Today marks a year since the death of my partner-in-life, our son’s father, accomplished actor, life-long Red Sox fan, and so many more qualifying roles he played during his 92 years on the planet. I’ve been warned by many loving friends of the unexpected tsunami of grief we who lost Jimmie may experience today. But throughout the relatively calm day, I’ve been reminded of the power of time as balm, the healing power of our life’s work and the loving remembrances of friends and family whose lives he also profoundly touched.
When I woke this morning, as every morning, I locked eyes with “Jimmy” in the distinctive black and white photo taken during The Iceman Cometh back in Washington, DC. at the Kennedy Center. It is a searing portrait by Joan Marcus, of Jimmie Greene as Jimmy Tomorrow, Eugene O’Neill’s Boer War veteran and denizen of Harry Hope’s Bar he played not just in 1985, but also back in 1967. Pipe dreams and all, Jimmy in the photo has a Rembrandt quality, his face emerging from the surrounding darkness; the photo is slightly water-damaged but still sits in the white matte frame it came in back in 1985.
The morose sorrow of Jimmy Tomorrow is palpable, the angle of the photographer’s lens, just below his eye line, allowing his eyes to follow me around the room. How does that work anyway? Of course when I looked it up, “how to make eyes follow you in a photo” – it’s straight forward – make the eyes or anything face straight out. The other 600,000 links were how-tos for wannabe social influencers. Of course.
Anyway, Jimmy Tomorrow is present, focused, stern and intently loving. I can’t tell you the number of times this year that he’s listened to me as I told him the terrible and wonderful things that have befallen me over this first year flying solo. He’s watched as I stripped our marital bed every two weeks to change the sheets, he’s watched as I sorted socks and underwear on the bedspread, back turned to the portrait, often regaling him with the benign details of trips to the gym, dates with friends, challenges at work and emotional setbacks. I’ve tried not to blame him in these “Jim Sessions.” He watched my back as I packed my suitcases for this summer’s European adventure, and again when I returned to unpack and sort them into laundry and dry cleaning, all the while as I gabbed about who and what I’d seen abroad. Was he glad I was home?
Sometimes before I turn the light off at night, I’ll try to achieve a Vulcan Mind Meld with Jimmy Tomorrow; the other night so successfully that when I turned out the light, I retained the negative image, face silhouette, frame and all in my mind’s eye for a good five minutes. During those intense stares, he almost seems to move, and his gaze responds to whatever cue I’m throwing his way. I know this is classic projection. I know I am alone and he is gone, but somehow it has been comforting to imagine his presence still in the room as he’s very much still in my mind and life.
Its been a busy year, with its share of exciting events and devastating ones. I’ve progressed through the phases of seemingly intractable grief to the promise of more mindfulness in my teaching and in my life. Whatever comes with Jimmy Tomorrow, here are just a handful of photos that remind me of Jimmie Past.
yearn for the laughter of my previous life. Seven months ago, after watching my
friend Susie’s show at the Geffen, we met for dinner between the two shows. In
the theatre, these interstitial social moments are the ones you tend to
remember, not the slog of the eight-show week, but the human interactions that
the intimate theatre process allows. Nearly every project I’ve worked on in my
life includes these memories. This time, Susie and I retired to CPK in Westwood
to eat. Two rawly recent widows, finding our new way in the world. Somehow the
conversation came around to David Sedaris – seeing him live has been on my
bucket list for years. I knew he was coming to UC Irvine on Nov. 6th,
and I offered to get tickets for us both to go.
don’t know if I’ll be able to go – I might be on a show,” Susie said.
know, but I’ll get the tickets and if you can’t go, I’ll find someone else to
go with me.”
Little did either of us know that Susie would be unable to go for entirely different reasons. Later that summer, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The last time I sat with her at her hospice bedside, I said, “Well, I guess you won’t be up to going to UC Irvine next week to see David Sedaris.” This probably sounds like an incredibly callous thing to say and in fact, had I known she’d be gone by the following week, I probably wouldn’t have said it; but if you knew Susie, you’d know that that kind of sarcasm was right up her alley. “Sorry, don’t think I can make it.” We laughed easily, the way two old friends do, and the way in retrospect, I now know Susie did with all her old friends.
