I knew my Aunt was sick, but for a long time I didn’t know what with, or that it would eventually take her life. She was a strong, healthy woman who had always been active. At Stanford, she was the number one ranked woman on the tennis team and nationally ranked. As the story goes, Billie Jean King–the legendary tennis pro–encouraged her to leave school to become a professional tennis player. Who knows how her life would have turned out if she had chosen tennis. But Aunt Sally was an academic at heart. She stayed in school, receiving her degree in astrophysics and eventually becoming the first American woman in space. In early 2012, I was told that what she was “sick with” was pancreatic cancer.
It’s slightly naive at this point in time to think that anyone is going to beat pancreatic cancer, but hope is an amazing emotion. Two thoughts ran through my head as I contemplated Aunt Sally’s fate. First I thought of Steve Jobs, and how he must have had great access to health care; still, he lost the battle. I had heard Steve tried to fight the cancer fairly naturally at first, not using some of the newer, less tested research, and that by the time he really went after it – it was too late. Even as I write this I realize in retrospect that I have no idea what he did to fight his cancer. Probably everything that was available. My next thought was that Sally is a famous scientist with connections to people everywhere, and that she’s going to know all the right people to fight this better than any other has before her. Again: hope.
I’m a pragmatist, as I believe Aunt Sally was. I pride myself at looking at the world as it is and embracing the reality to the best of my ability. When death is upon me I fill with emotion, but I also try to prepare myself for the inevitable. I saw my mom, Sally’s partner, and my sister doing this too. I feel lucky to be surrounded by loving, rational people. Yet I had this unrealistic hope that somehow she might be the one who beat the disease. And this is when I realized that my hope was a selfish hope.
In mid-July, my sister and I got a call from my mom telling us that they didn’t expect Sally to make it much longer, and that we should fly down in a day or two. We visited her at her beautiful home in San Diego – where her bedroom, full of sunlight, had been converted to a makeshift hospital room. For those of you who have had a loved one deflated by cancer to the point of frailty, you understand what I mean when I say I could see Sally, but the cancer had won the battle over her body. I can’t imagine being the family member that takes care of someone who visually changes so quickly – and for that I am so grateful to those in my family who were there to care for her.
Sadly, our time with Sally in her home was short. She did an amazing job of being full of energy as she told my sister and I that she was proud of us and all that we have accomplished. She told us that she was proud of our mom, who did such a good job of raising us, and she was so happy to have been our Aunt. She was excited for all that we were going to accomplish. We told her that we loved her, and I thought about how much I was going to miss her.
On July 23rd, I got a call from my mom saying that Aunt Sally died. She said that there would be a press release going out in a few hours. Then the whole country would know. The next few days were a dream. There is nothing quite like hearing people on the radio, and seeing on the television and the front of the paper, talk so highly about the death of your family member. We knew how great Aunt Sally was. But it was nice hearing that other people did too.
As we left our visit from her house 10 days earlier, I selfishly thought to myself that she hadn’t seen my film and wouldn’t see the films that I make in the future. I grew up wanting to show Aunt Sally that I too would do something that I put my heart and soul in – like her in science, education, and business. I just wanted to have the opportunity to show her that I was going to do big things. I knew she was proud, but I wanted her to see.
Because my Aunt was the first American woman in space, incredibly well-known around the country, intelligent, and well respected, I grew up in a special environment. One where I was able to visit the White House, be introduced to Billie Jean King, Al Gore, and many others. I saw a shuttle launch and toured NASA. She spoke at my elementary school when I was in 6th grade, and I saw her affect hundreds of young women in the sciences while I worked for her in college. Recently, I heard thirty female astronauts speak about how she directly affected their decision to stay in the sciences and eventually go to space. And because of all of this, I have a skill that I’d like to directly thank Aunt Sally for: I’m rarely intimidated meeting any person, instead I am excited to find out what I can learn from them, how I can help them, how they can help me, thus making our relationship mutually beneficial. Aunt Sally had incredible relationships with so many influential people. She made other people’s lives better because of her connections. I can only hope I positively effect a fraction of the amount of people she has.
