My Life With Death
A Play by Bernard Weiner, copyright by the author
A staged reading by The Playwrights' Lab at Throckmorton Theatre, Mill Valley, CA. (2012)
Scene 1: "Understanding Forever" (contributed by Patricia Silver)
(A small girl's room.)
SARAH (roughly seven years old) You’re wearing the same color as me.
DEATH Well, yes, but—
SARAH You have red on your collar. Mommy said I had to wear a dark color…’cuz it was a funeral.
DEATH I wore a dark cloak at the cemetery. It’s just a custom to wear black. In some places, people wear white to a funeral, and red to a wedding.
SARAH Are you going to a wedding?
DEATH No, but I’m meeting someone special.
DEATH You. How do you do? What’s your name?
DEATH And your nickname is Sar —(SARAH’s nickname rhymes with "car")
SARAH Yeah. (smiles)
DEATH I think the dress looks very pretty on you.
SARAH (twirls) Thank you.
DEATH (twirls with her) You’re welcome.
SARAH (bored) I wish we could go home. (more bored) I wish I had my jacks.
DEATH You play jacks? I have some here.
SARAH You do? (sees them) Wow!… But… (consternation)
DEATH I know — I’m a grownup — but I like playing games: jacks, chess, poker, bingo. Sometimes I like to make bets on who’s gonna win… Wanna play jacks?
SARAH Can we? Here? I mean, my mom might not like…
DEATH Don’t worry. (looks at door) I’ll bet she won’t come in here. You start.
(They start to play. SARAH does flipsies to reduce number of jacks
for onesies. She misses after 2 or 3 pick-ups.)
DEATH (does flipsies) Did you know the person who was buried?
SARAH Well, yeah, but not very well. She was my grandfather’s wife, not my grandma, Grandma Katy. Grahm Katy died a long time ago when I was little. And they didn’t tell me she died. They said she "went away." What did they do that for? Why did they lie?
DEATH They thought you didn’t understand "forever." Hardly anybody understands "forever."
SARAH I kept waiting for her to come back. (pause filled by more playing) Then Grandpa got married, so they had to tell me. Or it would have been bi…big…?
DEATH Bigamy. “Bi gamus” — gamus is Greek for marriage.
SARAH Bi GAME-y. Two games. Grandpa said "I played as good as I knew but lost those chess games," and then he threw a chess piece into Grandma Katy’s grave and yelled something. Grandpa tried to teach me how to play chess. But ya just sit there and think. Boring. I like jacks better.
DEATH Your grandpa plays a good game of chess.
SARAH Do you know my grandpa?
DEATH No, no, I’ve just seen him play once, somewhere. He was very concentrated. Like you. YOU’RE just thinking of jacks.
SARAH Yeah. (plays)
DEATH You’re not thinking about the grave, or the funeral, or the cemetery or the long line of cars from the mortuary.
SARAH Yeah. (plays)
DEATH Or Grandma Katy who was going to come back to you.
SARAH Yeah. (plays)
DEATH You could visit. After the game I’ll take you to visit her.
SARAH O.K. (plays)
(Slow fade to black)
Scene 2: "A Visit to the Oracle"
(shift to non-realistic lighting, lots of dark spots. a raised figure slides out, face partially covered by hood. the effect should not be scary, but an entity whose utterances should be given serious weight)
ORACLE You don’t visit me all that often. I can only help if you ask for help.
BERNIE Thank you, but I think I can do most of it myself.
ORACLE Good luck with that. But the fact that you’re here is a sign of strength amid your weakness and confusion. It’s a tacit admission that you could use some help. (beat) So what’s the question you are bringing me today?
BERNIE I feel...bereft. So many of those close to me who helped hold me together, have died or otherwise disappeared from my life.
ORACLE Welcome to the world.
BERNIE I know what you’re doing. But acknowledging that this is true for everybody doesn’t diminish MY pain and confusion.
ORACLE So you’re suffering. Lots of joy and accomplishment, lots of pain and disappointment and sadness. What did you expect? Constant sweetness and light? A dance-number perhaps?
BERNIE I’m not seeking utopia. I need help in trying to deal with the suffering, the pain, the sense of loss and disorientation I'm feeling.
ORACLE I’m an oracle, Bernie, not a therapist.
BERNIE I’m not asking for much. Just give me a clue how to proceed, point me in a direction that will help me.
ORACLE (long beat) Open the door that’s closest to you. (ORACLE disappears, strange lights fade out)
BERNIE (to himself) What "door"? What does "closest to" mean? In me? In my heart? The easiest?
(beat, fade to black)
Scene 3: "Dying Is Hard Work"
ROBERTA I know you can’t hear me now. The painkillers are doing their thing and I’m in another mental place. But I’m hoping that you’ll be able to somehow intuit what I’m saying; even if you’ll never hear this, I still want to say it, for myself, to know that I tried to get through to you in these last days. I may look like all I’m doing is sleeping, but in reality dying is hard work and I’ve needed all the strength I can muster to deal with that looming reality as my body and mind start to shut down.
But my heart is still strong — filled with love and regret — as my spirit is preparing to lift away from you all. Please forgive me for not being able to communicate more, but I know you understand — I certainly was in the same position when Mother was dying and I hovered around her deathbed, wishing we could speak to each other but knowing she was busy elsewhere.
