In the movie of her life, Gail Werner reminds her Aunt Diane of the time when the car got stuck in the Grand Union parking lot and they had to walk all that way home. She tells her nephews and nieces and little cousins to find jobs that make them happy. She confesses that she and her sister knew all along where their mother hid the Christmas presents . . . In the garage, where each year the girls unwrapped, inspected and rewrapped them.
How would you tell the story of your life in video in under an hour? What would you include, and what would you leave out? It was an ambitious project and an urgent one because Werner, of Williston Park, has brain cancer.
Enter Kerry Glass, a former Long Islander living in New Jersey, who decided a little over a year ago that she was going to make movies for the terminally ill to give as gifts to their families.
Glass got the idea after a neighbor died. She knew little about the woman except that she was young and had two young children. They would grow up without hearing their mother's stories and without seeing her laugh and frown. The younger one might not even remember her voice.
Glass, 37, was a mother herself with two children not yet in elementary school, a shutterbug who shot hundreds of hours of video at family vacations and birthday parties. The former art therapist bought a tripod, a microphone and some simple editing software. She hashed out a list of interview questions to ask her subjects. She incorporated as Memories Live, a nonprofit.
Many of her clients had high medical bills, and she had no intention of charging them. Instead, she would take donations: $50, $100. One family gave her a better computer so she could edit faster. Most of these donations barely cover her travel expenses; they don't cover the six to eight hours it takes to edit and produce a movie and transfer it to DVD. But she feels like she is giving a gift.
The movie of Carol McCall's life arrived in the mail earlier this month, 3 1/2 years after she was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. Eighty percent of people with her diagnosis die within five years, her doctor told her.
McCall is 74, a widow, the mother of four and grandmother of 10 who teaches American history at St. John's University. Her chemotherapy regimen barely interferes with that, she said, or with her bridge or kayaking or water skiing. But the chemo is not killing her cancer, only containing it.
"I have no illusions about this . . . I've already lived much longer than I expected to," she said one recent afternoon in the Bellmore home she shares with her daughter, Maureen, Maureen's husband and their two children.
McCall was at first unsure about the movie, which seemed to her like a vanity project. But Maureen wanted it. "I wish we'd done one of Daddy," she said.
Besides, there were stories McCall wanted to pass on and preparing for the shoot helped her sift them, a process she calls "uplifting."
She wanted the grandchildren to know about the great-great-grandmother who staged a sit-in in Queens over a badly placed streetlamp. She wanted them to know about her parents, who gave her an archery set and a .22 rifle when her friends got dolls and toy kitchens, and saved to buy the lake cabin in the Berkshires that is still in the family.
Maureen has already seen the movie; the grandkids, who range in age from 2 1/2 to 11, won't see it until after McCall's death.
Her movie ends with a benediction. "You're good people," she says, and looks into Glass's camera. "Stay that way."
Glass and Werner made Werner's movie last fall.
It leaves out the parts about how she had to quit her job as an administrative assistant at a Mercedes-Benz dealership and can't drive anymore. How she is 40 years old and had to move back in with her mother, who takes her for an MRI every five weeks.
How she asked her doctor, "When am I punching out?" and he answered honestly: "It could be eight months. It could be 18 years."
The movie is about better times. She is savoring Jack and Cokes with her Uncle Pete, remembering her high school swimming career and a Florida vacation she took not too long ago, a few almost-perfect days of sand and water and a daily newspaper.
She likes to think that the people in her life will watch this and remember her. "I hope I'll never be forgotten," she said. "I hope I put enough dents in people."
But she hasn't yet watched her movie, and neither has her mother, Valerie Johnson, 65. It's a gift Johnson doesn't ever want to open.
"I live every day with the hope that she is certainly going to outlive me and she's going to beat this thing," Johnson said. "I think if I watched it, that would make me feel as if I were going to lose her. I don't want to think about that."
Awkward before butterflies
Werner said she was so nervous when she first met Glass that it was hard to talk - "like when an apple gets stuck in your throat," she said. Months later, though, they still keep in touch over e-mail. "I feel as if I have a new friend," Werner said.
Glass has made seven movies so far and said she still gets "butterflies" when she goes to a client's home. "I don't know where I'm going, who the person is," she said. "I walk in as a stranger and the first few minutes are awkward for everyone. They're telling a stranger their family history, the good, bad and ugly. But I leave as a new friend - an experience for me that's incredible."
And she is getting something too, out of this transaction. "Every time I get in my car, I'm on this high on the way home because I know I'm doing something good for these people," she said.