The Lake House

I couldn’t imagine anyone I’d rather spend my 60th Birthday with than my friend Bob. Well, any living anyone. Arguably our friend Susan, but she was happily ensconced in CapeTown and a three day weekend wasn’t practical from that distance. I jumped on a plane Friday morning, my birthday itself, and spent the day in transit, via Denver and some seasonably tricky winds, landing finally at La Guardia Airport, well on its way to being “the New LGA.” At one point, a flight attendant leaned over in the dark conspiratorially, and said, “Happy Birthday! Would you like a drink to celebrate?” Little did she know how fraught a question that might be for the not-so-newly-sober, but I said, no, thank you and went on reading. I landed at 11:53PM, with a scant seven minutes of my fifties remaining, grabbed my luggage and began the long trek down the sidewalk outside the baggage claim area, lined with the huge yellow columns proclaiming TAXI with arrows pointing forward. I think I turned sixty somewhere on that walk to the Shuttle Bus to the Taxi stand, in total disorientation and confusion; I’m sure this isn’t indicative of the state of my sixties to come but was appropriate for the transitional moment itself.

I bet you’re wondering why you are on a bus right now….

So began the announcement that played to pacify us during the five minute drive to the Taxi Stand, and indeed it did, as they described the future beauty and ease of our taxi rides into Manhattan. Smart marketing, I’d say.

It’s been about 4 years since I was in Manhattan, June of 2016, the last time after my husband’s and my last trip to Chatham, when we came down to New York to visit a gallery where my Aunt Irene’s work was being exhibited. Jimmie and I stayed at the Algonquin, and had a great time, aside from our very difficult experience seeing The Humans, and I took this shot of Jimmie in front of the Broadhurst Theatre, the site of his first Broadway show, Romeo and Juliet, in 1951, starring Olivia DeHavilland.

We visited The Met Museum, had dinner at the Algonquin Round Table, though we were only about 2/3s a table worth of brilliance and wit, and had an amazing family visit there.

This trip, however, was about celebrating a benchmark age, as well as spending time with Bob who has recently lost his partner. It wasn’t about getting notches in my theatre attendance belt, though that time will come again, but about visiting Bob and their son Nathan. If I’m entirely honest, I also had a secret agenda, to see the lake house. I’d forgotten that January 18th was Mitchell’s birthday – he’d have been seventy, and so I realized I was definitely meant to be there to mark that moment, too. As anyone who’s lost their partner knows, first birthdays after loss are emotionally fraught, both for the quick and the dead.

Bob was receptive to our driving north to the Lake House, and so we got in the car, with a fuzzy flannel blanket very similar to the ones that I’d draped over my knees at the hockey rinks as a hockey parent. Bob opened the front door of the car to let a very excited Springer spaniel, Layla, up onto my lap, where she sat for the next hour or so, in various paroxysms of excitement, agitation, and passivity. She was extremely attentive to all the turnoffs, watching as Bob’s steady hand hit the turning signal, squeaking excitedly as we turned onto the Taconic Parkway, where she began to do full on girations in a standing position on my lap. Bob helped push her into the back seat.

I wasn’t aware that was an option, I intoned drolly.

The snow had begun to fall in Manhattan as we were leaving the city, cascading in big fluffy flakes, doing their best to stick to the road and forests that lined the Taconic. Finally we arrived, and the beauty of the spot took my breath away. The lake house was the love child of Bob and Mitchell, and everything about it speaks to the strength of their partnership and their teamwork. I’d been familiar with the virtual version of the house through our frequent What’sApp video chats, but the huge windows, elevated and overlooking the lake was a perspective that I’d not appreciated for its actual power or beauty.

Now, as I sit at the desk overlooking the water, trees swaying gently in the afternoon breeze, snow atop the overturned canoe and dinghy down by the water’s edge, I can’t imagine a more perfect place to be, to live, to write. I’ve watched throughout the last hour the open water on the lake closing under a meniscus of nascent ice until there was just about a foot left. Earlier this morning, two of Bob’s neighbors breezed in at about 8:00AM, with a freshly made almond paste stollen, and we sat and sipped coffee companionably before beginning their ritual walk with Layla in the lead, around the lake. I had a true appreciation for the danger of the ice, since over the flaky sweet buttered pastry and hot, strong coffee, Ruth had shared her story about falling through the ice one Monday morning in another January, while snowshoeing across the lake. She’d been out on the lake the day before, with all her children, and the local ice fishermen. Monday, it was she alone on the ice. I marveled at how calm she remained through what must have been a terrifying experience. She dropped her ski poles under the water, pushed her snow shoes up onto the ice, then, channeling a recent National Geo show she’d seen about how seals came up from the ice pushing forward with their flippers until their bellies were up on the ice, slid out of the water onto the ice, continuing on her belly to the lakeside where she grabbed at the reeds to pull herself up onto the land. A neighbor, who happened to be a first responder and had fortunately seen her fall into the water arrived, shoved her into his brand new truck ignoring her consternation about getting his new truck wet. He drove her home, dropped her in her clothes into the shower for an hour, standing guard outside, then helped into her bed where he covered her with blankets and she shivered for the next 10 hours. Needless to say, she doesn’t snowshoe on the ice anymore.

Now, as I watch the slow encroachment of the thicker ice into the open water, I have a new appreciation for the perils of country living. I’m no less envious about the view from these windows, however, and the promise of natural beauty to guide one’s mindfulness and appreciation for the natural world as well as one’s creative endeavors.

Our morning walk around the lake, a perfect three-mile junket, was still and cold, but at a pace which belied the slushy conditions of the road. Layla did a good nine miles to our three, dashing about like a mad person after squirrels, other dogs, and just bounding with joy through the woods around us. Eventually, we dropped off Bob’s neighbor at her house, basically about half-way around the lake, then continued on, taking some as-of-yet-untrod paths through the snowy woods to avoid the local highway. We arrived back at the house with a fresh appetite which another piece of stollen quickly satisfied.

Yesterday, we paid homage to Mitchell by coming to the lake, Bob’s building a hearty fire in the stove, then making venison chili, a tradition of theirs with the largesse of their neighbors to the north. Bob had brought with us his Japanese daruma doll; the mystery of which’s eyes had become filled in remains, but the quicker you burn the doll and buy the new one, the quicker you are on your way to fulfilling your dreams. I think of this one’s import as the cleansing of our losses and renewal of our lives. Perhaps it means there’s a lake house in my future.

