Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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When I was ten, my mother took me to see my first grown-up play, a small local production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I was so excited I had a hard time staying in my seat. At that age, I could still half believe that the actors were the characters they played, and not just a bunch of local teenagers dressed up in Puritan costumes with fake beards and heavy rouge.
Miller wrote The Crucible as a commentary on the infamous Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. I was too young to understand the allegory, but it didn’t matter. The play was about treachery and courage, lies and truth — in other words, the sort of thing I saw every day on the playground at elementary school.
I could hardly breathe during the second act, as the awful net of deceit, fear, and malice drew tight around the doomed characters. I listened raptly as the hero vowed to the jury that his wife was a paragon of Puritan virtue. (“There are some who cannot sing — my wife cannot lie.”) Then I wept as she did lie in a vain attempt to save him from the gallows. Thirty-five years later, I can still recall some of the characters’ lines. Each of their words and gestures seemed surrounded by flames.
By the time the play was over, I was exhausted, exhilarated, and ruined for life. Nothing I had seen on TV or experienced in reality had provided the same extremes of pleasure and agony, beauty and terror.
My mother seemed pleased and a little bemused by my passionate response to the play. She was young then, tall and slender, with short, dark, curly hair and the profile of a Roman boy. She had acted in plays in school and had even been on the radio in college, but shyness had prevented her from pursuing theater as a career.
My mother drove me crazy with desire and frustration. I wanted to know her, but she wouldn’t let me past her brusque, efficient exterior. She accomplished endless tasks involving four children, a house, and a job, and she rarely let down her guard. She was stubborn and willful, and so was I. No incident was too petty for us to make war over. We fought about the correct way to set a table and whether I had thrown my underwear in the hamper as she wanted me to, or hidden it behind my bed in order to defy her. While she demanded a neat, orderly environment, I seemed to have been made out of curlicues and spilled milk.
Plays and poems and stories gave my mother and me something in common. She had grown up in New York City, after all, going to the best museums in the world and attending hootenannies in Washington Square. Despite my angry and rebellious feelings toward her, I also found my mother impossibly glamorous. Her life in the city had been infinitely more interesting than our routine existence in New England. Though she wore no makeup and dressed in old clothes — we lived frugally in an affluent suburb — I always thought she outclassed the pastel, soft-spoken mothers who surrounded her.
My mother worked furiously to make her family happy but was unhappy herself. Motherhood had been her childhood dream, nurtured through long, lonely years of reading Little Women and fantasizing about the large family she would have when she grew up. She baked birthday cakes for us and sewed our buttons back on when they fell off, but we never ended up looking or sounding or feeling like those cheerful families in books. And she never stopped trying to make us that way.
When I was eleven, my mother and I took a train into Boston to see Hair. When the young actors emerged naked from under a parachute and sang an anthem of peace and love, I stifled my nervous giggles and grew up a notch.
Several years later, my mother and I went to see a matinee performance of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. That afternoon, we’d had a fight: typical. I was in my teens then, the nadir of our relationship, when every interaction was fraught with conflict. But once the play began, we found ourselves absorbed in Ntozake Shange’s exquisite choreopoem, so much more brutal and beautiful than our petty squabbles. When the show ended, we were both crying and unable to speak.
I showed up at high school only in order to go to drama-club rehearsals, which were led by a dynamic woman named Lucy McCaffrey. Lucy really cared about kids, and about theater. I specialized in playing Tennessee Williams heroines who were dying of unnamable venereal diseases. In my senior year, I was elected president of the drama club. I produced a festival of one-act plays and even wrote one myself, with the deathless title Farewell to Snow White.
The year I left home for college, my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She had been having troubling neurological symptoms for years: blurred vision, dizziness. But being sick didn’t fit with her Wonder Woman persona. The summer after her diagnosis, we both ran in a 10K race. She crossed the finish line half an hour before I did.
The college I attended was known for its theater department. I went to the drama office and stood outside the door to read the audition list, surrounded by what seemed to me very glamorous girls — with lots of makeup, eyelashes out to here, shiny hair, designer clothes, high heels. These girls seemed so confident. I was wearing overalls, waffle-knit long underwear, and hiking boots — my uniform in those days. My hair was cut — or rather pruned — in a short, unflattering style that resembled a frizzy dandelion. How could I compete? I turned around and slunk out.
