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.

Understudy Rehearsal

Stage managers, in the course of their work, frequently have to put actors into a show when circumstances arise that prevent a regular actor from performing. Plays have understudies, who are contracted to start, usually a week or so before a play opens. This means stage management begins rehearsals during the preview week, when rehearsals for the regular show are happening during the day, and previews at night. Everyone is exhausted at this time in the production arc, but Stage Managers know that it is critical to have at least one, if not two rehearsals that week. That way, the understudy can go on “on book” – an occurrence one wouldn’t wish on anyone, but a legitimate state of performing per our Actors Equity Association rulebooks. 

This way the producers are covered if someone gets sick, or has to leave the show abruptly due to occurrences like the ones that underlie this post. And stage managers know how to rehearse actors to put them into shows. We know the blocking, we know the intent of each scene, the director’s desires. On more complicated shows, we’ll create tracking sheets for each actor, so that if we have to insert them into the show, we know how to run a pick-up rehearsal, including just those parts of the play in which our understudy will be featured.

When you get to a certain age, you’ve accumulated things. If you are fortunate, as I am, you’ve accumulated good friends, close family, a comfortable workspace with supportive colleagues. But there’s one thing I’ve only become aware recently of how many I’ve accumulated, and that’s widowed friends.  I have a plethora of the widowed in my life.

Men and women; just counting on my fingers, I have two full fists of friends who’ve lost their loved ones, their spouses, their life partners. There’s a range of loss from 35 years ago, to 18 years ago, to 8 years ago, to just a few weeks. 

With all the other widows and widowers, I have turned my face and ear to them as a sunflower turns to the sun, drawing in their experience and wisdom, their references for books, thoughts about memorials, and life ahead, about clearing clutter. Surely that will make the path through grief easier, if it can be done. Why not do your research and make it more tenable?  And I bask in every ray of their singular and collective light as it illuminates renewal, a time when the pain is less, and when I know what my new path is. Who I am alone in the world. What my purpose is.

But it is the week-old widow (WOW) who speaks loudest to me. She and I have uncannily similar situations. Both married to actors more than thirty years older than we; both theatre workers. Neither of us religious, nor afraid to tell the truth about our circumstances. Both with irreverent senses of humor. Now we share a date of grieving that I never would have wished on either of us. But now that it is a thing, it provides me, and I hope her, with some solace. The morning of Jimmie’s birthday, while I was helping some neighbors decorate our lobby’s Christmas tree, she sent me a plaintive text that her partner had passed away.

How are we ever supposed to get over this?

Boy is that the question of the month?  And with the question came the turning point. From sunflower to sun, not that I presume to know a scintilla of what my widowed friends know, but I could keep company with her, and being three weeks ahead on the learning curve, I could share what I knew. 

And so, with my WOW friend, right in the middIe of my own “production,” I had the tracking sheets, at least for the first three weeks. I knew the blocking, the intent, the emotional pitfalls that might confront her. I knew I’d be able to push her around “backstage” and help her make her entrances.

A good stage manager allows the understudy to bring themself to the part. To interpret to a certain extent the lines so that they fit them and they can inhabit them gracefully. 

There’s nothing graceful about a five week widow. Trust me. But my WOW friend is a strong woman. And we have the history that allows us to speak honestly to each other about how we are doing. That’s a huge gift. 

One of the first things I had to confess was my obituary bitterness. Granted, I didn’t know the first thing about placing an obituary in the newspaper. Apparently, it’s something that should happen that day or the next day at the latest. I waited a week, only prompted to do so by my brother. Now my very dark advice is to write your obituary now so you’re ready.

Two days after I got the text from my WOW friend that her partner had passed, I picked up the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and saw his obituary in both papers. 

But see, those are the kinds of things you can say to an understudy. Both to help them through the terror, and also to make the process as fun as possible. Believe me, putting an understudy on is fun compared with this widow’s work. And to further impress you with the strength of my WOW friend, she conducted a real understudy rehearsal about 5 days after her own loss. 

I’ve started going to the theatre again this week – first to see Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring Jefferson Mays at the Geffen. He’s really terrific, as are all the production values. If you can get there this week, try, because it’s the last week. My friend Jill warned me about the opening of the show, where a dark Victorian casket sits center stage, surrounded by black feathers and haze. People are very thoughtful. That wasn’t, as it turns out, a trigger for me. 