FBKBWB Gifu, Japan. 17th Jan, 2016. A Buddhist monk throws a Daruma doll into the fire during Daruma Kuyo, a doll burning ceremony at Dairyu Temple in Gifu, Japan. People buy the dolls, which are thought to bring good luck, at the start of the year, and burn ones from the previous year. 10,000 dolls are burned during the ceremony. Credit: Ben Weller/AFLO/Alamy Live News

Phoenix Rising

When last we left Nana, she had boarded the big green bus run by the South Tahoe Airporter and was speeding her way up from the lake’s edge to Reno, to fly to Washington, D.C., where she would visit her father and stepmother for the New Year’s celebration.

Freshly showered, latest Grisham book in hand, I boarded the first of two flights from Reno to D.C., enjoyed reading a bit, something which had eluded me for the past week. I relaxed into my seat on the United Flight to Los Angeles, which is only an hour, and best intentions falling aside like the book into the crevice of the seat, I immediately dozed off into intermittent sleep. I had promised myself that I’d finish my blog in L.A. while waiting for the red-eye to DC, but found I was quite content instead reading my book and relaxing in the crowded anterooms in LAX. I boarded the 10:45PM Sunday night departure with other bleary-eyed travelers, all of us anticipating a solid 5 hours and 10 minutes of sleep. At least I was, sure that with no nurseling or tot to worry about, I’d soon be out. The flight was full, and all seats and overhead bins bursting with folks heading to the nation’s capital.

The following morning, after a pricey cab to the Northwest district, I arrived at the home of my stepmother and my dad. I entered the cozy foyer, and immediately sat down to have breakfast with them, as though I’d never left since my last visit in July. They have an orderly life, attended by a loyal staff who’ve been with them for about thirty years. There is hardly a metaphoric point further flung from Tahoe than here. Complete tranquility and care for the next four days, which I was very much looking forward to.

I’d finished the Grisham (highly recommend it, too – The Guardians) – and eagerly launched into Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a novel I’d heard people raving about for weeks. Within the first 121 pages, I was struck by a quote which underscored the topic of uncertainty about the future that my coach and I’ve been discussing of late:

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.

Ann Patchett, The Dutch House

I stopped and read the quote a second time, a third time, a fourth. It had fallen almost like a love letter out of a long unopened book, and I settled into my chair to consider the happenstance of reading such a missive at this time. Just my recent two weeks of travel, visiting my son and his family for Christmas, and now my Dad and his wife for New Year’s is completely foreign to me. Traveling alone is simple, unencumbered. I would always have preferred the encumbrance of my darling husband, but I now embraced the efficacy of traveling alone.

Over summer, I’d signed up for TSA Check, and this was the first trip I’d successfully used it on. If you can call successful being stopped with a half full water bottle at the checkpoint, which I vociferously denied having, then being escorted around and coming through again for two agents to scrutinize the screen and discover a very sharp work-knife in your purse successful. I do, considering they could have done a full cavity search at that point, and they didn’t.

The five days in D.C. was lovely. I’d told my Dad I didn’t want him to fill up the time with activities, that I knew I’d be exhausted and would just like to hang out, and he followed my wishes. Aside from the three squares we all had together each day, we did a few errands together; I accompanied him to get out some stitches at the dermatologist’s office, marveling at how he knew everyone’s name in the office and used it, causing broad smiles to come over each staff member’s face. Unbiased of course, I’d say my dad is a charming guy, and it was great to see he hasn’t lost his touch with people. He has an uncanny ability to meet someone and to know their life story within fifteen minutes, then to hold onto that story like a pit bull with a rubber toy. This is probably a function of his having been a charitable foundation grantor for years; that work is about making relationships with people and determining if what they do or want to do with your foundation’s money is within the guidelines of that foundation’s mission. He’s never lost that flair for finding out what makes people tick. I’ve always admired it in him.

We took a trip to PetSmart, all three of us, to select two new finches for Sally’s indoor aviary. The zebra finch and society finch hopped about trying to evade capture by the young woman at PetSmart, but when they were inducted into their new home, a good 10x larger than their cage at the store, they tweeted happily and flitted about the aviary with joy.

I took two rambling hikes in Rock Creek Park, the first, where I felt accompanied by my dear friend Susie at my side as I walked through the well-marked trails, slipping on the leaves occasionally in my inappropriate hiking shoes, red leather Clark’s moccasins. On the New Year’s Eve day hike I took, I resolved to do fifty hikes in 2020, so unfortunately couldn’t count that day’s hike, but it felt good to get out and move my legs after a few days of complete lassitude.

On the second day of the new year, my dear friend Liz came up from Annapolis to visit me at the house. Liz and I have known each other since we were about seven and eight, respectively, and lived about .08 mile from each other in Greensburg, PA. Our escapades were too many to recount, but included much creative “free play” on the acreage of her family’s home, flinging Barbies into the tiered ponds to “swim,” serving and drinking tea in the tiny log cabin playhouse, picking so many beans from her father’s vast garden that I once thought when I went to sleep, I would see only beans in my dreams. Like Patchett’s Dutch House, Liz’s family’s house in Greensburg had an almost mythic status for me which stuck with me for years, and I would visit its magical spaces in my dreams throughout my twenties, and even occasionally in my thirties.

Academically, I followed Liz from the Valley School of Ligonier, to St. Paul’s School, but diverged as she went on to Stanford and then back to Pitt to get her medical degree. She’s been practicing Emergency Medicine for thirty years, and that was one of the things we kept marveling at during our spectacular visit – how we’d gotten to be in the sixth decade of our lives in the blink of an eye. Both with families, and grown children, successful in our fields, far away from the little midwestern town where we’d percolated as children.

What’s wonderful about staying connected with a childhood friend is the dissipation of time that happens when you reunite. You’ve come a huge distance, with full lives lived between the 53 years between the time you met and now, but it’s all telescoped into a comfortable understanding of who you are together and apart. There’s no need to try to impress; she knew you when you were nine and stupid enough to slam the door of the pool house, inciting the wasps behind the hex sign on the door to chase you around the pool and back in again to sting you both multiple times before you both realized you should jump into the pool. You’ve attended her wedding, and she’s watched from afar your husband’s life celebration. You’ve both been working mothers and wives, with busy careers and family life. You’ve harbored hopes and dreams for your partner and your children, postponing conscious self care so that at 60 it is an entirely new topic to discuss. And you do discuss that topic with ferocity like how you chatted at night trying to fall asleep during that thunderstorm, lightening and thunder ricochetting off the ceiling, as it split a tree just down the hill from Liz’s bedroom. Fears about real and imagined boogiemen have populated our conversations and letters for over fifty years. How is that possible?

The image that I’ve been thinking of recently is the Phoenix.

…a unique bird that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle.

a person or thing regarded as uniquely remarkable in some respect.

The conflagration of the past two years or so is more or less out, smoldering a bit but effectively over. Charred, a bit wounded, I nevertheless feel the upward draft of the fire’s residual flare. Feet charred, I feel willing to rise above the wreckage to fly, like Sally’s finches, to discover new relationships, to listen to the air currents, open my flaps, as it were, to explore who the new me is.

