Big-Screen Bereavement: The Best In Your Widow-Type Movies – “Sleepless In Seattle”

Long before I was known as a someone who writes about grief, a subject no one wants to be an expert in, I wrote about movies, something everyone wants to be in expert in. For about ten years, I had a column called “The Flick Chick,” offering snarky, funny (I hope) takes on film, inciting the wrath of “Love, Actually” fans everywhere. (Because I’m not one of them.)

For the first time in almost 30 years I find myself not being paid to write about entertainment, which means that when live events start again I’ll have to pay for them. Also, I miss that outlet, starting those cultural conversations and having virtual high-fives across the Internet. So since I’m paying the fees for this website anyway, I’m starting an occasional series blending the two things I know the best – the joy of the movies and the soul-crushing devastation of widowhood.

Who’s with me?

Up first: 1993’s “Sleepless In Seattle,” which I first saw in 1993 and fell in love with because of the dreamy soundtrack, its bittersweet take on the difference between being in love and being in love in the movies, and its gorgeous views of my native Baltimore, which I’d left the year before and wouldn’t move back to for another 27 years. (It also features my favorite celluloid description of being a Features reporter faced with yet another hoary holiday story: “New Years Eve. Please don’t make me write it.”)

Now, as a widowed parent, the story of soulfully sad Sam (Tom Hanks) and Annie (Meg Ryan), the winsome Baltimore Sun reporter who falls for his honest and heartbreaking radio account of how much he misses his late wife, hits closer to home. It’s also a reminder that in 1993, being played by America’s Sweetheart Meg Ryan meant that it wasn’t immediately obvious that a character was an obsessed stalker who uses company funds to fly cross-country to follow a widowed man and his vulnerable child. But more about that later.

One of things that didn’t really compute for me when I saw this in my 20s is that “Sleepless In Seattle” isn’t really a rom-com in the traditional sense, where a character’s past is what’s holding them back from finding love with the perfect person who’s right there if they’d just look up. It’s really about loving while grieving, opening yourself up to happiness when your first happiness got ripped from you. One of my least-favorite things about how widows are usually written in Hallmark movies is that the protagonist is usually the cute lady who falls in love with the sad widowed carpenter or farmer thus proving her own character growth. The late partner is a plot device, a ploy to make the character extra-super sad so you know what the stakes are. So sorry, Dead Wife! He’s moved on!

But here, Sam’s wife, played in flashback by Carey Lowell and her flawless pixie cut, is more than the catalyst for his next happy ever after. She’s the reason for the whole thing, and how he and his son Jonah grapple with her loss colors their relationship with each other and with everyone else they know, including Annie. Sam moves them to Seattle from Chicago because he wants to be in a city where, he says, he isn’t haunted by memories of his wife walking across the street. I heard that and I was like “Damn! What widow wrote this? Because THIS IS THE TRUTH.”

Sam is trying to hold it all together and make a life for his grieving son, who wakes up in the middle of the night crying for his dead mother and is afraid of forgetting her face, which seems like a betrayal. And he can’t stop it. Sam wants to make it OK and start over but he can’t give him or his son the thing they really want, which is Carey Lowell and her pixie cut back on this side of eternity. And, again, they can’t.

Before, I would have said that my favorite scene was Rita Wilson trying to describe “An Affair To Remember” through a series of sobs and hand motions, a thing that should have gotten her an Oscar nomination. But now, it’s when Sam, fresh from comforting Jonah (who is an insufferable brat that I now give some credit because of his grief), imagining talking to his wife. And he, too, is haunted by the specter of forgetting – He imagines her not being able to remember the toast she used to make. And it’s gutting. I had to stop the recording for a minute and take a breath, remembering talking out loud to my husband who could no longer hear me. And it was all there – the love, the regret, the melancholy realization that in your head is the only way you’ll hear their voice unless it’s on video.

I remember a lot of critics and fans were annoyed that Annie and Sam (spoiler alert!) don’t meet in person until the last scene, standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, like in “An Affair To Remember.” Before that, he’s a voice she hears on the radio, and she’s one of the women who writes to him, moved by his pain. She never actually intends to send the letter (her best friend does), but Jonah reads it and becomes convinced that she’s the one for him and his dad, writing his own letter back to her pretending to be Sam. In him, I see my own kid, who has now started asking for a new dad, and who sees himself as my protector (Oww, painful heart feels.)

