Mother’s Day

I always find myself a twinge sad on Mother’s Day. In recent years, I’ve always attributed it to missing my mom, who passed away when I was thirty-six and she a mere sixty-five in the volcanic aftermath of her voluptuous love affair with cigarettes.

My mother was a force of nature. This might surprise anyone who knew the ladylike self-effacing woman she presented to the world, but my brothers and I know her fierce tenacity in all things she did throughout her life. For the first 20 years, she was a loving daughter and sister, growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania in coal country. The next twenty shaped her as a Mom, as she married my father straight out of Wellesley, foregoing a possible career in something that remains unclear to this day. My dad tells the story about how he hitched a ride back to the naval base in Boston after visiting Mom, a senior at Wellesley. He got into the car with one of her professors who went on and on about Shirley’s aptitudes as a student, and became forlorn to learn she would be marrying and not carrying on in some pursuit of the mind.

But she did. She threw herself into mothering; both she and my Dad engendered in all of us a love of learning, of reading, of love of the arts, exposing us to frequent museum outings and a hard work ethic and love of our family.

The penultimate chapter detailed her return to the life of the mind, after her divorce,  returning to the work force, a short lived application of her library science degree in an actual library at Wilkes College, followed by the insane application at nearly fifty to the Columbia School of Journalism. She completed that program, and began her subsequent life as a journalist in Bethlehem and Palmerton, PA.

The final chapter was underscored by her tragic demise from lung cancer. The last year or so was predictably sad, and no matter how many good times we had, the residue of the hospice days remains always for me a sober reminder of our obsolescence as humans.

Cut to my own motherhood. Twenty-five years ago, Jimmie and I adopted a toddler through the LA Department of Children’s’ Services. Born in Los Angeles, the fost-adopt toddler came from a medically challenged scenario; he had been born to a young mother, who had been unable to care for him. In addition, there were maternal grandparents were unable to raise him.

Chris was prenatally exposed to drugs. He had an older sibling, born to the same mother. His father was no longer alive, according to what we were told; the exact details were unclear.

The adoption worker explained the upcoming process to us:

1) We would undergo the home study and they would check our home to make sure we would be safe fost-adopt parents.

2) We were not allowed to meet Chris unless we agreed up front to accept him. They described this as protecting the child, which was, understandably, their first priority. We agreed.

3) Through the next year or so, the process to “free” Chris of parental rights would happen and then the adoption could go ahead. I remember being worried all through that first year that his birth mother would be in the courtroom on the day when we were going to complete the adoption – all of which could happen, according to the DoCS.

4) I did a lot of research at the library about pre-natal drug exposure and the sorts of things we could expect in terms of learning delays, behavioral issues, etc. The court offered Chris nine months of rehabilitation through the CHIME program at UC Northridge, where he attended classes once a week and spent time with other children who were receiving state-funded learning remediation. Chris’ vocabulary was extremely limited when he came to us. He had only eleven words. Jeep was his name for anything with four wheels; doggie, ball. He added cat shortly after coming to live with us. He had been in a foster-adopt home in Santa Clarita with an older child who was mute and communicated with sign language. Chris would bang the tips of his fingers together to signify his wish for a bottle. Within about a month in our highly verbal home, his vocabulary had expanded to 50 words. Chris was such a social child that he also thrived at the CHIME program.

Our adoption worker kept in touch with us with home visits to see how Chris was adjusting to our lives together. She continued to warn us that if his birth mother got back in touch and challenged her parental rights, we could lose Chris.

I am sorry to say that her absence was a gift to us. My husband and I were so enthralled with our “son,” though the adoption was not finalized for more than a year.

The day we went to the Children’s Court to finalize the adoption, I looked around the courtroom to see if his birth mother was there. The judge asked if anyone had any reason for this adoption to not move forward; I held my breath, but no one spoke up, and Chris became our son.

We took a picture of the judge with Chris sitting on his lap in the courtroom. The picture has faded to a funky green and orange tint with the passage of time, and Chris has a frown on his face in sharp contrast to the broad smiles on Jimmie’s and mine.

Fast forward to 2015, a Friday afternoon late in March, when, as is the case for many major disclosures from Chris, I received a text message that said simply:

C: I think I just found my birth mother and we just talked.

Whoa. It was a staggering revelation, and the details are his to tell. We shared back and forth extensively the details of his discovery. We were alternately thrilled and terrified. In the days immediately following their online reunion,  I thought about all the information she shared immediately with him, and was shocked at how frank she had been. Chris remarked more than once since then how candid she has been with him and how much “like him” that is. And he’s right – he is very candid and so, obviously, is she. Thank goodness. There are so many ways that an adopted child’s finding his or her birth mother can go. She was not only ready to hear from him, but also let him know that she had tried to find him.

