‘When I Walk’ Explains the Tragedy of M.S.

Jason DaSilva’s film, “When I Walk,”  begins with a fall. DaSilva appears to be a young and healthy man–the 25-year-old appears to be in fairly good shape and has a full head of thick black hair and only the slightest beginning of a pot belly. Yet appearances can be deceiving.

The fall is the first clear sign of multiple sclerosis that can’t be ignored. As he writes in his director’s statement, “I brought my camera along to film the get-together, but the footage we captured meant more than I could have imagined: I fell down, and couldn’t get back up. It was the very first time my M.S. made something in my life go completely awry, made itself visible and impossible to ignore.”

I wouldn’t help but think of a sunny day so long ago when my father fell. We were on vacation near June Lake. This vacation was the first and last our family would take together and we were taking it because my father had been diagnosed with M.S. He fell on the rocky shore and like a turtle, he curled up and couldn’t get back up.

We were young–all three of his children too young to drive, too young to work and too young to support the weight of our father and too young to fully understand the future. That image of my father, lying on the ground, helpless and betrayed by his legs sticks with me.

DaSilva recounts an alarming progression. He is only 25 when he receives his diagnosis. The documentary shows his progression from walking on the beach to using a cane and quickly trading that for a walker and then riding on a motorized chair.  He has taken the aging progression of walking to disability too fast and he explains how he feels both emotionally and physically, something my father did not burden his children with.

DaSilva has led, as his mother reminds him early on, a privileged life. He has made films since he was a young teen, he has traveled the world. Even after his diagnosis, he travels to India and Paris and, he reminds us, he has gone out with many attractive women.  Yet in India, he bitterly abandons a short film project as he finds his vision worsening.

Yet DaSilva also embraces life. I don’t want to spoil all the surprises in this documentary. One way he makes the most of his situation is by creating an access map (AXS Map) to share reviews of wheelchair accessibility of businesses, restaurants, entertainment centers and other places (www.axsmap.com).

Not everyone progresses as alarmingly fast from diagnosis to disability as DaSilva and my father did. Many you might see, surviving precariously. If you remember Annette Funicello survived many years (diagnoses in 1992) and only recently died of complications of M.S. (8 April 2013). People can look normal and in the beginning get around with only spells of disability, but those spells are woefully unpredictable.

My father’s condition sometimes made him look inebriated when he tottered uncontrollably around and attempted to maintain his balance. He must have felt like he was running although he was walking slowly just as DaSilva did.  Even as I child, I knew there was a deep despair over a loss of dignity that was colored with a worldly bitterness.

In the end, my father could barely speak and could only lie down in a bed. He died of a pneumonia. He must have, like DaSilva, felt his time running out and dreamed of all the things he was never able to do. He might have thought of lost opportunities.

At the beginning of our trip, I remember my father’s straw hat flew out of the window of his truck and went rolling down the highway. I wished we could retrieve it and when my father fell that day, I wished we could have somehow gone back and replay that scene.

DaSilva wonders about the mystery of fate and his future. This documentary is both loving (since in the end DaSilva depended upon his family to help him finish it) and brutal. Although my father died decades ago, there is still no cure for M.S. and with so many people living among us with M.S., the documentary serves as a window into their journey.

DaSilva has directed four short films and two feature-length documentaries, including this one. His short “Olivia’s Puzzle” premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. “When I Walk” was an official selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and will air on PBS in 2014 (P.O.V.).

When I Walk” opens at the Laemmle Music Hall on 1 November 2013.

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