It’s vital to make plans in your life to keep your family ties and friendships alive. Stage management is an incredibly grueling path. The marquee is always emblazoned with “The Show Must Go On.” And yes, the show will go on, and you need to find ways to jump out to experience your life. This is probably not what you might hear in your training program, but make the plans, buy the tickets, build the future into your current work. When the job comes up that won’t allow you to go see David Sedaris on a Wednesday night, talk with your producer and say, “I’m not available on Nov. 6th. That’s the only day. Do you think we can work around that one date?” Not surprisingly, they will find a way. Your assistant can cover the rehearsal, you may be able to have them hire someone to cover your calling the show. If not, perhaps you don’t take that job. The most important thing is that you communicate your needs. This is part of the negotiation part that stage managers, especially women, shy away from. And God help me, brace me for the onslaught of requests.
So, last night, I went to see David Sedaris perform at the Barclay Center in Irvine, CA. Leaving USC to drive down there with my friend and colleague, Melinda, at 6:00PM was insanity. The freeways were jammed, headlights blazing across the median strip, through the newly adjusted standard time darkness, which lowers the curtains now around 5:00PM. What I know almost a year after losing my foundation with the death of my husband is that my life is still as busy, but I now appreciate more the process of being present. Melinda and I chatted the entire way down, then stopped for some salads at a Chinese fast food place near the venue, risking missing the start of the show. Fortunately, or unfortunately, “traffic is a thing” in Southern California. The show started about ten minutes after its published start time, and with the humorous and disarming grace I’ve always loved about David Sedaris, he emerged from the wings in the most amazing “costume” that we only got a brief glimpse of on his way to the podium. Was that a kilt? Arriving at the podium, he confessed that we were starting late because he’d been doing his laundry down in the basement. “It’s been a long tour,” he drolly intoned, instantly relaxing the audience and providing just what we’d come for, a deep, belly laugh of recognition of one aspect of our shared human condition – when will my event-filled life allow me to do my laundry?
The evening proceeded to deliver more of what I’d come for, deep guttural laughs, incredulous scoffs, gales of the easy kind of tears that swept through the hall from the twenty-somethings who sat to my right to the sea of NPR-loving-graying-wordsmith-appreciating sixty-somethings who made up the audience. Anyone who loves words and their sly misuse can appreciate someone like David Sedaris. He read several of his CBS Morning commentaries, including one which dissected the N-word and reeled through the alphabet, helping us to laugh about our political correctness by shredding it; the face of having the L-word be Love, and the C-word commitment.
His humor relies on the knowledge that we will head full tilt to what we assume he’s going to say, then roar with laughter as he pulls the rug out from underneath us, landing us on our butts. A lot of his material was about his childhood vacation home, in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. His writing is so dry as to almost ignite the pages he methodically pulled and unclipped from a manila folder on the lecturn. His delivery is so divorced from his own wit that sometimes you need to go back a sentence to catch up. There were several times I was puzzled for a good minute before I understood what he’d said.
At any rate, I could go on for days about David Sedaris. Suffice it to say, find the laughter in your life and routine, your own food for your imagination, that which nourishes your soul and consciously, actively build it into your life.
Sometime late in the program, he said something about friends which I can’t even remember specifically what it was, but it full-throttle invoked Susie for me, and I shut my eyes, (forgive me Melinda) imagining her beside me in the dark of the Barclay Center, sharing a moment of respite from the work and the world. Sharing a laugh with a friend.
We lost a great human being this week, Susie Walsh, stage manager, friend, my reluctant widow pal. There have been so many heartfelt posts about what made Susie special. I’m late to the tablet. People have noted her great sense of humor, her biting but loving wit, her talents as a stage manager to anticipate and solve problems as they arose. The length and quality of her practice as a stage manager, the depth and breadth of her friendships and impact has wowed me. Susie was very private and would probably have hated the attention she’s getting, except not really, because it is so heartfelt, and irreverent, just like Susie was. Loving, subversive, disarmingly direct sometimes, she said what she meant and rarely sugar coated it unless needed to stay within professional boundaries.
I’ve known Susie for twenty-five years, but hold her dearest in my heart for her role as PSM for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Spring of 2016. It was my hub’s last show. Having worked so many times with Susie over the years on shows, and seeing her shows, I took enormous comfort in knowing that she’d be monitoring the halls outside of the three 89+ year old actors dressing rooms. Just making sure they were behaving. Which they were, I think, for the most part.