The whole thing happened so fast that I felt more than a little overwhelmed by the process. This digitally accessible world made the following inevitable: within a few hours, his mother had posted on FB that she had found her son, followed by her other child, Chris’ half sister, posting that she had found her brother who had been “lost to the system.” As the “system” to which Chris was “lost,” I initially took gross offense to that statement, as I’m sure she may take offense from my description of the details at the time of Chris’s placement with us.

It is offensive because it is, of course, only half of the story. There is so much we don’t know about each other, and of course, we have all made assumptions. The story is important and I hope that we can tell it together with candor and compassion.

A few nights after they reconnected, I received several pictures from Chris’ birth mother via FB Messenger, pictures of her grown child and her grandchild, and a few pictures of herself as a baby. In addition, she asked to be friends on FB. I was nervous that she wanted to be a part of our lives, too, but I understand the inevitable hunger from 25 years of separation. While she didn’t say it, I think she wanted me to reciprocate with pictures of Chris as a little boy growing up.

In 1991, as Jimmie and I got ready to welcome a foster child into our home, they asked us to prepare a picture book of pictures of our family that could be shared with Chris so he could “meet his future family”. We included pictures of the two of us, lounging on the grass at our first home in North Hollywood, and pictures of our many pets then – we had three cats and two dogs. We included some pictures of my parents and Jimmie’s parents. They were, of course, at that time, photos that we pulled from photo albums, some of them taken around that time. Excitedly, we drove to the drug store to drop off for processing, then back to pick them up, slipping them between the plastic sleeves of the small 4 x 6 photo book I had purchased for this precious gift for our new child. Not many of us use photo albums any more. We trust our computers and the mysterious “cloud” to store our precious family heirlooms – I worry  sometimes that a simple loss of electricity or connectivity could obliterate lifetimes of images for future generations.

That first Sunday night, when I received those few digital photos shared by Chris’ birth mother, it felt almost like the same exercise Jimmie and I had gone through so many years ago– she was preparing us for receiving the new members of our family. And I was, on Sunday, not ready to receive them, or her into our lives.

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Our first Thanksgiving with Chris. At 2, he had a fascination with doors.

The social welfare system is complicated. I don’t remember now when all the details about Chris’ birth parents were shared with us, but I think it was sometime after we had fallen in love with our little boy. Which happened immediately. From the minute when the door opened at the foster home in Santa Clarita, and we saw his two foot high body with a mop of black curls and a little pony tail, that 300 watt smile, and his enthusiastic embrace of life, it was over for us. We were completely smitten. There is probably very little information they could have shared with us at that point that would have dissuaded us from loving him. The little information we did receive came months later during the process of “freeing” him from his birth parents.

Even now, three years after Chris found his other mother, the psychological tsunami is strong. I appreciate every day that a hole within Chris’ heart that has been filled by finding his birth mother. The fact that he hasn’t known about where he came from was always clearly a painful gap in his life which he has always shared frankly with us, not to be hurtful at all, but to let us know it has been missing. Shel Silverstein, “The Missing Piece,” was one of Chris’ favorite books when he was young.

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Chris on a beach in Spain several years ago.

And Chris has found not only his birth mother, but his birth sister, and her children as well. They met shortly after his discovery, and then he met his birth mom.  Life is rich and full of surprises and I am thrilled that we know more about his roots. Especially now that he’s a father.

So here are a few photos from the journey together up until today. Because we are all only the mothers that our children allow us to be.

Don’t Go

The image above is one of those perfectly encapsulated generational images. On the left, our son, age 2 and 3 months, poised in his dandy finery next to the knob on Thanksgiving, impish smile as he reached for the doorknob, his favorite talisman of the terrible twos. On the right, a photo of his daughter, age 2 and 4 months, hand extended in an eerily familiar manifestation of her DNA. Both photos say “Don’t go.” But in the one on the left, it was we who were saying “Don’t go” and on the right, it is our granddaughter who wears the universal mien of the child who wants her parent to stay. I haven’t asked Chris who took the shot, but I’m assuming from his Instagram post that he evoked this tragic look of loss on her little face.

April has been a month rich with visits, starting with a spring break visit from our son and his wife and daughter, three days full of flurried energy. Our guest bedroom isn’t the comfiest spot for a family of three, but we’ve hungered for connection, so it was great to have them here.  This last visit was taxing because unbeknownst to me, Jimmie was becoming dangerously anemic.

Our second visit was from our dear friend Susan, who resides in South Africa. Her trips are about the clearest demonstration of a friend’s love that I’ve ever witnessed. Two legs of travel, the first 10 hours, the second 16. Each way. I don’t know how she does it, but she manages to stay awake while here to visit, and to watch baseball with Jimmie while I head off to work. The last day of our visit was cut short, when I drove Jimmie to Hotel Good Samaritan to find out why he was so exhausted. Susan, ever gracious, had cleaned the house and left us flowers reminiscent of those she left 34 years ago in our honeymoon suite after executing the Maid of Honor duties for our wedding.