In this next decade of discovery I’m suspended in the golden amber of past discoveries, magical spaces, and the fealty of noble friendships past and present.

Dear 2020, help me to recognize the opportunities as I encounter them to become uniquely remarkable in some respect, and to recognize and perhaps create the thresholds of inspiring new spaces that beckon me to creative inspiration.

Early Christmas Present

This Christmas I’ve done better than last, when I had no heart for shopping, for thinking of others. Last year, I licked my widowly wounds, spending the holiday in Seattle with Chris and his family at her Dad’s place. I remember feeling both there, and not – feeling as my friend Bob recently called it, “ashy.” The state of knowing that you inhabit your body but don’t quite know how to make the limbs move, or how to move with intention because you’re without a partner to fuss over, to find the perfect present for, to strive to make the holiday special for. This year, I combined cleaning out the storage unit with bringing the tree supplies up really early – a week before Thanksgiving. I put the tree up, and turned it on, and it hasn’t been turned off yet. No worries – it’s rabidly artificial- not even attempting to look like a natural tree. Yes, it has the familiar conic shape, it’s green, but there the similarity ends. It has sixteen settings of LED lights, the last of which is the one I like – amber static lights. I think there’s probably a karaoke plug-in for the tree if I hadn’t thrown out the manual. Yesterday I mailed all the packages to my Tahoe family members so that I can breeze in Sunday with just my makeup kit like a glamorous Hollywood starlet from the 1950s.

Keeping a journal has been helpful in getting my feet back under me this year. My formerly tamed stationery fetish recently raised it’s ugly head, and as though on cue, my ex-neighbor, Chewy gifted me with a small bucketload of Paper Source journals, of many sizes, all entwined with flowers, a pack of floral pencils and a pen to match last week when we went to see Jitney at the Mark Taper Forum. The journal entry from that night records the richness of our outing, from discovering we were sitting behind Al Pacino and in front of Stephen Tobolowski and wife, Anne Hearn. We ran into many SDA colleagues, and set designer Joe Celli and that was all in the front of house before the play began. On top of those happy reunions, seeing Ruben Santiago Hudson’s muscular production of Wilson’s 1970s Pittsburgh was so satisfying. I know the play well, but from behind the scenes. I ASMed the last time Jitney played at the Taper, directed by Marion McClinton and starring Carl Lumbly (Booster) Shabaka Henley (Doub), Russell Hornsby (Youngblood) and Willis Burks II (Shealy). One of my jobs off stage right was to apply a spot of blood on the cheek of Stephen Henderson’s Turnbo when he ran out the door after being slugged by Youngblood, and then returned with his gun waving it like a mad man. I was so pleased to see Anthony Chisholm reprising the role of Fielding – having his gravelly-throated way with the sartorial sot – the man’s a comic genius. When he tells Becker’s son, Booster, newly returned from twenty years in prison about his wife (22 years gone), he made me laugh and cry again within a span of two minutes.

FIELDING

You got to have somebody you can count on you know. Now my wife . . . we been separated for twenty-two years now . . . but I ain’t never loved nobody the way I loved that woman. You know what I mean?
BOOSTER
Yeah, I know.
FIELDING

She the only thing in the world that I got. I had a dream once. It just touched me so. I was climbing this ladder. It was a solid gold ladder and I was climbing up into heaven. I get to the top of the ladder and I can see all the saints sitting around . . . and I could see her too . . . sitting there in her place in glory. Just as I reached the top my hand started to slip and I called out for help. All them saints and angels . . . St. Peter and everybody . . . they just sat there and looked at me. She was the only one who left her seat in glory and tried to help me to keep from falling back down that ladder. I ain’t never forgot that. When I woke up . . . tears was all over my face, just running all down in my ears and I laid there and cried like a baby . . . cause that meant so much to me. To find out after all these years, that she still loved me.

August Wilson, Jitney, Act I, Sc. 3

So, like I said, I’m filling my days with spectacular events rather than things. I visited at the Posthumous Party for Eddie Jones on Saturday, reconnecting with so many of our old friends from Interact Theatre Company. Tonight I participated in an active shooter drill at USC. My theatre training gets me all the plummy roles – I got to make the first call kicking off the drill, and the primo seat in front of the Campus Center to watch the drill unfold. Better than Christmas shopping, I quipped, down in the ballroom as we awaited instructions.

Busy is better than not busy. In moments like my bus ride home tonight, Carla Bonoff blasting in my ears, reading a book on Leadership, pausing to think about my upcoming Christmas travel, I recognize that I’m jamming it all in to a gaping hole of loss. As a friend recently posted “I need to slow down.” Just a few days until the Winter Recess begins for real and then we can all slow down.

Tonight, after coming home and making a quick dinner, I opened the mail. Not to get too revelatory, but the thing is that when one of two partners passes away, lets just say that the other one is sometimes left with the short end of the financial stick. So I’ve been focussing on events rather than things, too, because funds are more limited this year. In fact, as I sat there eating my dinner, I was strategizing about how to come up with the gift for our building staff at the my condo. I kept opening the mail, reading and enjoying cards from friends, then came upon the familiar SAG-AFTRA residuals envelope. I opened it and out fell a statement for Patch Adams and Seabiscuit and a check for $1,209.63. Gulp. Pause.

The thing about Seabiscuit is that Jimmie ended up on the cutting room floor. You millenials may not know that quaint expression but it harkens back to a time when films were shot on celluloid, which had to be physically cut during editing, and actors would bemoan the fact that their parts of the film would fall in thick tresses onto the floor of the editing room and they wouldn’t end up being in the movie. In fact, now I remember going to the screening of Seabiscuit, all dressed up, hanging like a starlet on Jimmie’s arm, only to realize as the final credits rolled (Jimmie’s amongst them) that we hadn’t seen him at all. We then skulked out of the theatre after we realized he hadn’t survived the editor’s shears. But, good news! I remember from Saturday’s reel of Eddie is that he had a big role in that one, so I hope his widow Anita gets a lovely check this week, too. Anyway, the long and short of it was that I burst into tears when I opened the check, my heart racing, “tears was all over my face, running all down in my ears…to find out after all these years that he still loved me.”

So that was my early Christmas present, and the proof that getting out and about is the best antidote to loss. Thanks, Jimmie, for looking out for me while I learn to look out for myself.

Oh, and I apologize for the tease of a photo. Maybe more on that another day.

Amsterdam and Venice – Canals, Water under the Bridges and Tiny Steps

I drove my friend Caro to the airport where I bade her goodbye as she went off on the next leg of her trip to Sidney, Australia. We’d had an amazing five days visiting; the last two, she’d accompanied me twice to campus, where she observed a production meeting Monday evening, a quick dinner in the Tutor Student Center courtyard, then a workshop on Post-Dramatic Theatre with our Israeli guest director of Amsterdam, Lilach Dekel-Avneri.