For the rest of my undergraduate career, I buried myself in the library, writing lengthy, single-spaced papers on contemporary American poets. I eventually graduated a very successful, and very depressed, scholar.
The logical thing would have been to continue my education and earn a master’s degree in English, but I didn’t want the ivory-tower life. I already blamed poetry and drama for my awkwardness at managing in the real world: here I was, twenty-two years old, unable to drive, and crippled by a lack of self-confidence, with an inner critic who could have been employed by the Spanish Inquisition.
Instead I went to Miami to teach English as a second language, leaving books, poetry, theater, and family behind. Actually I took two books of poetry with me. I’d intended to quit cold turkey, like an alcoholic pouring her bottles of vodka down the drain, but I couldn’t.
Within a month, I had phoned home in desperation and asked my mother to rummage in the basement for the boxes of books I couldn’t live without. A year later, I moved back within the family circle and joined a theater group, rehearsing five rigorous and blissful nights a week to put together a theatrical production based on Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The sonnets are obsessed with mortality: “Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, / But sad mortality o’ersways their power, / How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” They taught me that most of the things I think I possess are really on loan. I wouldn’t get to keep my hair color, or my waistline, or all of the friendships I thought were forever, or the hours I spent working for money, or the money itself, which was always gone by month’s end.
The sonnets are in perpetual mourning for the gorgeous world of Eros, which disappears as soon as we touch it. But — here’s the amazing thing — even as they mourn the vanishing world, they create a container so exquisite that they capture just a little bit of it. They are like nets thrown into the ocean that come up dripping and empty, yet impregnated with the shimmer of the waves.
I wouldn’t know all of this if I had only studied the sonnets on the printed page. To learn to give life to the poems with my voice and body, I had to climb the stairs of a drafty church, night after night in the freezing New England winter, and rehearse for hours with a dedicated band of players. We worked to find the comedy or tragedy in each poem. We crashed into them and failed joyously, over and over again, to grasp the ineffable. Because I memorized those poems, I still have them, even after I’ve lost the hair color, the waistline, and all those old friends.
For the next twenty years, my family was completely caught up in my mother’s long, losing battle with MS. She fought relentlessly, with her typical warrior’s stubbornness. She defiantly refused help until she absolutely had to accept it, and then she gave in with total exasperation. Her body, that strong, graceful instrument, had betrayed her. We could only stand by and watch as she wobbled and fell. Still, she’d inch her way down to the basement to do the laundry, clinging to the walls, struggling to accomplish the physical tasks she used to breeze through. Unable to do things all day long, she hardly knew who she was.
Still she remained her frustrating, charismatic, eccentric self. Rolling through downtown in her motorized wheelchair, wearing a floppy blue hat to keep off the sun, she’d be greeted by a dozen different people. The waiters and waitresses at the Chinese restaurants knew her personally; she had tutored them, or their children, in English. The cops knew her, too (and were probably concerned with her haphazard control of the chair). The cashiers at Walgreens would cringe as she rolled up, a fistful of coupons clutched in her shaking hand. Even passersby would sometimes go out of their way to greet her with kisses and blessings. There was something captivating about her terrible vulnerability combined with her relentless will and her still-dazzling smile.
A lifelong outsider, in her final years my mother became a minor celebrity in our town. She hated it when people talked about her “courage” or acted as if she were some kind of saint just because she couldn’t walk. “What choice do I have?” she’d ask. She did have a choice, of course: whether to cling to life or give up. And cling she did, not in heroic TV-movie-of-the-week fashion, but angrily, and with much sadness and self-blame.
She had a group of loyal friends, women from the Temple Sisterhood, who drew up a schedule and took turns visiting her. Whenever she requested, they would take everything out of her hope chest and spread it out before her, and then pack it all up again because she couldn’t bear to part with a single item. As her disability became more pronounced, my mother became unable to part with anything. She hoarded bags of unread newspapers, yellowed Christmas cards sent by people whose names she no longer recognized, clothes not worn since the Nixon era. Each object took on a kind of personhood to her. Throwing any of it away would have been an act of disloyalty. She hadn’t shed a tear when she told me of her diagnosis, but she wept for hours when I accidentally dropped her favorite carrot peeler down the garbage disposal.
