The Secret: Demeter’s Labor

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Husband, Wife and Daughter

In many ways, they’re the picture-perfect family. Husband and wife love each other deeply and both adore their daughter. And yet, there’s a tension that haunts their home: the daughter wishes she were somewhere else. In private, her parents joke about the terror of adolescents, but this only serves to confirm what they already know. A fracture between mother and daughter that seems beyond repair, no matter how hard either of them may try to fix what’s been broken.

The child hates the place to which they’ve moved, a nowhere-land filled with losers. She’s bright in a place where it’s frowned upon to use one’s brain, much less show any signs of aspiration or achievement. And what better target than her mother to vent her frustration, particularly since she seems to have no purpose in life other than to dote on her husband? The perfect housewife who’s given up everything just to be with the man she loves.

Before the Accident

It was precisely this endless argument that erupted during a mother-daughter trip to somewhere, as if the tension could be contained no longer. Hanna is the mother ("God has favored me with a child") and despite her daughter’s silent resentment, still loves her dearly. On the other hand, her daughter, Samantha ("God has heard" + "flower") is just tired of her mother’s attention, as if she doesn’t have a life of her own. Or wouldn’t know what to do with one, if she had.

Can we talk?
— Why do you constantly have to talk about everything?
I just want to know what’s going on with you. Why you’re acting this way.
I want things to be better between us.
— Yeah, well, it’s never going to happen. So just get over it.
Why am I the bad guy, huh? You don’t treat your father like this.
— Because he’s not on my back all the time. He treats me like an adult.
No, he spoils you and you’re not an adult.
— Well, I’m not a baby either, Mom. I can take care of myself, okay?
Don’t be mad at me just because I care about you. I love you.
— Yeah, well maybe a little bit too much.

It would seem that the only thing holding them together is husband and father, but even this isn’t enough. For immediately, just as the two of them seem to have reached a stalemate, a truck appears out of nowhere – barreling down the highway in the opposite direction – and their lives are forever changed. Their family forever transformed by an accident that comes on the heels of an argument between wife and daughter.

On the Brink of Death

Father-and-husband finds them lying side by side on life support, like twins awaiting divine intervention hoping to avoid a fate in a casket. He’ll not know what to do, looking to the doctors to intervene, especially since the eyes of his wife will flicker, telling him that she’s not yet dead.

When he tells her what happened, she’ll go into a panic, asking about their daughter while apologizing profusely to the man she loves, certain that the accident was all her fault. Between sobs of confusion and despair, she asks him to move her closer to their child and to place her hand in her own.

When the machines start signaling an emergency – made worse when the two are separated – he’s pushed aside during the furious work of resuscitation. But in a matter of minutes, it’s all over: both mother and daughter declared dead … until a faint pulse brings one of them back to life.

The Lone Survivor

The heartbeat belonged to the body of the daughter.

On a rollercoaster of emotion, her father watches over her bedside, still coming to terms with the death of his wife, grateful that their daughter remains alive.

As she awakens he goes to her side, trying to comfort the one still disoriented by what has come to pass. He breaks the news about her mother gently, whispered in her ear, but this only adds to her confusion. Matters are made worse by the name he keeps calling her ("Samantha"), as if she were someone else.

She asks him for a mirror – because she wants to see the injuries, he thinks – but when her face appears, she’ll go berserk. Within minutes of her awakening, she’ll be told she’s lost her mother, called by a name that’s not her own and, now, see that she’s inhabiting the body of another.

Staring back at her is the unthinkable: none other than the face of her daughter.

Hanna's Funeral

Soon, a funeral will be held, all the more perverse because no one knows the truth of what happened. Her husband, Benjamin ("son of my right hand"), will waver in disbelief, not knowing what kind of credence to give to the words coming from his daughter’s mouth: she says she’s his wife, and will recount detailed memories of the life they shared. But the sight of seeing his child speaking of those intimacies will prove too difficult to bear.

With time, he’ll come to believe her; nothing else can explain what’s happened. Because of the strangeness of it all, they’ll keep it a secret, something only the two of them will share. For both want to understand this turn of events and, more importantly, wish to discover the fate of their daughter: will she come back to them or is she now forever gone? And if she should return, what will happen to the wife who no longer has a body to call her own?

As they wait, hoping the answers will come, they decide that she should continue living the daughter’s life. If nothing else, she’ll be taking care of their child’s body, the vessel waiting for her daughter’s return.

Back At School

Which is how she finds herself back at school, swallowed by a world she’d left more than twenty years ago. And unlike her daughter, who was a straight A student, she’s not sure she can pull this off. For she had given up any outside pursuits when she married her husband, and is more than a little wary about writing essays or whatever else her teachers may throw her way.

What’s more, she soon discovers the life of her daughter that had been hidden from view, more complete – and complicated – than she could have ever imagined. Her friends love her dearly, that much is plain to see. But there’s also the matter of boys (and sex) as well as the frightful discovery that the name of one of them had been tattooed on her ass.

