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?

Hats and Passports and Moving On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between the Bubble Machine and the Sobbing

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

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

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

Do you like my Gwen Stefani glasses?

To which the universal response was ‘meh.’

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

What gives you a feeling of awe and wonder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

VDay – New Memories

In one of the last semesters, in one of the Meet and Greet circle up meetings in the Bing lobby, the SM organized the large group to introduce themselves by name and role in the production. The group was huge, more than 40 people between the cast, crew and designers, and the “Meet and Greet -Cute” feature was to state your favorite jam. I’ve never been a huge music fan, though I listen and know what I like, my memory for artists and names of tunes is slim to none. Fortunately, I was on the far side of the large circle, and had several minutes of private panic before they arrived at me.

I listen to podcasts. (had to hold for large collective guffaw). My current favorite is Hidden Brain.

This is true and sometimes I find myself practicing the pronunciation of the host’s name, Shankar Vedantem as though I’ll be asked to report who that is in the next circle up.

Can you tell I’m avoiding talking about the elephant in the room? Yes, my friends, it’s Valentine’s Day. The first Valentine’s Day without my primary Valentine. 

My WOW friend, who now has a good 2.5 months of Widowhood in the rearview mirror, says she’s studiously avoiding it… and me, when I texted her Happy Vday, with a stream of lurid hearts trailing behind. I’ve had a burst of loving messages from friends, all of which reinforce the new way I’ll need to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

A recent episode of Hidden Brain, called One Head, Two Brains, debunked pop psychology about the roles of the left and right brain. Rather than butchering the science here, I urge you to listen to it. But one of the things in the podcast was relevant in this new phase of my single life. They were discussing whether you are the type of person who goes to the usual restaurant and order the same thing, or someone who tries different things on the menu. Having been married to someone for whom the closure of first Joe Allen’s and then Orso in Los Angeles signaled the tragic end of his access to liver and onions, I am most familiar with the former. I fall somewhere between the former and latter and after listening to the podcast, will steer myself sharply to trying new things. It’s only right, right?

The host, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, described that the habitual orderer and what their brain rewards them for their habit. They rely on anticipation of a good meal as well as the expected satisfaction after the meal. That’s something I witnessed countless times in our marriage. It got to be a bit of a joke as we dined at restaurants closer to home in the later years, CPK being our go-to place, and Jimmie over and over ordered the pesto with shrimp, or the penne with chicken and sun dried tomatoes, which he would pick out of the dish and leave on the side. He was stolid in his ordering, never wavering from his choices.

But come to find out that the person who tries new dishes is more likely to form new memories, according to Gilchrist, and that’s what nudges me to that camp. Especially now when I’m in the business of forming new memories, and recovering antique memories of who I was before I was “Jimmie’s wife.”

Last weekend, faced with a weekend of no work, I imagined what I would do, visualized sitting on my couch at home watching TV, reading, and generally just missing Jimmie.  I chose instead, to jump in the car and head north to Los Osos in the relentless rain, to visit our niece, Martha, where we spent 24 hours chatting, doing a puzzle, taking brief but beautiful walks in the blustery central coastal climate.

Entitled Food Porn, this puzzle was challenging and very satisfying

The drive north was spectacular, the verdant hills off to my left and right, the rainbows appearing in my windshield, first on the left, then on the right.

Martha and I had long chats, ate the french pastries I’d stopped to pick up at Renaud’s in Santa Barbara, watched some TV, napped. It was bliss, and not from the habitual menu, so fulfilled my desire to make new memories.

Valentine’s Day 1.0 was spectacular. My sweetheart usually gave me a pretty bauble and always a sweet card. There was always way too much supermarket candy in the equation. It was a celebration of our long love and sure, I’m not thrilled to be celebrating VDay without my valentine.

Years ago, I had the privilege of stage managing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. Thirteen months of rotating celebrities, three amazing new women every two weeks, directed by Jenny Sullivan, produced by Jim Freydberg. It was an incredible gig, and one which I mourned its completion. The resilience and power of those women’s stories, onstage and off was a theatrical experience I won’t soon forget.

Last night, as a precursor to what I guess may be my new VDay routine, I attended a Visions and Voices event, A Conversation between Roxanne Gay and Amanda Nyugen. It was a stirring reminder of the ability of the heart and spirit to not only recover from violence, but also to rebuild and flourish. With grace and gentle empathy as embodied by Ms. Nyugen, and with sardonic power as exemplified by Dr. Gay. I left the auditorium, again, into the pouring rain, and walked with a bounce to my car.