Caro lives in Venice, Italy, where I visited her and her husband, Alberto, for about five days this summer. Over those days, she patiently helped me to reconstruct my geographic synapses of a city that I had known well enough to make it home late at night intoxicated, but which thirty-three years later, greeted me as a bewildering maze of indiscriminate streets and courtyards. The canals teamed with water buses and ambulances as we strode around, crossing the arching bridges to stop at shops and galleries sampling the fruits of the Venice Biennale. One of our favorite stops had been at the Lithuanian Pavilion, where we voyeuristically drank in the performance of the actors romping on the faux beach while singing the modern opera about life’s vicissitudes in a warehouse near the Arsenale.

And we laughed. We laughed about the silly things, Caro’s bright Australian accent piercing through the afternoons and evenings. I marveled at how she’s managed to keep her youthful sense of humor and life appreciation even as she’s matured into a wise, insightful woman. When I left them in Venice, we made tentative plans for her to stop in Los Angeles on her way to Australia to see their daughter.

Between then and now, classes resumed, the seven undergraduate plays were cast and rehearsals began, designers collaborated, directors directed, and we already have closed one of the shows and opened the second. The fall has been a blur of activity, and the impending anniversary of my husband’s death has begun to rattle my cage.

The other night, the night of October 3rd, I had a dream, where Jimmie and I were traveling. We were at the airport, which was clean and modern, white shining subway tile in a hallway leading to the bathrooms. Jimmie emerged from the bathroom, standing tall, no walker or scooter, shock of neatly combed white hair. I walked to his side and we began walking, but I couldn’t keep up with him and said, “Hey, I can’t keep up with you. You’re walking too fast.” He turned, and with the twinkle in his eye I always loved, he said, “I owe it all to you.” And with that, he was gone. It was only later when reviewing some photos and some writing I’d done that I realized October 3rd had been a momentous day for us. Nearly 28 years before, it had been the day we had the call from our adoption social worker, with the news about our soon-to-be son. Also, last year, Chris had been visiting us and I’d snapped this picture at home, before our last dinner out together before Jimmie’s rapid decline. October 3rd had returned to remind me of its power and the power of our love for each other. Later that morning, poor Chris called me to say hi, and I blubbered for about ten minutes.

It was in this emotional period, when I picked Caro up at the airport on Friday afternoon, the beginning of the only weekend of the semester when I didn’t have a tech rehearsal. I marveled at how we’d somehow scheduled her visit for a pocket of my life when I could pull in my PM shingle and just play for three days. We’d opened Amsterdam just the night before, and I was giddy about getting to spend time showing her around my city.

From Amsterdam. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Amsterdam has been an unfettered learning experience in mounting a non-hierarchical production. Working with Lilach has been challenging, and exciting and instructive as to how to create a play and environments through the sheer creative drive of a team. You should try to get over to USC to see it this weekend. It plays three more times this weekend. It closes Sunday 10/20.

Friday, after kidnapping Caro from the airport and driving her to Malibu, we had dinner at Gladstone’s, sitting outside, smelling the seasonal fragrance of the local fires, and watching the blood-red sun sink into the Pacific Ocean as we waited for our dessert and coffee to arrive.

There’s truth to the idea that the friends you make in your twenties are the ones you keep closest. As we looked out over the sand, I reminded Caro of the silly game we used to play at the beach at the Lido – find your physical twin. I remember my eternal body dysmorphia and how I always selected someone who looked well…. hmmm… sort of like I look today. Not as we looked then, svelte, and carefree and…twenty-two. I feel so fortunate to have managed to keep my friends close at hand.

Tonight, as I sorted through some of Jimmie’s residuals, finally made out in my name after almost a year of back and forth with the lovely folks at SAG-AFTRA, I thought about my new competencies. I’ve learned out to grieve as I need to, to pull it together when life calls for that. I know how to weigh the value of time spent with dear friends versus an extra hour of preparation for work. I’ve learned how to calendar my time to do the things that matter to me, and to keep committing to the forward actions that will make my future. I’m learning that I can be quite satisfied with a fried egg for dinner and I don’t need to beat myself up for not cooking. Or cleaning, or tidying the pile of mail before I sit down to write. When someone says they’re coming to stay, I don’t need to launch into a worry-fest about how I’ll manage house guests in the busy days of November, including November 9th, the anniversary day. Instead, I’ll think about how wonderful it will be to be surrounded by family at that time, fantasize that they might have dinner on the table when I come home, then proceed to take it one day at a time rather than drifting into a miasma of martyrdom.

I’ve spoken to several students this week who suffer from depression, anxiety and OCD. And the cold or the flu that’s going around relentlessly. I want to tell them it will be okay. Emotions are emotions. They won’t kill you. You have the power to control them. And even if you can’t for a moment, this too shall pass. That’s what they made Kleenex for. Lord knows I’ve developed a competency with Kleenex this year.

This fall, I have an amazing class of GESM 111G students. We’re learning how to read plays together, how to look at plays, how to sit and experience each dramatic outing and then come together and share our more and less favorite parts. They’re so enthusiastic and willing to share. I tortured them with an exercise this week. I’d had them do the Creative Autobiography from Twyla Tharp’s terrific book, The Creative Habit weeks ago, then carried around their little bits of heart in my bag for weeks until I finally read them. Each of them shared their creative successes and failures and aspirations with me. Across the board they all want to make a unique contribution in their field that helps people. So I thought that was worthy of some torture. I had them write what they thought that unique thing might look like, and after several iterations of sharing their ideas with each other in small groups, I wrote on the board what the tiny steps that they could take to get moving toward the goal would be. (Can you tell I’m working with a life coach and trying to emulate her? Good guess.)

Amsterdam, Venice, friendship, creativity, supporting each other. These are the tiny steps that make a life. In the end, it’s all water under the bridge.

From Amsterdam. photo by Craig Schwartz

Stage Managers and Scary Things

There’ve been several times as a stage manager, when I received invitations to do jobs that scared me. Scared me for different reasons, but mostly due to my normal fear of the unknown. And yet every job is unknown, because stage management is virtually 100% freelance gigs. Sometimes, though you are still working contract to contract, you get lucky enough to have an artistic home, as I did for several years several times in Los Angeles over the twenty-five years that I freelanced.

I spent four years at the Geffen Playhouse and the same at Center Theatre Group. I grew to love each of the staffs of those theaters, as well as the many actors, directors and designers with whom I collaborated on dozens of shows.

