“My Wild Heart” isn’t a documentary about Alzheimer’s. But the disease is the guest star; a villain lurking in the shadows, influencing the storyline. It tries to interrupt the love affair between the stars, Nader and Mary Jane Vakili but, in the end, can only affect their time together. The romance continues, even though Mary Jane ultimately – and inevitably – succumbs.
This 55-minute film, directed by Colorado native, Erin Harper, doesn’t dwell on the incurable disease that steals Mary Jane from Nader. The focus is on the multi-talented Iranian native, Nader, whose career as a plant geneticist took him around the world. These travels, from Honduras to Vietnam to Iowa to Florida, exposed him to a wide array of native forests and trees, which enabled him – to this day – to pursue his second passion: wood carving.
Nader’s first passion was and is his wife Mary Jane, a librarian and trained musician, who serves as the inspiration for virtually all of the elegant sculptures he has created over more than a half century. She motivated him, kept the family and six children together on their journeys, served as his art consultant and life partner. Her Alzheimer’s diagnosis came in the last few decades of life and, at age 89, it claimed her just over a year ago.
The making of “My Wild Heart”
The film is told through the words and pictures of Nader and his six children, and images of his wife over the years. The trees he collected and transported around the globe are a constant. He has a vision for them all, and hope that his inspiration, Mary Jane, will hold on while his small forest is whittled and carved. She couldn’t, but Nader is rallying as much as his 93-year-old body will allow.
“She (Mary Jane) would sit out in the workshop while he carved,” said daughter Lily, who produced and co-directed the film about her parents and the family’s unique life together. “When (mom) couldn’t see him, she thought he was gone.”
As is not uncommon for family caregivers, the burden weighed on Nader. He suffered a heart attack while caring for his wife. Ultimately, he moved her into a memory care residence, carefully decorating her room with small statues – pieces he knew she would love.
Lily, a musician and attorney when not making short films, felt it was essential to make “My Wild Heart.”
“In my own strange way, making the film allowed me to spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about my mother and her relationship to my father’s art, revisiting family memories and talking to my father and my siblings,” Lily said. “We built entire family vacations around shoots for the film. I didn’t think of this consciously at the time but, looking back, making the film was a way of holding us together – keeping us talking about our family and keeping our mother in the forefront of our conversation.”
The loss of Mary Jane as wife and mother, which Lily and her siblings believe began as early as her late 60s as the disease began to manifest itself, affected the entire family.
“It was so profound in terms of one’s sense of identity,” Lily said. “If this person doesn’t recognize me any longer, am I still the person they loved?”
The Alzheimer’s connection
Like so many families before them, Lily, her father and the entire family struggled with how to cope and adjust to the changes in Mary Jane.
“It’s the rug pulled out from under you in slow motion over 20 years,” Lily said. “Organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association are really an extraordinary resource for families. That’s where you go to learn what the standard of science is, as well as the standards of care.”
Making that contact was an important step in understanding what lies ahead.
“As soon as you get that diagnosis, build a support team,” she said. “Talk to lawyers and doctors. Reach out to your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter. Find a support group. You’ve got a major mission in front of you when you find this out. Be transparent with people. Focus on care.”
Lily cherishes the times she spent with her mother, singing songs. Walking and noticing flowers and birds. If she could do one thing differently, it would be spending more time with her mom – time that can’t be recaptured.
“Sometimes caregiving takes you away,” she said. “Sometimes you feel not up to the task. What I hold onto now are the times we spent together.”
To see “My Wild Heart”
The documentary will be presented by Broomfield Film Project, in partnership with Denver Film Society, Oct. 9 through Oct. 18 via Denver Film Society’s Virtual Cinema. To see a trailer previewing the film – or to order a download of the film, click here
. To learn more about the making of the film, go to mywildheartfilm.com
The Alzheimer's Association leads the way to end Alzheimer's and all other dementia — by accelerating global research, driving risk reduction and early detection, and maximizing quality care and support. Our vision is a world without Alzheimer's and all other dementia.™ For more information, visit www.alz.org or call the 24/7 Helpline at 800.272.3900.