In 1994, my wife and I were new parents living in Greenwich Village when I got a call that my mother, who lived in Chelsea, had just had a heart attack. I ran to nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital, arriving before the ambulance that would bring her. As I looked up 7th Avenue waiting for the flashing lights, a doctor approached and asked me if I was Carole’s son.
“Yes,” I said, “how did you know?”
“Well, you look just like her.”
Then he told me a story almost too remarkable to believe.
Years earlier he’d been a heroin addict living on the streets in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. “Your mom brought me coffee every morning and was kind to me.” Over time, she gained his trust. She took him to an NA meeting, then many more meetings, and then helped him into rehab.
I was stunned.
He went on: “12 years ago I was an addict living on the streets and your mother helped save my life. And now I’m a doctor in this hospital and I’m standing here waiting to help save hers.”
We never know our impact.
Over the course of my creative life, I’ve trafficked in broken, heroic mothers.
In “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” 500-pound Bonnie Grape leaves the house for the first time in years to go down to the courthouse to spring her youngest son, Arnie, from jail. She pounds on the countertop in the sheriff’s office, shouting, “Give me my son!”
In my film “Pieces of April,” after the Burns family abandons their trip to visit April in her run-down tenement apartment, her cancer-riddled mother, Joy, in a moment of defiance, climbs on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle and rides back to Manhattan where she reunites with her estranged daughter.
These two broken mothers each found their heroic moment.
My new film, “Ben Is Back,” is a love story about a mother and her recovering-addict son. I started writing with this central question: “What if the mother, Holly, was like Orpheus and was willing to descend into the Underworld to bring her great love (in this case, her son Ben) back to Earth?” So instead of having one seminal moment of heroism, she could make an endless string of determined, but often misguided, heroic attempts.
My mother, Carole Hedges, was my world until she walked out of our house when I was 7. Actually, she didn’t walk out. Alcohol walked her out. Around the time of my birth, she started to drink excessively and by the time she bolted, leaving behind four kids (ages 12, 10, 7 and 5), she was no longer herself.
Had my mother been sober, she would never have left her kids behind. She may have left her contentious marriage, but she would have taken us with her.
How do I know?
After two attempts at rehab, she went back for a charmed third time, and days after my 15th birthday, my mom had her last drink.
Why did it finally stick? A variety of reasons, sometimes it takes three tries. Maybe it’s because she nearly died. But I believe it’s because my heroic (20 years old at the time) sister, a non-drinker, volunteered to go through rehab with her. It was my sister’s unwillingness to give up on our mother that made the difference. My mom didn’t think she was worth much. But she certainly knew my sister was. And if my sister was willing to go through it with her, maybe she could do it.
And she did.
One day at a time for the rest of her life, my mother stayed sober and devoted herself to helping others do the same.
When I was younger, alcohol hijacked my mother’s heart and she couldn’t love us enough. For her last 22 ½ years, she loved us too much, which turns out to be my favorite kind of love.
Too much love.
It’s in that spirit that the fictional Holly Burns poured onto the page.
Everything good in my life can be traced back to my mother’s sobriety. She showed me that broken people can -- with the help of others -- turn themselves around.
So, yes, I wrote a script called “Ben Is Back” that I got to make with a bunch of remarkable artists and craftspeople. It’s an urgent attempt to deal with the heroin/opioid epidemic that is ravaging our country. The talented cast includes my favorite movie star, Julia Roberts, and my favorite actor, Lucas Hedges, who also happens to be Carole Hedges’ grandson.
I’m sorry my mother’s not alive to see the film, not only because she’d be proud of it, but because it turns out she’s the hero behind it.