01/22/2016 10:44 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

What a Fictional Character Taught Me About Life

"A Lot of people enjoy being dead, but they're not dead really, they're just backing away from life." -- Maude

I was around 11 years old when our local Northridge movie theatre, The Peppertree, dug up the then 10-year-old cult classic, Harold and Maude and began to show it for a limited time. My brother Jack, a decade older than me, really wanted see Pink Floyd's The Wall, also playing at The Peppertree, so off we went to the movies. I thought the plan was that we'd watch a double feature together. Jack and I often did things together when I was a kid, even with the age difference, I always felt like I was one of his favorite people. He was definitely one of mine. But as soon as the movie started he whispered, "I'm going to sneak in to another movie. I'll meet you back here." And off he went.

I had seen movies before. Mom, dad and both of my brothers were all movie fans, but this was the first time I was left to experience a film, at a theatre, on my own. I didn't have much time to ponder this "on my own" concept for too long because soon I was lost in the vision on the screen. A man's shiny brown shoes, slowly, walking down a staircase. Close up on his hands now as he puts on a Cat Stevens record. The song sounded to me like a nursery rhyme with meaning.
Don't be shy. Just let your feelings roll on by. Don't wear fear or nobody will know you're there.

The man on the screen lights a candle and we see his face for the first time. He looks like he's the same age as my brother. That must be Harold.

But why is Harold so sad?

Just lift your head, and let your feelings out instead...

Harold gets up on a chair. He ties a rope around his neck and then he... jumps!
The music stops. His legs dangle.

He hung himself! Why would he do such a thing? The music was so happy! I don't understand! Then a woman walks in. I guess it's Harold's mom. She doesn't scream or anything. She calmly goes to her phone and dials it. And it's the kind of phone we had back then, the kind that takes forever to dial. The kind you actually have to dial. The dialing sound is the only music now. Finally she speaks softly with a British accent.

I suppose you think that's very funny, Harold.

Harold coughs or laughs or something. He's alive! Which is a good thing, because he's about to meet and fall in love with the hilarious, strange, wise, 79-year-old woman played by Ruth Gordon. My first spiritual teacher... Maude.

I spend the next 91 minutes in a Cat-Stevens-Maude-Enlightenment-Ride. It was like a fun classroom that was way better than any classroom I had ever been in. I remember later excitedly telling my mom, So Maude asks Harold if he sings and dances. And he said, "No." And she said, "I thought so." Because Maude, Maude sings and dances even when she's not singing and dancing, you know?

I loved Maude with all of my little being.

Reach out! Take a chance! Get hurt even! But play as well as you can. Go team, go! Give me an L. Give me an I. Give me a V. Give me an E. L-I-V-E. LIVE!

Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room.

Maude knew stuff.

It wasn't until years later, upon my ninth or so viewing, that I noticed the tattoo on Maude's arm. It happens so quickly, for an instant the camera pauses on her concentration camp number. It's never mentioned in the film, by Maude or anyone else. We don't even know if Maude's Jewish. Her Zen-speak could mean she's Buddhist. When Harold asked Maude is she prayed she said:

I communicate.
Harold asks, With God?
Maude replies, With life.

She may have been a free thinker, an artist, an awakened being. Any of the above could have made her victim to the nazis. So, here's this character who suffered at the hands of people and even so, when Harold tells her that she has a way with people she joyfully exclaims, well, they're my species!

Maude taught me that it's possible to survive pain and suffering and still keep on keeping on. Maybe even happily. Maude was better than happy. She was content. Content in that contagious kind of way infecting others with her calm strength. Maude's way of being in the world is the kind of thing that can confirm to an eleven year old kid that life, in all of it's weirdness and confusion, is still worth singing and dancing about.

My brother, Jack, died at the age of 41 after many years of drug abuse. My many attempts to help him didn't work and I was ultimately unable to reach him. I had to let him go.

Maude taught me something about that too.

As Maude lay dying in the ambulance, Harold held her hands and cried to her, pleading to her through his tears...

Harold: Don't die, Maude, for Christ's sake!
Maude: Oh, Harold, don't upset yourself so.
Harold: I love you. I love you!
Maude: Oh, Harold... That's wonderful. Go and love some more.