I want you to know that a good share of the time, even when I seem to br knocked out on drugs, I’ve been able to hear what you say to me and what you are saying to each other. I love you all, mightily. I know how exhausted you are from taking care of me, and from watching me struggle. I know how much pain you’re in seeing how much pain I’m in. I know how awful you feel that at this stage you can’t really help me. I know how frustrating it must be when you’re dealing with the care-giving staff, who have their own protocols to follow.
I’m so glad you alerted friends and family about my condition. I wasn’t always able to respond verbally to their kind remarks and emails and get-well cards, but I knew they were out there, thinking about me. I especially appreciated the visits of my nephews. At their ages, coming that close tomortality was difficult for them, I know, but it was wonderful knowing they were next to my bed, touching my hands, and sharing that love.
I don’t know where I’m going, what’s on the other side of this effort. I just know that I am unprepared. And my struggle is partly to ready myself, to open myself, to the mystery I can’t comprehend. Maybe there’s nothing there, maybe I’ll simply return to the cosmic soup from whence we all cam and that’s that. I just don’t know. All I know is that there was so much to accomplish and understand here, and I’m not really ready to let go of that. But I know I’ll have to.
Part of me wants to just get out of here, out of this pain, out of this degenerating existence — which is hardly a life. I hope what comes is far away from that, a better, different stateof being. But part of me still wants to stay on this side, hoping against hope for miracles that will permit us to be together again, like we were before I started this slide. I think I’d better go now; I’ve got more work to do. Goodbye. Good love.
Scene 4: "Trying to Stay Dry"
ORACLE You’re a playwright used to dealing with emotional stuff. But even so, I’m guessing that was hard to write.
BERNIE Harder to experience. I know my sister Roberta really well.
ORACLE Come on, Bernie: You write from your imagination. But at least you made the attempt to understand her. Most folks don’t. Life just washes over them, they get a towel and
dry off, and that’s it.
BERNIE I can’t take many more storms these days. I’d much rather
chill out while lying in a hammock and listening to the waves
ORACLE Maybe, as a writer, you need to take a longer dip into your sister’s life. And at what’s REALLY bothering you.
BERNIE I told you, doing that would put me into an emotional whirlpool, just suck me down.
ORACLE You worried about drowning?
BERNIE Isn't it obvious? I need a life-preserver right now, not a
tsunami. I may be courageous at times, but I’m not stupid.
ORACLE You may not be stupid, but you're asking me to believe that
you're innocent about life and death to the point of stupor.
Are you really that naive?
BERNIE I'm in my head so much, I miss a lot of real stuff. Also: Denial
has been a close, comforting companion most of my life.
ORACLE Be wary of friends who let you get away with avoiding
reality. Remember: mirrors are useful tools as well.
Sometimes you have to confront your monsters while they’re
young, before they get stronger and more aggressive. Will
you think about it?
BERNIE (beat) I’ll think about it.
Scene 5: "My Life With Death"
BERNIE To more fully understand the recent losses I've experienced,
a quick overview of my life with death is in order.
As is true for many others, death has been an incubating
puzzle in my life ever since I was a small child.
My Grandmother died when I was about six or seven. Nothing much was made of that fact; one day she was there and the next day she was gone. No discussion. A baffling mystery.
BERNIE: "Mommy, why isn’t Grandma here anymore?"
MOM: (beat) "She had to go away for a while. Now eat your oatmeal while it's warm and get ready for school."
Apparently, something about death was too scary to talk about.
When I was about 9 or 10, my best friend Tommy Tatham died. My mother and father barely acknowledged the event, and Tommy’s parents never said anything to me about his disappearance from my life. Another mysterious removal.
BERNIE: "But, Mr. Tatham, what happened to Tommy? Why is he
TOMMY’S MOM: "He just never returned from the hospital. I’m sure your parents will explain it to you when you’re older."
BERNIE: They never did. When I was 14, I asked a classmate Sandra to a school dance. Two days before the event, she died.
No explanations. She was simply mysteriously gone. No discussion by my parents or hers. (gestures) Poof.
When I was at grad school in California, I visited my Grandfather in the Miami old folks’ home. When I had seen him there the previous year, he was relatively tall, frail but healthy. Now I walked into his room and immediately went to the front desk to ask where my granddad had been moved, since there was somebody else in the room, a little old man curled up in a question mark shape in a chair. That was my granddad. He died shortly thereafter. The mystery of dying and where it leads.
Whenever I mentioned any of these topics to close friends, I got similar responses to what I had been experiencing and feeling. But in the general culture, death & dying were more-or-less taboo — or at least avoided — topics, not talked about in deep, personal ways. Maybe too close to home. It seemed clear that there was a great need to bring these topics out into the light for, at the least, some social venting. I thought this was true both for the personal deaths and for the hundreds of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese, including innocent civilians, who died in the war in Vietnam, in the 1960s. At last, deaths that I could try to understand, and organize to stop.
I was an anti-war activist and supporter of the draft-resistance movement during that war. My best friend Robert Simon was a leader in that anti-draft movement and was arrested and tried for failing to report for military service. The judge was so impressed by Bob’s many years of principled, non-violent resistance to war, and touched by Bob’s moving, well-crafted testimony, that he, near tears, found him not guilty and dismissed the charges. A few days after his release, Bob, in his mid-20s, died when a drunk smashed his truck at high speed into the side of Bob’s car on a rural highway. (gestures:) Poof.
I was a wreck for a long time about that one.
