Nana on the Train

I’d boarded the train, and was seated in my roomette, Car 1433, Room 8. Though Wifi was advertised, please note that this was the suggestion of wifi, proving to be extremely spotty (hence the delay in this post). I had an idea that I’d listen to Pandora, but it quickly became clear that wouldn’t be happening. Hmmm. let’s see if I can save my drafts….

Saturday morning, I arrived early at Union Station with my new suitcase and backpack, enough time to get a cup of tea before boarding the train. When in Union Station I always feel like I’ve stepped back to the 40s, with the Deco chandeliers gleaming overhead, and the solid wooden upholstered benches corralled by brass stanchions burnished by time and heavy use.

I’m brandishing a new do, having gone to the Barber Punk’s, a loft salon that Chris turned me onto the day we walked around DTLA, and tried to take care of our own needs. I teased the Barber when I got my latest haircut that she’d cut my hair to Chris’ specs. She went in quick with the #2, before I could say, “Wait! I think I’m a #3!” As a result I look a little like “an escapee from Synanon” which was my Dad’s phrase when I did the #2 over my entire head one summer before I headed off to college. My niece, Niki, encouraged me to not ever forget my lipstick and earrings…. At Barber Punk’s, appropriate notes have been made to avoid this result next time, and since hair always grows back I’m not concerned.

The roomette was smaller than expected, based on my virtual tour of the Amtrak website, but of course, doh!, one only needs to imagine two roomettes that are the width of a train to realize what the reality would be. Spacious for one, I can imagine with two people and luggage it would be a challenge. The conductor was a little heavy on the horn, as we breezed through Simi Valley on our way north. The train was remarkably quiet, the ride smooth and soothing, the sun beaming in on the opposite seat, lighting up my bag of Christmas presents. Lighting up my anticipation of the next few days of travel and arrival.

Here’s the good news. Everything’s included in the ticket price for a Superliner roomette – all food, including dining car reservations made by the train attendant, who sported a shiny metallic Michael Kors purse when she came by to take the reservations for lunch and dinner. 12:15 and 6:30 were my choices, and I remain pleased with them. Especially in retrospect, when the full holiday capacity of the train delayed the later diners by hours. Some didn’t get fed. The dining car was behind me about six cars. Ricocheting off the walls as I walked through the cars, several of them festooned with Christmas lights, took me back to my train trips in Italy in my early twenties, and the disastrous and comic timing of our arrival in Pisa (our destination) when I was about four cars away from my luggage.

The view outside changed from urban industrial, outside Union Station, to Valley industrial (just a bit less graffiti), to the rocky outcroppings of Simi Valley, before we attained the ocean vistas near Santa Barbara. Nothing between us and the water but rolling banks of ice plants. (Forgive my horticultural inaccuracy – but it looked like ice plant to me….)

Traveling solo can be daunting. But on a train, it’s easier because you need to eat and eating is a community table activity. As they noted frequently over the loudspeaker, “if you are a party of under four you will be making a new friend.” At Day One lunch I sat with a young couple on their way to Portland for the holidays, and a woman about my age, on her way to Seattle, her son joining her on the train in San Francisco.

At the end of dessert, the awkwardness started to wear away and I introduced myself by name. Once I shared that I taught production in theatre at USC, the young man across from me, knuckles tatted and a trademark logo (R) behind his right ear, eagerly disclosed that he was a production manager for rock tours like Metallica and we discussed the complexities of the automation involved in these tours. Rather, he discussed them and I listened with interest.

Back in my roomette, with the darkness came the sense of isolation and loneliness that Elizabeth Harper Neeld addresses in her book on grieving. The emotional loneliness of missing the person you’ve shared everything with for fill-in-the-blank-years, and the societal loneliness of finding your place as a soloist in the world. as the light faded from behind the hills, I found myself dreading the trip to the dining room.

In fact, recently, I didn’t attend a party to which I had been invited and had accepted. I realized that it was the flying solo part that was too tough.

My grandfather once told us a self-deprecating story about how he’d wanted to learn how to fly and took lessons in a small single engine plane. The way I remember the story was that he was returning from his solo flight, and after landed the plane successfully, he stepped out of the cockpit, and right through the wing of the plane. That was the end of his flying career.

I didn’t want to do that at the party – step through the wing of the plane on my first solo flight. And so I didn’t go. On the train, my re-integration into the world was necessitated by my neatly planned appointments to eat. I met some fascinating people, two young animators (WB and Disney), a Metro LA employee and ferroequinologist (my word, not his). It was simple. We were defined by our destinations.

I’m getting off in Portland.

I’m going all the way to Seattle.

