broach the subject.
Before I’d really experienced grief, I tried to stay optimistic or kept silent, too, not knowing how to support someone who was grieving. We do this because we don’t want to see our loved ones in pain.
Another line that those of us who have lost partners hear is, “You’ll meet someone new.” This one is my least favorite. When Amir says to Robin, “So I guess that’s it, find a new one,” Robin has the same reaction as I do. Truffle pigs and humans are not replaceable. Robin might get a new pig, and I’ll likely start dating again, but there really isn’t any optimism in that. It’s just a fact. Life moves on and we have to move on with it, but it doesn’t take away the loss of those who came before.
Sometimes, as much as our loved ones want to help us through grief, they also have their own emotions and relationship with the dead to honor.
Fifteen years after his retreat into the forest, Robin comes back into the city to confront new grief, but, in doing so, is forced to confront the memories of all the loss he’d known before. He walks into the restaurant he once ran, now a bakery, and sits with the baker who knew both him and his wife. There’s a lot to be said, but no words to say them. The baker knows this. They share a look. She’s lost someone, too, a friend or colleague, his wife. The baker has her own grief, but it’s unlike his: he’s lost a partner. She reaches out to hug him instead.
Robin stands there as the baker holds onto him. He is tired. He is caked in blood, radiating physical pain as well as emotional. Every movement is a labor. I’d never felt so understood in grief, the way it not only plays with your head but also affects your body.
In this moment, Robin is the closest visual representation of what grief has felt like for me. When Mark died, I definitely felt like a 50-something-year-old man, living alone in the woods, having just been hit in the face with a cast-iron pan, having had what I love most taken from me.
Grieving made me feel completely other to myself. It made me feel as if I was isolated from everyone. Others were grieving Mark; I wasn’t alone in that. But no one else was grieving him as the person they had a plan with for how the rest of their lives might look: which city they would live in, the dog they wanted to have, how many kids to aim for.
When I felt completely unlike myself, I looked to those in my support system who had also experienced great loss. My thought process was “You survived this; how did you do it?” I thought that this would be the best way to learn how to deal with these great big emotions. I acknowledge that people often need to process their stuff alone, but I think this is a byproduct of not being socialized to talk about grief. Don’t talk about it, and it will go away is a well-known coping tactic. Public displays of big emotions become scary and triggering because they remind us of what we might be afraid to feel, which I think happened with my dad (I guess I can never know unless we talk about it).
Watching Pig, I saw so much of myself in Robin, but also in Amir. My dad’s walls were high when it came to grief—like Darius, who was unable to communicate with his son about what they had in common: shared, yet different, grief. The more I tried to get closer to my dad, to talk about what I was going through, the more, I suspect, his own grief was activated and his walls became higher.
If we are socialized to be more honest about our emotions, we won’t have to build those walls so high. The fear will disappear. Robin might have taken himself out of the world to go live with his own thoughts, but he didn’t shy away from feeling things. The freedom that affords him is an openness to others, and the fearlessness to tell them: “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.”
When Robin says this, he’s speaking to a man who used to work for him many years ago, when he was young. The man, now a high-end restaurateur, once had a dream of opening a pub. Robin questions him. Is this what he really wants? What happened to his dream? (Mark would love it here if I launched into a scathing critique of capitalism, but I’ll save that for a private letter with him.)
Robin’s worldview wears the effects of grief. Through the brutal and unfair experiences of loss, he knows that we don’t get a lot of things to care about, but the things we do, those are worth fighting for—be that going after your stolen pig or chasing your dreams or loving those you hold close fiercely. He has the clarity and ability to remind people of what they lost and why it mattered. Life is both unbearably long and incredibly short, but it’s this last part we often forget. We only get so much time to care.
I’m told grief never really goes away; we just learn how to carry it with us. As exhausting as this sounds—having to miss someone for the rest of my life—there is a freedom in knowing that. I’ve made peace with the fact that all the beautiful and happy experiences ahead of me will also be marked by the beautiful and painful emotion of loss. I’ll just be more comfortable with holding multiple emotions at once.
I’m still pretty new at this whole loss thing, but already I feel how it’s affected my worldview. How it’s influenced my choices and informed me of the value of time and energy spent. It’s humbled me and stripped me of everything I thought I had figured out, but in return it’s given me a set of knowledge that I think has made me a more empathetic and understanding human.
Like Robin, I’m ‘in the know.’ I hope that it takes a very long time for those who are in my life to join me here; I don’t want anyone else to have to lose anybody. But that’s not how life works, and at least now I’m better at recognizing the look in others.
We’re all grieving. Some of us our partners, some of us our dreams (thanks to capitalism), and most of us our entire way of life before the pandemic. Grief brings along all other types of grief, which is complicated and hard, but I think that if we’re honest about feeling these emotions and not afraid of talking about them, people will feel less alone and have the persistence to carry on (even if that means taking a break to live in a shack in the woods).
Robin might not get his pig back, but he honors her by returning home and finally playing the cassette tape of his wife singing to him in full. We honor all love, and thus all grief, by allowing it to live on through quiet moments of remembrance; it hurts like hell but you still do it, because it matters.
I honor Mark by still taking him, and talking to him, about the movies.
After you died, I didn’t have an idea for months. All I had were memories and thoughts trying to process or survive. I still wrote a lot, but it was all journaling or letters to you, archiving my grief or our memories.
I used to have so many ideas. You’d sit up against the wall in bed while I told you everything that I had been thinking about with my wild hand gestures. Halfway through my speech, I’d become self-consciously aware of your gaze and apologize for going on for so long. You’d smile that sweet smile and simply say, “I love your long stories.”
That look and that line are burnt into my memory. I hope if I’m lucky enough to make it to old age, that I never lose it. I didn’t know being seen or loved like that was possible.
Today I wrote 3158 new words—a first draft. I had forgotten what it felt like to have an idea. To write something with the intention to come back and improve upon. Today I wrote 3158 words and then texted my friends the exact number. I wrote for you, but also, and maybe mostly, I wrote for me.
I love you Mark, thank you for holding my hand.