Last night I went to Come from Away at the Ahmanson Theatre, the most exuberant and life-affirming show I’ve seen in years. You’ve got longer to get yourself there. It plays until January 6th.

Last Sunday, I went for a hike with my WOW friend and another Stage Manager pal who is not on the current understudy track that we are on. Instead, we walked for five miles in Griffith Park, up and down along the North Trail, the Bee trail, admiring the morning sun and talking about life in general, and the two of our’s newly widowed status. When I got home I was sore, but felt a sense of accomplishment from the hike to remind me that I was indeed alive. Painfully so, but good pain this time. 

People are kind and considerate, calling, texting, what’s apping (sorry Mr. Strunk, I’m sure that’s not a verb)…. Life goes on. We turn our petals to the ever increasing sun and await instructions. Building our new tracking sheets to better be prepared for future performance. My WOW friend and I stand together strong in a long tradition of life and living after death.

Jimmy Tomorrow

Today it’s been a month since Jimmie died.

Jimmie came home from the Neptune Society. I called them Monday morning, after making my chili for the Chili cook off, a festive and competitive annual event thrown by the production students. Then I called the Neptune Society and they said Jimmie was ready for me to pick him up. It’s been a strange few weeks of limbo, not really knowing where his corporeal body was. It was clear and wrenching from the moment he left that his spirit was no longer there. I’d experienced this phenomenon twice before and regardless of what I believe about the afterlife, I know that the human spirit is free of the corporeal at death.

I inveigled my colleague, Hannah, to drive with me to Sherman Oaks, where the Neptune Society is, on Ventura Blvd. and Woodman, a hop skip and a jump away from our home of 10 years in Valley Glen. It was right around the corner where Jimmie and I bought the really comfortable 7′ long yellow couch we had for years in our bonus room, and I was reminded of how many emotional touchstone points there are in a life and in a city when you start to drive around. 

Retrieving “him” was surprisingly quick, signing some papers, and receiving Jimmie’s cremains in a plastic box in what I noted looked like a Crown Royal bag. Others who saw the picture more kindly said he was clad in theatrical drapes fabric. It was emotional being reunited with him, after 15 days of limbo, not knowing or being able to visualize where his body was.

Hannah drove back to school, Jimmie “sitting” on the floor between my work boots. I reached down occasionally to caress the strings that closed the bag. When we got back, I eschewed the chili cook off – all I wanted to do was go home and have lunch with Jimmie. I didn’t think the students would appreciate my showing up with Jimmie to the cook off. Talk about traumatizing. 

Home we went. “We” had some clam chowder, Jimmie’s favorite, (No, I didn’t put any in front of him) and he rested across the table from me  in his seat, watching me do some administrative paperwork with the death certificates I had also picked up. Now that there was at least a physical representation of him in the apartment, I felt better, more grounded. Not alone.

Later that evening, I watched TV, cradling the blue box in the crook of my elbow, chatting with Jimmie about how crazy the news has been and about the prospect of the rain that would be coming later in the week. It felt good to be reunited.

Tuesday evening, I attended the holiday party in my building. I knew it would be difficult as it was the first time I’d gone alone at that event, and though I’m on a friendly basis with many of the home owners, social chit chat is a bit fraught right now. I lasted about 45 minutes at the party before I felt a deep, gutteral grief uncapping somewhere in my solar plexis. It happened, as it is likely to, when I was talking with someone who knew Jimmie and who was expressing concern about how I was doing. I felt my face reddening, and I blurted out, “I think I have to go now,” and quickly scurried away, the emotional magma rising with urgency when I hit the outside patio. Once I was in the elevator, it came, hot and fast, and by the time I got to the apartment, I was sobbing uncontrollably. I quickly undressed, putting on the fluffy white robe that a friendly lesbian couple had given to Jimmie and me on our 30th anniversary weekend at the Langham.