Our destinations precluded ever having to talk about my new status as a solo traveler, recent widow, griever, etc. No one on the train ever knew I was going through anything until I slipped with a kind woman traveling with her two sons, by mentioning I’d been reading a lot on the train, and she asked me what I was reading. Uh oh.

A book on grieving.

Fortunately, she didn’t follow up. I appreciated that.

This is where I’m at at seven weeks. Fear of the future, fear of the past, fear of facing the necessary steps to make myself whole again. Excitement about learning to fly solo.

The train trip was a chance to reflect. In between naps. After lunch Day 2, when I woke up from a nap, the rain which had earlier tear-streaked the windows outside had changed to snow, and the deep accumulation chilled the windows to my left. I felt snug inside, listening to classical music and typing furiously.

Chez Pa-niece

I lost interest in cooking and eating after Jimmie died. It felt like the natural progression – he stopped eating, I stopped eating. Eating afterwards felt disloyal in a way as it’s such a confirmation of living. And grief has a weight of its own that I hadn’t remembered. It draws you down and convinces you that you need less to survive. Once you eventually get hungry, you realize that it’s also not as much fun to cook for one as it is for two, which is an added disincentive to cooking and eating.

So when Jimmie’s niece, Niki, asked if I could help her out by having her stay for two weeks with me, I quickly agreed. Not only is Niki an accomplished chef, but she is a creative and intelligent woman. I knew that she would be busy with her own outside work while she was “in residence,” but I also knew having her there would be a tonic. And it was. 

When I say Niki is accomplished I mean she’s really accomplished. She studied at the Culinary Institute, worked for six and a half years with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in the Bay Area, being sent to the American Academy of Rome as one of the first visiting cooks as part of the Rome Sustainable Food Project. She has built a healthy resume as a personal chef for many distinguished clients. Through these clients as well as through her many residencies at Salmon Creek Farm, she manifests a passion for sustainable and healthful eating, and an appreciation for interesting artists and people in general. She’s got a healthy skepticism about the trappings of wealth and a facility to hold her own amidst her clients. I have no doubt that Niki is as interesting and talented as any of them, but with a quirky self-deprecating twist, and an insatiable curiosity about the world. She extrudes confidence in the kitchen as easily as she presses garlic, and watching her in my humble kitchen zone was a privilege during her two week residency.

I first met Niki when she was about six; she and her sister Gina came to New York with their Grandma Claire, Jimmie’s sister. Their visit coincided with the early days of our courtship; in fact, they arrived the morning after I’d spent the night at Jimmie’s Upper West Side apartment for the first time. I remember this with the clarity of smell-o-vision because I’d draped my jeans over the living room chair and one of Jimmie’s cats, Flicka, had sprayed them to make them hers; when I rose to get dressed in the morning to meet his nieces, the pants reeked. Chagrined, I’d borrowed a pair of Jimmie’s jeans, which were way too big for me, and my corroding memory loops a rope belt around my waist a la Ellie May Clampett to meet Jimmie’s sister Claire and Niki and Gina for the first time.

The weekend was wonderful, getting to know Claire and her two granddaughters, by the side of the boat pond in Central Park, and walking Jimmie’s scholarly German Shepherd, Jasper around the Upper West Side. I had no idea at the time how accomplished they would both become. Gina has become a landscape architect of great renown, and Niki a top flight chef.

This Niki demonstrated many times during her two week visit: the morning she offered to take over the scrambled eggs task I was just beginning, presenting me about ten minutes later with a beautiful french rolled omelet with fresh broccoli and onions. I think she had noticed my morning regime of Ninja smoothie, and however healthy it was, it clearly wasn’t holding me over. There was the Sunday night she prepared us swordfish and potatoes. And the fresh chicken soup, with home-made broth, an array of perfectly-cooked vegetables, with separate gluten-free quinoa pasta deftly added after microwaving the soup and a parsley pesto oil to put on top. Or one of the last nights she was there, cleaning up the fridge and making a delicious curry with chick peas, carrots, celery and tomatoes.

In between the cooking, we puzzled together over the woes of the world, the challenges of surviving a catastrophic loss, and how to make people value your work more. Our life seminars played out over the pieces of several puzzles over the two weeks. Here are some of the pictures from our favorite, Reader’s Paradise. As we worked the puzzles intricate bannisters, we fantasized about dropping into the library once it was assembled on the gold tablecloth.

 

We geeked out over the carpeted stairs, the array of different types of bannisters, the stacks of children’s books. We stayed up way too late, figuring it, and all the issues of the world, all out.