In 1994, Nora Gordon was diagnosed with rampaging, metastizing breast cancer. We had been best friends from elementary school through high school and college and for decades beyond. I drove down to Los Angeles to visit her in her final months, first at her place and then at the hospital. When one day I left Nora there in the cancer unit, sitting in her wheel-chair, her bald head covered in a bright red scarf, we both knew that we never would see each other again. Yes, I needed to get back to work in San Francisco, but I was devastated and felt guilty, like I was deserting her when she most needed me. She died some weeks after my final visit. (makes the gesture without the full word "Poof")
Over the years, from childhood on, I felt like I was missing key parts of myself, as a result of all these deaths I did not understand — or even know how to deal with. I felt battered and bruised. And nobody I loved and respected ever spoke to me personally about how to get through all the pain and sense of loss. Just grieving was never enough.
My confusion was palpable. Along with a growing sense of isolation. With these friends and family members gone, I felt like a multiple amputee, experiencing phantom pain all over my body, and in my soul, and nobody seemed to care. I felt numb and severely depressed. And it was about to get worse. Way worse.
(beat) The run-up to death, the drawn-out decline and
disintegration, is often more scary than the dying itself, for everyone concerned.
My mother, afflicted with Alzheimer’s, was on a steep slide for about a decade. When she died in 2004, at age 93, I surprised myself by the very few tears that flowed from my eyes. Then it hit me: I had been grieving her loss for ten years as, bit by bit, the mother I knew disappeared mentally. She had been gone from me and my sisters Linda and Roberta for quite some time before the actual passing. The reservoir of tears had already mostly dried up.
But as traumatic as her leaving was — and my father’s who died at age 83 a decade earlier — my mother’s death was not surprising. "Age-appropriate."
But how to handle the dying process of a sibling?
Scene 6: "The Joining"
(At one side of the stage, spot comes up on DEATH and SARAH as they are playing Jacks. SARAH is really having a good time and dances around playfully. Spot up on ROBERTA lying in bed. SARAH smiles and waves to her; ROBERA weakly waves back.)
SARAH Would you like to play with us?
DEATH: Sarah, let's not bother the lady right now. She looks...tired.
ROBERTA Not quite ready. I would like that, though. Maybe later.
(As lights fade down on SARAH and DEATH:)
BERNIE Roberta, my older sister, had been beset by major health
conditions for decades. Her scoliosis had resulted in an
extreme curvature of the spine and her internal organs
(lungs, abdomen, and so on) were being pushed on and then
incipiently crushed. Her spine was the shape of a question
mark. The discomfort and pain were getting increasingly
unbearable. In desperation, she had major, 13-hour spinal
surgery to fuse 11 disks and insert metal rods to straighten
It worked! For about six months. Several more surgeries to make corrections. They worked — until they didn’t. Each surgery corrected something, but created new problems.
It was hard watching Roberta suffer. She had been my protector, friend, surrogate mother when I was small. We were bonded together tightly. And we shared a deep devotion to art and aesthetics -- for her, music; for me, writing.
Watching her physically deteriorate, and taking care of her along the way, led to a major shift in my carefully ordered life. Though I couldn't have articulated it, something in me was preparing my soul for immersion in that common pool of human suffering.
For a number of years, Roberta was able to live something approximating a normal life, even with the increasing pain. She was a successful psychiatric social worker following years as a professional singer (opera, musical-comedy, and later as a member of the San Francisco Bach Choir). But during all this, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This degenerative neurological disease increasingly led to mobility issues and cognitive problems and a tendency to fall more and more. She broke hips, arms, hit her head on hard furniture and floors.
We are in her condo in Oakland.
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BERNIE Roberta, you say you don’t want to be constantly "nagged" on this issue, but you’ve got to admit that you’re no longer able to properly take care of yourself and could use more help.
ROBERTA I’m not decrepit. I still manage to get around, prepare my food, wipe myself, I use the walker. Just get off my back! Besides, I gave in to you and Linda and agreed to a stranger coming into my house twice a week to help me out.
BERNIE Roberta, the other night you fell and lay there for hours before you were able to drag yourself to the phone and call us. We understand your desire to live independently, but you’re at the point now where you need a place that checks up on you regularly, where you can feel secure and safe.
Why not let Linda and me start looking for assisted-living
places, which you can check out with us when we’ve got a
few good candidates?
ROBERTA I’m not going to move to one of those places. It’s all OLD people! I’d feel awful there. If you want to get rid of me, just take me out and shoot me or drive me to the bridge.
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BERNIE (back in the present) We knew she didn’t mean all that, that it was just her anger and frustration speaking.
Roberta constantly resisted admitting the dire reality of her condition. It took her more than a year, for example, to agree to sell her car, long after she had stopped being able to drive it. That car was a symbol of normality, freedom, a life to be lived. She didn’t want to give up that symbol.
Her Parkinson’s clearly was getting worse. And the powerful medications she was taking were starting to lose their effectiveness. In 2010, she did finally move to an assisted-living facility, Salem Lutheran Home in Oakland. She agreed to give it a try for 12 months. Accordingly, we rented a storage locker for the furniture that wouldn’t fit into the small studio room she’d have at the facility. "When I get better and come back, it’ll be good to have all my furniture and stuff," she said. Intellectually, she knew that one doesn’t "get better" with Parkinson’s — it’s a one-way slide down — but emotionally, keeping up the fiction of a return "when she got better," provided a way she could allow herself to move "temporarily" to Salem Lutheran.