As I’d been warned by so many of my widowed friends, experiencing the grief is essential and necessary. I sat on the edge of my bed, looking over at the photo of Jimmie, one taken during The Ice Man Cometh (1986) of him as Jimmy Tomorrow, which, due to the angle of the camera, allows his eyes to follow me where ever I go in the room.  Behind him sat the comforting blue box, and  in front of them both, I sobbed and tried to gain my breath. Ten minutes went by until I was spent, and then I went to look for something else to do. 

Fortunately, one of my friends had noticed that we had set up a holiday puzzle in our office to work on at lunchtime, and knowing what had transpired in my life, had thoughtfully purchased two puzzles for me to take home. I had just brought the Broadway Musical Puzzle home that evening, and so cracked it open to begin working on it. 

I’ve done winter puzzles every year for as long as I can remember. They are always intrusive to our small living space, because they take over the dining room table. This time, underscored by Broadway show tunes, it was the perfect invasion of color and the graphic comfort and familiarity of all those show posters spread out on the table like so many old friends. I made a cup of tea, and before I knew it, three hours had gone by and it was time to go to bed. And I was soothed and ready to sleep, under the watchful and protective gaze of Jimmie Tomorrow.

After the Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hospital Stay Play (With apologies to actual playwrights)

Characters
Jimbo – our hero

Elsa – his wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Suddenly)

Jimbo: AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!

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

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

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

(once Lawrence has left the room)

Jimbo: Are we alone?

Elsa: Yes

Jimbo: Is she mad at me?

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

Jimbo: Is she mad at me?

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

(Later)

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

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

Jimbo: Can they hear my voice on stage?

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

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

Curtain

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

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

 

 

 

Lucy Sparrow – Felt the Grocery Store!

One of the best things about living downtown is easy access to cultural events. This weekend, that included attending a pop-up art installation at the Standard Hotel at 6th and Flower in DTLA.

British craft artist Lucy Sparrow has spent a year in her “Felt Cave” back in Essex, England along with her staff of five, building the 31,000 felt grocery items that adorn the felt shelves in the second story Sparrow Mart.

Getting into the exhibit required a bit of patience. When my friend Rob and I arrived, there was a short line wrapped outside near the parking lot for the Hotel. It was warm, but we were in the shade most of the time, and the hotel provided bright yellow umbrellas in a stand near the door for those moments when you found yourself between the dappled leaves of the patio’s trees

Once inside the Hotel lobby, we approached a stand where we made our actual appointment. We arrived at 2:30, but learned that our appointment would be for 5:00pm. Groan, vocal incredulity. We Angelenos are an impatient tribe. Not being a DTLA Hipster, I rarely frequent the Standard Hotel lobby, but nevertheless enjoyed the next few hours catching up with Rob while sipping iced tea and eating a moon pie from the Sparrow Food bar, where you can buy tasty treats and also take home the felt version of them as well. Surrounded by the lobby’s burled wooden walls, and hot pink lounge furniture made the time pass easily, with music  by a DJ who played LPs appealing to the over 50 and under 25 sets. Quite a feat.

At our appointed time, we ascended the escalator, and gathered outside the storefront of the Sparrow Mart for brief instructions. Soon, we were inside with a red basket hooked over my arm, looking at an impressive array of animated vegetables, pineapples, cucumbers and peppers, each sporting laughing black eyes.  To the right a fish case, filled with shrimp, mussels, salmon fillets, and lobsters. Next to it, a display of liquor bottles leaning drunkenly against each other.IMG_0881

Adjacent to the alcohol, a full case of sushi, dozens of individually stitched hand rolls. The level of detail is mind boggling. And so colorful!

IMG_0860This art installation allows for all of the objects in the store to be purchased. The Sushi pieces are about the most affordable at $10 per piece, but all of the objects in the store are hand painted and all are signed by the artist. So expensive relative to the represented item, but cheap as far as an original art purchase goes.The prices may not be affordable for everyone, but the experience of seeing the objects and enjoying them is completely accessible and charming. These were some of my favorite items.

The atmosphere in the store was festive and celebratory as shoppers moved about the aisles cooing at the brightly colored American items. That is one of the things that impressed me about the different projects of Lucy Sparrow. She made an effort to identify and build items appropriate to the locality of the exhibit.

The various cases around the store were cunning, but the meat counter was particularly detailed.

And should you not have enough cash on hand, there’s even a felt ATM you can admire if not access.