Niki’s visit was perfectly timed in my early weeks of grieving. She provided a dash of modeling independence and courage, a splash of silliness, a rasher of empathy, and daily affirming hugs which telegraphed that my emotional ups and downs were normal and welcome. We happily whiled away the two weeks leading up to both of our departures for the Christmas break. In the last day, we started on the 1500 piece Kodak hot air balloon puzzle which now sits on the dining room table, ready to take me into 2019 still puzzling about this new world I find myself in. Over the break, I demonstrated a bit of what I’d learned from Niki about chicken soup to my son and his family.  Thank you, Niki! IMG_1409

Understudy Rehearsal

Stage managers, in the course of their work, frequently have to put actors into a show when circumstances arise that prevent a regular actor from performing. Plays have understudies, who are contracted to start, usually a week or so before a play opens. This means stage management begins rehearsals during the preview week, when rehearsals for the regular show are happening during the day, and previews at night. Everyone is exhausted at this time in the production arc, but Stage Managers know that it is critical to have at least one, if not two rehearsals that week. That way, the understudy can go on “on book” – an occurrence one wouldn’t wish on anyone, but a legitimate state of performing per our Actors Equity Association rulebooks. 

This way the producers are covered if someone gets sick, or has to leave the show abruptly due to occurrences like the ones that underlie this post. And stage managers know how to rehearse actors to put them into shows. We know the blocking, we know the intent of each scene, the director’s desires. On more complicated shows, we’ll create tracking sheets for each actor, so that if we have to insert them into the show, we know how to run a pick-up rehearsal, including just those parts of the play in which our understudy will be featured.

When you get to a certain age, you’ve accumulated things. If you are fortunate, as I am, you’ve accumulated good friends, close family, a comfortable workspace with supportive colleagues. But there’s one thing I’ve only become aware recently of how many I’ve accumulated, and that’s widowed friends.  I have a plethora of the widowed in my life.

Men and women; just counting on my fingers, I have two full fists of friends who’ve lost their loved ones, their spouses, their life partners. There’s a range of loss from 35 years ago, to 18 years ago, to 8 years ago, to just a few weeks. 

With all the other widows and widowers, I have turned my face and ear to them as a sunflower turns to the sun, drawing in their experience and wisdom, their references for books, thoughts about memorials, and life ahead, about clearing clutter. Surely that will make the path through grief easier, if it can be done. Why not do your research and make it more tenable?  And I bask in every ray of their singular and collective light as it illuminates renewal, a time when the pain is less, and when I know what my new path is. Who I am alone in the world. What my purpose is.

But it is the week-old widow (WOW) who speaks loudest to me. She and I have uncannily similar situations. Both married to actors more than thirty years older than we; both theatre workers. Neither of us religious, nor afraid to tell the truth about our circumstances. Both with irreverent senses of humor. Now we share a date of grieving that I never would have wished on either of us. But now that it is a thing, it provides me, and I hope her, with some solace. The morning of Jimmie’s birthday, while I was helping some neighbors decorate our lobby’s Christmas tree, she sent me a plaintive text that her partner had passed away.

How are we ever supposed to get over this?

Boy is that the question of the month?  And with the question came the turning point. From sunflower to sun, not that I presume to know a scintilla of what my widowed friends know, but I could keep company with her, and being three weeks ahead on the learning curve, I could share what I knew. 

And so, with my WOW friend, right in the middIe of my own “production,” I had the tracking sheets, at least for the first three weeks. I knew the blocking, the intent, the emotional pitfalls that might confront her. I knew I’d be able to push her around “backstage” and help her make her entrances.

A good stage manager allows the understudy to bring themself to the part. To interpret to a certain extent the lines so that they fit them and they can inhabit them gracefully. 

There’s nothing graceful about a five week widow. Trust me. But my WOW friend is a strong woman. And we have the history that allows us to speak honestly to each other about how we are doing. That’s a huge gift. 

One of the first things I had to confess was my obituary bitterness. Granted, I didn’t know the first thing about placing an obituary in the newspaper. Apparently, it’s something that should happen that day or the next day at the latest. I waited a week, only prompted to do so by my brother. Now my very dark advice is to write your obituary now so you’re ready.

Two days after I got the text from my WOW friend that her partner had passed, I picked up the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and saw his obituary in both papers. 

But see, those are the kinds of things you can say to an understudy. Both to help them through the terror, and also to make the process as fun as possible. Believe me, putting an understudy on is fun compared with this widow’s work. And to further impress you with the strength of my WOW friend, she conducted a real understudy rehearsal about 5 days after her own loss. 