So what did my new VDay look like? With a 9AM meeting at the Geffen Playhouse, I booked a 6:30AM workout at the new Sanctuary Fitness Pasadena outpost, followed by a beautiful shower and breakfast at the Urth Cafe. All by my lonesome. Ironically, it wasn’t the least bit lonesome. That’s called forming new memories. And lest you think I’ve jettisoned any of the old, please know that I have not.

At the Huntington Hotel – February 5, 2015

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Vulnerable Adult

When I see it in writing, and in light of this afternoon’s events, it doesn’t seem nearly as amusing as it did this morning on the WhatsApp chat with my friend Susan, freshly returned to her home in South Africa after what could only be called an appalling return trip.

She had come all the way from Cape Town for my husband’s life celebration. We’d had a wonderful weekend of visiting with family and other friends, and on Monday evening, somewhere between the plane’s arrival at Heathrow and her return to her flat in London, she realized she’d lost her passport. Or it had been pickpocketed. After doing what most of us would do in that situation, freak out, she searched the American Embassy website, found the earliest appointment available, (Friday at 7:45AM). She clearly wouldn’t make the flight to Cape Town scheduled to leave on Wednesday evening.

Susan is one of the most capable women I know, and by the time she had regaled my friend Bob and me with her story, she was well on the way to solving the problem. She described it as a generational problem which a quick call to her father in Florida straightened out.

His phrase “You’re an American” ringing in her ears, she walked into the American Embassy at 8:00AM the next morning, and out at 9:07AM with her replacement passport. Made the flight that evening, and “Bob’s Your Uncle.” Thanks, Dad!

Chuckling, she described herself as what some would call a “Vulnerable Adult” – further defined as the guy who leaves his car doors open, or his front door open, or his car keys in his car with the car doors open. When she used this term, I laughed in recognition.

I didn’t know it was an actual sociological term in the UK. “A person who is 18 years of age or over, and who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness and who is or may be unable to take care of him/herself, or unable to protect him/herself against significant harm or serious exploitation.”

I laughed not because I recognize the description. Lately it describes me (in need of community care) but prior to that, our son. My husband and I raised him. He’s much better now than he was at 18. But I did just have to overnight his car keys to him that had been left in a bag left behind after his Dad’s life celebration last weekend.

First, I went to the UPS store, and as we prepared the package, the clerk looked skeptically at me and asked me a question.

Does this key fob have a lithium battery in it?

Umm, I don’t know.

Then I googled it.

Yes, it does have a lithium battery.

Then we can’t ship it from here. You’ll have to take this to the main UPS office tomorrow so that it can be sent certified mail. It might bring the plane down if it explodes.

What?

It wasn’t until the next morning when I was standing in the main UPS terminal that I realized if Chris hadn’t left the keys in his jacket pocket in the toy bag on the floor of my apartment, he’d have carried them onto the plane with 300 other people carrying lithium batteries in car key fobs in their jacket pockets. After pointing this out to the clerk, I got ridiculously peeved then when she still made a phone call to make sure I could ship the keys. $69.28 later, I left the UPS store, having successfully shipped the overnight package to my vulnerable adult and very much feeling like a vulnerable adult myself.

This afternoon I returned to my apartment between shows, and was walking through the lobby when I ran into one of my neighbors, Marilyn. Marilyn and her husband, Jerry are one of the nicest couples in the building. Jerry, who walked with a pronounced limp, instantly endeared himself to me about ten years ago, when we first moved into the building. Every morning, when I would walk our dog, he would double over and fuss over Lizzie, making her tail wag madly. He and Marilyn were always together – they were poll workers together at every election. She’s an audiologist, and drove what looked like a former police cruiser, and I would frequently see them early in the morning doing a car shuffle because they only had one parking space in the building. I think Jerry’s a teacher.

In fact, today may have been the first time I’d ever seen them apart. At this year’s Christmas party, I had been greeted by the two of them heartily and Marilyn had given me a big, reassuring hug and encouraged Jerry to do so, as well. (You may recall I left that party quickly, after losing it at a kindness uttered by another neighbor.) Now I saw Marilyn walking toward me in the lobby.

You and I have something in common.

I stopped walking, chilled, because I realized instantly what she was saying.

My husband died on Thursday. (two days ago) He was at work and they called me to say he was unconscious. Then they called again to say he was at the morgue.

What is going on in the world right now? I stopped and clung to Marilyn with a ferocity she certainly didn’t want. She wanted to keep moving. Looking over her shoulder, she almost accusingly said,

You threw yourself back into your work, didn’t you?