Jonah’s still a brat – the way he speaks to his dad is written as cute when it’s worth at least a hell of a grounding, but his actions are that of a grieving kid. The person who really deserves a stern talking-to, if not a restraining order, is Annie, who projects her boredom with her perfectly nice fiancee Walter (Bill Pullman, who, as he tells her later, deserves better) into a fantasy obsession with Sam. In the movie’s most “Did y’all actually write that?” moment, Annie hires a private investigator to look into Sam and Jonah, under the guise of writing a story on Sam, and flies to Seattle to hide behind buildings and watch them. It’s not charming. It’s creepy. As much as I always loved the ending, where the three meet in New York and there seems to be a spark, I always wonder if Annie ever says “So…I kinda stalked you and your kid.” Because that’s not cute. (I also wonder if she ever reimbursed The Sun for all that travel.)

I still love “Sleepless In Seattle,” just differently. I no longer see myself as Annie, the wistful dreamer looking for love, but as Sam, trying to make sure his heart hasn’t died along with his wife. While so many widow movies seem to think that being ready to date means you’re healed and moving on, “Sleepless In Seattle” reminds us that your late love never leaves you. They aren’t something to get over, a glitch. Any new life you have is built on the one you had, and even if you find happiness again, you’ll always be that person’s widow.

There was always a sadness to this movie that I got – I mean, it was about a man who lost his wife, right? But now I understand that the point isn’t whether Sam finds love with Annie, or whether they’re meant to be. It’s that he’s opening himself up to that possibility. Maybe not with a stalker. But to love.

“Love Fraud”: Dating in middle age and the ol’ okey doke

I may be an ethereal middle-aged single lady, but that doesn’t mean I won’t cut you if you try to scam me out of my cash. Nobody has time for that. (Photo: Rico Feldfoss)

I love docuseries, particularly those that have just enough similarity to my reality to be interesting, but removed enough that I’m not constantly sobbing at the continued reinforcement of how society hates me. For instance, I’m fascinated with HBO’s “The Vow” and its tale of self-help group turned body-maiming sex cult NXIVM. While I relate to wanting to belong and improve oneself, and to the pull of celebrity as a longtime entertainment journalist, it’s super different than my life. Also there’s maybe one Black person in the entire group, which seems to be mostly made up of thin white women that the skeevy head guru wanted to sleep with, so I don’t imagine I would have been heavily recruited.

But I did spend the better part of this weekend catching up on another show that follows how loneliness and a need for connection can compel seemingly sensible people to make disastrous decisions. That’s Showtime’s “Love Fraud,” about how an ordinary-looking guy named Richard Scott Smith used the Internet, along with charms that are apparently hard to discern across the screen, to worm his way into the hearts and bank accounts of several women across the country. The remarkable thing seems to be that unlike the titular crapweasel of “Dirty John,” , a show that nearly ruined Eric Bana for me forever, none of Smith’s victims are rich. He seemed to take pleasure in finding middle-class ladies and taking their savings and 401ks, leaving them penniless and humiliated because he’s evil.

Some of them he married. Others, he just swindled. But what they seem to have in common is that they’re middle-aged ladies looking for love, mostly after unsatisfying relationships and break-ups. They put their hopes in the Internet to find a new start, and that new start blew up on them and stole all their stuff. As a middle-aged lady who would, too, like to find love, albeit one who’s given up the Internet because of crap like this, I relate. Highly. And I’m insulted on their behalf. How effing dare you.

I don’t believe that at this time in my life, I’d be adding some dude I just met to my bank accounts, or buying him cars and real estate in my name just until he gets paid the settlement of some accident I’ve never seen documentation of. At this point, what I’ve built financially and reputation-wise means too much to be flinging it around at some marginally-attractive guy I met at karaoke like Rick’s victims (again, they all say he has some magnetism that makes you trust him, but DOES NOT TRANSLATE. Dude looks shifty as Hell.)