At the facility, she entered as an independent resident with just a few assisted-living components — help in dressing, taking a shower, and so on — but during the year, her physical and cognitive functions declined more and more and she finally agreed to her medications being given to her by the staff, as she had become confused about whether she had taken them, and, if so, if she had taken them on schedule. (With Parkinson’s meds, it’s absolutely vital to stick to a rigid delivery schedule, just to be able to physically move and not remain "frozen" in place.) She fell much more often now, even with use of her walker; soon, she had to get around in a wheelchair, pushed by the aides. She also was having more mental confusion, even delusions and hallucinations, due to the Parkinson’s and those powerful meds.
One day when I'm visiting her at Salem Lutheran, she asks me to wheel her into the quiet garden there. She says she wants to talk to me about something important.
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ROBERTA This isn’t much of a life anymore. I’m almost totally at the mercy of others. I can’t even do the simple things I like by myself. I feel totally isolated, a prisoner in my little room. A prisoner in my wheelchair. A prisoner in my body. I’m in jail. (beat) I’m in Hell!
BERNIE You still sometimes can go on daytrips with Linda and Heidi and me — to noontime concerts, to a restaurant for lunch,
go sit in the sun in the Oakland rose garden. You like doing
those normal things.
ROBERTA Yeah, I’ve had some decent times. But outings, by and
large, are over; even though I want to get out of here, just for a break, it’s too complicated, or scary, or painful to do them anymore. You’ve seen what my quality of life has become: it’s shrunk to a tiny, tight circle. I’m never going to get back enjoying what I used to do. Plus, I look at you and Heidi, and Linda, and I realize how much is missing from my life — not just health: marriage, family, kids and grandkids someday. I never had any of that, and I’ll never get any of that.
BERNIE You came pretty close a couple of times. I even liked a few
of your serious boyfriends. Maybe there are more
opportunities for some good times.
ROBERTA Get your head out of your you-know-what. (beat) I’ve made up my mind: (takes a deep breath) I don’t want to go on living like this.
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BERNIE I don’t know how to reply to that stark admission. So I just
wrap my arm around my sister, squeeze her hand in mine,
and we sit like that for a long time in silence under the
garden umbrella, in the warm sun, the broken fountain in
front of us, dry. I see her tears slowly sliding down her
cheeks. I taste my tears.
(back in the present) A month or so later, she fell again in
her room, this time fracturing her upper right arm badly,
right at the shoulder. The emergency-room bone-setting
surgery didn’t go well; a second operation got the break into
a somewhat tighter fit, but she still was in extreme pain.
Eventually, she was moved into Salem Lutheran’s skilled-
nursing unit to recover.
But she couldn’t even get close to doing any rehab work, because of the pain. Some days later, the doctors discovered that the minor infection she had in the wound area had turned into a major infection. The antibiotics couldn’t control it any longer. Her temperature was starting to spike dangerously.
She would shriek in agony, but the painkillers they gave her barely scratched the depth of her agony. She was trapped, with no way out. She refused to go to the hospital. With her agreement, we signed her up for immediate hospice care in place at Salem Lutheran, mainly to get her the kind of pain-management she needed — Dilaudin, Morphine, etc.
For a long time, my overwhelming fear was that things would get so horrific for her, so awful, that she would ask me to help her commit suicide. I knew I couldn’t do that. I knew it was possible that I would try.
Once during this period, after watching Roberta in horrific
physical pain, I mentioned to her, pretending I was speaking
almost in passing, that I knew of several people who when
they ran out of options just stopped eating and drinking and
let nature take its course. She quickly changed the subject.
Shortly after our brief conversation, Roberta stopped eating and began drinking smaller and smaller amounts and then stopped entirely. She was losing energy and getting severely emaciated. One day, when she was a bit lucid in the morning, I whispered in her ear how much I admired her courage for what she was doing. She replied (and these were the last words I heard from my sister), "What are you talking about?" I said "not eating and drinking." She looked away. Over the next eight days, without nourishment and liquids, my sister slowly slipped through the morphine curtain to the other side.
To this day, I’m not sure whether she had voluntarily chosen to die by starvation and dehydration, or whether the morphine and other painkillers were so strong that she simply had no hunger or urge to drink. Probably both.
When our family sat around her bed minutes after she had passed away, we all observed that for the first time in many months, Roberta looked relaxed, pain was gone from her face, she was at peace. I felt terrible that I may have helped lead her to her death. I felt grateful that I was able to help lead her to her death. I was so terribly sad. I was so relieved.
I felt liberated. I felt guilty. I felt… human.
Scene 7: "The Power of Guilt"
ORACLE Let me try to understand. For many years, at great personal sacrifice, you and your wife and other sister were caring for and emotionally supporting Roberta — especially toward the end. I don’t understand the strength of your sense of guilt.
BERNIE You probably can’t understand: I’m sure oracles never face these realities.
ORACLE It’s a different-dimension kind of thing. We—. Never mind. What was eating you in terms of guilt?
BERNIE We -- I -- couldn’t relieve her horrendous suffering.
ORACLE Based on what you’ve told me, you and your family did what
you could. You were there comforting her. You moved her to
a facility that could properly look after her. You intervened to
get her the right medical care and painkillers. Are you feeling
guilty because you had no power to prevent her imminent
death? Are you feeling responsible because you and your wife
didn’t move her in with you?
