In November 1995, my son Sasha and I flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to pick up my father, Hy, who has Alzheimer's disease. We took him on a slow, back road journey up to New York City, where he was born. Although I could articulate the purpose of the trip before it began, the depth of the experience and its real meaning became clearer to me as the trip unfolded. This was to be an odyssey. Three men, three generations of the Meyerowitz family--my father, a retired salesman, myself, a photographer and filmmaker and my son, also a filmmaker, each of us exactly 30 years apart--would travel together from Florida to New York City--to the Bronx actually--where my father had lived most of his life and where I was born. Our quest was to see if along the way the adventures and experiences we would have could stimulate his now rapidly failing memory.
Hy is 87 years old. Over the last eight years he has become both less and more of himself. Less, because his ability to remember things he just said, or actions he just completed, has disappeared. More, because his personality--those particular qualities by which we identify ourselves as different from others--has been intensified by the disease in ways that seemed to me so remarkable (given the capacity of this disease to lay waste to individuals) that I felt an overwhelming need to make a film about him.
If it can be said that anyone with Alzheimer's is lucky, I would say that Hy is. Mainly because he has retained his sense of humor. Using it as a sickle, he makes his way through the thickets of confusion that memory loss produces. His is the type of humor peculiar to men of his generation--men who grew up with vaudeville and the Great Depression and the "Jewish" humor of the Borscht Belt. George Burns comes to mind, (people often tell me that Hy reminds them of Burns) with his droll, slow take, built on observing universal human foibles and desires, and his irresistible impulse to comment upon them. Hy, even in his condition, could go one-on-one with George and not look bad, coming as he does from his own skewed perspective of the world. I have always seen my pop's style as "non-sequitur" humor, and a kind of visual slapstick. He knows how to see something funny in the space between two unrelated things and by merely pointing it out he sets up a charged and humorous new meaning where there was nothing before. I'm sure I learned about watchfulness and the pleasure of anticipation from his exuberant and demonstrative offerings when I was a child.
Even as the curtain of Alzheimer's is being pulled down over Hy's memory, his perceptual acumen remains vivid. There is also another asset of Hy's that remains untouched by the disease--his verbal and social skills. Without these his humor would be lost on us and this trip never would have happened. Hy talks all the time. His talk is stream of consciousness--one thought running into the next--as he keeps adding what he sees to what he just said. At the same time he seems to be at peace with himself. He often remarks that he is happy. He is relaxed and free enough to say anything that comes to mind to anyone he meets. Things that many of us would find embarrassing or controversial he says in the most matter-of-fact way, eliciting from listeners a hilarious outburst or a stupefied stare. Part of what made the trip so much fun was to see the eager, innocent way he approached people and the fun they had in his company, as we all might with a charming, precocious child.
It was exactly this vitality in the midst of his decline that inspired this film and the trip we took to make it. Once, while he was in the middle of one of his rambles, he looked at me with a knowing and desperate look and said, "the trouble with me is, I never get to the point, where I get to the point." In that moment I knew that I must make a film about him. Before it was too late and while he still had some underlying intelligence and the capacity to express it. He seemed to me to be the perfect candidate, an "everyman" portraying the potential for everyone of us, should we live long enough, to suffer with this disease.
On a personal level this strikes home even more forcefully. As I traveled with my father and my son the natural question arose: is this trip a prophecy? Is Alzheimer's my legacy--and am I handing it on to my son? I found myself literally in the middle, between the past and the future, staring at my own image. What can we learn from this experience? Surprisingly, my father's experience fills me with hope. He is a survivor. He is living with Alzheimer's, not dying from it. His courage, his appreciation of the world around him, his gift of humor, his genuine affection for everyone and his love for Sasha and me was felt by us every day. It was inspiring!
It is my hope that what we accomplished on this odyssey will be encouraging to all those millions of families who are living with the pain of seeing their loved-ones' disorientation and loss of connection with their past. Though the loss of memory is a tragedy, the capacity to be alive in the present moment is a precious treasure. It is my hope that this film will be a reminder to those who care for people with Alzheimer's to take heart and to give to these oncoming shadow figures the basic substance of daily life: attention and love.