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She’s even got the grab-and-go food market covered, with individual pizza slices, and sodas in a case covered in felt, and pretzels. There’s a candy area, complete with gum and chocolate, a cigarette area, and an entire aisle full of over-the-counter medicines. She’s got it all.

Rob and I each selected about three items, and when we went to buy them at the back of the store, I looked down at the hands of the woman who was wrapping my purchases, reading FELT LIFE across her knuckles, and I gasped.

You’re Lucy, the Artist! This is so amazing!

She beamed. Not surprisingly, just as she is in the video, she is friendly and engaged with her audience and IMG_0885.JPGI was gratified to have a brief face-to-face moment with her while she wrapped my purchases in black and white checkered paper, then red outer paper wrap with a Sparrow sticker.        Here’s a great interview I found online about her work.

As far as diversions go, the Sparrow Mart is high on my list. Definitely worth the wait. Take someone you need to catch up with. Probably go during the weekdays rather than on Sunday afternoon as we did. But it’s a must see. There until August 31st at the Standard Hotel, 550 S. Flower St., Los Angeles, CA.

But that’s just how two of us felt about it.

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.

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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.

 

The (all too) Humans

Some people measure years and personal growth with penciled marks on a closet wall next to their child’s name. As the child grows, the marks rise, sometimes inches above the last mark, especially during adolescent growth spurts. This sizing of our tribe is proud, grateful, sentimental, self-referential, celebratory – many of the things that mark our humanness.

As Angelenos were painfully reminded just this morning, the passing of time can also be marked through shared loss, as we read about the untimely passing of Pulitzer-Prize-winning LA Restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, who’s LA Times obituary was one of the most moving I’ve read in some time (Kudos to Andrea Chang). Gold, in addition to being an exquisite writer, was a gourmand, chef, taco-truck aficionado, friend, husband, organizer, someone who celebrated the value of food in building his community and ours. In fact, several of the local annual foodie events that happen in Los Angeles came about because of him.

This building community is a feature that I’ve always appreciated about the theatre. This week, I attended The Humans, Stephen Karam’s breathtaking (and Tony Award winning) paean to our humanness.

Those of you who are diligent followers of my blog (a handful, but nevertheless profoundly appreciated) may remember that I had seen The Humans in New York a little more than two years ago. It was an emotionally draining experience, not just because of the power of the play, but really, because of the physicality of the journey itself, and the resulting realization our connubial theatre attendance was moribund; that was painful and distracting. And with that inviting introduction, if you want to, you can read about it here. 

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Jimmie in NYC June 2016

So about a week ago, when I ran into my friend Rob at Ralph’s in the dairy section, I agreed reluctantly to attend a performance of The Humans last Tuesday at The Ahmanson, where the touring production is playing (only this week, so don’t miss it!).

We agreed to meet there, and on Tuesday evening, I caught up with him at the box office window, watching as he worked to negotiate seats together (after booking them separately). Somehow he managed to pull it off, and we entered the lobby of the Ahmanson, immediately accosted by an enthusiastic subscription saleswoman. I made the eye connection, so my bad.  Rob headed off to the bar to get us some cool drinks, while I tried to figure out how to get Dear Evan Hansen tickets without mortgaging our condo. Done and done.

Viewing The Humans for a second time with none of the logistical myopia caused by getting my butt in the seat was eye-opening. I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania. However, my maternal grandparents lived in Wilkes-Barre, and we spent many happy trips there while we were growing up. Reed Birney (Erik Blake), bears an uncanny resemblance to my dearly departed Uncle Lou (at least from Row E of the Ahmanson Theatre’s mezzanine), so much of the Thanksgiving gathering and the feedback felt appropriately familial. Like those self-referential closet wall markings, we take in theatre experiences from where we stand.  Two years ago, perhaps I related more to the character of Brigid (Sarah Steele), hearing and responding to her parents’ critique of her marital status, her new apartment, her life choices.  It’s also possible (and quite likely) that I didn’t adequately hear the play, so wrapped up was I in the emotional reckoning I was having in the balcony of the Helen Hayes theatre, with my husband of thirty plus years.