She let me come to a rehearsal one time upstairs so I could see how Jimmie was navigating the work as his best 89-year-old self. I’d visit Jimmie on his two show days; In the bathroom across from his dressing room, Susie would be putting on her togs for a run or bike to the beach. A runner and a complete jock, Sueis loved sports and people who loved sports and some of us who just pretended to love sports to witness her love of them and us. I went to watch a football game at her house earlier last year and feigned interest, grazing instead on the snacks, and enjoying the company of her college friends who really were invested in the game as I would never be.
Susie and I shared a secret affection for our “old men.” She and I were about eight years apart in age, and both our partners were about 30 years older than us, give or take a few years, and after all, what’s a few years when you already have 30+ years difference? Though she and Ken never married, she was loyal to him like a spouse. We shared a pretty unique set of concerns for our old men. Our stage manager, old man Venn Diagram really was fairly rare. We added a widow circle on Dec. 1, 2018.
Sure, other couples of similar ages have illness arise that they have to deal with and it is no less impactful than what we did, but ours was expected. We knew what we signed up for. It was dreaded and yet routine, and when we had lunch together after seeing her show at the Geffen about a year ago, we spent twenty minutes or so chatting about their bad knees, their home care workers. It was our dark bond, one that we shared easily like a special shared language.
When Jimmie passed away, Ken was in his home receiving carefully organized care that Susie had put together. She texted me some photos of her battle station at Ken’s.
Hey, who do I know who would appreciate my organization?
She was right, I did appreciate seeing it because the quality of her instructions was so personal, so tangible. Seeing them brought back my own diligence, and the urgency of caring for someone you love so much in decline. That was Nov. 24th, and Ken was gone by Dec. 1st, Jimmie’s birthday. We made plans in January, to go see David Sedaris on Nov. 6th this coming week at UC Irvine. It seemed so far off, and I knew we’d both need a laugh as we approached the anniversary of our shared loss. This was the perfect reflection of Susie’s sense of humor.
Susie was the fittest over-fifty person I knew, running races, inspiring us more sedentary types to exercise more. The photo above is from New Year’s eve in 2016. That morning, we took a hike in the rain and mist. At the end, I was tired, and sore for days, a fact I shared with Michele and Susie via our ongoing shared text message. We made plans for a few more hikes, each of us taking the role of organizer of the day. My go to spot was the Huntington Gardens, Michele organized a Christmas light walk in Pasadena. In each of these walks, we shared the easy comaraderie of long time colleagues and friends – the stories unfolded, with the trails. In March, 2019, it was Susie’s turn to call the walk and we’d agreed to do a hike in a spot I didn’t know about. Susie knew all the trails – we’d done several in Griffith Park and I’d seen more of Los Angeles than I dreamed existed. We followed her trustingly, sometimes discovering that the distance was more than we’d planned for, but always feeling accomplished at the end. This time, however, in the car on the way over, Susie said, casually, “I’ve got to tell you a story – I had to go to urgent care last night.” We leaned forward to listen expecting a typically light story about food poisoning, or something like that. We arrived at the spot, got out of the car and started across the parking lot. Susie was lagging a little, then she stopped and said, “Hey would it be okay if we didn’t walk? I’m having a lot of pain.” And so instead, we went to breakfast. And began to hear the ominous start of what became the beginning of her cancer odyssey. The way was unclear, and as the future unfolded, Susie met each bend in the very uneven road with her usual fierce integrity and grit and eventually resignation and grace.
In the recent weeks, when I was able to visit her, either in the hospital or the one time I was able to get away to visit her bedside, we rarely talked about death, though he was obviously in the room, shadowing the conversation, evident in the clear oxygen tubing that snaked around Susie’s ears and under her nostrils; the propulsive wheezing of the tank that spooked Maddox, her cat from sitting on the bed with her. In her living room, the room had been torqued 90 degrees from the way it liked to be, the alien hospital bed facing the door, the coffee table and couches hugging the walls, pushed aside as if to make room for the last dance of life. The photos of family, and young Ken faced her bed, her sister Katie sitting in the chair, back to the front door, her comrade in arms, as so many of Susie’s many brothers and family had done since late summer, when Susie began her chemo. I was hopelessly inept at saying what needed to be said in what turns out was the last time I saw my friend. I’m kicking myself about that and all the loss of recent weeks makes me want to rail against the gods or something. But for what?
Friday, my colleague brought me a little pink rose bush, and said how sorry he was for my loss. Thursday, the day we all lost Susie, my coach had given me an exercise to do called Roses and Thorns. As I lay in bed last night, just before I turned out the lights I documented the Good Things (Roses) vs. the Bad Things (Thorns) I marveled at the literalness of the day. Aside from literal roses, I thought about the happy reunion of Ken and Susie, Susie and her recently departed Mom, and the very happy actors, Jimmie Greene and Charlotte Rae, who now can begin rehearsals afresh with Susie monitoring the hallways of heaven.