The third visit was Jimmie’s niece, Martha, come to support me through the last weekend of productions in the spring semester. I called her on Wednesday, she arrived Thursday evening and began taking care of us selflessly, as she has done so many times before. She cooked for us, spent time with Jimmie, and still managed to make discoveries around downtown LA, checking in on the progress of the mural in Pershing Square.  She discovered a new dangerous french bakery/cafe opposite Pershing Square, where she picked up the best blueberry scones I’ve had ever. Martha has an enormous zest for life and such style that I am constantly finding myself wanting to emulate her. She was as ever, a good sport, when I cajoled her into participating in one of the spring productions at USC, entitled Don’t Go.

Don’t Go was a devised, exploration in collaboration with the Sojourn Theatre Company, under the auspices of USC’s Arts Initiative, “Visions and Voices” of what happens when strangers meet, form a relationship, then discuss a topic that they may not see through the same lens. For a year, we’ve been planning this artist residency, and for the past four months or so, we’ve cast the seven student actors, and then the Strangers. The rehearsal period and performances were the culmination of this phase of the project, which I suspect will have a future life in the capable hands of the Sojourn Theatre.

I’ve come to appreciate the kindness of Strangers. Both at work and at home. Yes, capital S because the Strangers I met at work this month were many, curated from the USC campus and from among friends, family and neighbors within the larger Los Angeles area. The play demanded participation of seven of these curated souls each night, and finding them initially seemed impossible given the constraints of our other productions and the fact that each day only had 24 hours. Guided by the directors of the piece, Nikki Zaleski and Rebecca Martinez, we reached out to create bridges across the campus and with other theatrical institutions, such as The Pasadena Playhouse, which yielded willing participants to this theatrical and social experiment. Potential Strangers were asked to fill out a brief survey, indicating their availability for specific dates and performances or rehearsals, and some brief questions to unearth issues that they might feel strongly about. Meanwhile, the directors were building a structure for the conversations to take place while guest scenic designer and artist Aubree Lynn simultaneously designed a habitat. Student Costume and Projection Designer Mallory Gabbard worked to create clear instructional projections and a curated wardrobe to support the desired environment.

Student Lighting Designer Abby Light created a flexible plot which could both color and provide movement around the space for the conversations to unfold. Student Sound Designers Jacob Magnin and Noah Donner Klein grappled with the physics of reinforcing sound in unpredictable places throughout the theatre.

Most impressive to me was the ingenuity of the Stage Management team, students Lexi Hettick and Domenica Diaz, who communicated throughout the process with our Props Manager, Hannah Burnham, as the tasks to foster relationships evolved. In tech and performance, Lexi created an improvised tracking system to call lighting, sound and projections as determined by Sojourn artists, Jono Eiland and Michael Rohd, who took us all on the journey each night. It was different each night, because the topics selected were different. Lexi’s and Domenica’s focus in tech was laser clear and sound, live mixed by Noah was integral to the audience’s ability to follow the show.

The take away for me from the month of April is the blessing of generosity in the people around us all the time were we only to be aware. As negative as the current news cycle is, it is sometimes easy to think we are surrounded by danger all the time. My personal visits at home and the circumstances of the Sojourn piece allowed me to appreciate that we can easily share our common humanity with a complete stranger over the course of anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes of getting to know them. We may present ourselves to the world in a way which may be very different from what is in our hearts.

Yesterday, a new visiting nurse came to check up on Jimmie, post-hospital stay. She and I had been playing phone tag a bit, and we were expecting her between 6 and 7pm. Starving, Jimmie and I downed a bowl of potato chips, and I went to see what of Martha’s magical leftovers were in the refrigerator, not intending to prepare them until the nurse left. She arrived, a young woman in her early to mid-twenties, clad in blue scrub pants, a gray t-shirt, and sneakers, a bounce in her stride that jostled her braids. Within the ten minutes of our meeting, she knew that I taught theatre (which surprised her), and we knew that she lived in the neighborhood and had a four year old with brain trauma. How do we know these things? Because we allow ourselves to be interested in each other. To take advantage of the most cursory and peripheral engagements to be curious about who they are. What do they think about this? That?

With our hands on the doorknob, poised for flight, we have the opportunity to say to each other, Don’t Go. Stay a while. Let’s share our common humanity.

 

Heartbreaking News…

Earlier this week, Jimmie and I attended Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. It’s the first time we’ve been to the theatre together since we went to see Punk Rock at SDA almost a month ago. In all truth, we hadn’t been planning on attending the theatre again together not because we loathe the theatre or spending time together, but because the Circumstantial ROI of our theatre outings has become negligible for Jimmie. You can read here about our last Broadway Adventure.