I’ll always associate becoming a mother with the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where I was stage managing Reza Abdoh’s Bogeyman, when the call came from our social worker at the Department of Children’s Services that they had a toddler for us to fost/adopt. My colleagues, led by the ASM, Sandy Cleary, hosted the baby shower. Even considering the complexity of the show I was doing at the time, suddenly becoming a mother of a two year old used many more brain cells and was more physically challenging.

Four years at the Pasadena Playhouse. My crew and I grew so accustomed to being at the theatre, so at home there that once we walked to the nearby Target on a two show day and bought Little Debbie’s cakes, and Twinkies, then retired to the office during the dinner break and practically made ourselves sick and giddy and ridiculous there on the floor between the stained couch and the desk. I’ll always associate Tin Pan Alley Rag with losing my Mom. In the stage management office off upstage right, I took a call one night just before half-hour from Jimmie, who was holding down the caretaker fort with my mom as she progressed through the final weeks of her life. Metastatic lung cancer, proof of which manifested itself in several very surreal episodes.

Hi, Els, can you talk? Your mother would like to speak with you. (some rustling as the phone is passed to her)

Hello, Elsbeth? (breathing heavily, and sounding frantic)

Yes, hi, Mom, how are you? What’s going on?

Elsbeth! You need to call the UN immediately. They need you to negotiate. I just heard it on McNeill-Lehrer.

Well, uh, Mom, I’m pretty sure the UN will be fine without my negotiating skills… Besides, we’re at half hour.

What a brat I was.

Stage/Production Managers have extraordinary skills of compartmentalization. It’s what made it possible for me last year to organize the home care for my husband, then go to work and focus on details that the job demanded. The occupational hazard of Stage Management is megalomania – we begin to believe that we’re the only one who can do the job. I only have one regret about last fall. That I didn’t walk away from work to be at home before it became acutely necessary for me to be there. Take away this.

Yes, the show will go on, but it can go on without you when your life calls you urgently to live it.

Opening night, she came to the theatre to watch the play with Jimmie, and afterwards, at the opening night party, clad in a new Missoni floor length gown, she mingled alongside me, with the cast and crew. I introduced her to the actor who played the lead character, Ira Gershwin. It was a day or two after the fashion designer Gianni Versace had been murdered in Florida. Ever the reporter, Mom looked at my lead actor, turned to me and hissed, “He’s the one who killed Versace!”

No, Mom, I promise you, it wasn’t David. He’s been in tech and dress rehearsals for more than a week. He wouldn’t have had time to get back and forth to Florida between rehearsals.

I am fortunate to have spent my entire life (so far) working in the theatre – a life in the theatre is a life well spent. I’ve had the opportunity to share important life markers: falling in love, marriage, parenthood, illness and even death with other theatre artists who understood how to work and live with intimacy, depth and candor. All while doing work on stage which illuminates many of those same life markers.

Sometimes a job will come along that shakes you out of your artistic home. Calls upon you to maybe move household, or take a big step back or a huge step forward. An invitation to go to Sicily to Stage Manage for Robert Wilson; or to go to Montana for the summer with the Alpine Theatre Project; or to apply for the job as Production Manager at USC School of Theatre.

Your inner scaredy-cat says

“What? Go to Italy and work with international artists? My language skills aren’t strong enough!”

“What? Move to Montana for the summer? What if my family doesn’t want to come?”

“What? Production Manage? I don’t know how to do that?”

But your strong center and your hunger for new and interesting collaborations calms down the fearful voice and says, “You lived for a year in Italy and will regain fluency and for crying out loud, it’s Robert Wilson!”

“Maybe that’s just what you need to go to Montana to shake things up. Plus you can hike and get out of the city. Your family can come join you there for vacation.”

Or maybe you are just lucky enough, as I have been, to have friends who encourage you to try something new when you are at an emotional or professional crossroads. Like the Production Management opportunity. “Els, you’ll know how to do it. It’s just like stage management but on steroids.”

And so you take the steps forward to meet the challenge. To do the work. To build the life.

I’ve shared that the loss of my husband last fall was a devastating blow. Even now, nine months later, I still tear up and some days feel unmoored, untethered from the very life we had worked so hard to build. How fortunate I am to have a strong artistic family and friends that have gathered around me in my time of need.

I haven’t felt like writing lately. I’ve been hunkered down in my post apocalyptic emotional bunker, occasionally poking my head up like those adorable prairie dogs at the zoo. I’m on watch for the next tragedy. Grief is distracting. More distracting than anything I’ve ever experienced.

In stage management a project starts and it ends. There are frequently good days and bad day no matter how illustrious a project it is. There’s a thing nothing short of magic that happens in a rehearsal room as the alchemy of playwright, director and actors is forged through the vehicle of a new and exciting script. Life’s the same as that. Except it’s a devised work. No script. You’re the producer who brings all the facets together to create your own magical alchemy. If you take the chances, the risks, to step outside the normal boundaries of your existence, you meet new people, form new experiences, participate in new adventures. And yes, it’s frequently scary, but usually okay or way better than okay in the end.

All the good days, all the bad, the pain, the heartache, the joy you feel through every phase of your life makes you who you are. You are strong and vibrant and capable. You may not be able to write about something important every day, but if you pay attention to the call, you may find pop out of your prairie hole and find something to keep you entertained and alive.

Lessons in Narcissism and Recovery

An American living in our times would be forgiven for diverting their gaze from narcissism as an odious and rampant practice of the higher reaches of our society. I remember one of my husband’s favorite stories was from when he’d shot the film Doc in Almeria, Spain back in 1971. He’d been on location for several weeks, and after recounting seeing someone kick a dog in the street, was told “It starts at the top with Franco.”

James Greene, 1971 as James McLowery in Doc

Yeah, well, I think we’ve beat the Spaniards on this one. So clear is the directive sent from the upper reaches of our government that the expected trickle down effect has infiltrated every corner of our society, Ponzi schemes, to #MeToo to the latest scandal in college admissions. All are fundamentally based in the tenet that my needs/truth/reality overrides yours or anyone else’s.

I’m here to tell you that sometimes narcissism is healthy if exercised in a confined timeframe. I can’t yet tell you the acceptable outer boundaries of healthy narcissism, because I haven’t yet navigated them, but some examples are:

  • Around the birth of one’s child
  • Around the care of loved ones
  • Around the death of one’s partner

There may be other examples of appropriately prescriptive narcissism. My direct observations have to do with all three bullet points above. Not sure what our Franco-equivalent in the White House would say are the rationalizations for his extreme narcissism, but I’m pretty sure they are none of the above. But then, as a (hopefully temporary) narcissist, no one’s pain is worse than mine, right?