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 Amsterdamjust the night before, and I was giddy about getting to spend time showing her around my city.
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.
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.
In the past few days, I’ve been reflecting on the events of my recent trip to Italy. There I stayed with friends I’ve known for almost forty years. In both cases- my visit to Umbria and that to Venice, it felt as though we were picking up where we left off, and yet, we’ve all had full and rich lives between meetings.
This week, out of the blue, I got hired to do a reading, a wonderful project with interesting people, from referrals by friends from completely different segments of my life. And so, (I have to laugh because it’s so Mrs. Malaprop of me) I started thinking of the image of time as crenelated.
I laugh because what I really was thinking about was the way an accordion fan is folded, which isn’t at all what crenelate means. Crenelate means to furnish with crenels, or battlements to a wall, to fortify it. Which, ironically, could also be a little accurate in this recovery time. I’m coming up on nine months since the loss of my husband, and while things are slightly less raw, I am startled occasionally at the depth and pitch of the forgive the metaphor, crenels of grief.
Last weekend, I had a wonderful weekend in Carlsbad with my son and his wife and their beautiful daughters. Saturday, I’d made a dinner reservation for an Italian restaurant and found it on the map about twenty minutes away. We started off for a brisk walk along the beach wall overlooking the beach, arrived at the restaurant to discover that it was the wrong restaurant (there was another one with the same name two blocks from our hotel.) Hangry and more than a little annoyed, we walked back and stopped at another restaurant halfway between the two, where we had quite a nice dinner. My food came last, so I was holding the baby while her parents ate, and I gazed out the window of the restaurant at a couple who were standing still, arms around each others’ waists, watching the sun as it sank into the Pacific. They looked intently at the sun dipping into the water, then equally intently and fondly at each other. That’s all it took. I completely lost it. Tears quietly cascaded down my cheeks. I tried to hide it but with my hands full of baby, I wasn’t able to wipe them away.
My daughter-in-law said, “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I blubbered. “I’m fine. Just snuck up on me.”
I proceeded to try to explain the loss of one’s other, the feeling of yearning to share life’s simplest moments, in direct contrast with intractable solitude one faces with the loss of one’s life partner. It didn’t go well, particularly because she’d been quite moved that I was so emotional about holding their darling baby. Which was part of it, I want to assure her.
But back to this feeling about time and the connection between quite disparate points in my life, and how they have remained joined to others on the same continuum. The metronome of friendship tick-tocking up to tap you from behind. I’m moved by it.
Earlier this week I came home from work and went down to swim a little in the pool at our condo. Only a year ago, my husband would have come with me, rolling his scooter with aplomb to a shady corner of the pool, where he would have watched me swim, or dozed off in the late afternoon. We might have brought crackers and cheese and some sparkling water down, and after emerging from my minimal pool laps, I would have sat and joined him in companionable silence, munching our crackers and enjoying the diminishing sun that warmed the chaises on the north side of the pool before it slipped down behind a nearby building.
I pulled my head up out of the water and looked quickly to his corner, deliriously expecting him to be there, just as I had earlier in the week as I stretched on the floor of our apartment, looking up to his picture on the table.
Damnit. You’re not coming back, are you?
No, he’s not. Anger, worry, hollowness, impatience, weariness, wallowing self-pity are some of the feelings a person in grief slogs through every day. But as time passes, it’s not always terrible. There are also moments of hope, optimism, gratitude, self-discovery, pride of accomplishment, and even some joy, too. Those are the feelings I try to steer myself toward. I’ve always been a “there must be a pony here somewhere” type of person, and now is no exception.
I’m so grateful to my friends and colleagues for their support now. I’ve learned the power of making plans to look forward to, to experience, then look back on and enjoy remembering the events of those times you’ve planned. I guess that’s what makes a good life, you could say. Even if time isn’t actually crenelated at all.
Friday night’s adventure consisted of a theatre outing to the Odyssey Theatre on the Westside with my neighbor/griever-in-common, Marilyn, to see a play entitled Be a Good Little Widow. When I signed up for the tickets, I confess that I thought the title was How to… That sounded incredibly instructive. Then I discovered that two of our current stage management students were working on the show, and it was closing weekend, so I thought it’s now or never for me to get instruction on the new path my life has taken. On closer reflection, I don’t think I need instruction, and if I did, would I want to be a goodlittle widow? Or a raging, bigger than life WIDOW! The latter seems more inviting.