The schlepp to the theatre is fine. We enjoy each other’s company and it’s nice to get out and see our adopted city’s sights traffic periodically. Assembling and disassembling Jimmie’s magical scooter is fairly automatic – no waving of the wand (that would be welcome technology, please), but it’s manageable. The logistics are surmountable. But when you can’t hear the play, what’s the point of surmounting the logistics?

Once we get to the theatre, sure, I have a moment of terror when Jimmie heads into the men’s room and I lurk by the door, craning to hear a thump and to ensure that no one takes his scooter for a joy ride. Other onlookers frequently are kind and offer an arm to walk him in and out of the men’s room. But I still look like some kind of perv, which is awkward.

Last night as I lurked before heading into see the show, I got a text from one of my friends from the spin gym where I have been a member for about four years. I had missed the email from the founder of the gym, which was entitled “Heartbreaking News…” In the brief email, she spelled out her reasons for the upcoming abrupt closure of the gym – on November 22nd. My phone lit up with other messages from friends I’ve met and gotten to know at the gym. I was completely distracted throughout the time leading up to the show, and immediately afterwards, restored my phone to see more communal wailing about the closure.

Heartbreaking News…

The power of words.

Since I wrote the last two posts, I’ve discovered people’s hunger to discuss and share the issue of giving care to our loved ones. A half dozen people have approached me to share their own stories, proving that we humans have a lot going on in our lives that isn’t necessarily visible in our daily comings and goings. Many people are shouldering their responsibilities at work while also carrying untold pounds of personal grief or struggle at home. And we don’t talk about it in any kind of direct way. We hide it as though it’s something to be ashamed of when it’s not. It’s just completely a part of our lives. We carry it because we want to, or in some cases, we need to or have to.

Tuesday, Jimmie and I visited the doctor after he experienced drainage difficulties in the morning, which I was able to help him solve with some of the medical equipment I had left over from over a year before. Note to self. However much you relish the idea of a personal bonfire to eliminate the traces of your medical mishigas, you should resist. By saving two boxes of single use catheters, I saved us a trip to the ER and missing a lecture. And yes, I know you were all asking yourselves,

What was she a girl scout or something?

Just as you shouldn’t get ahead of yourself in medical equipment armament, don’t Konmari yourselves into an ER visit as your situation changes.

Our visit to the doctor was late in the day. When we came in, he was in a hurry, and unfortunately hurry isn’t in our repertoire anymore. Jimmie inadvertently scooted into the wrong room requiring me to use my air traffic controller batons to steer him into the correct one, where the doctor did a quick ultrasound. As Jimmie stood to get dressed again, his back was facing the doctor when I asked him about the biopsy results.

The doctor, lowering his voice, quietly said,

Oh, They didn’t tell you? There’s aggressive cancer in the prostate.

I looked at him, incredulous. Did who tell us? This was his surgeon speaking. Also, I couldn’t believe that he was trying to tell me this without including Jimmie, who is extremely hard of hearing and facing the window while he pulled up his pants. My bossy sister emerged.

Oh, no. You need to tell him this directly.

And in my loud, most comely voice, said to Jimmie.

Jimmie, you need to turn around. The doctor has something important to tell you.

Jimmie turned and the doctor delivered the news. Again, he was still in a hurry, not that he was being unkind or elusive, but this was his last appointment before heading over to the adjacent hospital, and the details were brief.

Aggressive prostate cancer. Hormone therapy.

The power of words. When Jimmie stood up from the table, he caught his leg on something sharp, and as I hurried to help him with his pants, the doctor and I both watched as two small blooms of blood developed on the back of his khakis. He quickly applied gauze and tape, and then Jimmie and I executed the extraction of the scooter from the office.  Everything else about the exit from the office is fuzzy. I can’t speak for Jimmie, but I was in an emotional blackout.

The next twenty-four hours moved in a blur. We decided to go to Spamilton to take our minds off the unknown.

The follow up appointment with his GP two days later calmed us down. He confirmed that the entire tumor board of the hospital had reviewed Jimmie’s case and were unanimous in the treatment plan. Somehow hearing that was a comfort. Prostate cancer is slow moving.

Heartbreaking news…Aggressive Prostate Cancer. These word combinations are tough to read but it is our reactions that are our own to manage.

In the case of the closure of my gym, the truly heartbreaking news was that I had already paid for my 2018 membership and have yet to hear back from the management about a refund. If I am honest with myself, I had been thinking that I needed to change up my workout plan. Spinning, as good as it is for cardio, is boring. I’d been thinking I’d like to try pilates, or something else. So barring legal issues getting my membership fee back, while the news is heartbreaking for all the spin instructors at the gym and for the convenience of having my gym within 400 paces of my front door, these words can be managed.

In the case of Jimmie’s cancer, we will move forward with treatment, and take it a day at a time. Lord knows we are practiced in that. And we even have more theatre outings in our future. Last night we attended, heard and enjoyed Circle Mirror Transformation to see the MFA Y2 Actors in the Scene Dock Theatre. Tonight Eurydice is on the ticket.

