Hallie Twomey sits during the filming of a new documentary about her son’s suicide and the thousands of people who volunteered to help scatter his ashes. Photo courtesy Spark Media

LEWISTON — In November 2013, Hallie Twomey posted a short plea on Facebook: Would anyone out there be willing to help spread her son’s ashes?

C.J. Twomey was just 20 when he died by suicide. His mother wanted him to have the adventures he had always dreamed of, but never got. And she desperately wanted him to know she would always love him and that she was sorry — sorry they had argued before he died, sorry she had not said “I love you,” sorry she did not realize he was in such pain.

“YOU MUST AGREE TO SAY THAT,” Twomey wrote on her Facebook page to prospective volunteers. “Because I am, and I need him to hear it as the last thing he hears before he takes off.”

Twomey, who lived in Auburn, hoped a couple of hundred people might offer to help.

About 5 1/2 years later, more than 22,000 people have volunteered for what she called “Scattering CJ.” With each packet containing less than a teaspoon — a small amount to allow C.J. to go as many places as possible — C.J.’s ashes have been scattered in 1,100 unique locations all over the world, including the Grand Canyon, Mt. Kilauea in Hawaii, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, Easter Island in Chile and the Notre Dame Cathedral in France. He has been to Antarctica, China, Fiji, Mongolia. He has been to space.

And in September, C.J.’s story will find a new audience when a documentary makes its world premiere at the Camden International Film Festival.

“I believe if enough people see it, that somebody will take something away from it that may help their situation or the situation of a loved one,” Twomey said. “Or even if they just sort of look at the world with a different set of eyes, that people can be kind and the world isn’t all bad.”

INSTANT CONNECTION

C.J. joined the U.S. Air Force soon after graduating high school. It was the perfect career for the active, outgoing young man who craved adventure, but when he did not make the cut for an elite special forces unit, C.J. made the tough choice to be honorably discharged. While he seemed to recover from the blow, there were signs he may have been considering suicide — though no one saw them until it was too late.

C.J. Twomey was an active, outgoing young man who craved adventure. Photo courtesy Twomey family and Spark Media

On April 14, 2010, C.J. had a fight with his mother in the living room of their family home. Although C.J. had a lot of ideas for his future, he was not moving forward with any plan, and his parents were worried.

In the midst of the fight, he got into his car, parked in front of the house while his parents stood outside and shot himself in the head.

For years after, his mother was consumed by grief and guilt. “Scattering CJ” was her attempt to give her son the journey he never got.

Twomey’s story first appeared in the Sun Journal in 2013, shortly after she issued her “Scattering CJ” plea on Facebook. Other news outlets, including The Associated Press and CNN, soon followed. The story quickly went national. Then international.

Andrea Kalin, a documentary filmmaker, heard about C.J. and his family from a British screenwriter more than four years ago.

“He had read in The Guardian, I think it was, about a scattering (of C.J.’s ashes),” Kalin said. “He said: ‘Andrea, I’ve never produced a documentary film. If I did, this would be the story I’d want to tell. I would love to co-pilot this.'”

As the founder and creative director of Spark Media, a Washington D.C.-based organization that produces documentaries to ignite social change, Kalin was busy. Too busy, really, to take up another project. But she agreed the story was powerful and decided to talk with Twomey and her husband, John, before making a decision.

“I think that first Skype call was close to two hours,” Kalin said. “I was so moved.”

From her side of the screen in Auburn, Twomey felt an instant connection.

“I’m not a spiritual person,” she said. “I’m not religious. I don’t really believe in fate and all those things. It was one of those moments where you sort of have to choose to believe that you were meant to connect with them. We immediately knew they were the ones meant to do this.”

In the summer of 2015, Kalin and her crew made their first trip to film the Twomey family in Maine. Years of trips would follow.

Filmmaker Andrea Kalin, left, and Hallie Twomey during filming of the upcoming “Scattering CJ” documentary. Photo courtesy Spark Media

Crew members filmed Twomey and her husband as they reminisced about C.J.’s big hugs and wide smile, as they talked about the day he killed himself, as they spoke about overwhelming guilt and crushing grief and the decision to scatter his ashes.

Crew members filmed C.J.’s grandfather and younger brother, Connor. They gathered photos and videos of C.J. as a baby, a boy, a young man proud to join the U.S Air Force. They spoke to some of the volunteers who had spread his ashes and said “Scattering CJ” touched their lives.

But filmmaking takes money, and feature-length documentaries can cost $150,000 or more. Kalin applied for grants. They did not come. She ran a crowdfunding campaign, but that raised just $18,000.