This is not to blame these women for their own victimization, because ultimately the fault lies with their weasel-face victimizer. Rick’s not my Cup O’Noodles, but who’s to say there isn’t someone I’d be a little more sweet on? What I recognize in his pitch is what he was to them – another chance. Someone who claims to want love and has decided that you are that chance. That the meant-to-be you’ve lived for, that doesn’t always come for people your age, is here.

We are in a weird time, as you know. All of this happened pre-COVID, and with the added loneliness of lockdown there’s nouveau Ricks and Dirty Johns and whatnot popping up all over the place. And I’m sure they’re getting takers. My advice to would-be marks is not to fall in love, but to listen to red flags, like being told “I love you” too fast, and to not to put people you don’t know on your bank account because COME ON Y’ALL.

But my biggest piece of advice is to the scammers, because I’m so tired of people being harder on the hurt than those who hurt them. Stop telling people how not to get hurt, and focus on the evil of the people who hurt them. And yeah, Rick (SPOILER!) has his own sob story about being abused and taken advantage of, but that doesn’t absolve him of a frigging thing. To me, it was the victims’ lack of status and wealth that made him even more heinous, because he found wounded souls like himself, who didn’t have a lot, and made a point of destroying them.

Don’t destroy people. I suppose I could be more eloquent than that. But I don’t have to be.

My after-Thanksgiving 5K: Running against myself. I won.

Yesterday morning, a lot of my friends got up and ran a festive Thanksgiving morning turkey trot race, whether it were 5 kilometers or a half-marathon like my fast and fabulous friend Kristi. In the past, I too have donned the running shoes of the determined and carb-adjacent and taken a spin around a road or two in triumph, as well to stave off whatever I was going to eat.

This Thanksgiving, the shoes stayed on the floor and my butt stayed on my couch watching “The Magnificent Seven” remake for the third time in 24 hours. There were years in the past that I would have felt like I was missing out, or slacking, or not keeping up with some standards set I set at a time of healthier knees. But this year, Leslie was perfectly fine chilling. And this morning, before anyone else was up, I got up, retrieved those shoes, and hit the road for my very own 5K, my own personal 3.1 mile race.

It was free. It was in my own neighborhood. And the only person I was racing against was me.

I won.

I won against the voices in my head that judged me against other people or against that me with the better knees. I won against the idea that run/walk intervals aren’t good enough (Better Knees Leslie used to judge run/walkers, and she was a jerk for that. Wasn’t her business.) I won against the narcissistic urges that assumed the other walkers and runners were judging me because they were minding their own business and not thinking about me. I won against Better Knees Leslie’s assertions that she used to be faster and would have been embarrassed 10 years ago at this time, forgetting that four years ago when she was grieving and heavy she couldn’t have run even this fast, so shut up.)

I won because I ran because I wanted to, not because I had to, or because I hated myself for what I ate and drank yesterday (Y’all, I do not. Not even for a little bit. Had more for breakfast. Ain’t scared.) I won because I live in a place where you can run in shorts the day after November, where there is sunshine and other people excited for our good fortune.

I won because I ran. And my medal was a bowl of white rice and homemade gravy. What have you done for yourself today that was for you? That brought you joy, that you celebrated yourself for? That was your win?

Go win something. I’m rooting for you.

Say no to self-deprecation: Don’t be your own worst friend!

Imagine that you had a friend – or someone claiming to be your friend – who took every opportunity to remind you and anyone who might think you’re awesome that, well, you’re actually not. For your own good, of course.

Heifer.

Say someone congratulates you on finishing the 10K you’ve been training for, and your “friend” jumps in and says “Well, she finished third from last and she got dusted by like eight old ladies and a guy pushing a stroller with giant triplets, but she thanks you!” Or when a co-worker tells you that it looks like you’ve lost weight, and your “friend” buffalos her way between you to confess that you’re actually fat and, in fact, have just pulled your entire face out of a container of Halo Top. Hey it’s an email list

You know how they say some people can’t take a compliment? Your “friend” intercepts them, wraps them in a big ol’ bow of negativity frosted with a thin layer of plain-spokedness and sweetness, and then lobs them back at your head, all the while explaining that she’s just trying to keep you humble. That you’d be more relatable if you were more self-deprecating, more chill about your accomplishments. You know, so people like you more!

