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Courtesy of Hot Docs

The Way We Get By

A trio of troop greeters find joy and meaning in this documentary

By Jocelyn Bell

The Way We Get By
Directed by Aron Gaudet, produced by Gita Pullapilly and Warren Cook

Old age isn’t easy. The body breaks down, and mortality looms. Spouses die, and loneliness settles in like a fog.

And while each of the three subjects in The Way We Get By faces all of the above, an act of volunteerism gives their lives a purpose — in some cases, its sole purpose.

The story is based in Bangor, Maine, home to an international airport that is the last point of departure for U.S. troops heading to Iraq, and the first point of entry for those returning from battle.

Determined to give them a proper send-off and especially a warm and grateful welcome home, a group of seniors known as “troop greeters” meet the airplanes coming and going at all hours of the day and night, shaking hands and expressing thanks.

It is moving to watch footage of 76-year-old Joan Gaudet, the director’s mother and the documentary’s inspiration, head out in the wee hours to meet a 4:20 a.m. flight — bad back, icy sidewalks and walker be darned.

It is equally engaging to see Jerry Mundy, 73, wisecracking with the young soldiers when we learn he otherwise has only a dog for companionship. Or Bill Knight, 86, a Second World War veteran who never misses a flight even though he’s battling prostate cancer, bill collectors and a house full of garbage and cats.

While many of the soldiers are genuinely touched by the greeters’ presence, it is the greeters themselves who are transformed. Bill, for example, finally gives up his home and moves to a trailer — closer to the airport. Joan can’t bring herself to say goodbye to the troops because she fears saying the wrong thing or becoming emotional. But when two of her own grandchildren are due to leave for Iraq, she must find the inner strength to let them go.

At times the film plods, the slow pace of the story mimicking the slow pace of the characters’ lives. Watching a person organize a week’s worth of pills into the daily compartments of a pillbox can quickly become tedious. Maybe that’s the point. Life is monotonous; helping others is the spark that makes one fully alive.

To date, the troop greeters have welcomed 800,000 soldiers home to America. The irony is that when all the troops are back and there’s no one left to greet, these seniors won’t know what to do with themselves.

“I have nothing to live for other than what I do for other people,” says Bill in a tearful moment. “I’ve outlived my usefulness. Helping other people has put meaning back in my life.”

Even in old age, once you find your life’s purpose, it’s hard to let it go.

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