Two years down the pike, last Tuesday, the play ran through a different emotional filter, as I focussed keenly on the character of Momo, played by Lauren Klein, and the effect her caregiving had on her son and wife, played with stoic durability by Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell. Lately, I frequently find myself mentally marinating in the role of caregiver, caretaker, whatever one calls it.  This isn’t the moment to expound, but suffice it to say, any caregiver who cares for a loved one also takes pleasure and privilege from the work, hence my confusion in the use of the terminology.

KL: What was your impulse behind writing The Humans?
SK: I was thinking a lot about the things that were keeping me up at night and that got me thinking about existential human fears: fear of poverty, sickness, losing th e love of someone…Was there a way to actually tell a story that might elicit some of those fears – or provide some thrills- while also talking about how human beings cope with them? And by the time I was done, I had written a family play, or, as I think of it now, a family thriller.

From an interview by Seattle Rep Literary Director Kristin Leahey, Ph.D, and Playwright Stephen Karam (Original transcription by Annika Bennett)

But I digress. Theatre is prismatic. It accords us the opportunity to revisit even the same play over and over again, learning new things about ourselves and our community from the facets of our experiences. That is why a play like The Humans appeals to so many different types of people. It has the ability to mirror back to us that which we project.

Rob and I drove back down to South Park after the show, and a day later, Rob reported that he’d lost his wallet at the theatre. After multiple trips to the theatre, dealing with kindly Christine, the house manager, and searching the areas under our seats, he discovered a slot under the row where he posits his wallet might have fallen into a mysterious pocket, probably unretrievable. Somehow, this seemed a fitting end for a lost wallet at The Humans. We searched my car again to make sure his dreaded trip to the DMV was required. This morning, when I got in the car to go to the gym, I discovered I’d left the overhead lights on from our search, and felt grateful when my car started up.

My re-visit to The Humans managed to remind me about all of the things that make our shared experiences powerfully human, and I’d go so far as to say to remind me why I am so grateful to be alive and living in Los Angeles.  I’d encourage you to make a visit to see The Humans while you can to discover what experience you find reflected back at you. Then, by all means, let me know!

Recharging Our Batteries

Sometimes there’s a synchronicity in things that borders on breathtaking. This week it’s about batteries.

  • Your alta fit bit battery is low.
  • Your internet isn’t functioning (four calls and a trip to Staples to buy a new Uninterrupted Power Supply when the old one was fine) only to discover it was indeed the modem. A trip to the Beverly Center where you discover there is no Spectrum Store. A glance out the window indicates that it is at the Beverly Connection, which to the Spectrum technician on the phone was the same thing, I guess. After 15 minutes there, I finally noticed the board where our names were listed in order of being helped. I was #22. I plugged in my earbuds and waited, doing some people-watching.
  • Jimmie’s scooter battery dies while his niece Stella is visiting and they are in the park necessitating a full tilt push of the device back to the apartment. (I’ve been there before – humiliating, ridiculous, a test of the humanity of others.) God love Stella. When I returned, I found them at home drinking Starbucks beverages, so she pushed him to Starbucks and then home, something that I wouldn’t ever have done.

Anyway, you can see the theme here. Recharging batteries.

Summer is about recharging our batteries. The days at work are shorter in the summertime, and there are fewer interruptions, allowing us to organize the puzzle that is the following academic year’s season.

More time for visits from family and friends. More time to give back. This summer I’ve started recording interviews with some of the West Coast stage manager notables, for the Stage Manager’s Association “Standing in the Dark” series of podcasts. Selfishly, this allows me time with friends and mentors like Jimmie McDermott, and Mary K Klinger.

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Els and Jimmie and Mr. Bighead, of course. 6/22/18

More time for following our grandbaby’s exploits on the Insta feed.

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Granddaughter Skylar’s joyful mud discovery during a recent Father’s Day camping trip with Mom and Dad.

We had a captivating visit with Stella followed by one from Jen and S. Extraordinary people and we are so lucky to have them in our lives. On the last day, S found a green worm on its way to our tomato pot on the balcony, and brought it inside, where it writhed and danced on her tiny finger like a tiny green belly dancer before finding sanctuary on a full leaf of Romaine lettuce where she proceeded to eat several large holes in the leaf, in a perfectly round shape.