For a woman who married quite young, this experience forces her back to an adolescence she’d bypassed years ago, as if this freak accident were giving her the chance to live it all again. Except this time, with stakes set impossibly high: her daughter’s life now depended on her success.

Looking for Answers

Meanwhile, Ben, her husband, looks for answers. The doctors haven’t been much help, saying it could be anything from an extreme case of posttraumatic disorder to delirium. (Their exams showed nothing wrong with her brain.) And while they hope it’s nothing other than a temporary brain dysfunction, it’s clear that his daughter’s confused, and for good reason, too: she’s just survived a traumatic accident and the death of her mother. Sometimes, it’s just too much for the mind to bear.

The library gives him access to different sorts of answers to the question he begins to describe as a form of "spiritual possession." And in his hunting, he finds the work of a professor familiar with cases similar to what’s happened to his wife and daughter: the spirit of one inhabiting another.

When he goes to meet him, the professor speaks of a woman in Africa who, after emerging from a coma, claimed to be the spirit of a girl who once lived a hundred miles away. No explanation could be found to connect one with the other. As far as the professor could tell, the two were complete strangers. The woman eventually recovered from her illness but retained the girl’s personality forever.

Watching Over Her

He’ll tell Hanna this phase could last as long as seven years, that they’ll need to find a way to make a go of it. So the charade continues: she living the life of her daughter and he pretending that she’s his child, even as both wonder whether their daughter will return or whether they’ll ever return to being husband and wife.

At night, he watches over her, struggling to understand: the body of his daughter now inhabited by his wife. There’ll be times when, unannounced, the child returns, like when she’s having a bad dream and calls out for her daddy. But other than these briefest of moments, it’s the spirit of his wife who lives in the girl’s body, and who’s just as frustrated as he, for their old life – looking more idyllic, now that it’s gone – seems to be forever gone.

Where there once were two, there’s now only one. The wife and mother buried six feet below the ground. And because of this, the old intimacies are gone, leaving each to learn how to handle a new form of chastity that’s been imposed on them.

The Life of Her Daughter

Blocked in this way, she redirects her energy into learning about the daughter who’s now gone missing, the one who had resented her so much. As she begins to become familiar with a routine that doesn’t revolve around her husband, she comes to be submerged in a new rhythm of living, a life with it’s own demands, complications, and joys.

In her locker, she’ll find her daughter’s diary, a private record of what was never shared. In spending time with these memories, she learns to better understand the child’s unhappiness, and why she hated the life imposed by husband and wife: made to feel like a fish out of water, self-conscious and apologetic about who she was, as if something was wrong with her, rather than the others.

Eventually, she begins writing in the diary herself, creating a record of the life led in the daughter’s absence. A new chapter in the life of the girl, even if she’s not there to serve as its witness. And with this solitary activity, another barrier is erected between the married couple, a new form of privacy from which he’s now excluded. For this labor of love doesn’t concern him: it’s about mending the relation between a woman and her daughter, previously eclipsed by the role of wife.

Life Renewed

And rather than merely pretending, she uses this exile to work on skills she never had the chance to develop. School work will be the most frightening and difficult. But it brings its own rewards, like the pride in recognizing one’s own progress, realizing her limitations were a figment of her imagination.

She’ll also use this second adolescence to hone her skills as a photographer. Previously, it was just a hobby patronized by her husband. Still life, mostly. Solitary landscapes reflecting the quiet and unspoken, as if seeking to capture something that had yet to see the light of day. As a mirror to this, her other favorite subject was her daughter, which irritated the child to no end, which was the focus of their other argument, immediately before their accident.

Mom, are you taking my picture (again) ?
I already told you: I hate it when you take my picture.
Why don’t you listen to me ??
— Honey, [lying] it was just one shot.
You’re an amateur. You take pictures of buildings, of cows, of nothing !
When are you going to do something real ?

But now, inhabiting her daughter’s body, she’s no longer restricted to buildings and cows. And for the first time in her life, there are others who see value in her work. She’s even told it might lead to something big, the kind of future of which her daughter had dreamed. In pursuing her own talents, she comes to ensure a life for her child, one that would make her proud.

Marital Tension

But this immersion in the life of her daughter alienates her husband: in becoming her own child, she’s robbed him of any relation to his wife. Quite predictably, this leads to an argument. And yet, in the flurry of words that follow, the shape of her dilemma becomes abundantly clear, as well as the reasons behind the decisions she’s been forced to make.

I made a decision to be Sam because I couldn’t be me. It was too painful.
— So it doesn’t even bother you that we can’t be together ?
You know, this was your idea.
— Yes, but I’m stuck. I can’t move forward and I can’t move back as long as Sam’s
— gone. I don’t know how you can do this, just take her life and forget about ours.
— This is still a marriage. That’s selfish.
Oh, right. So I can’t have a life? Everything was great when I was just a housewife.
— You don’t talk to me. You don’t seem to realize I’m the outsider in all of this.
— I don’t get to feel Sam the way that you do.
Oh, you’re looking for pity? You’re so fucking selfish. You don’t seem to understand.
If our daughter comes back, where do you think I’m going to go ?

