There is a scene in Henry Poole is Here where the protagonist comes to a breaking point. Weeks before he was diagnosed with a rapidly fatal terminal disease, and he has come to spend his last weeks in a run-down house in the neighbourhood where he grew up, getting drunk and coping in relative obscurity and anonymity.
Of course, this being a movie, his life is quickly populated and complicated with and by a motley cast of quirky neighbours whose needs and sorrows quickly begin to erode his own self-pity. And then, of course, there’s the movie’s major plot device, the mark on the side of his house which looks to some (particularly the aptly names Esperanza) like the face of Christ.
For the length of the movie Henry has written off every miracle and happening as coincidence, and derided the face as being merely a stain. He resists, again and again, Esperanza’s entreaties to have faith, to believe, to reach out and touch the wall.
In the middle of the night, at his breaking point and filled with the pain of knowing himself to be dying and ultimately a source only of pain to anyone who loves him, Henry stumbles outside and faces the wall, reaches….reaches….
And then, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, he pulls his hand back before it reaches the face. Henry Poole does not touch the wall.
When I first watched this scene it touched me deeply—it was by far the most evocative scene in the movie for me. Because, you see, I understand. I understand why Henry Poole did not, could not bring himself to touch the wall.
Hope and despair are at war in such moments—hope says, “What if?” and despair says, “but what if not?”
I don’t know what the filmmaker meant to say in that scene. I don’t know whether the struggle I saw there is something the director or the actor brought to it. But I know what I saw Henry Poole face, and why he drew back his hand.
There before him was hope—but hope unfulfilled is worse than hope never dreamt of.
Henry Poole could not touch the wall. Touching the wall would mean accepting hope, accepting the possibility of miracles, and beyond that accepting the possibility that there would be no miracle for him.
I have stood so often before that wall: wondering, wishing, praying…almost, almost hoping. More afraid of the price of hope than of the emptiness of life without it.
For a God who can answer prayers is a God who, as is evident in this topsy turvy world of ours, does not always give the answer we hope for. A world where miracles are possible is also a world where Someone may choose (and does on occasion) not to send a miracle.
And what do we do with that?