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How Close is Close Enough? A Father’s Day Remembrance

When, five years ago, I was first approached by my own father, who was struggling through his final stages of hospice care, to document his “final days,” I was placed in an extremely difficult position; both as a documentary filmmaker and as his son. He only had a handful of days left and needed an immediate response as to whether or not I would be up for the job, or if he needed to find someone else to make his film. I had just completed my first feature-length documentary, which was based around the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and needless to say, I was a bit exhausted. I am still unsure as to whether or not my father approached me for the job because he enjoyed my previous work and believed I could do his story justice, or if he simply believed it wass the perfect final opportunity to patch up our somewhat turbulent father-son relationship. Hell, it sure beat the stereotypical fishing trip!

At first, I denied his request. I simply could not handle the emotional baggage that would come from such a project. This sent him into a frantic state of mind, causing him to seek out another amateur filmmaker to document his story. And to be perfectly honest, it was quite an impressive one to say the least.

My father, a dedicated reverend from Boston, MA, was diagnosed with a severely aggressive form of prostate cancer in 2000. At the point of his initial diagnosis, he was informed that he only had six months to live. I was a sophomore in high school and upon hearing the news from my devastated mother, I remember breaking down in the locker room while getting ready for football practice. My father would not be able to see me play, graduate, go to college, and work to accomplish my dreams of becoming a filmmaker – something he always encouraged me to do. Well, the months went on, came and went, and sure enough, he came to every one of my games, sat in the stands at my graduation, visited me at film school, and even watched my earliest work. I was stunned, as we all were, that he outlived his initial diagnosis by nearly eight years! There was even an awkward moment down at the pub years later, when a drunken barfly accused me of lying about my father’s condition in order to gain pity. Offensive yes, but certainly humorous. Here he was, the man who was supposed to be gone a long time ago, still mowing his lawn, taking our dog for five-mile walks around town, and continuing to give his sermons every Sunday at his church. All with a smile wrapped across his face as if nothing was wrong. When I asked him how he was doing it, he simply looked at me and said, “Family, friends, and prayer.” After a brief pause, he added with a smirk, “The drugs aren’t too bad either.”

As the months passed and I witnessed this other filmmaker botch my father’s vision, fumble around with the narrative and tackle the story in an extremely uninteresting manner, I decided to finally step in and take over. My father was full of relief and immediately called up the filmmaker and let him go. At this point, I needed to take a deep breath, a few shots of whiskey, and figure out how I would balance professionalism and my personal life; my artistic vision and emotions, and our occasionally opposing viewpoints and ideas. I began to wonder about the thin line that my father walked; the line between life and death, and then thought about a different thin line, one which I now stumbled down recklessly, the balance between the artist’s private life and creative vision. I wondered, “When should the documentary filmmaker take a step back?” and “How close is close enough?”

Of course a big portion of my anxiety stemmed from the idea of documenting my main subject, who just now happened to be my own father, until his final moments of life. Most of the time, or at least in my own experience whilst shooting documentaries, I am able to understand and realize when the project has reached its end, even when there is no real clear end in sight. Let’s face it, the only “real ending” in life is death, and this is exactly what made me panic. Would I be able to tell his story without actually showing his final moment of life? Or would I have to keep my camera rolling as he took his last breath?

My father, surprisingly, was the one to bring this idea up to me, and was oddly excited about the idea. I, on the other hand, did not think I had the courage or mental stability to actually film his death. During the course of shooting, the issue would be brought up time and time again, though I avoided the conversation like the plague when I could. More or less directing his own documentary, I merely being the “cinematographer,” he would bring me to places which his life now revolved around including his church, a nursing home where he would visit and comfort those who also lived in hospice care, a funeral home where he picked out his own casket, and eventually to his own grave plot. It was as if he was trying to warm me up for his passing by introducing these things to me before I would be faced with them when he passed. He often joked about the entire thing, which certainly helped lighten up an otherwise dark situation. When speaking with the funeral director, who claimed his profession wasn’t actually as morbid as people make it out to be, my father quickly replied, “I know! You make it fun. I’m kinda looking forward to it!”

I recall a scene in which he stood upon his own grave site, a plot he had recently purchased, and announced that it was in fact where he would be buried in just a few months. I remember it being extremely humid and windy that day, and being so taken by the moment, I didn’t even bother to adjust the focus on the camera (a mistake I now regret). After introducing the scene, he stood in silence as the wind passed through his thin hair. His face looked, for the first time since we began filming, sad and he appeared ultimately heartbroken. As if he finally realized himself how emotional this project was becoming. His life flashing before his own eyes, while being documented on camera. When I stopped rolling and we got back in the car, I remember asking him if he still wanted me to film his final moment. The ball was in his court, and the previous scene was so compelling that I trusted him completely, both as my father as well as now my collaborator. It was up to him at this point. A trust and responsibility I have yet to give another one of my subjects. He quietly shook his head “no” and just smiled at me.

A few days later, with a few hours of footage complete, I sat down and began to throw together a rough cut of the film. I continued to argue with myself as to what and what not to show, whether or not a moment was too private, and kept myself up for nights, tossing and turning, trying to figure out how to piece the film together. He had entrusted me with his story, and I needed to make sure it was exactly what he wanted. When I showed him the rough cut, he immediately got on the phone with all his friends, exclaiming that the film was perfect. Yet, I felt different. It needed a closing moment, one that we didn’t have. However, was I finally brave enough to capture something that may very well be devastating to both myself as well as my family upon viewing?

One night, about a week before his passing, I was upstairs editing while he sat downstairs reading his Bible and taking his pills. On a whim, I picked up my camera and rushed downstairs. He was in his bathrobe, and was extremely tired. I begged him to let me get one final portrait of him for the film, which he reluctantly agreed upon. The outcome is a moment in which I am still unable to view without becoming teary eyed. Without any directions, I ran the camera. I watched through the viewfinder as he stared directly into the lens completely emotionless for about one minute. His face was hollow and thin. His eyes tired, dark, and heavy. We both knew the time had come and the film was complete. This became the last scene in the documentary. He passed away about a week later and was never able to view the final product.

I was proud of myself for being able to survive what could have been a soul-crippling experience and make it out with a final cut. I was also proud of my father for being able to go through with an idea that many people in his position may be hesitant to accomplish. He allowed the world to see him, sometimes when he was most sick, in order to try to raise awareness of this horrible disease, press the importance of early detection, and share his story in an honest manner. No make up, no script, and no after-effects. What survived were his spirit, his positive attitude, his humor, and his overall love for life. Through this project, and by having him allow me the opportunity to work on it with him, he helped me realize just how far I was able to go with my documentaries and when I should take a step back. Of course, however, each filmmaker must realize this on their own, from their own experiences and by making sure there heart is completely in the project.

As it is the five-year anniversary of his death, I wanted to share this story and this film with the world in hopes that it will both educate as well as inspire. Here is the final 10-minute version of the film mentioned above, My Dying Day. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

My Dying Day from C.K. Dexter Haven on Vimeo.

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