BERNIE Over the many years, Heidi and I discussed that possibility.
But it just wouldn’t have worked out. We wouldn’t have been
able to give her the kind of attention and care she needed
without going nuts. We had our own responsibilities to our
two boys, our jobs, our own lives.
ORACLE But you still feel guilty about not having done that.
BERNIE Part of me does. Nobody should be left alone on the walk
ORACLE Welcome to the world. But Roberta "alone"? My guess is that
when she was in extremis, she knew she could count on you
to be there, right? What I hear from you is normal
compassion-fatigue. You couldn’t be 24-hour
companions and caregivers. Very few family members can
do that. Shit happens. Look, if it'll make you feel better, I
suggest you give yourself one final slap on the face and get
back to living your life. And hie thee to a therapist, or
bereavement specialist, who is trained to help you over this
major hump. Same goal, different union. I’m just an oracle
kind of guy.
BERNIE I hear you. But please help me understand how one is
supposed to make sense of death and...the whole thing.
ORACLE Did it ever occur to you that death isn't supposed to make
sense? It just is. And did it never occur to you that you
weren’t terribly interested in examining these topics in depth
until you started getting older, and your sister had the
temerity to die on her own schedule? Duh.
BERNIE That was uncalled for.
ORACLE If you’ll think back, I didn’t make the call. You initiated these visits. But I’ve got to give you credit: at least you’re starting to seriously examine certain things. That’s a start, bubie.
Now we have something to talk about. And some ways to
reduce your stress-load.
BERNIE "Reduce your stress" -- easy for you to say. (quick beat) I
know a number of people who can make their way through
the emotional minefields and live a relatively happy life. But,
apparently, that ain’t me.
ORACLE But you’re blessed with artistic and intuitive instincts. You see things others don’t, and you’re able to fashion your confusions and tragedies into some semblance of artistic output that others can resonate with, often containing a wry
sense of humor.
BERNIE But what if being so "sensitive" as a writer just leads
to more pain and psychological chaos and depression?
ORACLE As Samuel Beckett once observed, a writer's words are
imperfect instruments and hardly ever lead to real
communication — but they’re "all we have." You’ve got the
chops, Bernie, so use ‘em.
(Lights fade to black)
Scene 8: "Playing the Game"
(DEATH and SARAH once again are playing jacks but this time in Roberta’s deathbed-room. SARAH suddenly looks up at ROBERTA lying in the bed and motions for her to come join them. This time, ROBERTA nods a warm yes. DEATH goes to her, and guides her to join them on the floor. THEY are smiling as they start the game. The lights come up full, stay for a few seconds, and then total, immediate blackout.)
END OF ACT 1
Scene 1: "A Writer Writing"
BERNIE Hmmm... "Words are imperfect but they’re 'all we have'."
That Beckett observation helps me. My default mechanism whenever going through stressful times always had been my writing. Somehow, putting words on paper helps calm me, gives me a way to put my experiences into some sort
of context, provides a container for my confusions. So I write journals, criticism, political analyses, poetry, fiction, satires,
dramas and comedies.
I realized that I had had not done a lot of thinking about the deaths that haunted me from my childhood on. Oh, I've called them up every so often but hardly ever go deep. At one point in my early teenage years, I had wanted to be a deep-sea diver; I read every book, and saw every movie, about that profession. But I never took it further than that, and, so to speak, I rarely put on those heavy diving suits to get close to the death-puzzle that bothered me. The mystery and confusion simply festered in me, largely unexamined, for decades.
I did come up with a few deep-sea-type ingredients to the puzzle of my life. For example, my dad was mostly absent from my growing-up years — he was dedicated to working, to making enough money to insure that we had a roof over our heads, enough food to eat, clothes to wear, etc. He was doing what all immigrant fathers did: work their asses off to survive and make sure their kids would have the chance to better themselves as they moved up and out.
So the man who should have been my role model mostly absented himself from my life. My mother essentially took care of the three of us — me and my sickly older sister Roberta and my baby sister Linda. I felt, as the middle sibling, that I had to struggle for attention from my parents, that I wasn’t really being authentically "seen." So maybe that’s why later the deaths of those closest to me, especially my best friends, hit me so hard. These were the rare people who really "saw" me, and then suddenly they were no longer around to help keep me standing upright, to support me in moments of crisis and despair, to hear my deepest inner thoughts. I felt so lost. Left to my own devices. On my own.
For awhile, as a child needing more attention, I was a Bad Boy — getting involved in schoolyard fights, stealing and shoplifting and setting fires and so on. That certainly got me attention from my parents (and the police), but I didn’t like the consequences.
I needed to find new avenues, new friends. I retreated into keeping a journal and writing poetry in private, and in public trying to gain attention by being a Good Boy — in athletics, in being popular at school, in acting and singing, in writing for the newspaper. Those activities pulled me out of my trouble-making tailspin, but the bodies of friends and family members (a cousin, an aunt, later my parents) just piled up in my mental mausoleum, creating a kind of painful and confusing puzzle that never seemed to go away. Then decades flew by while I was busy being a father and husband and full-time journalist and theater-and-film critic.
Recognizing that writing about internal crises always had provided me some solace and calm, I finally decided to take some serious action in the direction of examining the deaths in my life.
In the late-1990s, I started up a writing process that might help me — and perhaps be useful to others going through similar experiences and confusions. The Playwrights’ Lab, then at Marin Theatre Company, received a small grant from The Dramatists Guild to create playscripts in collaboration with actors. I chose to examine the topics of death & dying.
