It seems loss and mourning intend to remain my regular companions on and off the stage. Last month, in my new play, The Origin of the Seasons, I plumbed these subjects. They returned with an unexpected alacrity to trouble my thinking. A few weeks ago, my brother-in-law lost a brief, valiant battle with brain cancer. He was gone before any of us could even wrap our minds around his diagnosis.
After a keen and graceful marriage of 42 years, my sister’s wounded heart needs special healing. She’s found solace in revisiting family photo albums; a few books (Chasing Daylight by Eugene O’Kelly among them) offered insight into what her husband was experiencing. Like O’Kelly, my sister told me, her husband tried to make the most of his last months of life: giving away special things to people and groups he loved, visiting with close family and friends. And laughing a lot. He even made a list of who not to invite to his memorial!
“For a guy who led a quiet life,” my sister said, “he suddenly wanted to be visited by more and more people; he created a very busy social calendar to manage. It was exhausting. But I understand now why it mattered so much to him. He was preparing to leave. It was exactly what he needed to do.”
I’m grateful I could be with her during the shocking first days following her husband’s death. As she tried to keep putting one foot after another along this uneven new path in that ever-unpredictable journey we call “life,” we busied ourselves with details—financial matters, writing the obituary, planning the celebration of his life.
One morning, my sister pointed to the tiny Chinese Elm Bonsai her husband had tended so carefully for a dozen years.
“Have you noticed what’s happening to his Bonsai?”
“I’ve done everything as he instructed. Watered it lightly and not too frequently. But it must know; on some deep cellular level it’s connected to him. Because it’s dying now too.”
I watched in amazement over the next few days as the tiny tree’s leaves continued to fade from bright green to dust.
I finished reading Oliver Sacks’ memoir, On The Move: A Life, while I stayed with my sister. It’s a lucid appraisal of Sacks’ life and work, including this latest, and last, stage, of his having terminal cancer.
Never having given much thought to death or dying, even though he had “lost all three of [his] elder brothers, as well as many friends and contemporaries,” Sacks describes being thrown from one extreme emotion to another—“from terror to relief, then back to terror”—during the course of his initial treatments. He was able to keep the cancer at bay for nearly nine years. But recently he learned it had metastasized to his liver. As he wrote in the New York Times opinion pages, “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”
So much prevents or distracts from rich, deep living; so much enables us to ignore mortality. Perhaps we must ignore it, at least for some important part of the unknown time we walk on this earth.
That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity. (George Eliot, Middlemarch)
Yet, paradoxically, to ignore it altogether is equally, fatally perilous.
(The Origin of the Seasons will be performed at Unity Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara on June 7th (2015) at 7 P.M. in a reprisal by the original cast from Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy.)