After all the helpers had gone home, the brunt of her care fell on her increasingly exhausted husband. We, her conflicted adult children, were torn between our own lives and our sense of filial obligation. She hated to see that conflict in us. Anybody would have, in her position. We all want to be cared for out of pure love, but love does not come pure in this world. It comes stained, and sometimes stinking of urine, as her bedroom did near the end, when her catheter was leaking. In this world, love comes mixed with pity and anger and guilt and all those other less-than-noble emotions that we are not supposed to have. We should thank God love shows up at all.
A few months before my mother died, I went to see The Vagina Monologues, a play whose characters are distilled from interviews that playwright Eve Ensler conducted with dozens of real women. The play’s central concern is the messy world of female experience: menstruation, sexual pleasure, childbirth, rape. I think my mother would have been fascinated and horrified to hear such raw truths spoken onstage, but by then the MS had begun to affect her mind, and she was not processing information well.
Not long afterward I came home from a day of teaching similes to fourth-graders to find a phone message from my father: “Get on the next plane. She’s in a coma.” I was still jet-lagged from having flown to Boston the weekend before for my brother’s wedding. I booked a red-eye and was back in Logan Airport the next morning.
My younger brother met me at the airport, and we drove silently to our parents’ home. The day was snowy and surreal. Soon my other brother and my sister and their spouses and children were all assembled. Our mother had been in a coma once before, four years earlier, so it was a familiar scene: casseroles and cakes in the kitchen, brought by neighbors; Mom asleep on the bed, breathing with a shallow snort. We knew from the previous time how to keep vigil at her bedside in shifts, how to eat cold Chinese takeout at five in the morning, how to make horrible jokes at inappropriate moments. We made a good team.
None of us believed she would actually die. She had lived on sheer willpower for so long it seemed she would keep going forever. As a friend of hers remarked affectionately at her memorial, “She had a whim of iron.” But this time she did die. And the ground shifted unalterably beneath our feet.
For the next year, my sister and I said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, by phone every Friday or Saturday night, no matter where we were or how inconvenient the time. I don’t know if we said it correctly; I don’t know if we were supposed to be in a congregation, or with a rabbi, or wearing black. My sister called me on her sister-in-law’s cellphone from the back seat of a car. I called her collect from a pay phone at a writing workshop. Often we spoke the prayer to the rhythmic accompaniment of her baby nursing.
Before we got on with the prayer, we would talk about our mother and our lives. My sister lives in a village of seven hundred people in the Berkshire Mountains. She is practical and pragmatic, organized and responsible. She has a family and a job with benefits. I am a freelance writer and teacher on the West Coast; no two weeks of my life are alike. I live with an ever-changing cast of roommates and friends. I perform with an improvisation troupe. In every way, my sister and I are perfect opposites.
But we were both grateful for the ritual of weekly prayer throughout that whole strange year of adjusting to not having a mother. It provided an anchor. Kaddish is not about death; it’s a hymn of praise to life and to whatever created this miraculous existence we enjoy so briefly. One of my favorite lines is, in English, “We praise, we praise, and yet whatever it is we praise is quite beyond the reach of all these words and symbols that point us toward it.”
Six months after my mother died, I flew to Boston to join my family in scattering her ashes on nearby Plum Island, a beach where she had loved to sunbathe when we were children. I remembered her, darkly radiant in a tangerine bathing suit, passing out sandwiches, supervising the application of sunscreen, and finding lost flip-flops. I flew back to San Francisco from Logan Airport on September 9, 2001. My plane was delayed and rerouted due to bad weather.
Two days later my boyfriend woke me with an early-morning phone call. “Turn on the TV,” he said. “New York has been attacked.” I sat and watched two airplanes that had taken off from Logan hit the Twin Towers and burst into flames, over and over and over.
Later that week, I found myself in my friend’s living room, reading aloud the first scene of my play Saying Kaddish with My Sister. I had known for a long time that I wanted to explore the differences of opinion in the Jewish community about Israel and Palestine, so I imagined a pair of sisters, antagonists since childhood, for whom this topic was a flash point. The sisters in my play were different from and yet not so different from my sister and me. My very unoriginal idea was that peace begins at home. We may want to effect reconciliation and forgiveness on a global scale — we have to, or we will perish as a species — but how can we when we have difficulty making peace within our own families?
Setting out to write the play, I’d figured I would whip through it in about six months. After all, it was just dialogue — what could be so hard about that? When a playwright told me it took him about two years, on average, to finish a play, I smiled inwardly. Wouldn’t he be surprised when I showed him my complete, perfect manuscript by spring?