I assembled four actors I had either worked with before or whose work always had impressed me: Joe Bellan, Jim Griffiths, Patricia Silver, and Gloria Weinstock.
Sort of modeling our experiment after how "A Chorus Line" was created — with a bunch of dancers gathered around a tape recorder, talking week after week about their artistic lives — the five of us assembled regularly for several months, and just talked about our personal experiences with death & dying of family members, friends, those we’d heard about, etc. Fascinating, important experiences and insights emerged.
In 20 short scenes, I put into dramatic form (often leavened by humor) what we had come up with. With just one exception, all the text was composed by me. Patty Silver wrote a scene about a little girl playing jacks with Death. We titled the finished script "Running in the Wake."
Scene 2: "Helping Him Out"
(Note: DAD is lying flat in a hospital bed, unmoving. Another actor, unseen by HELEN, stands or sits behind his head and speaks his internal thoughts. Their lines should almost overlap, creating a kind of ping-ponging "conversation.")
HELEN Dad, is this really what you want?
DAD I hear a buzzing. Is someone trying to talk to me? Or is this just how you go?
HELEN We’ve talked about what you wanted us to do when you were
getting near the end.
DAD No, it’s Helen, I think. I recognize the nasal sound, even if I can’t make out the words.
HELEN You signed the legal document that said for us to take you off the machines when it was time, so that you could die with some dignity.
DAD I think she believes I’m ready to kick the bucket. Am I? I can’t really tell.
HELEN I’m so tom, Dad. I don’t want to pull the plug unless that’s what you really want now.
DAD Maybe she’s here because the doctors told her something. Maybe there’s still hope.
HELEN The doctors said the tumors in your lungs are at full-size again, and growing. The chemo worked only for a little while. Dad, I’m so sorry.
DAD Maybe they’ve got a new drug to let me breathe better. I can barely breathe anymore, even with the oxygen tube.
HELEN I think you were right to want to come home, to d...to be at home, here with us. And I’m glad you’ve got the morphine for the pain.
DAD It’s harder to focus my mind. Everything is fuzzy. The world barely gets through anymore.
HELEN There’s nobody else here, Dad. Mom and Brucie are out shopping. It’s just you and me. Do you want me to turn off the oxygen tank now?
DAD I can’t even conjure up a picture in my mind of my wife or son or daughter — who I think is still here.
HELEN Oh God! How am I supposed to know if I’m doing the right thing?
DAD I wish I were more of a believer. Maybe you only go to heaven if you believe there’s a heaven.
HELEN I don’t want to have your death on my conscience.
DAD If the doctors told her there’s no hope for my recovery, I hope she remembers what I told her: to pull the plug. She’s the strong one.
HELEN I’d want to know that I ended your suffering, that I added
mercy to your life — and death.
DAD Poor kid. She probably is scared shitless even thinking about it. I would be if it were me. How do you know when the magic moment is, when it’s O.K. to do it?
HELEN But I’m scared, Dad. I want to help you out — that’s good, help you out — but I don’t want to do it too soon, or to get caught and get charged with…something.
DAD I haven’t been able to actually see my family for days, for weeks … who knows? Opening my eyes is hard work. All I can
do is to squeeze their hands… Is this a life? Is this worth
hanging around for?
HELEN Dad, give me some guidance here. I know if I wait for Mom and Bruce to come back, they’ll say no. You know what good Lutherans they are: "God gives life and God takes it away, man shouldn’t interfere." And then you’ll keep suffering. The
minister is a wish-wash.
DAD Miracles could happen. What do they call that —
"spontaneous remission"? It could happen. It could happen.
HELEN I’ve always thought that God can work through humans, that’s why I can conceive of doing this.
DAD But, no use kidding myself, I’m on a greased track now. I don’t want them to have to watch me in the last hours, just lying here gasping for breath, like a fish out of water.
HELEN But how to know when you’re actually doing God’s work and
when you’re just listening to your own voice speaking?
DAD Helen, can you hear me? I’ve thought it over. You remember what we talked about…when the time came. I think it’s come. It’s time.
HELEN Oh, God, this is awful! I don’t know what to do. My heart tells me to help release him. My soul tells me not to interfere. I
have power-of-attorney for medical decisions, but I don’t
know what to do!
DAD If she turns off the oxygen tank, it’s going to take me a while to stop breathing and I’ll probably do the fish thing. Maybe she can turn up the morphine drip at the same time.
HELEN They’re due back in a few minutes. It’s now or never.
DAD Actually, if she’d take one of the plastic bags and just slip it over my head and hold it tight, that should do it…Helen, turn off the tank, add more morphine and get the plastic bag.
HELEN Dad… I can’t do it. I love you too much. And I don’t know about God. Please forgive me if I’m doing the wrong thing. Please forgive me. Please…Please…
DAD (overlapping) Helen, please, please….
(Slow fade to black.)
Scene 3: "Moving to the Personal"
(The ORACLE set slides back onto the strangely-lit stage, as before.)
BERNIE I searched for the door into myself, by writing and presenting those short scenes exploring death and dying.
ORACLE And how did that go?
BERNIE Great! The audience loved what we came up with. But something didn’t click totally for me. I couldn’t verbalize why at that point. Later I could see that while many of these little playlets were well-written, and well-intentioned, they were dry, academic, more like philosophy, too generic, keeping-reality-at-a-distance kind of writing.
