Hats and Passports and Moving On

On Monday, my son and his wife ushered a beautiful second daughter into the world, a process comparable in many ways, he noted, to helping his father/my husband out of life last November. Sitting bedside, hearing the breathing patterns, feeding encouragement, at one end breath expunged, followed by a terrible stillness and the onset of grief; at the other, an energetic intake of breath, a hearty kicking cry of life followed by rejoicing. Both amazing and frightening and life altering experiences for the privileged witness participants.

I wasn’t able to be there for the in-person rejoicing, as we’re in the full press of tech for two spring productions at USC. Someone, however, took a photo of Chris, holding the newly arrived baby, swaddled in her iconic blue and pink baby blanket, eyes closed. In the photo, Chris looks at the camera. Over his left shoulder on the sill of the hospital window sits his Dad’s blue Boston Red Sox baseball cap. In his eyes, the warmth of a life remembered and one anticipated.

Chris had brought his Dad along for the birth. Three years ago, Jimmie and I’d arrived from the airport about an hour after their first daughter was born. We’d all sat on that same purple couch, marveling at her perfection and the miracle of new life, then watched as she had her first bath.

Early days of Granddaughter 1’s life with Grandpa Jimmie.

Last weekend, we had tech rehearsals for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George in the Bing Theatre, and Susanna Centlivre’s The Busybody in the Scene Dock Theatre. Spring beckoned from outside, beautiful lush flowering bushes surrounding the Technical Theatre Lab. Periodically, I would roust myself from the hip-wrenching theatre chairs to walk the exterior perimeter of the lab, beginning appropriately on Bloom Walk, savoring the sunlight on my head, and watching the hummingbirds dart through the blue and pink flowers. Very restorative.

Last night, I sat and watched the second dress rehearsal of Sunday in the Park with George, house left in the Bing, our 551 seat proscenium theatre. It felt good to sit down because it had been a day. I came in and tossed down my backpack, falling into the comfort of the seat.

I’d started the day assisting the new Campus Emergency Response Team in their final training exercise, playing a victim in the Search and Rescue drill. There were nine of us, all but one of us CERT members from previous trainings: staff, faculty, even a local untethered middle schooler. We arrived at 7:30AM to get made up, bloodied, ready to play our roles and ready to do some serious schmacting, the kind of overwrought performances only non-actors can give. I eschewed facial blood because I had to run from the drill to film the welcome greetings for our incoming class of Production/Design students. I figured seeing the Head of Production bloodied or just looking dirty might not be a good message of welcome for them. Good call?

I’d been feeling particularly sad that I wasn’t at the birth of my second granddaughter the day before, so during the drill, I adopted two rescued CPR baby dolls with enthusiasm and purpose. Another participant, Michael, from the USC Hotel, embraced them, too, so while I came into the drill a widow, within a few hours, had two babies and a husband. Pretty quick work, my fellow victims laughed. I’m sure there is some embarrassing video and stills out there of our schmacting. Stay tuned.

Chris and I texted throughout the day, first in the morning, about his eldest daughter’s dour demeanor at breakfast. She had some particularly colorful words for her other Nana as she gruffly eschewed toast. I took the opportunity of being surrounded by the zombie apocalypse to film a little PSA instructing her to eat her toast, and what might happen if she didn’t, but Chris hadn’t shared it with her. She was busy coloring.

As I watched the start of Sondheim’s masterful treatment of art and love last night at the second dress, I thought of Jimmie, not just because Chris had texted me moving messages about the power of helping loved ones across the border from life to death and from birth to life, but because the actor playing George was wearing Jimmie’s straw hat. We’d found the hat on one of our vacations to Cape Cod, a straw panama hat with a black ribbon around the outside, with the prophetic brand “Sunday Afternoon” inside the sweat brim. I’d brought the hat in earlier this year, rescuing it from its ignominious resting place in a wooden magazine holder at home, hoping that the hat (and Jimmie) might have another go on stage, and sure enough, the costume designer designated it the place of honor. I watched the hat come to life again as George sketched studies of the characters on the banks of the river for his seminal work of Act I, Un Dimanche Apres midi a L’Ille de La Grande Jatte.