Given the title, I expected that the Odyssey lobby would be filled with lonely hearted and unwilling singles. Partially accurate. What I did not expect was the full on life-force of current and former USC School of Dramatic Arts students clamoring at the gate. The show starred Adrienne Visnic, and was directed by Brendan Baer, both alumni. The lobby was filled with about a dozen young artists, skewing the average demographic by about forty years.
Bekah Brunstetter’s play is technically well constructed, introducing us to the newlywed couple, Melody and Craig, in their first days living in their tidy, tiny new split story home, rendered effectively by Scenic Designer Pete Hickok. Brunstetter fakes us out, by introducing Craig’s mother, Hope, a widow, into thinking she might be the titular tutor. But any self-respecting playgoer knows that the adjectives good and little probably don’t refer to the mother of the young couple, however youthful she looks. It’s with a growing sense of dread that we hear about Craig’s frequent air travel for his work. In spite of their visible affection, we become aware of Melody’s honeymoon jitters about her marriage and her mother-in-law. Visnic aptly captures the shock and entropy of the newly widowed in the aftermath of the inevitable plane crash,. She succumbs to the planning expertise of Hope, who overtakes and executes the offstage funeral for her son, Craig. Melody soon exhibits the expected raw grief of a young and vibrant widow. Visnic excels in physical abandon, beginning with the ragged breathing of her anything-but-flowing yoga practice, to the uninhibited half-dressed dancing, vodka bottle vertically poised over her mouth. I was going to say it was the universal dread of every widow to lose oneself in numbing self-debasement, but I realize that without researching this further, I can only say I dread that image and path.
On the way home from the play, Marilyn and I talked non-stop. She’d joined some of the other audience members in the ladies room afterwards, where she reported the camaraderie of so many widows in seclusion bordered on an open therapy session. Fortified by the dramatization of loss we’d shared, she and I confided the origin stories of our widowhood. The comfort of sharing these intimate details is what happens between widows and widowers, but not generally with the public at large, who frankly, don’t particularly want to hear it.
Keeping these stories contained on a “need to know basis” is part of how our society defines “being a good little widow.” I reject this model. It’s something we all eventually experience and there’s nothing to be ashamed about learning how to grieve. And here’s the thing. As in anything in life, death isn’t only sad. The moments around a loved one’s death can be full of love and laughter, profound feelings, expressions of fear, superficial worries, triumphs of resilience, gestures of trust and faith. I remember the night after my grandmother’s death, my brothers and I were bunked in our childhood beds in the bedroom above the kitchen in our grandparent’s home. In the dark, we lay there exchanging our best recipes, my brother Larry sharing his recipe for macaroni and cheese in minute detail. For a reason I can’t even remember now, though it may have been his serious tone about building the mac and cheese, but we couldn’t stop laughing. We giggled into the middle of the night, relieved from the events of the day by the instantaneous melting away of twenty years – by becoming children again in the dark under the duvets on those big wooden beds up in the attic bedroom. A moment I still remember another twenty-five years later.
Since discovering it, I’ve immersed myself in each episode of the podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking. They can’t come fast enough. I’m obsessed with Nora McInerny’s communal platform for not just looking back at grief and its origins, but looking forward to forging new lives.
My new strategy is to “Say yes to everything” but now manifest it in buying airplane tickets. Obviously I won’t be able to go everywhere, given my professorial constraints, both in free time and finances. Last week I booked a trip to the Fall Production Managers’ Forum conference hosted by The American Players’ Theatre in mid-September. Privileged to have been in the Forum for several years I’ve been constrained from traveling to the annual conferences. I’m now actively pursuing professional curiosities and deepening my work in my chosen field of Stage and Production Management.
Today was the day when I was supposed to get everything done for my trip to Italy. On the advise of another widow pal, I went to Michael’s to pick up the tiniest little jar you’ve ever seen so that a little bit of Jimmie can go with me to Italy and ride a vaporetto (water bus) in Venice, or climb a hill with me in Umbria. Nails done, haircut, dinner with friends two nights in a row. I’m making room for life to find its way back in.
Life is good. Be in nature as frequently as you can, see the art, laugh and be as irreverent as you can be serious. Know your foibles. Keep perspective on your strengths and weaknesses. Let those whom you love know it often.