This morning I got a text with some photos from Chris.

A bear broke into my truck last night

Now that’s heartbreaking. Especially given how much the truck has meant to Chris.  But that’s why we have insurance.

I’m grateful to be blessed with all the things we have. Good enough health to be able to attend a gym on a regular basis. Good enough medical care to help us through this crisis that Jimmie is experiencing. Lots of loving support from family and friends as we go through this ordeal. Good enough auto insurance to repair Chris’ truck. All of it is surmountable. As Chris texted me this morning, “This too shall pass.”

Heartbreaking News…Aggressive Prostate Cancer…Bear in the Truck. The power of words do not render us powerless.

And in the meantime, it seems fitting that Thanksgiving is right around the corner.

 

Piss Mas Eve, A Caregiver’s Story

A positive update. Jimmie’s recovering well from the dreaded P surgery two Thursdays ago. For those of you who are recoiling from my TMI posts, please just go back to reading posts with puppies or politics or whatever makes you to feel better or worse. Lord knows that there is enough suffering in the world to avoid posts about peoples’ personal plumbing perils. By the way, tonight is Piss Mas Eve.  Continue reading “Piss Mas Eve, A Caregiver’s Story”

Before Your Last Trip to the Outhouse, I want you to know…

Jimmie and I have been dealing with health issues of late. I should say Jimmie has been dealing with the health issues and I have been following along behind trying to keep up with the details. I choose to think about these interludes as romantic getaways, because hospitals let you stay over, and provide you with a folding cot which makes your back feel the way it looks when it’s folded up during the day.IMG_8721.JPG

Four hospitalizations since August for the same man-plumbing issue have culminated in our most recent overnight stay at Good Samaritan after what is the surgery most dreaded by men. I have this on good first hand info from many of the men in my life who’ve had it and lived to tell about it. Ask any one of them what the worst word in the English language is. Starts with a c:

Catheter.

Watch them spit it out with disdain, a churlish look of scorn tinged with not a little fear. Watch their eyes dart to the left as their lip curls. P surgery, pee surgery it’s all the same thing in this case. But at 90, a surgery under general anesthesia is enough to get you thinking about death.

After the doctor left, having delivered the news about the upcoming surgery, we huddled together, Jimmie in the 1960s-era wooden hospital guest chair with the leatherette dun-colored seat that exhales like it’s farting every time you sit on it, and me, sitting on the edge of the bed, the sanguinating catheter bag huddled to our left like a resentful pet who has been ignored too long. Our conversation turned to the inevitable, which is, of course, truly the inevitable.

“The night my father died,” said Jimmie, softly, his gaze averted, “he went out to the outhouse up at the cabin in Maine. My sister Claire was there with Mom and Dad. He came back and sat down in the chair and then fell out of the chair onto the floor. Claire said she knew instantly that he was gone.”

“What did he look like before he fell over?” I asked, scanning Jimmie’s pallid face, so depleted from the significant blood loss over the past weeks.

“He looked fine. I think it was a happy time for him. He loved being up in Maine. It was a complete surprise. I always thought that’s the way I would go,” he said. “I don’t know if my heart will stand this surgery.” The other unstated message was that the recent events haven’t been a “happy time in Maine.”

That sat between us somberly, as did the knowledge of Jimmie’s older brother Jack’s untimely death from a heart attack and similar type of collapse. I felt my cheeks becoming hot. My optimistic, fix-it-all attitude was showing some pretty severe cracks. My rational mind struggled forward. “They aren’t going to suggest a surgery that they don’t think you can survive, Jimmie. Your cardiologist will evaluate your ability to withstand the surgery. It seems to me that the real question is whether you want to continue to live.”

This may seem like a really harsh way of asking someone, and I think it was, but I had just finished reading the Dornsife Magazine, Fall 2017-Winter 2018, the theme of which was “Grave Concerns: the Mortality Issue” so I was primed for the conversation. I looked into his eyes, still not looking at me, and he said, “Not if I have to live this way,” with no hesitation at all.

“Well, before your last trip to the outhouse, I want you to know….” I sought to convey my love and gratitude to him for our magical life of thirty-five years together, while nagging behind me was my arch nemesis and evil twin, Maude Lynn.

You’re overreacting, Els, she sneered. And as usual, she proved correct.

Jimmie took my hand, bringing it to his lips, and kissed it gallantly, as we professed our love for each other. “Let’s remember there were so many good times, and not dwell on these difficult times.”