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More time for reading the Sunday paper, especially when your internet modem dies a horrible death. More time to discover to your infinite pleasure that Jonathan Franzen doesn’t seem to give a whit about social media and adores birding. I knew I felt a kinship to him.

More time for finding and using the sweat glands, more time for explosive step ups in HIIT class, and more time for fitbit Workweek Challenges posed by former students. I’m coming for you, Ashley S!

More time for reading. I just finished reading Todd Purdum’s book, Something Wonderful, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, a beautifully researched and entertaining dive into the history of American Musical Theatre, a subject high on my radar of late. Apparently high on other peoples’ reading lists as well, as this photo and Guardian article revealed. But enough of that. I’m recharging my batteries. No perp walk for me. I told my husband as I got about half-way through the book,

Lucky you! I’m going to sing all the lyrics I encounter.

Which turned into one of the sweetest pastimes we’ve had. Out of the murky depths of our long fused, long term memory banks came the swells of the live theatrical shows of his youth and mostly televised shows from mine. Granted we sounded a little closer to Archie and Edith on the piano bench than Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae,  but nevertheless, it was lovely. We beamed at each other.

Summer brings the crunchy, sweet wholesomeness of cherries, watermelon, lighter evenings and the prospect of summer vacation on the horizon. A week of unscheduled recreation with family. Time to attend book signings by friends, and to go to the movies.

In essence, time to recharge our batteries.

The Black Hole of Parenting

Nestled in the cradle between Mother’s and Father’s Day, I find myself thinking incessantly about what it takes to help our children grow up into people whom we can be proud of. I am constantly reminded of the perilous journey from teen to grown-up. Our paths are all so different. Both as humans and specifically as parents.

My “high school” class just celebrated its 40th reunion. Without me. Sometimes our life journeys are complicated. Mine involves the latter years of living with a partner 33 years older than myself. Trips are not in the mix right now – at least airplane trips, and my “high school” is located in Concord, New Hampshire.

What is that annoying “” about? My High School was a prep school, one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and not in favorable terms recently as it’s been in the news way too often. But that aside, on Monday, post-reunion, I received a photo of my classmates. After magnifying it to a ridiculous and 40th-anniversary-appropriate-degree, I peered at my classmates’ faces; some of those fourteen-year-olds jumped right out at me; others, I had to scrutinize their name tags to recognize. There were still others whom I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find in my memory. And it was a small class, so shame on me.

I was on a path at that point in my life that my parents shaped for me – a bookish, introspective child, I excelled in school, and my parents sent me to prep school, then an ivy league college, a path paved in privilege. Sure, there were bumps along the way, a messy divorce during which time I relished the distance being in New Hampshire afforded me from my grieving mother. In prep school, I met many teachers who shaped my growth as an adult and participant in the arts. My teenage angst was deterred in a college-like, edenic campus with insane resources. I was buoyed by an intellectual rising tide of students and faculty. I flourished amongst young people for whom the goals were clear and foundational. We all paddled in the same direction, literally, in many of our cases, in beautiful, sleek crafts which we shifted from water to shoulder to rack, a physical manifestation of our parents’ dreams for a better future. Our runs toimg_0658

the boat house every afternoon conditioned us to press on in the face of adversity or exhaustion. Our studies and extra curricular events trained us in debate, performance, student government, leadership, kindness and contribution. I was oblivious to my good fortune. I was seventeen. What did I know?

In spite of the rising tide of affluence which surrounded me in high school and college, in typical teenage rebellion, I resisted, becoming a stage manager in the theatre. My parents forgave my “squandering my expensive education” (my quotation). They ultimately understood how much passion mattered in a life, and how much I loved the work I’d chosen. They appreciated that the job kept me invigorated and alive. It gave me access to creative collaborators that were life and world-affirming, and they always supported my choices. That’s what good parents do.

My path as a parent was different. I think, or hope anyway, our son will forgive my saying that it didn’t always look so clear that he would survive and become someone we would be as proud of as we are today. I alluded to in my Mother’s Day post, that he was adopted and didn’t find his birth mother until he was in his late 20s.