ORACLE It may be important for you to remember acutely what you wrote during that time in your life. But you may have to live more, experience more, in order for you to become aware of other doors and portals that you might want, and need, to go
BERNIE You believe I need to experience more pain? that I need to "suffer more for my art"?
ORACLE You said that, not me.
Scene 4: "The House Guest"
BERNIE In 2005, death moved into our home. Heidi was diagnosed with very aggresssive, stage-three breast cancer. At first,
we, like so many, thought cancer was automatically an
immediate death sentence. We moved in a depressive fog.
Our two teenage boys, watching us in our zombie state, were
sucked down into that dark whirlpool. Our house was like a
waiting room in a morgue.
After Heidi had her surgery and was recovering in bed, our boys, Mark and Erik, came to visit together, to "cheer her up." They were so terrified of losing their mom that they could barely speak. The image that will stay with me forever is of the two of them seated at the kitchen table, hardly ever looking up, their eyes totally focused on their computer games. The self-medicating drug of choice.
We did a lot of research work educating ourselves about cancer and the chances for survival. But it was a hard row to hoe — for all of us, but of course, hardest for Heidi. She was on chemotherapy for months, and radiation for weeks and then taking this powerful drug Herceptin for a year, one of the first designer drugs that targeted the exact cancer cells that Heidi had. Eventually, we learned enough to contemplate the possibility of living with cancer as a manageable disease. To do that, we had to accept death as a hovering presence in our lives, just kind of hanging around, an unwelcome house guest, an 800-lb. gorilla who sat in the living room while we conducted our lives around it. That house guest hasn’t ever gone away, but we've paid him less and less attention -- except when we freak out.
Heidi was, and is, a mightily strong woman, who was in great physical shape as a result of her hiking and biking and healthy eating. Probably because of that regimen, she made her way through the post-surgery recovery, the chemo nausea, the neuropathy, the skin burns from radiation, the constant exhaustion, the so-called fog effects of "chemo-brain." She came out the other side seemingly with her cancer under control. Our family was still whole, we all could breathe again.
Heidi is now in her seventh year post-diagnosis, with a positive attitude toward life. She (which means me, too) occasionally has a scare — we’re always on the lookout for signs of recurrence, for that 800-lb. gorilla to wake up and start rampaging through our lives again. But so far, so good. One day at a time, to coin a phrase. Life is good.
Scene 5: "The Missing Ingredient"
ORACLE That’s powerful, and interesting. But you left something out. Can you figure out what that might be?
BERNIE No, I think I covered all the bases.
ORACLE Try again. You left out what you were feeling about having this unwelcome houseguest in your life. Remember
BERNIE I didn’t consider that I had the luxury of dealing with my feelings at that stage. All my energy went into Heidi’s health and keeping her in a positive state of mind, in keeping the boys moving forward, in keeping the household running smoothly. I could deal with my fears and anxieties later.
ORACLE In case you haven’t noticed, Bernie, it’s later. Answer the question.
BERNIE I was terrified, in some ways even more than Heidi was. But I kept up the brave front at home, the solid, unflappable husband dedicated to his wife’s health and state of mind.
ORACLE Sounds like a tightly-wound soul, one primed to explode, or fall apart, at some point.
BERNIE I started going to a therapist and I joined husband-support
groups, where nobody cared if I sobbed and cried about my
fears of losing my wife, about being abandoned in death by
the person I love who means the most to me.
ORACLE Aha, the facade cracketh, letting in a little light, a bit of self- examination…
BERNIE When it looked like Heidi might die, I found myself thinking of others I loved that had disappeared from my life — my grandma, my aunt, my cousins, my best friends Tommy,
Bob, Nora. If Heidi had died, I felt that I would be totally
exposed, isolated and naked in a frightening world.
ORACLE But you got through it, didn’t you? It was a terrible patch, but your inner resources — much of which came from your mother and father, no doubt — allowed you to survive and even grow.
BERNIE Yeah, I thought I was doing pretty well, considering. And then, whammo! Roberta dies a horrible death, Marilyn leaves me. I was lost again, and the vultures were circling.
Scene 6: "A Near-Death Experience"
BERNIE My dear friend and theatre colleague Marilyn Shaw had not
been doing well. Since she had been the picture of health all
her life — still a full-speed dynamo in her mid-80s — she
was startled when in 2011 she was diagnosed with lung
cancer and major heart problems. Suddenly, overnight, much
to her astonishment, she had turned into an Old Person.
Essentially, her life was fairly normal — or at least it was for
most of this year. But then it started getting harder for her
to breathe, and going up and down her front stairs kept her
mostly confined to her home in her final months, where she
had an oxygen tank for those occasional bad moments, and
utilized the services of a part-time caregiver.
Heidi and I increased our regular visits where we took her out for a good lunch at restaurants nearby, and later, when going out was too problematic, enjoying picnic lunches in her apartment. We laughed and gossiped and giggled together and cheered at the Giants games on the TV and had a grand old time.
On this particular Friday, we arrive around 11:30 for our lunch date. We find her face-down on the floor in her bedroom. How long she’d been lying there like that, we don’t know. But her lips and fingers and nose have turned blue. At the sound of our voices, she opens her eyes and tries to talk, but her speech is slurred and we can't make out what she's trying to say. I immediately suspect a stroke. We know that we need to get her warmed-up. Somehow, we manage to slide her into bed and under the blanket. Her lips and nose and fingers are even bluer.