I tend to be extremely pragmatic, accept difficult circumstances for what they are and move forward. It is a primary trait among stage managers and theatre people in general. But to be frank, looking directly at the loss of Jimmie and our life together isn’t something I feel pragmatic about. I prepared for this surgery knowing that Jimmie never expected to live past eighty; we’ve talked more than once quite frankly about death. He’s been more ill recently than I’ve ever seen, and the procedures he has been going through with this recent bout have created a new Jimmie, whom I have struggled to love as unconditionally as the old one. We prefer to be around people who are healthy and pleasant and upbeat. If that isn’t the case, you are probably in the health care profession. I so respect those in the health care profession; they don’t frequently get to see the old versions of healthy people, but dwell in the land of the sickly, frightened, enraged or deflated new versions of formerly healthy people. Earlier this week as I watched the RN in the Emergency Room working on irrigating the catheter, I said “It’s kind of satisfying, right?” Without hesitation, JP, a former youth hockey player, (we’d bonded about that earlier) now RN said, “Yes it really feels good to make improvements in the health of a patient.”

We recently changed doctors. Jimmie’s GP closed his private practice to reduce his working hours as he approached retirement. Jimmie’s new GP, is kind and direct and speaks loudly – either a result of his geriatrics training, or perhaps hearing loss from also being a musician (something I overheard him say rather loudly at his office during our first visit.) He described for us the romanticized Hollywood version of aging, a gentle slope of decline as you get older. He derided that fabrication. I watched him describe, his hands chiseling the air in a series of steps, that patients are more likely to go from a steady baseline condition, to an event such as a surgery, or a heart attack, or a hospitalization, after which they drop down to a new baseline. This process repeats and he said if he got to do a TED Talk, that’s what he’d tell us. This made a lot of sense. I’d prefer to hear it in a TED Talk than see it in my spouse.

Later that first night at the ER after Jimmie was admitted and settled into his room, I stumbled out of the hospital at 11:30 PM, exhausted after seven hours in the ER. The night nurse reminded me to bring Jimmie’s Advanced Directive to the hospital when I came back. I had, of course, forgotten. It took me two days to remember to bring it back with me. I didn’t want something written almost twenty years ago and hadn’t spoken of since to define our conduct should the need arise. Thinking about these choices is hard, but with the assistance of his doctors, we arrived at the decision to move forward with the surgery which happened two days ago. With a spinal, not a general anesthesia. They rolled him out of the operating room, and his eyes were open. I said, “Hi, Jimmie.” He said, “Hi, Els.” In retrospect, I keep thinking, “what was I so worried about?”

Every day we hear from family and friends, colleagues from work and we are buoyed by their support, their virtual hugs (Jimmie may be becoming a little bruised from all the passed along hugs) and the knowledge that this too, shall pass. Now that we are home, it’s my job to teach the new visiting nurses what medications he takes, and answer their incredulous question each time I open the door to a new person:

How old are you, anyway? (While looking down at their clipboards at Jimmie’s DOB).

We went to the park today and sat in the sun. Fingers crossed. Neither of us is ready for our last trip to the outhouse yet.

 

The Dangers of Living with an Actor

I may have mentioned once or twice that I’m married to an actor. What I may have not mentioned is I’m married to a really good actor. This is an actor who’s plied his trade for the past sixty-five years, accumulating over twenty Broadway credits and twenty-nine off-Broadway,  has worked all over the country in regional theaters from The Mark Taper Forum in our home town, to the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, the Globe Theatre in San Diego, to Yale Rep. IMG_6046He’s gotten around, most recently, performing as Nagg in Center Theatre Group’s production of Endgame at the Kirk Douglas, in May 2016. He was one of three performers who were ninety years old when the play opened.

 

 

 

 

But perhaps his most convincing performance has been in the role of aging actor. Years ago, he played the 100-year-old man on the final “Centennial” episode of Las Vegas. The episode aired in 2005, so Jimmie was a spritely seventy-eight. He came home from his day on the set and told me that the mayor of Las Vegas had remarked to him after they shot their scene:

Hey, this acting business is tiring.

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What Jimmie looked like in 2005

For the episode of Las Vegas, they applied extensive prosthetics to achieve the 100-year-old character. I remember looking at him in his makeup and thinking

I’m going to stick around – you look damn good for 100!

But in fact, at the age of ninety, Jimmie looks decades better than he might (if the makeup artist was accurate) at 100. Now that’s talent.

I’d bet that you can’t tell which of the photos below is from 2015 and which is from 2016?

So this is how I know he’s a really good actor. Forget the convincing performances on stage and screen. He does an incredible stand-to-stasis moment when he gets up from the couch. He pulls himself up, then stands still for a moment, teeters precariously just long enough to engender a skosh of empathy from the audience (me) before he moves toward his walker. Once there, he trots away toward the bathroom. I’m pretty convinced that he doesn’t do it that way when I’m not there to witness it. But he eschewed the Nest Cam, so I won’t know for sure.

Other incredibly convincing acting techniques include the amount of time he takes to get into bed. The way he pulls his legs up and really slowly eases his toes under the sheets as though they might damage his legs – wow – it’s breath-taking.