No, Marilyn, I took some time before going back to work. Please be kind to yourself. Take a little time off before you go back.

But I was talking to her back as she moved quickly toward the garage. I heard her muttering about losing it, needing to get back to work so she wouldn’t lose it. I recognized first hand her abrupt departure, her anxious gait, her restlessness, the vacancy of her missing companion. Reminded me of the forlorn looking pigeon on my porch this afternoon, huddled in the rainy downpour. It may not be technically accurate, but the term vulnerable adult suits many of us right now.

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.

I’d prefer a puppy, thanks.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not misconstrue this as a secret request for a dog. I acknowledge my luck in having many caring people in my life who would jump at providing me with a new puppy. Please do not.

Have you ever noticed this phenomenon? When you are in the market for a new vehicle, or house, or dog even, you find yourself surrounded by dozens of the brand/style/breed that you’ve been thinking about? It’s been a while since I was in the market for any of those things, but lately I’ve noticed more people around me who have experienced significant loss. I am swimming in grievers.

Obviously, being surrounded by grievers is far less appealing than swimming in eager, face-licking puppies, but no less visceral. When we choose to notice our fellow humans and the all-too human experiences we share, they mirror our own frame of reference. Naturally. Narcissistic, yes, extremely, but also it can be comforting and reassuring.

We’re not alone. There are others who are facing or have faced the exact same thing we are going through. The predecessors can provide spiritual guidance. The successors give us a sense of utility when we are floundering with what we will do next. Each of us copes in our own intensely personal way. It gets better for a while, then we hit a huge grief pothole or icy patch and spin out. No matter how good our emotional snow tires are.

Due to circumstances I’ve begun to feel a bit like a grief vampire. They say that death comes in threes, and she has circled closely to my orbit and plucked away three important people to close friends in a very short time. The rest of my constellation is surely holding their loved ones close and struggling to maintain the apogee of orbit from those of us with loss.

And yet, they’re not. I’m stunned on a daily basis by people’s thoughtfulness, and consideration of what I’m going through. Earlier this week a colleague made me a quiche and dropped it off at work. Last night I took a bath in the light from a candle given to me by a neighbor. One of these days, I will finish the 1500 piece puzzle given to me by a colleague. I will either complete it, or in a fit of pique, will attempt the magician’s tablecloth trick which will end the puzzling for the season.

When comparing notes with my close circle of Widow/er/s, I’ve discovered that it’s acceptable to have begun talking to myself. Mind you, I’m not talking to Jimmie (most of the time), but talking myself through the steps of a given task.

Yesterday, in a moment of self-care, I signed up for a new app called emeals, which was recommended to me by my office-mate, Hannah. Check it out. Despite the cozy picture of the couple cooking together and the fact that it doesn’t cater to singles, it’s amazing. You pick your menus for the week, it downloads a shopping list, and even links to Instacart or other delivery services. I got very excited, picking four things – beef barley soup (slow cooking), grits with eggs and arugula (breakfast for dinner), and a few others. The shopping list was full of arcane items like fig preserves and frozen cheese biscuits that would challenge any half-hearted shopper so I linked to Instacart for delivery between 8-9pm last night.

Then I promptly forgot, realizing at 7:50 as I sorted crew participants for the class that I teach that I needed to be home to receive delivery. I bolted from my office and when I walked into my building at 8:08 I received the shattering news that my 32 arcane-Els-you-will-never-find-this-on-your-own items had been canceled from my cart. I imagined the beleaguered Instacart shopper stomping their feet, then having to return the items to the shelves in a pique of anger.

I spent about 5-8 minutes huffing around the store, looking for someone to complain to (they were all gone) before grabbing a cart, unchecking all the items on the shopping list, and beginning to fill my cart myself. Mindful self care. I calmed myself with the task at hand (filling the empty refrigerator at 8:45PM so I could feed myself). Checking out the other people who did their shopping that late and thinking I spotted a few other grievers in the store. But it could have just been projection on my part.

One day at a time. One meal at a time. Using the tools and technology to ease the process of rebuilding.

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…

…and in health…

In honor of my 34th Anniversary to the love of my life, I thought it would be worth pushing past the first phrase in this long standing wedding vow because recent posts have lingered far too long on it. This one’s for me, so I apologize I don’t have a more universal framework than the memories of the love we’ve shared.

Over the course of our thirty-four years together, we’ve lived in at least one month together in seven different locations, eight if you count the Magic Hotel in Hollywood during the run of The Iceman Cometh at the Huntington Hartford Theatre on Vine St.