I’ve started going to the theatre again this week – first to see Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring Jefferson Mays at the Geffen. He’s really terrific, as are all the production values. If you can get there this week, try, because it’s the last week. My friend Jill warned me about the opening of the show, where a dark Victorian casket sits center stage, surrounded by black feathers and haze. People are very thoughtful. That wasn’t, as it turns out, a trigger for me. 

Last night I went to Come from Away at the Ahmanson Theatre, the most exuberant and life-affirming show I’ve seen in years. You’ve got longer to get yourself there. It plays until January 6th.

Last Sunday, I went for a hike with my WOW friend and another Stage Manager pal who is not on the current understudy track that we are on. Instead, we walked for five miles in Griffith Park, up and down along the North Trail, the Bee trail, admiring the morning sun and talking about life in general, and the two of our’s newly widowed status. When I got home I was sore, but felt a sense of accomplishment from the hike to remind me that I was indeed alive. Painfully so, but good pain this time. 

People are kind and considerate, calling, texting, what’s apping (sorry Mr. Strunk, I’m sure that’s not a verb)…. Life goes on. We turn our petals to the ever increasing sun and await instructions. Building our new tracking sheets to better be prepared for future performance. My WOW friend and I stand together strong in a long tradition of life and living after death.

Jimmy Tomorrow

Today it’s been a month since Jimmie died.

Jimmie came home from the Neptune Society. I called them Monday morning, after making my chili for the Chili cook off, a festive and competitive annual event thrown by the production students. Then I called the Neptune Society and they said Jimmie was ready for me to pick him up. It’s been a strange few weeks of limbo, not really knowing where his corporeal body was. It was clear and wrenching from the moment he left that his spirit was no longer there. I’d experienced this phenomenon twice before and regardless of what I believe about the afterlife, I know that the human spirit is free of the corporeal at death.

I inveigled my colleague, Hannah, to drive with me to Sherman Oaks, where the Neptune Society is, on Ventura Blvd. and Woodman, a hop skip and a jump away from our home of 10 years in Valley Glen. It was right around the corner where Jimmie and I bought the really comfortable 7′ long yellow couch we had for years in our bonus room, and I was reminded of how many emotional touchstone points there are in a life and in a city when you start to drive around. 

Retrieving “him” was surprisingly quick, signing some papers, and receiving Jimmie’s cremains in a plastic box in what I noted looked like a Crown Royal bag. Others who saw the picture more kindly said he was clad in theatrical drapes fabric. It was emotional being reunited with him, after 15 days of limbo, not knowing or being able to visualize where his body was.

Hannah drove back to school, Jimmie “sitting” on the floor between my work boots. I reached down occasionally to caress the strings that closed the bag. When we got back, I eschewed the chili cook off – all I wanted to do was go home and have lunch with Jimmie. I didn’t think the students would appreciate my showing up with Jimmie to the cook off. Talk about traumatizing. 

Home we went. “We” had some clam chowder, Jimmie’s favorite, (No, I didn’t put any in front of him) and he rested across the table from me  in his seat, watching me do some administrative paperwork with the death certificates I had also picked up. Now that there was at least a physical representation of him in the apartment, I felt better, more grounded. Not alone.

Later that evening, I watched TV, cradling the blue box in the crook of my elbow, chatting with Jimmie about how crazy the news has been and about the prospect of the rain that would be coming later in the week. It felt good to be reunited.

Tuesday evening, I attended the holiday party in my building. I knew it would be difficult as it was the first time I’d gone alone at that event, and though I’m on a friendly basis with many of the home owners, social chit chat is a bit fraught right now. I lasted about 45 minutes at the party before I felt a deep, gutteral grief uncapping somewhere in my solar plexis. It happened, as it is likely to, when I was talking with someone who knew Jimmie and who was expressing concern about how I was doing. I felt my face reddening, and I blurted out, “I think I have to go now,” and quickly scurried away, the emotional magma rising with urgency when I hit the outside patio. Once I was in the elevator, it came, hot and fast, and by the time I got to the apartment, I was sobbing uncontrollably. I quickly undressed, putting on the fluffy white robe that a friendly lesbian couple had given to Jimmie and me on our 30th anniversary weekend at the Langham.

As I’d been warned by so many of my widowed friends, experiencing the grief is essential and necessary. I sat on the edge of my bed, looking over at the photo of Jimmie, one taken during The Ice Man Cometh (1986) of him as Jimmy Tomorrow, which, due to the angle of the camera, allows his eyes to follow me where ever I go in the room.  Behind him sat the comforting blue box, and  in front of them both, I sobbed and tried to gain my breath. Ten minutes went by until I was spent, and then I went to look for something else to do. 