It took me two and a half years, innumerable cups of strong tea, many tears and long walks in the woods, a lot of starting and stopping, three playwriting teachers, dozens of pep talks from friends, and more paper than I want to think about. But I did it. I wrote a full-length play.
When my father read it, he laughed at the jokes and got choked up at the ending.
“It’s not Mom, though,” he said, looking at me tenderly over his glasses.
“No,” I said. “I couldn’t describe her.”
“There’s bits of her there,” he said. “In the older sister.”
We writers are thieves, magpies stealing bits of glitter and tinsel and straw from unlikely places and weaving them into a nest of words. We’re also ventriloquists, hiding behind dummies to speak the taboo truth that everyone knows but is afraid to admit. If we want to remain on good terms with the people closest to us, we learn the fine art of disguise. On the other hand, there is no foolproof disguise. We create stories, and they end up creating us.
I sent my play to Nike Doukas, an old schoolmate who was now a professional actress in LA. She praised it and suggested that I come down; she and a few of her actor friends would read it aloud for me, and I could hear what worked and what didn’t.
A few months later I got on a plane and flew south. I had planned to lose at least ten pounds and get Botox treatments before I left, but I was too lazy to lose the weight and too stubborn to get the injections. (This is why I’m a writer and not an actress.) I feared that LA would be full of those shiny, high-gloss girls who had so intimidated me in my freshman year of college. I drew comfort from a National Enquirer headline: “Stars and Their Cellulite.”
I was also a little worried that Nike wouldn’t recognize me. We had been more acquaintances than friends in high school — our graduating class had something like nine hundred students — and it had been thirty years.
The Burbank airport turned out to be full of reassuringly ordinary people. Nike drove up in a regular car, looking gorgeous and glossy, yes, but with a welcoming smile as she rolled down the window and shouted my name. It was instant solidarity. I don’t think we shut up the entire weekend. I was pleased to rediscover how wickedly funny and smart Nike was, and how tenacious when it came to the work she loved.
On Saturday the actors gathered in Nike’s living room, scripts in hand. She set out a plate of chocolate-chip cookies, and they prepared to read my play. I felt humble and shy. I started to thank everyone for giving up their afternoon, but they stopped me.
“Don’t thank us till you see how we do,” one person said.
As the play begins, one sister is sitting by her mother’s hospital bed, keeping vigil, when the other sister enters, having just flown in from Israel. Within minutes, both Nike and the actress playing her sister were crying. I was astonished. I knew the script called for them to cry — hell, I had written the stage directions — but the sight of real tears falling out of their eyes still amazed me.
When Emily Dickinson sent her poems to the critic she hoped would become her mentor, she didn’t ask him if they were good. Good is for Sunday school. She asked him if they were “alive.” Listening to my play in Nike’s living room, I could hear that it wasn’t perfect, but it was alive. The actors revealed to me new layers of the characters’ personalities. There were jokes, tears, fights — everything living relationships are made of. I gave up taking notes and just listened.
For two hours these five strangers, only one of them Jewish, used their bodies and voices to reenact my family’s sometimes funny, sometimes painful ways of showing their love. What an amazing gift these people called actors have: the ability to cry and rage and kiss and sweat and take off their clothes before an audience or while illuminated by lights and scrutinized by cameras. (And I’d thought I was a drama queen.) Sure, Hollywood is full of false images and schlocky scripts, unnaturally white teeth and gravity-defying breasts. But we put up with all that because we need to see something resembling our own experience, only heightened and distilled to its essence.
A woman I know once told me she thought the highest calling in life was to be an entertainer.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Not a doctor? Not a teacher? Not an ecologist, for God’s sake?”
“Those are all good,” she said, “but entertainers take us out of ourselves. They provide release. When doctors have failed, when there is nothing left to teach, when life is at its most dire, entertainers allow us to endure.”
After the reading was done, the actors continued to argue the conflicts of the play, each one defending his or her character’s actions and views. I sat there nibbling on a chocolate-chip cookie. The fictional family I had created no longer belonged solely to me. It was part of the actors’ experiences now. I hoped the play would find its way into more and more people’s lives; I hoped it would find a larger life in the world outside. But for now it was enough to know that my play was alive. My mother would have been pleased.