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James Greene as Jimmie Tomorrow

When we lived in New York, we mastered the busses on the Upper Westside, and sometimes just walked from the heart of Broadway to our little fourth story apartment in a brownstone on 70th Street.  I would walk down with our dog Jasper, a regal, intelligent german shepherd, who was well-enough behaved to be allowed to sit in the aisle of whatever Broadway theatre Jimmie was currently rehearsing in. Then, the three of us would pad home to our apartment where Nini and Flicka, our two cats waited patiently for us, lounging on window sills, or amusing themselves by tearing around the apartment in mad games of tag. Pity the poor house guest who slept on the fold-out sofa bed when the mother and daughter got it in their heads to play.

Our walks together through the years took us through Central Park at all times of day and night, North Hollywood Park, parks in Hartford Connecticut, Chatham, Los Osos. Jasper accompanied us to Watts Towers, when we moved to Los Angeles and explored our new home.Family_Photos_23_00004

Where was my fitbit then!  In New York, we had our special “gin joints”where we hung out, Palsson’s on 72nd St. where we shared countless nights after the evening performances laughing with friends and Jimmie’s manager, Yvette, a raspy raconteur of sobriety, on whose lap I once rode back into the city from the McCarter Theatre after a performance of Play Memory, the play where Jimmie and I first met. And, coincidentally, Palsson’s where we had our wedding reception up in the cabaret above the main restaurant.

About two years we moved to Los Angeles to shoot The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, NBC cancelled the show. In one of life’s more poignant ironies, Lifetime picked it up, and resumed shooting in NYC. Jimmie and I had the heady romance of separation and sweet reunions every other week or so when he returned home. Family_Photos_024_00013

There’ve been so many baseball games in our lives together. Shared from the sanctity of our sofa via our MLB subscription, to the hot, sunny bliss of baseball games with friends.

We’ve traveled together, zigzagging across the country with Jasper in the back seat of the navy blue Bonneville I’d just inherited from my grandmother, seeing the Grand Canyon, and spending ridiculous nights in flea-bag motels.

We’ve spent long, langorous summers in Montana, with our friends at the Alpine Theatre Project, going rafting and hiking and dining al fresco in some of the most beautiful scenery our great country has to offer. Oh, and doing a fair number of shows in the interim. We’ve journeyed multiple times to the elbow of Cape Cod, spending weeks with Jimmie’s sister, Kate, and feasting on Fried Clams and ice cream together and with friends.

Together we’ve watched the sun rise over Mt. Haleakala on Maui, cruised to the Canary Islands, and Mexico, and floated in the Dead Sea. If you want to read about that episode, where Jimmie lost his brand new wedding ring, click here.

And the theatre we’ve seen together over the years. Hundreds of plays we’ve seen together, and separately, watching each others’ careers develop. We’ve had the chance to work together rarely, but those times have been sweet.

I’ve remodeled about 4 bathrooms, 3 kitchens, painted two houses (okay, so it’s an admitted addiction) all around the most accommodating and patient man who loathes to have his space invaded by strangers, but who ultimately appreciates the end result, a more beautiful living space.

But of course, our proudest accomplishment has been raising together our beautiful son, Chris, not of our own making initially, but whose achievements of integrity and leadership and good sense selection of his beautiful partner, Whitney, have resulted in one of the greatest joys of our shared 34 years, our granddaughter.

Together we’ve watched countless hockey games, first watching our son play, and now watching him coach. We invested in his skill building, only to see it pay off in his inherent coaching capabilities. There’s nothing like the thrill of seeing your child find his creative and intellectual home.

All of which is not too bad when considering …and in health….

These are the memories that I will carry with me forever. Though this year, there’s no tattoo to mark our anniversary.

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E(scape) R(oom)s

Recently, Jimmie and I had dinner out at our favorite CPK downtown at 7th and Fig. We are fixtures there, having had a long habit of going there for “strike pizza” after the closing of shows at USC. I’d finish the strike, jump in the car and pick up Jimmie to head out for pizza on a Sunday night. We are highly ritualistic people, and this was one of our favorite outings. The last time we were there, we were greeted at our table by a former student, who told us that she had been working at an Escape Room in downtown LA.

We laughed about the coincidence that two recent graduates from the School of Dramatic Arts had gone into E.R. work, and yet they hadn’t know each other while at USC.  I guess it’s to be expected that theatre designers/scenic painters/costumers would find this kind of work engaging and profitable. And that they would have success in it.

My 91 year old husband has developed an affinity for E.R.s this week. You won’t find our favorite E.R. on any list of Immersive Escape Rooms. It’s the E.R. at Good Samaritan, in downtown LA, where we are now on a first name basis with much of the staff. For the record, I’d rank it as very difficult, but so far with a 100% survival rate.

