Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
My Life Without Me


You're a twenty-three year old mother of two. You're married to the only man you've ever kissed, a sweet guy you met at Nirvana's last concert. Your dad's in prison, and you live in a trailer in your mom's backyard. When she babysits, she captivates your daughters with inappropriate stories from Joan Crawford movies. And you've just been diagnosed (by a doctor who won't look you in the eye) with inoperable cancer.

You haven't had much of a life, frankly, and now you're facing the end of it. What do you do?

This is the premise of My Life Without Me (Isabel Coixet, 2003), a quiet, quirky movie with the luminous Sarah Polley in the lead role.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Downer. Weepy. Skates too close to one of the mortal fears we develop the moment we become parents. But bear with me, because the movie is not unendurably sad and if--raise your hand--you choke up at Kodak commercials, wouldn't you prefer tears provoked by a thoughtful, beautifully acted film than manipulated by clever advertising executives?

Ann, the film's immensely practical and unsentimental young mother, writes a list. There's a lot to do in the uncertain time she's got left, and she doesn't want to leave anything out: Tape record annual birthday messages for the girls. Take the family for a picnic on the beach. Get fake nails. Sleep with another man, just to see what it's like. And start to think, as she puts it, about my life without me.

This is not something I normally contemplate. I'm pretty healthy, eat well, and get a decent amount of exercise. But when my husband and I met with the accountant recently to do some financial planning, he asked brightly what our life expectancy was and quite obviously expected an answer. My superstitious self worried that if I claimed a lifespan longer than this suddenly uncomfortable meeting, I'd be struck down by a bus on my way out the door. So I studied my fingernails and mumbled that my parents are still going strong in their 70s. The accountant, satisfied with this, suggested we plan for ninety years, and, thankfully, moved on.

But on the way home, troubled by the accountant's question and my recent movie choice, I started wondering what would happen if accident or misfortune cut short those ninety years.

I don't want to be morbid nor maudlin, because the film is neither. It wards off sentimentality by keeping us at a distance from the heavier scenes, shooting them from across the room or through a window. We hear Ann's thoughts in voiceover, and her calm tone also helps keep the film from spiraling into sadness. Her musing about death even gets acted out in a comically surreal grocery store dance. In its off-beat way, the film reminds us that while our children's incessant demands can distract us from terminal thinking they do also insist that we face our mortality. Unthinkable though it may be, we have to plan for their lives without us.

Ann's plan is to keep her diagnosis a secret, figuring this is the only gift she can give her young family. She starts eyeing the single women she knows, wondering if any of them would make a suitable replacement. Her diet-obsessed co-worker? No. The Cher-wannabe at the diner? No. The Milli Vanilli groupie at the hair salon? Definitely no. The pretty young nurse next door, who once held a pair of dying preemies for 30 hours? Perfect. She's even got the same name as our heroine.

She keeps up appearances while she can. She works nights cleaning classrooms and carpools with her bitter mother (played with wonderful understatement by Deborah Harry; yes, Blondie's a grandma!) The weather's dismal and the trailer's cramped, but she finds the energy to enjoy her family--making love with her husband and roaring like hungry lions with her daughters at breakfast. The movie offers sights rarely seen on film: young parents who are good parents; a family coping well with little money; a daughter managing mature relationships with her own flawed parents.

In a story populated largely by women who want to change themselves, Ann's ambitions are modest. She gets her fake nails, and even a lover, but still, the secret life her illness inspires fits within the narrow constraints of her poverty, her motherhood, her sense of responsibility. A night out is at the 24-hour laundromat. Time for reflection comes at a fluorescent-lit diner: "Thinking," she comments in voice-over, "You're not used to thinking...You never have time to think." That's the gift illness gives her.

"This is you," Ann marvels to herself. "Who would have guessed it?" Finally, this is the gift the film gives us. It's more than the story of a young mother facing death, but about the wonder of finding yourself in an unexpected position--be it motherhood, illness, or poverty--and finding a flicker of beauty in it.

Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.

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OMG Caroline I just watched this movie a month ago and loved it! loved it! loved it! It really just blew me away. Thank you so much for writing about it.
I'll have to see the movie now. Thanks for the introduction!
Caroline -- I just love your column. I haven't seen this movie, but your description makes me want to. I've been thinking a lot of about death recently -- since my mom took a bad fall and our lives changed so drastically because of it. I want to put things in order for my daughter. "My Life Without Me" sounds like a good movie for me to see right now.
I don't think I would have the courage to rent this movie if I saw it on the shelf at the video store, but you've succeeded in making it sound less frightening, even palatable. Thanks for watching it for me!
Caroline, I love reading your movie reviews. I think I'll get my courage together, and my box 'o tissues, and watch this one. It sounds wonderful. Thanks, Sarah
I watched this movie about 2 or 3 years ago. I actually remember the movie because it was so sad but I always like to ask those hard questions. Now that I am a mom I ask that question a lot and I get so scared since Iam a single mom. It was nice to find your article at this particular time. Thanks
This thoughtful and heartfelt review inspired me to put "My Life Without Me" at the top of my Netflix queue. It sounds fabulous -- not least of all because of Caroline's gorgeous writing and eye for detail and nuance. Hard to see how a subject like inoperable cancer in a mother of two can be engaging and even funny; this review certainly made the idea conceivable. Can't wait to see it-- and to read more "Mama at the Movies" reviews!
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