I laugh sometimes when I see student actors struggling to convey age. They bend at the waist, use a cane; makes me want to cry out –

It’s all about the knees!

Jimmie’s use of hero props like his walker, hearing aids, and his enthusiastic insistence on the daily bottle of Ensure are foils against my incredulity about his aging.

He’s mastered his scooter for whizzing around the neighborhood, so you might lose sight of the fact that the same journey six months ago without the scooter would have taken five to six times the amount of time it takes now.

What gives him away as an actor, though, is when he lets his performance slip – shows his sharp recall of facts from the past, or launches into a brief but youthful invective against the current political situation in Washington. Or when we play Scrabble and he takes me with words like sycophant or xylophone.

The other night we had dinner with Hal Holbrook and the two of them were gossiping like teens. Talk about recall of events! Hal remembered a specific moment in a rehearsal at Lincoln Center during his put in for After the Fall. And Jimmie similarly about rehearsing a scene during The Changeling with Lanna Saunders where Elia Kazan struck him across the face to demonstrate to her how she should slap him. Twice. You can’t make this stuff up. Come on guys! You’ve gotta do better than that to convince us you’re getting older!

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L to R. James Greene, Els Collins, Rich Costabile, Randy Wilcox, Joyce Cohen, Hal Holbrook

When Jimmie and I first began dating, one of the things we liked to do was run after each other around Central Park. Actually, I usually ran after him. As an ex-marathoner, he kept me well in his rear-view mirror. That was okay with me – I liked the scenery with him in front of me. Now, I can just about believe that he was an ex-marathoner. His backstory is convincing when he plays the lack of knees in that stand-to-stasis moment.

But right now, while he pores over the New York Times, his new Nike eyewear in place, he looks only a tad bit older than when we tied the knot almost thirty-three years ago. I won’t let him know that his acting technique is failing him. He’s very proud to be an actor. It will be our little secret, okay? Unless you want to lobby to have him added to this list where he definitely belongs.

Neighborhood Strolls

I can think of a few better ways to start one’s day than getting rear-ended on the 101N on the way to the Man Plumber. Dozens, actually. But that’s the way yesterday started. Crawling along the right lane of the 101N, about to exit at Van Nuys Blvd., when the traffic just stopped, and we stopped hard, narrowly missing the car in front of us. Not so lucky for the car behind us, which slid into our rear bumper, pushing us into the car in front of us. Continue reading “Neighborhood Strolls”

Notes from the Wedding Trail – Part IV

Saturday morning, Chris’s friend and boss, Michael and his wife Stephanie asked us to breakfast with Chris at their house. We gratefully accepted, appreciating all that Michael has done to support Chris’ growth as a hockey coach. We were also grateful to have some alone time with Chris – the week had gotten increasingly busier, as more and more friends and family came into town, and our face time with Chris and Whitney was diminishing daily.

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After breakfast, Chris went and picked up Skylar and brought her to us to watch while they dressed and went to take some wedding photos.  We managed to amuse each other for a few hours when Nana got goofy with the dog guitar. Then Skylar napped for a few minutes. Those were my main instructions from Chris.

It was during this shared siesta that I slipped out from under S’s head, and into my dress and then woke Jimmie and told him he had to get dressed, too. Then we packed up the Ford Expedition AKA “The Tank”  for the wedding trip up the mountain.

  • Jimmie’s Scooter and Oxygen with its charger
  • Skylar’s bag
  • 12 Flower arrangements (in two very soggy cardboard boxes)
  • Skylar’s car seat

With Skylar on my hip, and Jimmie holding onto my arm, we made our way out of the condo and into the Tank. Air conditioning blasting, we climbed the hill to the tram. Once there, we found many helpful hands to carry the flowers to the tram. Up the mountain we went, full of anticipation and excitement. Chris’ hockey videographers and the two wedding photographers, Amy and Heidi,  rode up in the tram with us.

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Nana Els had dressed Skylar in a white shirt, red sneakers and pink socks. This was not her wedding outfit. Oops.

The ceremony was beautiful. Jimmie watched from the balcony above. We processed, Chris and I, dropping me off in the front row, as he continued to the front. Next came Justin and Sammy, taking their places to the right and left of the officiate, David Coburn. Next came the adorable flower girls. In an emotional coda, one of the flower girls was the daughter of Jimmie’s niece, Jen, who had at age ten, been the flower girl at our wedding. The two girls got to the end of the aisle and then remembered their task, flinging the petals with abandon. It was charming. Next came Kai, bearer of the two rings, which he gave to Sammy and Justin after a discreet cue from Sammy.

And finally, Whitney and her dad descended the stairs, both smiling and looking so relaxed and happy.

The ceremony was beautiful – very emotional. David guided Chris and Whitney through the vows and aside from a premature kiss (again, charming), all went perfectly. They were hitched! Then the party began. It was joyous and all the various branches of the family and friends intermingled and got to know each other better. The food was yummy and toasts were given by the parents of the bride and groom, and Justin and Sammy. They were all so different and so moving in their own ways. I couldn’t stop grinning all night. It was that kind of evening.