We come in, fill out the paperwork and have a brief wait in the lobby. When we arrived Tuesday night, our first visit this week, the lobby was surprisingly empty, and we were swept in with the speed of a couple with reservations at WP24.

The thing about E.R.s is that they are pretty easy to get into. When you are 91 with a plumbing issue, you rise straight to the top, like the cream on the frosty bottle of whole milk in the milk box.

Milkbox
What my childhood milk box looked like

(Some rurally raised Boomers will get that reference. For the millennials, one used to have milk delivered to your home (even as late as the early 1970s) where they left it in an insulated square box sitting outside your door in the early dewy mornings before school.)

But, as usual, I digress.

Tuesday night, we went in to the Good Sam Escape Room at 6:30pm, and we walked out at 9:30pm, new plumbing features in tact. Our “plumber” had just finished his day of surgeries and is such a wonderful man that he dropped in to assist with the necessary fittings which the competent but overwhelmed nurses were unable to install. Good thing he came along when he did. It was uncomfortable, God-and-anyone-within-range-of-Room-6-knows, but he got the job done and we were home by the 10 o’clock news.

Full Disclosure: I’ve never been to an actual Immersive Escape Room, but found this helpful video on the site of our former student, Madison Rhoades’ Cross Roads Escape Games to get educated about them.

Here are some parallels and differences between Maddy’s carefully curated experience and Good Sam’s (GS):

  1. We enter as a team. Unlike the Hex Room experience, we weren’t separated at any time, except when the plumber insisted I leave the room. And that was okay with me.
  2. You’re isolated in a room and left to your own devices. (CR and GS)
  3. Unlike the Hex Room, there are no magic buttons to push to get a clue about how to get out, and seemingly no puzzles you can do to advance in the line for service. Tuesday night I read the Sunday NY Times Magazine article about Gwyneth Paltrow’s “GOOP” Empire. Friday night, I did two crossword puzzles. No Exit.
  4. It’s a triage system at GS, and judging from Friday night’s line up, we were definitely not high on the priority list. (which, of course, is both good news and bad news). Last night, Nurse Tim resolved our issue quickly, and then left us to languish for about five hours while they dealt with two coronary attacks and a stroke.
  5. At GS, they have players who are helpful and encouraging in furthering your attempts to get out. Last night, Friday, when we returned to play again at 8:40pm, a woman dressed as a kindly nurse’s aid ushered us back into Room 6.

Aide: I just made up this room, knowing that Mr. Nolan would be back in tonight! (cooing) And who are you?

Els: (flatly) I’m his wife.

Aide: Oooh! What a beautiful wife you have Mr. Nolan. (Leaning in conspiratorially, whispers) You take good care of your beautiful wife! (She exits. Jimmie turns to me)

Jimmie: What did she say?
Els: (loudly) She said, You better take good care of your BW! Hey, how did she know our pet name?

In spite of the flattery and kindness of the support players, Jimmie became impatient more than once. I now know that I would be a terrible participant in an actual immersive Escape Room situation. When abandoned in the ER, I become placid and accepting. Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s nothing I can do by having a tantrum that can’t better be done by excessive groveling whenever the support staff enters the room. So our door remained closed, and Jimmie shivered under his sheet for three of those five hours of captivity before I got up my courage to emerge and request a blanket.

Later, I joked with Jimmie that there was a door right behind where I was sitting that opened into the main hallway. Why didn’t we just leave?
Jimmie’s eyes brightened, and he gathered himself to stand up.

Els: No! That would be like running out on your restaurant check. We have to wait until they walk in with the paperwork to sign and then we’ll know you’ve been discharged.

Hours later, I turned to Jimmie and made like we should leave through that door.

Jimmi: No, Els! (patronizing, instructive tone) Don’t you know, we have to wait to be discharged!

Hours later, well after midnight, the beleaguered doctor came in, apologizing for their seeming neglect. We quickly updated her on the successful features of our visit, with strong hints that we should be going home soon. She agreed, and told Jimmie he could get dressed again. That’s when I took the this picture.

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Pouting doesn’t help in the escape room experience.

Still, it took another thirty minutes for Nurse Tim’s return with the necessary paper to sign. He then turned, slid the bed to the wall, and at 1:30AM, opened the tantalizing door to the outside hall.

It will be much easier for you to go out this way. There’s a lot going on the other direction.

I think I will advocate the Cross Roads Escape Games next time Jimmie gets bored.