This person, of course, is a bad friend. She sucks. She won’t allow you to luxuriate in the joy of any moment, of any triumph, of any anything, under the guise of keeping you humble. Of not scaring people away. Of not being conceited. Of course, big-headed conceited people exist, but this friend won’t let you own your victories, keeping you small and even managing to make anyone who compliments you feel like an idiot for saying anything. You probably wouldn’t let some chick do this to you.

So why do you do it to yourself?

Vocabulary.com defines a self-deprecating person as someone who “knows her own weaknesses and shortcomings and isn’t afraid to point them out, often in a humorous way.” Seems harmless enough, right? We like people who can laugh at themselves and try to make others more comfortable. It’s even been said that a self-deprecating sense of humor can be a sign of a good leader. But the slope between laughing at oneself and beating oneself up is slippery business, and for women, who are traditionally socialized to believe that our femininity requires humility and a slavish commitment to everyone else’s comfort at the expense of our own, it’s all the more covered in axel grease and banana peels.

As the release of my first book, “Black Widow,” gets closer, more and more people are telling me how cool the prospect of publication is. And I find that even as a 48-year-old woman who knows how hard I’ve worked in the wake of my widowhood and single motherhood, and as a proud survivor in the turbulent world of print journalism, it’s hard not to smile shyly and say “Oh, thank you, but lots of people write books.” WHY WOULD I DO THAT? Do you know how hard and how long I’ve worked on this thing? Do you know how difficult is was to basically stab myself in the gut and bleed that out onto a page? I mean, no one expects me to say that in cocktail conversation, but there’s no reason to act like I jotted it down on a Publix receipt and handed it to my editor along with my shopping list. It was a feat to write it, find an agent, get a deal and now seeing it through to publication. Why do I feel the knee-jerk need to downplay that for some supposed sense of relatability?

Elle.com UK writer Katie O’Malley wrote that her tendency towards self-deprecation was, on the surface, about “vulnerability and authenticity,” as well as a way to point out her own flaws before anyone else can. “But… and it’s a big ‘but’…,” she wrote, “in highlighting our insecurities, putting down our talents, and striving for the laugh instead of congratulation, could we not just be cementing a negative narrative about ourselves? At a certain point, if you call yourself ‘stupid’ enough times, you’ll start to believe it and so will other people.”

In the words of Milli Vanilli, girl, you know it’s true. And it’s hard to stop, once you get going, like a reflex as sharp and as involuntary as if we’d been hit in the knee with one of those little rubber hammers by our doctor. For me, I think that impulse comes from a lot of places. It’s that previously-mentioned societal pressure on women to downplay our awesomeness, an insecurity that dates back to being an awkward, goofy kid with bifocals who didn’t know when to shut up, and even an affinity for self-deprecating comedians, from Joan Rivers to Jeanane Garafolo to Wanda Sykes, who draw laughs from pointing out their own flaws, their aging faces, their dating disasters and other weirdness. Being able to accept and laugh at those things is great, but at what point does it put a stopper in our greatness?

Years ago I asked Barbara Corcoran of real estate empire and “Shark Tank” fame what she might have done differently at the start of her career, and she told me that she “would have learned earlier to take credit for it. You see men — it starts when they’re boys on the playground — who yell ‘I’m king of the mountain’ when they’re just halfway up. Women can have gotten up the mountain, built a house and had to paint the kitchen, and still say ‘I think I’m queen of the mountain?’ I would have owned it sooner.”

Boom. We as humans, particularly as human women, have got to stop believing that it’s somehow unseemly – unladylike, even – to own our own success, whether that’s building a company or building a Hot Wheels track at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning without cursing too loud and waking your kid up. We have to learn to accept praise with a simple “Thank you,” without following it with “…but it wasn’t a big deal.” Better yet, when someone says “That must have been so hard,” we have to learn to say “Yes! Yes it was!” We have to learn to be comfortable with our own awesome.

Otherwise, we’re being bad friends to ourselves. And as we’ve already discussed, no one needs friends like that.