Fortunately, one of my friends had noticed that we had set up a holiday puzzle in our office to work on at lunchtime, and knowing what had transpired in my life, had thoughtfully purchased two puzzles for me to take home. I had just brought the Broadway Musical Puzzle home that evening, and so cracked it open to begin working on it. 

I’ve done winter puzzles every year for as long as I can remember. They are always intrusive to our small living space, because they take over the dining room table. This time, underscored by Broadway show tunes, it was the perfect invasion of color and the graphic comfort and familiarity of all those show posters spread out on the table like so many old friends. I made a cup of tea, and before I knew it, three hours had gone by and it was time to go to bed. And I was soothed and ready to sleep, under the watchful and protective gaze of Jimmie Tomorrow.

The Grieving – Aqua Alta, the 14 Coast Starlight Express and Mixed Metaphors

The days are jumbled together, with continual kindness the watchword. During the first week back at work I started slowly, spending the bulk of the first day entering petty cash receipts and doing equally unmindful tasks, trying to remain mindful. 

It’s a treacherous thing to wade back into the world after such a major loss.

Side note/Metaphor alert- I lived in Venice, Italy for a year after college, and in the winter during Aqua Alta (high water)  we denizens of Venice would put on our hip wader boots, and go to market, walking the boardwalks through the public squares (campi)  throughout Venice. Like the dance of the umbrellas through the narrow streets (calle) of Venice, one learned how to navigate so that you could pass people on the boards without plunging up to your waist in the water on one side or the other of the boardwalks. It was how you made your way to the necessary daily events amidst the extraordinary and haunting hassle of this flood of a magical city.

The first week back to work, donuts aside, felt a little like I was navigating the Venetian boards. I’m aware, and not in a critical way, because I get it, that some people are only able to walk by and salute you for being “on the boards”, while others will stop and fully acknowledge the depth of the waters all around you. My students, for the most part, were in the first camp. I knew they were glad to see me, but were unable to speak of what for them was the unspeakable. There were, of course, exceptions.

Perhaps they were being kind and not wanting to see me lose it, or perhaps they didn’t want to/couldn’t think about the lapping waters of death around their feet and the flimsy supports that keep us all out of the depths of despair and loss.  Okay, I’ll curb the metaphor before we all have to don our waders. It was just interesting to observe it happening. And yes, I did lose it several times during the week when someone acknowledged the depth of the waters around us.

But remember the words of my wise widow friends – you are either in the boat, or under the boat. Either way, you are where you are and you can’t resist or the flood of grief will last longer.

I remember coming away from years of sessions with my psychologist after losing my mom, knowing that words are words, feelings are really just feelings and they ultimately won’t kill you unless you overreact to their emotional impact. (Forgive my privilege as I recognize I’m likely shortchanging serious sufferers of the power of those emotions). 

What’s been lovely were the social events that happened this week, my dinner with Lynn and Christina, where we laughed and ate healthy food, then walked to the roof of Lynn’s building to survey the sights (see top image) and make silly faces. I only wish I’d captured Christina’s response to the stairwell…. 

Trust me, the silly faces were cute but I don’t want to risk being killed by my friends for sharing them here.

I made it through the week, facing with dread Jimmie’s birthday, which fell mercifully, on a Saturday. I knew I’d be a basket case anyway, so chose that day to clear the closets. 

There are those of you who probably think I must be cold or unemotional to remove his clothing so quickly, but actually I find myself gasping for space, for breath, for liberty from stuff. Stuff is stuff, it’s not Jimmie. This was his special birthday horoscope yesterday. I made chocolate cake in a cup to celebrate. I knew better than to make a full sized chocolate cake and have that lying around but it felt important to honor his favorite dessert.

Spooky, right?

My widow pal Jennifer, thoughtfully invited me to dinner at her house on Jimmie’s birthday, which she knew would be a tough day. It was so lovely to be in safe hands where our shared experiences sustained us both. 

When you go from caring for someone 24/7 the trap is to fill the 24/7 hours with activities. I did a bang up job last week doing that. I can see from my calendar that I’ve done the same for the coming weeks. I’m showing up. I call myself, affectionately, “Spectral Els” because I have a short attention span, a goofy good humor which is filo dough thin and can erupt into sobs at the least provocation. Consider yourself warned.

At the advice of my friend Tina, I’ve booked a train ticket to Seattle to join Chris and Whitney at Christmas.  A sleeper car and 33 hours to contemplate life as a soloist. Occasional people are starting to ask about what I’m thinking about the future.  I’m still treading the boards over the Aqua Alta, and that answer is way ahead when things start drying up. But I sincerely thank you for caring and for not being afraid to ask.