*This post contains spoilers for the novel and the film “If I Stay” by Gayle Forman
This past Saturday, I found myself browsing through movies on Amazon Prime. After a few minutes of searching, I came across the film “If I Stay”. I immediately knew this was the right choice, as I had read the novel a few years ago and was very moved by its message. So I curled up in bed, completely unaware of how this movie would dramatically challenge my perception of life.
“If I Stay” is the story of Mia: a classical music fanatic and talented cello player. Mia is the outsider of her four member punk-rock family: “Sometimes I did feel like I came from a different tribe. I was not like my outgoing, ironic dad or my tough-chick mom. And as if to seal the deal, instead of learning to play electric guitar, I’d gone and chosen the cello”. Her younger brother Teddy follows in his parents’ footsteps with his love for making rhythms out of everyday occasions, such as eating breakfast or washing the dishes. Mia is the outsider with her quiet disposition, but still receives parental love and support for her passions.
On a flurried winter morning, Mia and her family are preparing for the day’s school and work schedule. Mia is drafting up a music composition for her Advanced Compositions course, while her parents and younger brother jam along to rock music with their cereal bowls and spoons in the background. An announcement comes over the radio, declaring a snow day for the school district. Not wanting to miss out on a family excursion, her mother calls out of work and they plan a trip to visit her grandparents a few towns away. Mia reluctantly agrees to tag along, her burning curiosity regarding the status of her Julliard admission getting the best of her spirits.
They drive along the sparkling pine trees to the melody of one of Beethoven’s compositions, lost in their own thoughts. Just as Mia is musing about life’s ability to change in an instant, such an instant comes. A car comes barreling into sight, and before anyone can react the screen fades to white as the sound of a head-on collision fills the air. The scene fades back into view, and Mia picks herself up off of the snow-covered ground. Disoriented, she walks up to one of the many EMT officials on site. As she asks what is going on, he looks right through her and shouts hurried orders at his team. Bewildered, she looks around her at the flaming wreckage of her car and the chaotic hustle of the emergency response teams. She shouts for her family, and upon hearing no response continues her search of the scene. Her eyes find a crowd of EMTs, and she hesitantly walks over to investigate. As she nears the group, she sees her own body lying on the ground, bruised and bleeding onto the snow beneath her. Her world spins around, and she realizes what has happened. They load her unconscious body into the ambulance, and she jumps into the back after scanning the scene one last time.
For the rest of the movie, she witnesses the fallout of that tragic day as her loved ones and friends respond to the news. Nobody notices her presence, and she is tasked with deciding whether to live or die. For the rest of the movie, she recalls moments of her life as she attempts to decide where to go. She remembers how she met her boyfriend, Adam, a guy who “was already who he was meant to be”: a member of a local punk-rock band and an expert at living in the moment. Her memories travel through her hesitancy to join such a rambunctious crowd, and how she adapts and thinks about what she truly wants. They spend almost two years together, before realizing that their music careers are taking them in different directions. On New Years Day, they preemptively call off their relationship on the pretenses that they will be on opposite sides of the country: Mia in New York at Julliard and Adam in Portland with his increasingly popular band.
Her memories then shift to her family, and how they were an eclectic mix of support and leniency. Her parents encouraged her to try new things, such as attending the after parties of Adam’s concerts, while also taking her passion for classical music seriously. Underneath their blunt conversations about life, a family full of love and support flourished. Her memories flashed back to when Adam was welcomed into their family, and to the support of her friends through her tough decisions. As the movie pans out, we learn that Mia will be the lone survivor of the car accident. She now has to decide who to stay with: Adam, her grandparents, and her friends, or her family who has moved on. In the end, she comes to realize that she still has a family among the living and decides to stay alive and fight on in her new world.
As I sat with tears streaming down my face, I realized there was a deeper meaning to my tears than simply the film’s sad circumstances. This film made me question what my points of reflection would be if I was in the same situation. What experiences would I relive? How would I feel about them? I sat in bed long after the film ended, contemplating the answers to these questions. Mia’s father’s wise words continued to ring in my ears: “Sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes choices make you”. I cried tears of joy and sadness as I sat reliving my life through memory. My wonderful preschool days, my dogs (Max, Amber, and Beau), our neighborhood’s 4th of July festivities, my violin recitals, building igloos in the snow, pizza-themed parties, late nights spent studying, frustration over schoolwork, giving up the violin, old and new friends, family deaths, childhood short stories and poetry, years upon years of volunteering service, short-lived painting, life on my own, and many more events came to mind. Though bittersweet in nature, I came to realize one thing: I will always have family.
Memories of all of the people who have been in my life came flooding in. My immediate and extended family, my neighbors, my friends near and far, my Youth Corps teammates, my hospital co-workers, my dormmates, my orchestra friends, my K-12 teachers, my wilderness camp co-explorers, and many more. As I sat in my bed reflecting, I realized that with every new experience, we join a family. A family of thinkers, of innovators, of professionals, of explorers, of musicians, and others. In this moment, I am forever grateful for all of my family. For those who pushed me to try harder, who comforted me through my challenges, and who encouraged me to be anything. The fog has been lifted, and I can clearly see all that I have.
Tonight I have realized that life is unpredictable: we have no way of knowing or controlling what lies ahead. But we have the power of connection to make it through. Whatever challenges and losses we face, we will never face them alone: “And that’s just it, isn’t it? That’s how we manage to survive the loss. Because love, it never dies, it never goes away, it never fades, so long as you hang on to it”.
©2015 The Wise Willow and Alyssa DeBella. All rights reserved.