Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Missing Mom at the movies

movie theaterThree years ago I was in my hometown over a May weekend and begged my mom to go see The Avengers with me.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” she said. “Action movies really aren’t my thing.”

“But Mom, it’s Joss Whedon. Joss Whedon wrote this movie,” I insisted, as though that one fact should and would settle the matter.

It did. We went that night. As I had predicted, my mom loved the movie, enough so that after I returned home she convinced a few of her retired buddies to take a chance on it too. She bought two copies of the DVD when it came out—one for herself and one for me, as a Christmas gift.

I found my copy that December when she was in the hospital. My brother and I were staying in her house, a place that felt lonely and uncertain at night with just the two of us rattling around with all our worries. Mom had been diagnosed with a rapidly advancing breast cancer and taken to the ER earlier that month. It was becoming clear that she would not be coming home.

For Christmas I gave Mom a portable DVD player, the kind that little kids use to watch cartoons during long car trips. We used it in her hospital room to revisit some of her favorite movies, but it turned out that she couldn’t stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time to watch them. I watched the beginning of Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows with her several times, because she was eager for me to see it, but we never progressed past the first twenty minutes. I still don’t know how it ends.

I could of course rent that movie at any time and find out, right? Except that I can’t. The very thought of watching it without her makes me want to cry.

Mom died just after the New Year that winter, so we never got to revisit The Avengers together on DVD. I’m grateful that I had basically forced her to go when it was playing in theaters, that the movie joined the long and hallowed list of films we watched together. I associate large parts of my childhood with the various movies my mom took me to see, like the Christopher Reeve version of Superman when I was tiny, or The Empire Strikes Back, or War Games. (You can see now why I knew she would like The Avengers, right?) And there was also more serious fare, like Gandhi. Mom taught me during the intermission -– there was actually an intermission! –- about the history of Indian independence, all imparted between puffs on her Vantage cigarette.

Movies aren’t just entertainment; they’re memories of life and love. When I see a movie a second time I am always thinking about where I was and who I was with the first time. And Mom and I aren’t making those memories anymore. These past two years following her death I have thought of her every time I’ve gone to see a new release, knowing that we’ll never see another one together. She would have loved Frozen, which I saw on the first anniversary of her death. It featured not only wonderful music and beautiful animation but also a strong message about sisterhood that I know she would have appreciated. Disney movies, she would have told me dryly, had come a long way since she was a kid.

Today she would have cried at the new trailer for The Little Prince, which I watched this morning at the same desk that holds my mother’s picture. (You will tear up at the trailer too. It’s impossible not to.) And I’m pretty sure she would have gone to see The Avengers sequel next Friday, opening night, and called me immediately afterward so we could parse it all out on the phone together.

Instead I’ll be seeing it without Mom, but thinking about her with love every minute, grateful for all the movies we  shared.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • My mother passed away on March 5th of this year from a “heart event” and eventually, pneumonia. I stayed with her in her home during the last few months seeing to her needs and hoping to help her recuperate.

    Each morning I would go into her bedroom and open her curtains so that we could watch the sun come up over the mountains together. If I got busy with something, Mom would call to me so that I wouldn’t miss that sweet moment when the sun’s rays first pushed over the mountain peaks.

    The morning after her death, it was important for me to go into her bedroom and watch the sunrise, yet so painful to do without her. I couldn’t seem to stop the tears. Now, most mornings, I make it a point to sit on my porch and watch the sun make its early-morning journey over the craggy points of the Rocky Mountains, always with a few tears – yet it is a sweet moment in time that I spend with my dear mother.

  • My mom died 24 years ago. I find myself thinking about her life and trying to better understand who she was separate of the fact that she was also my wonderful, incredible, wise, and loving mother. She was an original thinker, she was pragmatic, she was great to talk to. She had integrity. Her life mattered, not because she was famous (she wasn’t) but because she had the only power that matters, the power that comes from being loved by the people around you.

    I love hearing you talk about your mother. She did mothering right, the way mine did, and we are both enriched by that. It’s something that will be part of your life forever.

    When I was growing up, I took what I had for granted. Now that I’m older and have talked to other people and read many, many biographies about unhappy and neglected children I understand much more the treasure I was given. You, too, it sounds like. I am so sorry for your loss. But I am so happy that you had something to lose that was worth having.

  • My dad died decades ago, but for a very long time, certain scenes in movies would trigger my grief and I started crying uncontrollably. I had a lot of fights with my dad growing up, and I think he died before we could work things out. Then, one night, I dreamed we were happily working together installing panelling and windows in the house I grew up in. From that point, things were resolved. Now I mostly laugh and think about all those corny dad jokes.

  • Jana, this is touching. Thank you for sharing something that I’m sure is from deep within your soul.

  • Thank you for this. I have had these exact feelings lately about movies. I lost my mom January of 2013 to Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. She was 58. She also would have loved Frozen.

    The last movie I went to with her was Wreck It Ralph about a week and a half before she died. She had to wear headphones because the tumor in her brain had grown so large that she had almost completely lost her hearing. Whenever my 1 and 3 year old watch that movie, I picture her sitting next to me, headphones blaring, with a big smile on her face.