“What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” is how Erich Segal’s “Love Story” begins. This best-selling novel was released just short of my 14th birthday on Feb. 14, 1970. Knowing nothing about love or cancer back then, I was nevertheless mesmerized by Oliver’s memories of Jenny.
I sometimes reread the novel from start to finish while drying my hair, which is how I ended up reading it dozens of times. Its story, in which a young woman falls in love and dies of cancer, never failed to move me. Then, on Dec. 16, a sentimental movie with Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal was released. My piano teacher also indulged me with lessons on how to play Francis Lai’s beautiful theme song.
I still have the sheet music to “How Do I Begin?” I pull it out sometimes to wax nostalgic with my piano keys.
What can you say about a senior citizen who gets nostalgic about “Love Story,” especially one who now prefers literature such as Anya Silver’s poems about living with and dying from metastatic cancer to pulp fiction? Since obsessing about Jenny’s love story as it unfolds until her death from leukemia, I am no longer young and innocent. I know so much more about love and death.
In fact, I have lost far too many friends and family members to cancer (not to mention people I admire from afar). I have also experienced cancer first hand. My introduction to cancer in a novel thus has grown to include wider and more worldly influences. Consequently, the last time I played the theme from “Love Story,” I began to wonder about how I would react to the story with more perspective.
So, dear reader, I did what is possible to do these days: I watched the movie again. Watching it on a smart TV in the comfort of my home, I was both spectator and researcher, curious to see what I had been drawn to as a teenager.
I simultaneously wanted to travel back in time and to witness the story with wiser eyes. The movie did not fail me in this exercise. (The only thing that surprised me was seeing Jenny give up her year abroad to study in Paris to marry Oliver, when Oliver could have taken a gap year and gone with her.)
In fact, one might have thought all my life experiences would have made me lose the ability to cry at the end when Jenny curls up with Oliver and dies after a photogenic period in the hospital. I did cry, though, with tears that taught me that 50 years can pass in the blink of an eye.
“Love Story” is a simple story, almost trite, but it is also a little profound.
Long ago, before hair dryers and movie theaters, Aristotle coined the term “catharsis” to explain why witnessing somebody else’s tragedy through performance is emotionally helpful. The tears we shed when we watch a tear-jerker like “Love Story” help us to work through deep emotions. While crying for a fictional character is not the same as crying for an actual loved one who dies of cancer, it does remind us that we are human.
Sometimes we just need a good cry.
Every death is different. Every complaint is just as different. Because grief evolves, I understand that that the grief I now feel for my brother John, who died of lymphoma a few years after I witnessed Jenny dying of leukemia when I read the novel, is not the traumatized grief I experienced at 20. Even so , when I cried for Jenny this time around, I cried for my brother and everybody else I have ever lost to cancer. I cried my heart out.
After the movie and my cry ended, I longed for my paperback with multicolored letters spelling “Love Story.” Wanting to curl up with it and a hair dryer, I went online to a used bookstore to find a first edition in order to try to recreate my hair-drying days of innocence when I knew nothing of cancer or lost love. But those days are long gone. I did not buy the book.
My trip down memory lane had come to an end. I am sure, however, I will continue playing the “Love Story” theme song on my piano now and then.
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