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of seeing The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 24th Street Theatre, here in South Los Angeles. Running through May 19th, based on the young adult book by Kate DiCamillo, the play recounts the travails of a uniquely fashioned charmingly narcissistic china rabbit. Edward’s miraculous journey unfolds through his travels and travails, and his awakening from narcissist to empathetic being, able to learn to love again after his own loss. The 24th Street Theatre does consistently beautiful work with minimal and very theatrical elements, and again, here they don’t disappoint.

Director Debbie Devine has guided her cast of four, accompanied on a piano throughout by Bradley Brough through the intricacies of this rabbit’s tale (sorry, couldn’t resist). Funny, moving, tear jerking and ultimately satisfying, the afternoon unfolded with a welcoming curtain speech by Co-Artistic Director Jay McAdams, contextualizing this theatre’s imprimatur on the play (first production utilizing spanish supertitles, created for the production, as well as the consciously simple aesthetic which the theatre embraces). From the moment I entered the lobby of the theatre, I found my visit one of inclusion. Awkward in my singleness these days, I’m challenged in going out to see something on my own, particularly on a Sunday afternoon. It was opening weekend of the play, and the lobby was filled with 24th Street Theatre family members, board members, critics, adults, children, neighborhood folks. The step and repeat with a stool and two bunches of carrots was heavily utilized. I enjoyed seeing families posing with the carrots and huge smiles on their faces.

(I’m sorry, Jay and Debbie, issuing a spoiler alert.) If you are in the LA area, please come see this play. If you aren’t, you can benefit from a reading of this magical book.

Like Edward, I’ve been going through my own miraculous journey since my husband’s death in November. In the early phases of his rabbit destiny, Edward is cocooned in the loving embrace of his young girl owner Abilene Tulane. He wants for nothing, so embraced and supported is he. A bunny of privilege, his clothing is stylish, his position in the household secure. Then comes his loss, from which it appears he may never recover. His life pretty much goes to hell. I recognize, wear these phases of bunny privilege, then loss. The life going to hell part is less applicable, unless you describe sessions of unprovoked tears, increased impatience with things and people and a general weariness and disinterest in participating as hell. I don’t afford myself that luxury. I know that it is a process, and as hard processes go, they are not hell. They are opportunities for growth and improvement and learning.

The tears, weariness and disinterest describe the immediate aftermath of a loss, even if you are lucky as I have been, to have the consistent support of family and friends. Eventually, after the public grief cycle has “ended,” after the memorial, the funeral, the life celebration, the next phase begins. It is one of solitude with a lot of acting involved. To sustain the Edward Tulane metaphor, this might be construed as the “scarecrow” phase. Utilized as a deterrent to others, surrounded by shiny objects, the grieving widow/er is still out there in the field, showing themselves to be fierce, smiling, but feeling emotionally empty and suspended. This might be why I chose to purchase the bracelets and distribute them to my grieving friends. Upon receipt, their thank yous were heart-felt, but also tinged with a recognizable sadness and fraught with questions I don’t have the answers for.

How do you keep f&*king going?

I can keep f&*king going, but why should I?

And for me, the moment one night 34 years into my sobriety, five months into my solitude, this week, I stood in front of my cabinet in the kitchen and looked at a corked bottle of red wine left over from one of my recent visits by friends, thinking to myself, “well, no one would even know if I had a glass of red wine right now.” I promptly uncorked the bottle and poured the remaining wine down the sink. It really scared me.

The one reassuring element of this scarecrow phase is that I find myself surrounded by other scarecrows. I’m not alone in the field. Nor are any of us. I want you to hear that.

None of us is doing this human thing alone.

I’m reminded of that every day, yesterday in the hallway in the DRC as I greeted a colleague who has been on leave for several months. We clung to each other sobbing amidst the coming and going of our colleagues. In her I recognized her challenges and loss; in me, she recognized my loss and challenges.

If you were to read my bed-side table stack now, you’d be worried but really, I’m in a research phase, to prepare me for the work ahead. Because of my loss, my bunny tale, if you will, people have been reaching out for support during their own challenges. I want to say when they do, “I don’t know any more about this than you do!” And I’m certainly not an authority on caregiving, death, or anything related to human loss. And yet, I do have the capacity to listen and hear and try to help. In my own limited scarecrow capacity. As do you. And certainly my friends do.

Emotional Check in this morning with my Pals via Skype – three different time zones. So sustaining.

From now through May 19th, if you live in Los Angeles, you can and should see The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 23rd Street Theatre. It will help you in your recovery. Aren’t we all in recovery from Narcissism?

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.

Wedding without the Groom

This week I’m producing a life celebration for my husband. It’s a wedding without the groom. But I know how to do this. I’ve stage managed countless other events, even memorials before.

When you lose your spouse (every time I say that phrase I think back to Lady Bracknell’s line in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”) This, in turn, makes me think of Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell which transports me to the pre-Els portion of Jimmie’s life.

(Readers are thinking, How can she have already digressed in the first paragraph? I invite you to peer inside the mind of the recently grieved person. There is no digression too unappealing to explore. In depth.)

When you lose your spouse, precisely at your rawest, most inconsolable moment, well-meaning family and friends ask about whether there will be a funeral. I know that funerals are the norm, but I can’t imagine how people pull them together at that moment. It was only about a month after my husband died that I was able to even imagine how to commemorate his life in a ritual we’ve come to call a “Life Celebration.”

Date. Venue. Guests. Speakers. Outfit. Music. Food. Flowers. Stage Manager. Program. Hotel. Transportation. Video.

This initial list can start the average stage manager panting with anticipation of things to order and to put in order. The list unfurls its own subset of questions that are more or less easy to answer once you’ve established the date, and the venue and have the Production Manager in your communication loop.

But this grieving stage manager had some additional hurdles to overcome. First, there is the sheer entropy of grief, that warm, swaddled state of incredulity; you are actually planning such an important event without the advice and counsel of your best friend. No one to bounce ideas off of, to run things by, to giggle with about what isn’t going to plan.

We pull on experience. Back in December, I began to pull together a guest list, determining that there would be 150 people who might want to come to celebrate Jimmie’s life. By the end of the month, I’d determined the venue, with a capacity of 74. Oops.

This first hiccough added a major need to the main list – web streaming.

So here’s the FB page where the event will be web streamed.

Date: Saturday, January 26, 2019 4PM

Venue: Web-streamed and some live participants

Speakers: There will be speakers!

Music: There will be some music!

Food: There will be some promised-to-be delish food from niece Niki.

Flowers: There will be flowers!

Stage Manager: I’ve hired a former student, Jennifer, to be professional me on the day when I can’t necessarily be counted on to be professional.

Program: There is a beautiful program thanks to my colleague and graphic designer, Chris.