L. to R. Tyler Joseph Ellis (George), Luke Matthew Simon (Boatman), Liz Buzbee (Dot), Diego Dela Rosa(Baker), Shelby Corley (Nurse), Piper Kingston (Old Lady). Scenic Design by Mallory Gabbard, Lighting by Pablo Santiago-Brandwein, Costume Design by Edina Hiser, Projections by Derek Christiansen, Sound Design by Dom Torquato

Sondheim’s Act II meeting of 19th Century Dot with 20th Century George had me sobbing. Sometimes the confluence of art and love and life and events of life feels almost too strong to bear. But it wasn’t until after the dress rehearsal ended that I realized I’d been sitting in “Jimmie’s chair” all night. 551 seats in the Bing, and I’d plopped down my backpack in pure exhaustion settling into his seat to watch the rehearsal. Who says our loved ones are gone when they are gone?

Sheathed in it’s sleek red white and blue certified envelope, my new passport arrived earlier this week. I could barely wait to open it when I got home, backpack still on my back, ripping the top of the envelope to extract the smooth, navy booklet emblazoned with the gold eagle, turning quickly to the glossy photo page to see what this world traveler looked like.

Note to self: don’t take the photo immediately after a haircut lest you look like a newly shorn Maltipoo. While cute, remember that this image will follow you on your travels for ten years. But then, we’ve previously acknowledged my history of poor pre-Passport acquisition hairstyles. A few days later, the old passport arrived, retired by virtue of its expired date, and more evidently by its hole-pierced cover, now a testament of travel gone by, an archive of trips untaken.

The new passport, a beckoning scorecard for future adventures, a challenge to stretch from the safe commute of home to work to home. What if work can span the globe as it does for grandson George?

I’m sporting a new piece of jewelry acquired this week as well. Not quite the same message as Stephen Sondheim’s inspiring Act II number, but this, for the moment, is my new mantra. I’ve bought a dozen of these for dissemination to my “widow’s club.” Because while it’s not a club one willingly seeks membership in, it’s sure nice to have the support of others on the same journey.

Please join us this weekend and next at USC School of Dramatic Arts to see what our two current productions promise in the way of emotional border-crossing. Hope to see you there!

Tension Tamer

In the recent MFA Year 3 Rep production of Swimmers, by Rachel Bonds, within her architecturally clear human rabbit-warren-of-an-office building, Dennis, offers the new intern, Vivian, the opportunity to sit for a minute and have a cup of tea. Overweight, unhappy in his work, Dennis resorts to 20-minute naps in the bathroom every afternoon to kill time within the boredom of his day. As played by Gabriel Leyva Lezcano, Dennis gets mixed results with his sanity siesta, but nevertheless has time over tea to reassure Vivian that her workplace humiliations are minuscule next to his own.

His desk sports a huge display of Celestial Season teas, each one which he tantalizes her with good humored description. Half of us in the audience want to pull up a chair when he intones sibilantly, seductively:

Tension Tamer. Tension Tamer. Tension Tamer.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with significant pain in my back. It is physically real, but also exacerbated by tension and being sedentary. The pain has dug in its little claws throughout the first quarter of 2019. I’m seeing the chiro and this week, had a massage which zapped the pain completely for almost two days. Dennis’ invitation – “Tension Tamer, Tension Tamer, Tension Tamer” calls fiercely to me. Give me a cup, no, make that a whole pot.

Yesterday, the final day of Spring Break, happened this year to coincide with the worst week of scandal at USC (speaking of Workplace Humiliations), found me sobbing in my office after my office mate Hannah went off to a staff St. Patty’s Day pot luck. It was the first time since Jimmie died that I cried, ugly wrenching sobs with no way of stopping them. I was happy it coincided with lunch, so my misery was private. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t actually make myself a cup of Tension Tamer, the left over bags sitting in our tea shelf. It might have helped, but also, a good cry was probably long overdue. I don’t tell you this to evoke sympathy – oh, poor Els, but to let you know that grief is hard-heartedly autonomous in its course. There’s really no way to predict when you will be damp-eyed, or reduced to a full throated blubbering. Friday I was definitely “under the boat” to quote my niece, Martha’s analogy about grief.

