Those weeks Sanjeev and I needed no company. We were in the inspiring presence of Spartacus, a formidable slave-turned-gladiator whose revolt resulted in the Third Servile War in the 70th BC. Netflix, a fast-speed broadband and the Roman Republic in our drawing room was what completed our evenings.
Spartacus commanded to a life of death as a slave, carrying the vengeance against the Romans for having had his wife taken from him, refused to die! What moved us about Spartacus was not just his undefeatable fighting skills which grew as he battled and learnt from each opponent that fell to his sword but also his deep sense of kindness and empathy in a field where cruelty was the only language spoken and understood. The slaves were trained through whiplashes and dark holes only. The first season ended with Spartacus bringing down his master’s house to flee to freedom with 70 others. The lead role of Spartacus was played by the handsome Welsh-born Andy Whitfield.
We christened an unhurried evening to start season two and at the appointed hour got back to Netflix with a huge bowl of makahana the Indian substitute for popcorn! To our dismay, the lead character had changed. Andy Whitfield was no longer playing Spartacus. It took us at least 3-4 episodes to get used to the new character and in all fairness he was good but Andy Whitfield had won our hearts and there was no changing loyalties. No other show could hold our interest after we were done with all four seasons of Spartacus. We flitted in and out of a few shows when Netflix suggested a movie with Andy Whitfield’s face on its cover image because of course, it knew our ‘past viewing preferences’. The decision had been made. Another bowl of makahana and we were all set to drool over our one-season-wonder-hero. It was then that we realized that the movie was a documentary tracing the journey of Andy and his fight against Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma…by the time Andy got to know about it, it was on the fourth stage! His cancer was diagnosed just as he had finished shooting for the first season!
Andy lived for eighteen months after the cancer was first diagnosed. Be Here Now is a filmed diary of his battle with the uninvited and aggressive tumour that did not relent. He was declared cancer-free in June after the first round of treatment, but a medical check-up, required for insurance purposes revealed the cancer back and worse than before. It had been just three months when the first set of chemo had been administered. It was then that the couple decided to get their journey down via a documentary. They believed it to be a winning battle then as the doctors assured them that the success rate of it’s treatment was 80%. In the days to follow Andy proved to be in the unfortunate 20…
As the cancer began failing Andy’s body and spirit the documentarian Lillibet Foster asked the Whitfield’s if they would like to stop filming. From being ‘mostly treatable’ they now knew that the dreaded growth may end only with his life. Lillibet offered them space and privacy to deal with the debilitating pain without the continous peering eyes of the camera.
The couple decided to go ahead with what they had initiated and no it was neither for fame nor money. In fact, the documentary was funded by the fans fundraiser kick-starter where the Whitfield’s posted updates on the disease’s progress. ‘When we found out that Andy still had cancer and he was no longer in remission, he very much wanted to use this part of his life and journey to do something more purposeful with it’, Vashti, Andy’s wife, said in an interview. The documentary was created to inspire others facing similar challenges while pushing to accelerate the pace of cancer research.
The way the family dealt with the cancer was as heroic as it was graceful.
Whitfield and Vashti got matching tattoos on their arms that read “Be Here Now.” Andy says in an interview, ‘In my heart, I am convinced that this is all meant to be. I’m supposed to be right here right now and I’m open to the journey and to the discoveries and to the adventure of all of this’. Be Here Now according to them was about ‘being present and not fearing what you don’t know.’
Andy went through 11 rounds of Chemo and six weeks of radiation, his body taking the thrashing of the toxic chemo as well as the pain induced by the very aggressive cancer. Eventually, they ran out of all treatment plans and Andy was given, ‘three to six months’.
The couple kept up with their promise and allowed the filming of even their most private and difficult moments. One such shot will be etched in my heart forever. It’s about the call with the latest PET scan results. The couple look at the clock and the phone alternatively, the tension thick and palpable even through the screen. As the small hand touches 11.55 the phone buzzes. Vashti keeps it on speakerphone as Angela breaks the news. “The PET scan results are not good at all”, she says and we see the couple take a deep breath as does Angela before going ahead. ‘The big lump in his abdomen is still there, where he had radiotherapy. And also looks like he has it in two new areas in the chest. It is not good news at all, not a good picture”. Andy asks if the new growth is lymphoma too and the doc confirms it saying that they were dealing with a very difficult lymphoma. More radiotherapy was unlikely to change the picture.
The couple thank her for the call and Vashti runs her hands on her husband’s back and asks him, ‘How do you feel honeybun?’
‘How do I feel?’ says Andy and the shot was neither filtered nor staged. It carried the pain and weight of what they had just heard. ‘My cancer has spread. And that is the one news I did not want. I thought if it was the same, then it was the same. Nothing worse. I am in the same position. I could go from here. But for it to have spread it is really frightening”.
‘They are a bunch of words. If you believe in them and put weight in them they will become our reality”. Vashti puts her hand on his.
‘It’s never dull’, she says… Andy hugs her tight and she responds as only two people who have loved each other deeply and know how exactly the other is feeling can. To me, it was one of the most touching moments in the documentary. How Vashti could find something positive to say even in the light of the most crushing news and how Andy, in circling his arms around her, told her that there never has been anyone closer or more loved.
The very next shot has Andy speaking as he often did on his own without anyone present. He said that to hear that there was no further treatment felt in a way liberating. ‘I feel like I am excited to be in control of it. And I think the main thing is control, a thing I haven’t had…’
As I watched this documentary- sadness, pain and vulnerability, so courageously and openly laid out for others to witness, I felt a connect. A connect to a couple I have never met, a connection because we have all felt the fear of losing a loved one. I was filled with immense gratitude, for it showed me what really matters in the larger scheme of life. And what doesn’t. For showing me that love helps ease the most trying pains, that one has to accept what fate has dealt. Somewhere in the movie Andy says not accepting brings fear and anger, accepting love and compassion, towards the ones with us, helping us in our journey. In another shot he says, ‘ I hear people complaining that they can’t run the Trilithon because they have injured their leg and here, I have cancer.’ I thought about all the times I have shamelessly raised a fit at the littlest inconvenience. In another (after one calming and detox visit to Rishikesh) Andy says, ‘I am going back to the mentalness of the west’ and I thought about our inheritance of yoga, of cleansing of meditation of non-mentalness and how it is just a doorstep away if we want to access it.
And mostly the couple made me aware of what we choose to show and what we keep guarded. How we keep our weaknesses locked in, vulnerabilities bolted behind tight masks while we exhibit every delight, each victory, small or big or even inconsequential indulgent moments. We showcase celebrations over and over again on social media, on coffee with friends, or to our colleagues at work. To what end? To show that we are the luckier, smarter, more blessed? I am not saying we build walls to shield ourselves from possible hurt of others, I am saying we showcase only the happy stuff… Why are we not comfortable sharing our softer moments, our vulnerabilities? Would that not lead to deeper connections? More honest?
Coming back to Andy there is one last shot that I want to speak about. It is when Vashti gets the children to bid him a final goodbye at the hospice and how Andy prepares them for the inevitable. He says, ‘I am going to heaven soon because my body is really broken’. ‘Why daddy?’ the boy asks. ‘Because my body is broken like that of a butterfly with its wings broken, it can’t fly anymore. It has to go. But don’t worry I am going to go up in the sky and every time you need to see me I will be there.’
And he is there through the documentary teaching us to fight with dignity and when the time comes to let go…