Outfit: I went shopping with my friend and colleague, Tina, an accomplished costume designer. I knew what I wanted – a purple duster to wear over black pants and a gray top (which I already had). We went to Koi in Pasadena, parked in the 20 minute spot in front of the store, went in, bought the purple duster (believe it or not there was one), then retired to a nearby pub for a true English breakfast, complete with sausage and a eggs and a roasted tomato and a pot of tea. Success!

Hotel: Family and friends are starting to arrive today and tomorrow. There will be many opportunities to eat and talk about life and the wonderful man we’ve been so fortunate to spend my life with.

Transportation: Van to take family from hotel to venue. Organized.

Video: Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with my great niece-by-marriage, Alisa Bargeski, on a video to celebrate Jimmie’s life and work and family. Putting that together has probably been the most satisfactory thing about the process and very healing.

With all these elements in place, the profoundly unsettling fact remains. The groom is gone.

I sat on the couch last night and the stillness of the interior apartment settled around me, wintry wind whistling just outside the glass patio door. I wasn’t weepy, just alone and somehow finally aware of my solitude in that moment. As I said to my dear friend Susan this afternoon, after all those years of knowing that I would be alone, I never visualized exactly what that would feel or be like. Isn’t that strange? But I know I am not alone in my life, that I’m surrounded with the life force of friends and colleagues and family. And I know I’m excited to see them at the “wedding without the groom” this Saturday.

After the Fall

Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, a production of the Lincoln Center Repertory company, directed by Elia Kazan, and produced by Robert Whitehead and Elia Kazan, opened in January 1964 at the Anta Theatre in Washington Square.

Opened in rep with “Marco Millions” and “But For Whom Charlie” then continued into next season and played in rep with “The Changeling”; “Incident at Vichy”; and ‘Tartuffe”.

Jimmie played The Clergyman in the production, which also starred Jason Robards, Barbara Loden, Faye Dunaway, Hal Holbrook and Mariclare Costello among other actor luminaries.

After the Fall has taken on new resonance, as our lives have been shaped by a single event. Our short-lived period of pain-free peace was shattered by the nocturnal victory of gravity over balance at home one night in the middle of October.

Our dear friend Susan was visiting us from South Africa, a trip booked in a previous period of medical panic, and we were basking in the final moments of her visit, the night before her departure.  We were enjoying the end of the Major League Baseball playoffs, soon to gift us with a fourth World Series title in 15 years for our Boston Red Sox. Susan’s May visit was punctuated with an ill-timed trip to the ER, and this time, I’d made Jimmie promise we wouldn’t go again while Susan was here. Little did I think I’d be tempting fate with such a promise. The final night of her October visit, Jimmie tumbled, his Lear-like cry and the resultant clatter of his walker against the mirrored closet doors roused me from the murky depths of a deeply restorative sleep.

I rushed to his side, tripping over the too-heavy-for-LA-comforter which lurks on the floor at the foot of our bed. The fall was traumatic; he was shaken, but I checked him over and finding nothing broken, returned him to bed. The next day, we went to the ER. No fractures, thankfully. This photo we took in the hallway on our way to the ER as Susan waited at the apartment for her ride to the airport.SusanJimmie10-18-18After that foray to the ER, we returned home, and spent about 10 painful days there until last Thursday when his visiting niece Martha and I realized we couldn’t manage his care at home. We called 911 and two strong EMTs came and lifted Jimmie onto the chair gurney.

Martha and I followed in the car, and I caught up with him in the third floor ER. After a CT scan, confirming no fracture, he was admitted to hospital overnight.

I never thought this day would happen. I’d always sworn that whatever happened, Jimmie would stay at home. But when your husband’s a dead weight in your arms, it’s a stark reminder that we don’t always control decisions about our circumstances, especially as we age.

Pain meds are powerful and effective. When administered regularly, they have stultifying effects which exacerbate the pain even more. Pain causes lack of hunger. The combination of lack of hunger and pain meds causes a glassy-eyed ghostly non-presence which descended quickly and in our case, irrevocably.

I watched as my normally impish and flirtatious husband become a vision of St. Therese, gazing up in beatific gape-mouthed wonder. I’ve had a lot of time to think in the past days. These are a few of the things I’ve been thinking about.

I’ve worked hard all my life in my job, very often at the sacrifice of cultivating social relationships. I think it’s probably fairly common in an industry where “I can’t. I have rehearsal.” is a slogan on T-shirts. While I love the people I work with, I wouldn’t necessarily call on them to be with me at my husband’s bedside. That’s not the nature of our friendship. When the social worker said, “this is the time you need to call on your friends,”  I realized that our son is the only one I can really talk to about this.*

*Shortly after writing this, my phone rang and it was a dear colleague from school “just checking in on me.” It was so meaningful and amazing that such a brief conversation could have such a restorative impact. Since then, I have had numerous outpourings of support which have cheered us on.

No one prepares you for making tough decisions like these by yourself without your loved one’s input. An Advanced Health Care Directive and Medical Power of Attorney are critical to having control over your circumstances. After a day or two in the hospital, Jimmie wasn’t able to answer a question about what his level of pain was – how could he endorse my decision to take him home and cease medical intervention? These are conversations best entertained in the flush of good health during the early part of your life and marriage. Or the middle part. Tough talks. Gotta do it.

So many people have told me that I have to care for myself in order to care for him. Fighting away the doubt and guilt, the third night of his hospitalization, I succumbed and went home to sleep on his side of our bed, lolling drunkenly in his scent like a dog in roadkill. The next morning, Tuesday, I took time to vote before coming back to the hospital. They were right, I felt more like myself, less victimized by grief and loss of control.IVotedhospital

Now, about 20 days After the Fall, we sit patiently by his bedside, now home in the comfort of our shared world, Chris by my side, his little dog Cupid affording us all pet therapy.

The Hospital Stay Play (With apologies to actual playwrights)

Characters
Jimbo – our hero

Elsa – his wife

Lawrence – Trans Male Night Registered Nurse (Nights 1 and 2)

Emily – Sturdy Pacific Islander Certified Nursing Assistant (Nights 1 and 2 and Days 2 and 3 – they never let her leave)

Delauney – The intravenous gold that allows him to sleep in spurts of 2-3 hours

Ms. Contina – the pill that evens out the pain during the day and night.

Place: Limbo, AKA a room on the fifth floor of Good Sam Hospital

Time: Now, then, whenever, an eternity of time that easily spans hours, days, weeks

Set pieces – two medieval torture racks – one with electric controls to raise and lower the back and feet, the other, a decidedly analog roll out hospital cot. A rolling table that barely fits under the bed and rolls up to within 6″ of the patient’s chest, causes anxiety and revulsion.

Scene 1 – \Transitioning from the ER. Jimbo and Elsa enter, Jimbo on a gurney, Elsa, as usual, carrying too much for the given situation. Jimbo moans in pain. Elsa hovers, holding his hand as Lawrence and Emily get him situated. Emily takes his blood pressure. Lawrence nods. 