Perhaps, too, I was mourning that last weekend’s pleasures were through, in spite of the fact this weekend was also jammed with fun things to do; Friday I found myself mentally distancing myself from all of them.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of hosting one of my dear friends and a fellow alumna from St. Paul’s School, Nora, who flew west to spend the weekend, and check in on me. In addition to doing some of the closer to home tourist things you can do in DTLA: dinner at the Original Pantry Cafe, riding the sleek elevator with no buttons to the Sky Lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, walking to the Grand Central Market, Nora and I sat for hours, often in our jammies, sipping our tea and coffee and solving the problems of the world. Before her arrival, Nora had conspired with our LA based SPS classmates to have dinner in one of their beautiful homes on Friday night.

Playing tourists in DTLA. Clockwise from Top L: Original Pantry Restaurant, in the lobby at the Intercontinental Hotel, and at Grand Central Market

Given the plaudits of some of our classmates, (many of us bear the same educational pedigree of Robert Mueller) that initially was fairly tension-inducing, but after settling in to chat about past and present realities, it ended up being the perfect antidote to stress and grief.

This weekend, I’d scheduled a phone call with my dear friends who I’m visiting in Italy. Our chat was something I was really looking forward to. I’ve booked the tickets, but still need to solidify the time/place within that two week span.

A walk in Descanso Gardens, again, something I’ve been looking forward to all week, but when I woke, pain tugging at my back like an impatient two-year-old whose parent is on the phone, I questioned whether I’d have time to sandwich it in.

The gym, I’d scheduled at 9:30 but was an event my back seemed to have other feelings about. Beginning with the decision to go to the gym right after my chat with my pals about Italy made the day turn around. Later, still sweaty from my workout, I met my Merry Widow Master Gardener friend Jennifer at Descanso Gardens to see the tulips which are in bloom.

Tonight I’m off to the theatre with another friend to compare notes on the world and enjoy the remaining hours before Spring Break is over. I think Jimmie would approve of my current philosophy: say yes to everything. Even if it means having a good cry now and again, followed by a cup of Tension Tamer tea.

Jimmie watches calmly in a playground in Santa Barbara last summer.

Between the Bubble Machine and the Sobbing

The other morning I dashed from the gym to my eye doctor’s office to pick up my new glasses, you remember, the Gwen Stefani frames? This pickup happened to coincide with the arrival the night before of some new togs I’d ordered on sale at Macy’s. As I drove home in the gestating traffic from Burbank to DTLA at about 9:00AM, I pictured my stylish new self cutting quite the swath through the morning air as I strode into my office.

I arrived home, pretty rank by this time, having gone sweaty into the car in my down jacket. Due to the atypical inclement weather in L.A., I’ve had it on for almost three weeks without respite or laundering. Ew, you’re saying. Peeling off the offending jacket, I greeted my cleaning lady, who was off in the bedroom busily stripping the bed of it’s sheets. As I called her name, I saw her coming toward me, face splotchy, guiltily swiping the tears from her cheeks. We embraced; I tried to console her, she tried to recover, but we both knew I’d caught her grieving. And me, temporarily dry-eyed, looking toward my day clad in my new persona, the classic “growth vs. grieving” moment.

I went off to work and I guess the glasses were a lot more stylish in my mind than they are in person – no one noticed them. Granted, the decor is on the inside of the frames, with only a glint of red visible at the temples.

Do you like my Gwen Stefani glasses?

To which the universal response was ‘meh.’

Wednesday, I attended a Visions and Voices event, Enchanting Aging: Inspiring Awe and Meaning in Late Life. Writer and MacArthur Award honoree, Anne Basting, came to share her research about the intersection of health care and culture in an appropriately fashioned joint event between the School of Dramatic Arts and Gerontology. She began her lecture by defining Awe and Wonder, and asking us all to turn on our cell phones and text someone the following question:

What gives you a feeling of awe and wonder?

She instructed us to text the question to someone we knew well and then mute our phones. She promised that later we’d be able to share the responses.