So that’s what we’ve been doing for the week.

Sunday we basked in the afterglow of the wedding with two breakfasts: the 8:00AM Collins family breakfast,

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The Mod Squad shot – you can almost hear my brother Larry’s disgust with another picture…

and then a second seating at 11:15 with Chris and Whitney and Skylar, and additional family and friends. That evening, after most people had left to go home, many of Jimmie’s relatives remained to bring us dinner at our condo, after which, we sat on the beach and watched the spectacular sunset. It was a lovely conclusion to the week’s events.

We’re back in LA now, after only an 8 1/2 hour drive on Monday. As we were cresting the hill into Santa Clarita via the 14 Freeway, Siri asked me if we wanted to save a few minutes, then took us twenty-five very twisty miles across the spine of the Angeles Crest Highway to Glendale before wending our way down to downtown. I think she thought we wouldn’t want to leave the wilderness yet. She was right. I’m sorry to leave the Wedding Trail.

Notes from the Wedding Trail – Part III

I’ve lost my touch – I’m several days behind in my news from the Wedding Trail. Sometimes when you are on the trail, you can get distracted by the views, the moments. Recording them suddenly falls to the side.

We had been counseled by Jimmie’s cardiologist that the altitude at the wedding venue was not going to be possible for him. Jimmie and I were devastated. Until I got the simplest text from Whitney on the day of the rehearsal.

Hey I keep forgetting to tell you heavenly does have oxygen and two paramedics on call for events.

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Jimmie and I looked at each other and I ventured,

Why don’t we go to the rehearsal and then see how it goes. If you have trouble up there, we can turn right around and come back down. We’ll take the oxygen?

He gamely agreed. While Jimmie looked pretty terrified the whole time we were up there, we kept checking the gauge and he was fine at the top of the hill, which was beautiful. It was time to celebrate.

IMG_8221Friday night’s rehearsal dinner came off beautifully. Bill Belair, the chef at Sonney’s BBQ Shack & Grill in South Lake Tahoe prepared a sumptuous feast of BBQ chicken, pork ribs and sliced briscuit, collard greens, baked beans (the best I’ve ever had!), coleslaw and cornbread for 100. And this is what he looked like mid-way through our party. Not even breaking a sweat. His staff were amazing. Easiest party for 100 I’ve ever had to plan. Though there was one uninvited guest – more on that later.

I love throwing parties – always have. I think it’s because my mom did it with such flare. I enjoyed watching the preparation, the intensity of her practice – her sole goal to have people have a good time and to enjoy the food and company. Jimmie and I have had a lot of parties in our various homes. There was my fortieth birthday, which fell that year on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, and when I went to pick up the Honey-baked Ham I’d ordered for the forty guests, the franchise was closed. I went home and made three trays of lasagna to complement the ten cooked fresh dungeness crabs my brother Larry had sent down on ice to celebrate with. It turned out to be one of the better parties.  At any rate, successes and flops aside, this one will probably top them off – never had we had so many family members from so many different branches of our family come together to celebrate such a happy occasion.

Friends and family gathered to celebrate and unwind after a hard day of driving and recreating. The twelve round tables draped with white cloths and teepees of utensils wrapped in cloth napkins awaited our flower arrangements when we arrived.IMG_8230

A turbo heating unit sat surrounded by two foot tall stumps of trees that provided a perfect play area for the party’s children, who numbered about twelve, all under the age of five.These are Skylar’s peeps, and they came ready to party.  When I sat down to schmooze with the kids, Canyon stood next to me, wearing BBQ sauce like war paint, indolently rolling his half eaten rib along the top of the stump. The others watched him with reverence.

There was more than enough food – guests were invited to take home left overs. I know ours got eaten the next day at lunch and we were very happy to have them.

Oh! About that uninvited guest. Late in the party, after the shuttle had begun returning people to the hotel, I looked over just beyond the buffet table to see a large group of people gathered by the fence, Iphones hoisted high and low, intently capturing something there.

Oh, I thought, isn’t that lovely? There’s probably a fox in the grass.

I wandered over and through the slats of the now-very-flimsy-looking fence, there was a small black bear next to a bush, nose aloft, sucking in the intense barbecue flavored air. He or she didn’t seem the least bit perturbed by the audience of paparazzi gathered there. Isn’t it nice to have a bear crash your party who doesn’t really crash your party!

The big day finally arrived. Saturday morning, we awoke to the same gorgeous blue watery view; the two people on the beach behind our condo sat drinking in the sunshine that had left me looking a tad lobsterish. In spite of having applied sunscreen fairly regularly, the morning of the wedding, I was quite red around the neck and shoulders. Nothing better than a well-BBQed MOG, I always say.