In late August, my wife and I found out she was pregnant. I’ve heard how much your life changes when you have a child, and I understand that I have no idea how profoundly my life will change by becoming a father. As my child grows bigger inside my wife, the reality has begun to sink in. We rush to finish projects in the house and release my film. The only thing that excites me more than the fact that I’m going to meet my baby boy soon is seeing how excited my wife is to welcome him into the world. And while I’d love to write about how much my life has changed in knowing that he’s on his way, I don’t think it’ll do the actual arrival any justice. That post will come later. For now, I find myself doing the best I can to understand myself, and I find myself thinking about what my parents must have been like before having me. New realities of self and family are emerging, and I love it.
For those of you who don’t know, I made a film called Rolled. The long story short is that I left my job in December of 2010 and started on the film in 2011. The film deserves a full write-up, and I plan on doing that, but for now I’d like to explain what I’ve learned about myself through the project. The first year, I battled a beginners journey of making a film. For me, making Rolled was like going back to college to learn how to make a film, except I’m the professor and I have no idea what to teach myself. I have never in my life had such high highs and low lows.
It’s worth knowing that I love working with people and that I spent an awful lot of time working by myself, and it wasn’t easy. The first low was realizing I wasn’t getting anything done because I didn’t know what to do. The first high came soon after, when I realized who I needed to reach out for help. The first lesson I learned was to recognize the lows coming, and figure out who I needed to contact to fight them off.
When I started working on Rolled I was working for me. I wanted to know what part of the filmmaking process I liked most that way I’d have a better idea of what I wanted to do in the future. As the project grew in scale I realized that I was making something bigger than myself, but stayed true to making the film I wanted to make.
I’m working on a few scripts right now and I sometimes find myself thinking, “What can I do to my next film to make it connect with a larger audience?” Then I remind myself of a few great comments I’ve had since I started screening Rolled. My good friend Sam came up to me after the film and said “There are a lot of funny films out there but your humor connects with me more than most. I loved it”. At another screening three women, possibly in their late fifties, came up to me and said “What a joy it was to see such a funny, heartfelt film. It didn’t feel like Hollywood, it felt like real life. Thank you.”
In the last two years, I’ve been trying to discover myself and to be comfortable showing others who I am instead of who I want to be. Working on a project from start to finish is no easy feat, and I have a newfound respect for filmmakers and entrepreneurs. Two thoughts have come to mind or popped up in conversations in the last few months that’d I’d like to share. The first came up when talking with my audio engineer Eli, who like me, left his job to work freelance. We worked out this quote together after talking about our highs and lows.
“I’d rather have these peaks and valleys than be flatlined.”
Sometimes working on your own is the best thing ever, and sometimes it’s the worst, but at least we feel these feelings – it’s keeping me “alive”. The second thought came to me the other day. The best things in life, whether it be people, projects or adventures – are the ones you put all your effort into to make it be the best it can be, and in the end you realize that the way you effected it was minor compared to how much it affected you.
One year ago I was living with my wife in a one bedroom apartment in San Francisco, and was still trying to finish my film. Since then, I’ve moved to Portland, bought a house, and begun to remodel said house. I’ve finished my film and screened it in six cities for nearly a thousand people. I’ve released it and watched it’s audience grow slowly but surely. I‘ve started to coach the University of Portland women’s ultimate team, I have a son on the way, and I’ve written three new films.
My film made me work hard on something from start to finish, something which I often struggle with. It made me realize the drive I’m capable of having, and how much more I have in me. Now that I’ve made one film, I can’t imagine doing anything else. My Aunt passing reminded me of how fragile life is, but how much you can accomplish in it. While I wish she could have seen my work, what I now know is that I need to pour myself into it like never before. It’s what she did, and because of it a nation mourned her loss with our family. My son is on the horizon, and the inevitability of the uncertainty of what my life will be in a year is a reminder of how quickly life can change. What I want to be is myself, to be a good father and husband, and to show the world who I am.