What he didn’t seem to realize is that she’s been fighting for the life of their daughter, in the hope that one day she’ll return. The cruel irony is that, should she be successful, she also assures her own demise. Her old life as wife and mother would come to an end: caught in a temporary arrangement, created by the accident, with an expiration date signaling her eventual death.

Waiting

Over time, Sam (her daughter) slowly begins to make unannounced appearances. Mostly at night, when she’s half asleep, or in the morning, when she’s roused from a deep slumber. The visits are short, never more than a moment, but whatever her mom is doing must be right, since these visit become more frequent.

And then, one night, while hanging out with her friends, she’ll be offered some Special K. She’s reluctant, at first, but upon a friend’s prodding – Come on! Don’t you want to take a break from being you for a few hours? – she decides to give it a try. And the experience seems to confirm what one of the others had said, less about the drug than the accumulation of her labor (itself, a form of grounding) that now leads to the top of her head.

It’s totally rad.
It makes you, like, hallucinate and totally dissociate from your body, you know?
It feels like you’re, like, rising above it.

Just as she’ getting used to the idea of relying on a drug to help her escape, just as she’s beginning to feel its effects on her body, more relaxed than she’s been in years … it hits her like a brick: a vision floating above her, as if painted on the ceiling, a portrait of her original body exactly as she must have looked immediately following the accident: splayed across the road, bleeding and broken.

Panic

The panic that sets in is not so different from what her daughter experiences the next morning when she learns of the fate of her mother. Two sides of the same experience; two versions of coming to terms with her death. What had once been an bumpy relationship now forever gone. Only her deep and abiding absence can be mourned.

She had awoken that morning as if had been any other, surprised to see her father watching over her at the foot of her bed, and even more taken aback by the hug he gives her ("Is that you?"), as if she had returned from the dead.

But slowly, the memories begin to return, as if a heavy fog were being lifted. The events from a lifetime ago rushing back to meet her, with the same violence of the accident that took her mother, her father’s wife. All of a sudden, the house will feel empty, the rooms now echoing with a resounding absence.

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Saying Goodbye .

Sam’s return signals that their time is limited, so they say their goodbyes. On film, the scenes only take a moment but in real life they often last much longer, as much due to the labor of transmigration as the heartache in saying farewell.

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Saying Goodbye ..They’ll also read from their daughter’s diary, discovering that beneath her ambivalence lay a recognition that her mother could not be replaced, no matter how much she might have thought that might have been what she wanted.

If Mom didn’t marry Dad, I wouldn’t be here.
Maybe if I could have seen her at my age …
I don’t know why I have such a hard time admitting it,
but deep down, I do love her.
I mean, she’s the only Mom I’ll ever have, right?

Saying Goodbye ...When she’s gone, daughter and husband go to the cemetery to pay their final respects. From the arrangement of their figures, it’s clear this will mark her for the remainder of her life, not just by grief, but thankfulness for her sacrifice.

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Saying Goodbye ....

One final message awaits the daughter, now returned from her place of hiding. A recording made by the mother who inhabited her own body while she was gone. It’s a farewell spoken across time and space, the only way one generation can truly speak to another. Of how a commitment made prior to one’s death gives birth to something marvelous. A creation of one’s own making.

Something happened, which I really can’t explain, but it’s been incredible.
I got to live your life while you were gone. And I got to feel what you feel, and go through what you go through everyday, and I got to know your friends.
..
And I got to know you. And I think you are a brilliant, beautiful, intelligent girl,
and I want you to find whatever it is in life that makes you happy, and go do it.

It’s the kind of reconciliation that once seemed impossible, mother and daughter inexplicably at odds and unable to understand the other, and more than the kind of "feel good" ending we’ve come to expect from the movies. It’s the gift of a mother to a daughter who once shared the same body, the ultimate sacrifice that allows a child to live her life without having to battle parents who do not understand.

It’s the kind of sacrifice that only a mother can make, although the father bears a heavy price, as well.

I want you to take care of your father for me.
He will be okay, but he needs your help to get over this.

He had no choice in the matter: the accident took his wife. And while he’ll still have his home, his job, and his life – and while he’ll have regained his daughter – his grief will run deep.

Her Mother's Hand

Yet, the ultimate prize – for both parents and daughter – is the life unleashed from death: free to live, to love, and to learn. A child initially met with incomprehension is now fully understood, a transformation made possible by inhabiting the life that had been closed off to her. An adolescent body interposed between a husband and wife so that their child could be born.

And while she’ll miss her mother’s presence, she’ll find evidence of her that remains in her body, traces of the life that preceded her own. Like the very hand by which she makes a mark in the world, the script itself now transformed.

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~ by mistified on September 9, 2011.

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