Kalin initially planned to drop the project if she could not get funding, but she found herself too moved by the Twomey family, too passionate about “Scattering CJ” and the story she could tell about suicide’s impact. She could not let the documentary go.

“So then it was credit cards,” Kalin said, “and anyone in my family who ever called, they were going to get a pitch.”

She estimates the documentary cost $175,000 to $180,000 to make, with no one on the crew taking a salary. In addition to credit cards and donations, Kalin used revenue from other projects to help keep the documentary going.

“Definitely not what I would call, like, a smart business venture,” she said. “I am not going to make anything back, that’s for sure. It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but it’s true: If we can actually help save some lives or redirect some lives, there’s nothing more worth it.”

While Kalin handled the financial cost of filmmaking, the Twomeys dealt with the emotional cost.

“I would do something one day and feel really good about it the next morning,” Hallie Twomey said. “And then the next time they’d come back and film, I’d be so upset that I said something or did something or maybe opened myself up too much.”

But filmmaking, she found, could be cathartic, too.

“There is absolutely nothing as powerful as being given the opportunity to just talk and say and do,” Twomey said. “It’s like therapy. Talking is powerful. I think it was a good thing. I think it helped.”

OPEN IN MAINE

During the four years it took to make the documentary, Kalin found herself with a personal connection to suicide.

“I’m in the edit room and I get a call from my son that one of his best friends had taken his life,” she said. “It just came home and I said I have to do this. I have to do something in this space in whatever way I can contribute by getting conversations started, perhaps through destigmatizing some of these things. Getting the word out or getting awareness raised. I’ve got to do something.”

Film poster for “Scattering CJ.” Photo courtesy Spark Media

Kalin threw herself into editing the documentary last summer. Even though she was all but guaranteed to lose money on the film, she could not help her devotion to it.

“I was editing, 12-, 13-hour days,” she said. “Literally, in what we call the cave. Anyone in my close circle, I would say, ‘I’m in the cave.’ Meaning I can’t talk, I can’t interact, you’re not going to see me at social events.

“I kept putting down certain interim deadlines — ‘OK, I’m not going to go further than this.’ But then I did go further than that. It just keeps gaining steam, traction in its own way. Then all of the sudden you feel like you’ve started, you’ve gone so far, I’ve got to finish what I’ve done and get it out there and hope that it does something,” Kalin said.

On Monday, Twomey announced over Facebook Live the documentary — also titled “Scattering CJ” — has been accepted by the Camden International Film Festival, and will make its world premiere there. The festival is Sept. 12-15. No showtime or date has yet been set for the film.

“The story started in Maine. … I wanted to open in Maine,” Kalin said. “I wanted that to be our first.”

Kalin has also sent the documentary to other festivals for consideration, including the fall Emerge Film Festival in Lewiston-Auburn. She also hopes to roll out the film to communities, military organizations and college campuses.

Kalin said she wants to pair “Scattering CJ” showings with workshops on mental health.

“I want some tangible outcome of the film,” she said. “That’s something that’s really ingrained in our whole filmmaking ethos here, to be able to have something that resonates beyond entertainment, beyond the screen.”

Twomey and her family have seen an early version of the documentary. She said she was not disappointed.

Hallie Twomey during the filming of “Scattering CJ.” Photo courtesy Spark Media

“I’ve been posting on the ‘Scattering CJ’ page (on Facebook) for so many years when someone sends me a video or a story, but then to pull it all together and to see it in a whole global sense, it’s just hard to put into words how it hits me in my heart in the best way,” she said.

“If I can’t bring him back, at least people will see this. I don’t know what they’ll walk away with, but I absolutely know they’ll be thinking of C.J. for a certain amount of time, and that is such a gift.”

Today, Twomey and her husband live in Florida, in an oceanside community that does not carry the bad memories that their old home did. They formally stopped sending out C.J.’s ashes more than a year ago, but Twomey still shares them when the right situation presents itself.

“Once in a blue moon, somebody will offer and it’s sort of the same way I felt about the connection with Andrea (Kalin) in the beginning,” Twomey said. “I don’t know why I feel the connection. It might be the person themselves and their story and why they’ve said they want to be part of this. Or it might even be something as specific at the actual location. I feel like there’s always going to be the possibility that we will continue to mail ashes once in a while.”

Twomey was overwhelmed by grief, regret and guilt when she posted her first Facebook plea in 2013. She said she has found ways to cope. She is not as constantly sad, though she has also gotten better at hiding her pain.

Twomey’s biggest fear used to be that C.J. would be forgotten. She worries a little less about that now.

“He couldn’t be here for any longer than 20 years, but his legacy is that he’s touching other people and making a difference,” she said.

 

 

 

 


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