Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Twenty One Months Later

2021 was a lost year. Sitting here, it feels like a blink.  Almost like it didn’t happen. But it did.  

2021 was a year of grief.  It was prolonged and intensified by my avoidance of that grief; my fear that it would destroy me, subsume me. February 23, 2022 will mark a year since my mother entered the nursing home. The anniversary of the worst day of my life. The day I had to concoct a story, a lie, to get my mother into the car and to the doors of the home, where I left her in the hands of strangers (great strangers, in the best of all possible nursing homes).  The lie was that she was going home. She will never—except perhaps in a scrap of dislodged memory, in some silent, private moment I will never witness—go home again. 

Nor will I.

Of course, the only way to keep grief from destroying one is to risk feeling it. Because all of one's avoidance tactics are more damaging, more toxic than that pain could be, and they leave one weakened and less and less able to sit with the grief.  Ironically, then, these tactics succeed as they debilitate. Like chemotherapy, the treatment kills as it seeks to heal.

Add to 2021 the isolation of living in a frightened, nasty-spirited social media addicted world that was, and is still, riddled with highly transmissible disease. Disease that can sicken you regardless of your vaccination status. Disease that has us going through the motions of KN-95 masks and protocols and vaccination cards--and correcting each others' pantomimes, like children in a school play. For me, the lack of work as an actor, combined with the pressure to sidestep covid-19 at all costs--knowing that I would not be permitted to see my mother if I were to test positive—created the perfect excuse to hunker down in my apartment and isolate.  I watched hour after hour after hour of films and series and documentaries and stand-up comics, and reality shows… anything to fill the SILENCE of my cave, which of course wasn’t silent at all.  

My mother was once the ideal person to be the messenger of any news of a terrible loss. She held herself together. She told you what you needed to know, and she stood by quietly on the phone while you lost it.  My father and sister died within two years of each other, and when both of these seismic losses occurred, I was in rehearsal.  My Dad passed a few days before tech began on “Les Misérables,” in which I was playing a dream role—Thénardier. My sister died a few days before Thanksgiving in 2016 when I was juggling two productions: a thesis project at Columbia, and an Off-Broadway evening of one acts by Thornton Wilder.  And in both instances, Mom told me to stay and do the work and be there for the company, and we’d grieve together later.  She was right, and she was wrong.

In the moment, throwing myself into the work was the best thing for me, but that just meant the grief—not to be denied, as certain as death itself—would come and get me when I least expected it.  And boy, did it.  Joan Didion wrote, "Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be."  Mere weeks after burying my Dad,  I showed up for rehearsals for “Peter and the Starcatcher” at Pioneer Theatre Co. in Utah, and was suddenly engulfed by relentless, agonizing grief and anger.  I was beat up for it, in front of my fellow actors, by a member of the creative team whom I still haven’t forgiven.  When my sister passed two years later… well, there’s something staggering about experiencing the loss of a sibling whilst doing plays by Wilder, the king of existential longing. Unfortunately, my catharsis came in front of a sold out audience when I was supposed to be “asleep” as The Middle Aged Doctor, in the shadows upstage in “Pullman Car Hiawatha.” Stifling sobs, I tried to stay "asleep."

Covid-19 left me enveloped by grief without my familiar refuge: my work.  I tried to overcome the problem by creating a business plan for my work as a coach; registering the business, announcing it on social media, and paying a designer to create a website announcing this amazing new project. An amazing new project which has gone (so far) exactly nowhere.

I channeled my pain and isolation and sense of the absurd (because life, defying all our attempts to give it shape and purpose, is absurd) into a TV series called “Wisenheimer.” I wrote the pilot, then the characters decided they wanted more. So I wrote six episodes; the entire first season.  And it’s darn good. I'm fully prepared for it never to do anything nor go anywhere.  Don’t misunderstand me—I'm not negative nor pessimistic. I just no longer have expectations: another word for dreams.  I don’t dream anymore. I think it’s a good thing.

Dreaming of my great, inevitable, future stardom on Broadway helped me survive a brutal childhood, and a bullying set of sadistic undergraduate acting teachers, and some real a**hole colleagues. But it set me up for disillusionment and rage. I showed up for my biggest job to date—starring as Sir Robin in the first national tour of “Spamalot”—like eager, upbeat Peggy Sawyer fresh from Allentown--to be greeted by a company of privileged theatre folk making six figure incomes, four-walling 3000-seat theaters, many of whom were bitter, jaded, passive-aggressive and in some cases, downright cruel.  Billie Holiday once said, "There's no damn business like show business.  You have to smile to keep from throwing up."  I thought the tour would open the door for me to Broadway—it would all be worth it because I would make it to Broadway AT LAST.  I didn’t. That was a dozen years ago now.

And what about the dream? 

George Carlin’s stinging indictment of the American Dream was that “it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”  The past year, I tried to stay asleep. I used streaming networks, substances, sex, food, self pity, avoidance of all things healthy that might raise my endorphin levels, and yes, sleep.

Lily Tomlin (via Jane Wagner) once said, "What is reality, anyway? Just a collective hunch."

I face the first day of 2022---which is only the first day of 2022 because we’ve all collectively agreed it is; really it’s just another day, and a day is only a day because we’ve all collectively agreed on what a day is, etc.— I am facing this turning of the year AWAKE. I’ve decided to stay awake and deal with the pain. Because there’s one alternative. And, as Peggy Lee once purred, “I’m not ready for that final disappointment.”  I don’t have dreams. I don’t even have plans. Plans will form. Eventually.  Dreams? Dreams are for children.  Let them dream. Until the day some adult answers truthfully, "No, Virginia..."

I am a confirmed atheist. If I ever indulge in a fantasy of what an afterlife might be like, it’s a place where I can be with my mother again as she was.  The mentor, teacher, cheerleader, nurturer, inspiration, friend—all the things she was. Like Emily in “Our Town,” I imagine what those few moments of "going back" would be like. My Mom, arms outstretched, coffee brewing in her kitchen and one of her amazing pies warming in the oven, asking me to tell her about my work and my life. The best listener ever.

I don’t know what 2022 will bring. Or take away. I have no resolutions, no grand schemes--and no dreams. I face this “new” year alone, with grief as a constant but ever quieting companion, with a mother across the river from me, who remembers little, yet, thankfully, still remembers me each time she sees me. For now. 

I no longer expect to be a star. I’ve been luckier than most. I've worked. I’ve made mistakes, been too outspoken, held grudges, tried too hard to make broken things work. I’ve always tried to do my best. But my best was never enough for me. I needed to be perfect.  Talk about chasing a dream.  Awake now, if I have one hope, it's to rediscover what “my best” is.  Maybe 2022 will be the year of doing the best I can.