Lawrence: Jimbo, what is your pain level on a scale of 0-10?

Jimbo’s eyes dart left and right, pupils almost too tiny to see, his hand reaching for a hand to clutch. Elsa provides it. Minutes pass, Lawrence waiting patiently next to the bedstead, holding Delauney and a saline chaser in his hand.

Lawrence: (after several moments, giving him the benefit of the doubt) Jimbo, are you still thinking about what pain level you are at?

Jimbo: (silence. Mews in pain. Soon Delauney saunters into the bloodstream and we enter the Beckett zone. Jimbo’s head lolls back.)

(Hours pass. Elsa climbs onto the second torture rack and falls into fitful sleep. Jimbo’s passed out, sprawled on the pillows on the electrical torture rack.)

(Suddenly)

Jimbo: AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!

Els: (Springing off the rolling rack, wrenching her back) What is it?

Jimbo: Pain! (Els pushes the call button on his rack. Lawrence enters. Unawake, Elsa narrates what Lawrence is doing. Her lack of sleep and general gender confusion cause her to use the wrong pronouns and clumsily, finally, no pronouns at all.)

Elsa: She’s trying to get you positioned, Jimbo! ….helping you to be out of pain.

(once Lawrence has left the room)

Jimbo: Are we alone?

Elsa: Yes

Jimbo: Is she mad at me?

Elsa: Sorry, she is a he, and no he’s not mad at you. (a minute passes)

Jimbo: Is she mad at me?

Elsa: (firmly) No, he’s not mad at you. (a minute passes, and the hellish exchange continues three more times.

(Later)

Jimbo: (genuinely contritely) I’m sorry I can’t go to the theatre tonight with you.

Elsa: We’re not going to the theatre tonight, Jimbo.

Jimbo: Can they hear my voice on stage?

Elsa: Jimbo, we’re in the hospital. We’re not in the theatre.

Jimbo: But can they hear me on stage? Are we in the wings?

Curtain

More days have passed. In a fluke of the world showing it’s perfectly kind underbelly of good Karma, we were sent a caregiver at night who turned out to be a theatre buff, and kept saying loudly by Jimmie’s bedside, “He’s a National Treasure!”

We are still in the wings. To a transitional phase that  happened so quickly, so unexpectedly. Only two weeks ago we were back to a pain-free life together.  Treasure the moments you have. Be present. Plan ahead so you don’t ever have to plan under duress. (She said, sounding like the logistician/stage manager she is.)

 

 

 

Phantom Threads

Though you’d never know it from my silence, this has been an event filled week. After finishing the scones, yes, all the scones, last Thursday, I escorted Jimmie to his surgical procedure and home the same day, quite a feat for the 91-nearly-92-set, and we settled into the recovery period over the weekend.

Though the surgery had gone well, the dreaded C words still prevail – cancer in the biopsy, and catheter in the “leg” as Jimmie said to his sister Kate when we called her this weekend to wish her a happy belated 84th birthday. I could tell from his expression and from reading the handy captions on our phone, Kate wasn’t getting it. I leaned over and mouthed

It wasn’t in your leg, dear, it was in your penis. That’s where a catheter is.

Which of course cracked us both up.

We weren’t cracking up last Thursday when we got home from the hospital.55V1xr5eSDW3Ng94F5OOXQ I had sent this photo of him to our family,  taken in the recovery room, showing him beaming in his lilac paper hospital gown, not yet un-numbing from the epidural he’d had. He repeatedly was asking me why we were in the hospital? What happened?

Every time he woke up, I told him again why we were there and what he’d had done. He just wanted to go home. And so we did by about 4:30 that day.

The next four days were painful, dulled only by the heavy doses of Extra Strength Tylenol. This was the darkest time. There’s little worse than seeing your partner in pain, and it started me on a sober accounting:

  • is the pain related to an advance of the cancer or just the catheter?
  • how to be with him as much as possible
  • when to take time off
  • how to notify family and friends
  • how to organize visits so they wouldn’t tire him out
  • the effects of stronger pain medications on his lovely presence and our quality of life
  • how much longer do we have

I really went there. I don’t think Jimmie was thinking about it that much, but was just hunkering down with the pain. He was completely distracted and therefore absent, which of course made me worry more. These issues are familiar, having gone through the loss of two other loved ones to cancer, and participating in their final days. But it’s different with your partner than your parent.

Finally, on Tuesday, the fifth day of watching Jimmie suffering in pain, I called his doctor and said we needed something stronger. We went in and much to our surprise, he said he could also remove the catheter. He also gave us a prescription for heavier pain meds; mercifully, we still haven’t had to fill that.

And then, within a day or two, the pain was gone. A miracle. No more Tylenol, the notebook where we’d been recording all the medication sitting on the table untouched now for five days. To say that we won’t resume at some point would be naive, but for now we are out of the woods.

Which brings me to the real reason I started this post. We’ve resumed our lives, the absence of pain and the catheter constantly reassuring. Last night we watched the film Phantom Thread, with Daniel Day Lewis and Vickey Krieps. IMDB summarizes the plot of the movie this way:

Set in 1950’s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that it is about so much more than that. For me, the title is a tidy metaphor for Jimmie’s short term memory loss.

We were having dinner tonight- some strange pesto chicken patties I’d gotten at Whole Foods, and sautéed zucchini, an orzo feta salad – when I made an offhanded remark about the texture of the chicken patties. They bordered on pre-chewed, but then I joked about Alma’s cooking from the movie.

Jimmie looked at me and said what movie?

You know, the movie about the couturier who lived in the big house with all the women working there to sew his dresses……..

I then went on to describe the rather bizarre turn the movie took. Aren’t I good to not spoil it for you?

Jimmie: Blank look.

Els: You don’t remember anything about the movie do you?

No, he said, calmly eating his zucchini.

What I love about Jimmie is that he doesn’t seem the least bit perturbed about his loss of short term memory. He is always so present so you could give a fig about whether you have to repeat a story. It used to bother me that when I came home he couldn’t remember what happened in Trumpville that day, but I can easily get caught up with about 10 minutes of CNN. And what a blessing for him that he doesn’t carry this toxic mental waste around like the rest of us have to.

My favorite of his new expressions is “In one head and out the other.”

Els: It doesn’t seem to bother you that you can’t remember details. That’s wonderful that it isn’t causing you worry.

Jimmie: I just feel sorry for you that I don’t remember.

Els: What are you kidding? I can repeat myself endlessly and you never get the least bit bored about what I’m saying. You don’t put your head down on the table and say, For crying out loud, that’s the sixth time you’ve told me that story!

He smiled across the table at me, and we resumed our companionable silence as we ate the rubbery patties. And now I’m worried that I have become Alma…