One interesting example of illness in the media is Finding Neverland. While it does contain a lot of cliches, such as the “ailing angel” and the “cough of death,” it has a lot of interesting material on forgiving someone for being sick and accepting illness in general. So let’s take a look!
Our first hint of illness is upon Mr. Barrie (Johnny Depp)’s second meeting with the boys. He asks where their mother is and is told she’s home with a bit of a “chest cold.” Yes, yes. The beautiful angelic mother has the cough of death. The movie cough-to-indicate-dying trope has claimed the lives of so many fictional mothers.
The film focuses on Mr. Barrie in a bit of a writer’s slump. He enjoys spending his days playing pretend with the boys, which is weird, and his wife doesn’t approve at all. We learn that the boys’ father has passed away, and each child has dealt with it in different ways.
We’re also introduced to Sylvia’s mother, a character any spoonie will recognize right away. She’s overbearing and critical with the best intentions. She’s part mama bear, part momzilla. While it’s clear that she’s deeply concerned about her daughter’s life (“You’re horribly flush. You’re wearing yourself out!”) she’s not afraid to be extremely critical and to do so in front of others (“Well there’s no food in the house, is there?”). She is strict with the boys and disapproves of them spending their days playing, especially with Mr. Barrie. Basically, she’s that friend or family member who accuses you of keeping yourself sick because you’re too stressed or don’t eat the right food. Well-intentioned, but a villain in their own right.
Meanwhile, Mr. Barrie faces conflict at home when he suggests to his wife sending their cook to help with Sylvia’s household, and maybe some silver. Of course, this is extremely kind, but it’s not exactly tactful to ask your wife if you can help maintain the household of a very pretty lady you now spend pretty much all of your time with. It doesn’t go over well. It’s a painful dynamic for both the sick person and their friends wanting to help, because the question of what is appropriate is always present. How much charity is acceptable? It’s an embarrassing thing both for the giver and the taker.
Finally, we arrive at the most harrowing scene for me personally. The boys put on a play for their mother and Mr. Barrie, but they can’t finish it because their mother falls extremely ill. A fit of coughing ends the play, but what’s so painful about it is that Sylvia tries so hard to stifle it and begs the boys to keep going with the play.
How many times have I been on my last few spoons and tried to work through it? Begging to keep going? Missing something really special?
They call a doctor but Sylvia refuses to cooperate. She won’t go to a hospital either, saying “When would I have time for that? Besides, this family’s had enough of hospitals.” She holds a bitterness about her husband’s death and his final days in the hospital.
Speaking from experience, watching someone in the hospital get sicker and sicker is awful. I’ve heard many people say “I never want that.” That’s why “do not resuscitate” orders exist. There is a difference between being alive and living. I’m not 100% sure where I stand on it. I can certainly sympathize with putting your children before yourself. But, as we see, this mindset has its drawbacks.
Peter is angry that his mom is pretending nothing is wrong and he perceives it as being lied to. He’s angry that his mother is sick and that his father died, and, like his mother, he doesn’t know how to process these feelings. This confused anger that illness brings is captured so well.
Sylvia’s mother decides, at this point, to move in with them. She tells Mr. Barrie that there is no need for them to resort to his charity, and he argues that he just wants to help, as a friend. Again, we see this complex dynamic of how family and friends fit in to illness, and the helpless feelings it invokes in everyone involved.
Later, George comes to see Mr. Barrie at the theater where rehearsals are underway for his new play. He asks to know the truth about his mother, but Mr. Barrie confesses that he doesn’t know the truth, and she won’t talk about it. George wants him to convince her to go to the hospital, but senses that his grandmother has “run off” Mr. Barrie. He tells him “It’s not you…she just doesn’t want to see mother hurt anymore.”
“How magnificent. The boy’s gone. Somewhere during the last 30 seconds, you’ve become a grown-up.”
The boys try out the harness that will allow Peter Pan to fly in the play. They get a little careless playing, and George takes a nasty fall, breaking his arm. At the hospital, he refuses to allow it to be set unless his mother will allow herself to be tested. She is furious and confronts Mr. Barrie, accusing him of putting George up to this. She says “This is ridiculous! They won’t tell me anything different!” revealing that she has seen a doctor and perhaps even knows her diagnosis, but she refuses to elaborate.
“My understanding is that my condition may be quite serious. However… my wish is that life should go on as normal. So… I’ll have the examination, and I’ll take whatever medications they advise. But I don’t want to know what they’re for. And I don’t want you inquiring into it any further.”
And Mr. Barrie respects this decision. Ultimately, the one who is ill has the final say, and one can never really know what they would do in the sick person’s position. So all they can do is be respectful of their wishes.
The night of the Peter Pan play arrives and everyone is excited to see it. Unfortunately, Sylvia once again falls ill, this time much worse than before. Peter still attends, but she has to miss it.
Mr. Barrie rushes to see her, but her mother won’t let him. George pipes up that she would want to see him, and once again everyone’s good intentions are at odds. What would she want? What is best for her? Which is more important?
George wins out and Mr. Barrie is able to see her. She claims to have had too much mending to do for the boys, and says she really did want to come but… it’s a weak ruse.
After begging Mr. Barrie to “keep pretending until the end,” she shoos George away to the theater, saying it’s just been a “bad day.” Another quote that will be all too familiar to spoonies.
The play is a grand success. Sylvia’s condition continues to worsen. And all of this leads to the iconic climax of the film – Mr. Barrie brings the play to Sylvia’s home, to show her Neverland. Even her mother is won over, clapping to bring Tinkerbell to live. And here, the film leaves the literal world, and we see Neverland as Sylvia passes from this world to the next.
Time passes. The boys are devastated. Sylvia’s mother begrudgingly reveals to Mr. Barrie that Sylvia has requested joint guardianship of the boys between herself and Mr. Barrie. “And what do you have to say about that?” Mr. Barrie asks.
“I shall respect my daughter’s wishes.”
And in the end, that was the most important messages of this film. Forgiving illness, respecting wishes, and acceptance.
“I’m sorry I was so horrible.”
“It’s just… I thought she’d always be here.”
“So did I. But, in fact… she is.”
I love this movie. And I love seeing that both Sylvia’s mother and children go through the same journey. Both have flawed, at times childish responses to their grief, yet both are shown to have profound emotional depth. Their ages do not matter, and this tragedy affects them all just as deeply. Likewise, Sylvia needs her mother and the boys equally. She needs their acceptance. The movie doesn’t dwell on the question of whether Sylvia was in the right or not, so neither will I. It isn’t about if she chose the right thing, it’s about the fact that she made a choice for herself. She lived on her own terms, she did the best she could, and she was able to die happy.
That’s all any of us can do. That, and respecting others who do the same.
Now I’m going to leave you with memes, because I can’t end this without acknowledging the meme.