Widows, Peter Cetera and fighting for my own honor

We were the heroes we were dreaming of. Anyone who comes after needs to do that, too.

Part of my superpower as a life-long Features writer is relating seemingly random things to each other and writing pithy, moving and meaningful pieces about them. Thus, I’m going to make a connection between hanging out with a group of widows – my people – for the weekend, relationship goals, a fictional minivan murder and Peter Cetera’s gorgeously schmaltzy 1986 masterpiece “The Glory of Love” from “The Karate Kid II.”

Yes, Daniel-San figures prominently into my current love philosophy , just not in the way I thought in 1986 when I was hanging ripped-out glossy “Bop” magazine posters of Ralph Macchio in my locker. Wonders never cease.

So, I watch an NBC show called “Good Girls” about three moms who become a criminal enterprise, and it’s dark and funny in ways that make me feel bad about laughing. That happened in last week’s episode (SPOILER!) when a truly despicable guy was accidentally run down with a minivan by the (sketchy) woman he’d blackmailed into a relationship. The whole thing was set to chorus of “The Glory of Love,” where Mr. Cetera earnestly pledges to be “a man who would fight for your honor” and “the hero that you’re dreaming of.” But everybody here is awful, nobody has any honor, and in the end, the lady becomes her own hero, in a way, by getting rid of the man she was kind of trying to love. It’s super-cynical and mean, and it made me start thinking about my own approach to love.

And no, that doesn’t include running people over with my minivan. I don’t even have a minivan. Or run people over. Y’all can put the phone down.

What I mean is that like a lot of little girls, I grew up loved the idea of a man being willing to fight for me, to selflessly face dragons and wars and evil karate guys to save me, and to keep me safe. I used to and still do wear that Peter Cetera song OUT in the car. Back in the day, I was imagining the handsome man who was going to lay it all on the line for me. Decades later I married my late husband Scott, who was that man, but with a twist. Scott was not a cute young karate guy – he was a chunky middle-aged guy who fought most of his battles with sharply worded emails and calls to people’s managers. But I have no doubt he would have taken off his rings and thrown down for me if necessary. He had my back, in all things, and the thing that seemed most heroic about him is that he knew that I would fight for him, too.

Which is to say he was the hero that I’d been dreaming of, and I was his hero, too. He saw me not as a helpless damsel who needed someone to save him, but as his partner in a mutual, lifelong love story in which we always saved each other.

Then Scott died, and I couldn’t save his life – a thing I’ve had to forgive myself for, because I don’t have time to wallow when the kingdom still needs saving, the rent needs to be paid and this child still needs raising. I thought about that during my annual visit to Camp Widow, a weekend conference of bereaved partners where we try to make sense of the love and life we’ve lost and find the tools to start cobbling together a future that isn’t remotely what we wanted. We’ve all been broken, and are at varying stages of bleeding and scabbing over and slowly healing. These people are my heroes, particularly the ones just months into this awful journey, who somehow cut through the shock, put on shoes and came to a widow convention. That’s miraculous. What I’ve done, I think, is to honor the hero Scott was by making good on his belief in me and getting it done. I am my own hero.

This has extended to what I’m looking for in my next partner. I still want someone who is willing to fight for me. Not for my honor – I can do that. I’ve done that. What I need is a man who’ll fight for my budget by not freeloading, who’ll fight for my mental health by not gaslighting me or dismissing me when it makes him feel better about himself. I need a man who will fight for my career by standing by me and supporting me rather than belittling it because it’s not about him. I need a man who’s impressive enough as an adult, as a father to his own kids and a potential father to mine, to make me look up to him, and to trust him to have my back. I want a man who fights for me and my self-esteem by making me a priority in his life, not a placeholder to make him feel better until something better comes along.

In short, I need a man whose ego doesn’t require someone who needs saving, who sees me as a symbol of his own strength. I can’t do that for you, and you can’t do that for me. I want a partner, not a knight who sees me as a conquest. I fought with Scott, I’ve fought without him and now I need another partner who’ll toss me a sword (or give me space to kick, if we’re going back to our “Karate Kid” theme) and be willing to fight alongside me.

We’re saving each other. That’s the kind of glory I’d love.