Predictably, Chris’ response was not “a walk in the woods or the snow carpeting the woods” but merely, “What?” And then a rude quip about something completely unrelated to awe or wonder followed by a smiley emoticon, tears pouring down its face. What can I say? Maybe we didn’t raise an awe-er, but he does have a fair amount of wonder-ing going on most of the time. And a great sense of humor.

Dr. Basting’s recounted her work (her website is www.timeslips.org) in an illustrated presentation, the bold splashes of colorful humanity on Gerontology’s fancy LED display. She brings the rigor of her scientific exploration into fierce and joyous communion with her artistic practice, much of it with the Sojourn Theatre Company. There were more than a few moments of awe and wonder experienced by Wednesday’s audience. She asks compelling questions: How can we deepen the cultural and human experience of people in long term care (both residents and providers) by creating collaborative and creative spaces to share that humanity? It can be done, and the results are inspiring.

Her talk described how awe can minimize our egos and wonder can maximize our search for meaning. She had a dandy diagram which I unfortunately didn’t capture to illustrate this. I bought both her books and look forward to learning more.

One of the stories she shared grabbed my attention. She detailed a pre-production walk-through of one of the nursing homes with the director and production designer for their upcoming production of the I Won’t Grow Up project in three care facilities in Kentucky. As they walked they indicated where they would place the bubble machine, then came around the corner to discover a couple in their 60’s sobbing in each others arms. Forgive me while I mangle exactly what she said, but what I heard was that in these creative care settings, where we seek to buoy people’s emotions with a shared uplifting experience (metaphorically the bubble machine), we also need to remember and respect the underlying grief and profound loss that also resides here. Don’t all of us reside squarely between the bubble machine and the sobbing?

In the Q & A period following Dr. Basting’s talk, a student behind me raised her hand and shared that she’d recently lost her grandmother. She became emotional, and in the way that we recent grievers tend to do, laughed through her tears and apologized that she “wasn’t over it yet.” Her admission made me tear up more from the obvious expectation she was inadequate in her grieving, the idea that she should be over it. I wanted to reach back and tap her hand and let her know we were with her and didn’t expect that she recover on some societal timeline.

My dear friend Susan sent me the most beautiful and apt poem that I’ve shared with some profligacy already via text message to my Widow(er) Club. Delivered within a Sermon written in 1910 by Henry Scott Holland on the occasion of the death of King Edward VII, it is entitled Death Is Nothing At All.

Death is nothing at all. 
It does not count. 
I have only slipped away into the next room. 
Nothing has happened. 

Everything remains exactly as it was. 
I am I, and you are you, 
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. 
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. 

Call me by the old familiar name. 
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. 
Put no difference into your tone. 
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. 

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. 
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. 
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. 

Life means all that it ever meant. 
It is the same as it ever was. 
There is absolute and unbroken continuity. 
What is this death but a negligible accident? 

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? 
I am but waiting for you, for an interval, 
somewhere very near, 
just round the corner. 

All is well. 
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. 
One brief moment and all will be as it was before. 
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!


Source: https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/death-is-nothing-at-all-by-henry-scott-holland

What the poem gives us permission to do is carry on with the current life, secure in the knowledge that our loved ones are all around us. This is profoundly comforting.

And so I’m bubbling on with my new life. This week was full of contrasts. I shared an intimate dinner at the Pacific Dining Car with Hal Holbrook and his companions, Joyce and Juan. Hal is such a national treasure, such a passionate practitioner of the theatre, and I feel so fortunate to spend time with him, much of which is spent reflecting on the past and our Jimmie.

The next night, I had my first solo dining out experience at Fred 62, a diner on Vermont. Thursday, I’d witnessed the beautiful and collaborative care that Hal cherishes while enjoying a beautiful piece of halibut on a succotash of delicate vegetables. Last night, I felt my own strength and fearlessness in my new solo role while eating a crunchy grilled cheese sandwich with a cup of warm tomato soup. Then I wandered down the street to the Skylight Theatre to see Boni Alvarez’ America Adjacent. The on stage scenario he reveals is not illustrative of any outlined by Dr. Anne Basting, but Boni’s play is a full throated celebration of his heritage, and all of our yearning for the elusive American Dream.

Somewhere between the bubble machine and the sobbing, perhaps we’ll find it.