We endeavored, as my parents had done for me, to provide him with the best education possible. I was always uncomfortably aware of how different his learning needs were from mine, and we struggled in the middle and high school years to provide the resources to support his learning. And from the age of about five on, we gave him the sport of ice hockey, a sport which engulfed our family and which provided a structure and mentoring influences which raised the tide of Chris’ boat. Especially influential were the hockey coaches during his middle and high school years, strong men who spent their work hours as police officers and fire fighters, and their weeknights and weekends drilling our sons into skilled hockey players and collaborative teams.

Nevertheless, strong parenting and influential mentors aside, there are crazy forces at play in young men’s and women’s lives. Pressures from peers, puberty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – we all know what they are. All these things impinge on the patterns that we develop as adolescents, for better or for worse. I’ve decided it’s almost as much luck as it is money or education that we give our children. And we operate in the dark a lot of the time, not really knowing the shadowy forces at play in our children’s lives. I tend to be optimistic about how things are going and for many years for our son, they weren’t going in a way that should have made me optimistic.

I hurry to say I don’t want to pick on my kid as the only one. I’ve talked with numerous parents and friends with children this age who are in what I can now safely and with the relief afforded by healthy hindsight, call the “Black hole of Parenting.”

I think (and can confirm from conversations with him) that at a certain point, Chris, provided only limited information, pre-natal exposure to drugs, and the resulting difficulties in learning that that presented, struggled with the pubescent urge to resist his adoptive parents and become who he thought he was destined to become. That’s a powerful stew. Chris made a beeline towards a target which was self-destructive and painful and certainly was not the path of privilege we’d tried to set down for him.

This was a painful period for us as parents. I remember thinking when he was about sixteen or seventeen that he might not survive. And again in his early twenties. But I think all parents go through that. Jimmie and I clung to the belief that there was something special and unique about Chris that would help him to survive and become a magnificent human, even though, at times, it was difficult to see that that was what he wanted.

I write this not to expose his weaknesses as a young adult, but to tell you and any parent out there who currently finds himself or herself in the black hole of parenting. Here are just a few things I know, having emerged from the black hole of parenting:

  1. Not every child needs to go to college to succeed.
  2. Your child’s decision not to go to college is not a reflection of your failure as a parent.
  3. Young men grow up at about age 26. Work your hardest to keep them alive until then.  Make it okay for them to share their failures as well as their successes with you. Keep the channels of communication open. The car is a particularly successful incubator for these discussions.
  4. Sports are crucial to developing the skills and endurance one needs to survive in this world. The gift of loving a particular sport is the greatest gift a parent can provide. The gift, in our son’s case, that keeps on giving, now that he’s a hockey coach. Choose a rink fairly far away so you have lots of incubator time (see 3)
  5. Every traumatic event that occurs along the way through the growth process will influence your child’s life story, both in devastating and healing ways. Chris is such a good coach to young men now because he knows where each pitfall lies and has a keen sense of when someone is close to making that mistake. He can now help them to see it and hopefully make a better choice.
  6. Be grateful every day. Make positive choices for yourself in your own life. You have no idea how impressionable your child is and how much he or she is absorbing your experience. Deal with negative circumstances openly, and with as much integrity and forward positive energy you can muster. That is what your children see and eventually learn to model themselves.
  7. No matter how beautiful every other family’s parenting looks like, yes, even they occasionally feel the presence of  the black hole. I remember getting an insane Christmas letter one year from some parents whose children were all heading quickly to being recipients of the MacArthur Genius Award. I responded by writing a satiric yet primarily factual response about what Chris was doing at that same timeframe. In other words, I found a creative and humorous outlet for my despair. (obviously, I didn’t send it to anyone). Later I sent it to Chris as a benchmark for what we’d experienced. We shared a good laugh about it.
  8. Laugh about it, even if through your tears. It’s analogous to picking up your toddler when they fall down hard and brushing them off.

As I said before, I’m an optimist. I’m also aware that not everyone is able to survive this dangerous phase of adolescence. We are reminded of that every day in the news and when we learn about personal tragedies of parents everywhere. The pain of loss is unfathomable and makes my relief all the greater.

When I look at Chris now, and I look at him in those baby pictures from so many years ago, I can see the same joyful inquisitive intelligence he brought to us as a toddler. We just did our best to keep that alive. You parents in the black hole, keep reminding yourself that “this too, shall pass.”