At the beginning of the movie, Sliding Doors (1998), Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) is fired, and we watch two versions of her life, one where she makes the train and one where she misses the train. As the two strands unfold, we learn in one version, Gerry (John Lynch), her boyfriend who she supports by working multiple jobs is a lying jerk who is having an affair with Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). In the other version, she immediately discovers his infidelity and builds a new life. All her efforts go toward discovering what makes her happy, what her best skills are, starting to date James (John Hannah) and building a new business. In the life with cheating Gerry, she finds clues that something is just not right but cannot see the final puzzle from the pieces just yet.
In Braver Than You Think, Maggie Downs starts a new chapter in her life by leaving her new husband to achieve her dying mother’s bucket list of travels. There are many cringe worthy moments during her year on the road. She gets repeatedly bitten by a monkey at Monkey Park, an animal shelter where she is volunteering and walks through the Bolivian town dripping blood only to discover the clinic has no clean needles. She buys unidentifiable antibiotics at the pharmacy with her limited Spanish and the veterinarian at the animal shelter stitches her up. She is a vegetarian guest of honor at a family home in Egypt served the delicacy of the fresh camel liver. Her travels reminded me of my years on the road, when the smells on the bus in India made me wish my video could record them but then I met school girls on a field trip at the UNESCO site in Hampi and it all seemed worthwhile.
At another low point, Downs travels in a group by van which has a flat tire, gets stuck in a snow storm where they nearly die and after the guides asks for tips, he abandons them far from their final destination. There are highlights throughout her journey, just like in real life and just like during COVID, some things work out but there are the hard moments of missing her new husband, worrying about her mom who has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember her and talking to her father who doesn’t understand her need for this journey especially now.
She chooses to leave everyone she loves to visit places she and her mom dreamed about in their monthly National Geographic Magazine. I left everything behind for a year in search of places. My then boyfriend promised to take me to Indonesia to see Borobudur Temple. I had dreamed of going for years. Unfortunately for me, I was so focused on that goal, I missed several red flags about our relationship. I did get to see the sights but the bad days outweighed the good. I chose to leave him and the trip after the puzzle pieces became clear to me.
In Sliding Doors, we watch the scenes with Gerry and then James which start or end in the same restaurant or bar, and it is clear how one moment, decision or loss, changes your entire life.
As Downs travels with different companions, her growing confidence is more apparent just as in the version of Sliding Doors with James, Helen makes choices that are good for her and in both these stories their efforts are challenging but fulfilling.
Jason Rosenthal writes in his memoir, “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me,” about his wife, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, their life and her death from cancer. As he said, “It is a story of love and loss but also of appreciating the joy, beauty, and vitality of life. A story of how you come to the end of one part of your life and find a way to turn the page to the next.”
Sadly, the treatments cannot save his wife and all their plans for their recently empty nest will not happen together. They built a beautiful life and he must continue in a new “sliding door” without her.
His book shares his journey of how hard life is after she is gone. Friends and family help with holidays, moving her clothes, going to graduation, but he must learn to plan family travels, give a TED talk, and keep living. Rosenthal creates The Amy Krouse Rosenthal Foundation which funds ovarian cancer research and childhood literacy initiatives in her honor.
He tells us, “How lucky are all of us who have been to the depths of intense grieving? We are the fortunate ones to have loved so deeply, or why else would we have such intense reactions to loss?” When a relationship ends, as happens in all three of these stories, we have to grieve, contemplate and begin anew.
During COVID, many people have had to change their career, their studies or their family life. People who were traveling constantly like me are now sheltering in one place. People who never had time for dinner together have had dinner together 290 nights in a row. Some marriages will not survive, some jobs we never imagined doing have appeared. It is as if we have all stepped through the sliding door at the same time.
What will you do with your chance? If your spouse died, or your mother died or you realized your partner was cheating, what would you want to do next? Rosenthal talks about “the Japanese tradition of kintsukuroi, the art of mending a broken pot with gold, making it even more precious than it was before.” Your life may feel broken but maybe it can be whole again in a new way.
I know when I chose to leave my marriage, it did feel like I stepped through the looking glass into a strange unfamiliar world. Just as in Sliding Doors as well Downs and Rosenthal’s memoirs, I had experienced a huge loss. And like Helen, I needed to build a new business, find a new home and create a whole new chapter in my life. Rosenthal told us that Amy’s motto was “Make the most of your time here.” Hopefully, you will do that with a team of support during the uncertainties of COVID and whatever changes you are contemplating. For me, it was scary. It took time. But, it has been worth it. Now that you can see more pieces of the puzzle, what will do with your fresh start?