We locate her oxygen tank, slip the breathing tube over her head and into her nostrils, turn on the oxygen feed — the friggin' tank is empty! More precious minutes go by while, fingers fumbling, we finally get her hooked up to the back-up oxygen tank and turn on the flow. Success! Color returns, almost instantaneously. But she is thoroughly conked out.
We think about calling for an ambulance, but Marilyn had long let us know that she did not want to go to the hospital, EVER. "When my time comes, I want to die right here in my own bed," she always insisted. "I will be taken out of here on a stretcher to the hearse, that’s the only time I will leave here — no hospital wards, no nursing homes, no nothing."
While we're making Marilyn comfortable in bed, her dear friend Jennifer arrives. The three of us start figuring out the next steps. We call Marilyn’s two sons — Chris lives in Atherton but is working in Contra Costa County that day, Ted is in San Diego — and they say they will be there as soon as they can. We contact the hospice department at Kaiser; they say they will send someone as soon as possible.
The supervising nurse arrives several hours later and we watch as she does a preliminary examination of the conked-out Marilyn, checking her vital signs, feeling her swollen ankles, listening to her heart and lungs, taking her blood pressure and so on.
When she finishes, the nurse assembles us in the living room. "I don’t know how to tell you this in any easy way," she says, "but Marilyn has had a major heart attack and I wouldn’t expect her to make it through the night. Certainly she won’t be around after this weekend. So whatever things you’d like to say to her, or things you’d like to do for her, should be said and done now."
This stark physical report puts us in a state of shock. We had expected a lively picnic, now we learn that we're in a deathbed scenario.
While the hospice nurse busies herself with phone calls to Marilyn’s personal physician and oncologist, and orders a continuous-flow oxygen machine instead of the tanks, and fills out the impending death forms, one by one we take turns sitting by Marilyn’s bed, speaking our final thoughts to her. She lays there unmoving, flat on her back, mouth wide open, with labored, heavy breathing.
We begin phoning her best friends, urging them to come over before Marilyn expires. It doesn’t take long for them to start showing up, led mostly by local actors and musicians and art administrators.
Eventually, one of her sons, Chris, arrives and is given the sad news by the nurse of his mom’s imminent death. We leave him alone with Marilyn and can hear him sobbing and whispering his final words.
Heidi and I had been there for nearly eight hours by then and we are physically exhausted and emotionally depleted. We need to go home and try to decompress. We whisper our last goodbyes to Marilyn and tell Chris to have someone call us when Marilyn passes, even if late at night. As we leave, there are close to a dozen pre-mourners in the living room.
We are just finishing up some dinner at home when the phone rings. We hadn’t expected the news so soon.
A voice on the other end of the line says, "Bernie, I’m calling from Marilyn’s apartment." "Yes," I said, "we were expecting your call." "Do you know who this is?" the voice asks. Of course I know but my mind will not compute that answer. "No, who is this, please?" Long silence. Then I finally bring myself to say: "Marilyn??" An enormous Marilyn giggle fills my ear, along with the sounds of the laughing, raucous living-room crowd at my "gotcha" moment.
After about nine hours flat on her back, Marilyn simply wakes up. She hears people animatedly talking about her in her living room, walks in, sees her friends with glasses of wine in their hands, and demands to know what the party is all about and would "someone please bring me a glass of white wine, for heaven’s sake."
It’s possible that Marilyn may have had a minor heart or stroke episode. But the explanation her son Chris and I think is more plausible is that Marilyn had taken a sleeping pill or an extra heavy dose of morphine, or a combination, washed it down with a glass of wine, and had passed out on the floor as she headed for bed. Then she slept off the pills and alcohol and simply woke up.
The wrong-headed diagnosis by the nurse was the red herring, throwing everyone off the scent of what really was going on.
As it turns out, what we all have participated in is a kind of dress rehearsal for her death. She had attended her own wake, saw how much she was loved and missed, and had a wonderful time. Someone even jokingly wondered whether Marilyn, always the trickster, had arranged the whole thing in advance.
I remember how two years before, when she first started feeling poorly and got quite depressed, many of her friends had helped put together an evening celebrating Marilyn’s life in the arts. A huge crowed packed into the Throckmorton Theatre to honor her enormous contributions to the cultural life of the Bay Area. Another loving early wake. (By the way, the original title for that evening was "A Celebration of Marilyn Shaw," but she demanded that the title be changed to "A Celebration of Marilyn Shaw & Her Artist Friends." That was pure Marilyn.)
(beat) Over the next four weeks, the last four weeks of her life, inbetween visits to Roberta, I spend a good deal of time with Marilyn. She is barely speaking now, but is still vital and interested. At first, I bring her lunches, but her caregiver has plenty of leftover gourmet food to work with. On these visits, I bring her a different sort of sustenance: books of spiritual poetry.
I read a haiku or a longer poem about death and dying, Marilyn listens with her eyes closed, then she opens them wide, looks directly into my eyes, and we giggle together at how easy these bits of enlightenment could enter and fill us with such joy. In all the years I’ve known her, I have never seen her smile so broadly. The impression I get is that her innermost thoughts and fears and puzzlements are being seriously acknowledged and addressed. No more pleasant chit-chat about her memories, about politics, about theatre and music, about her beloved San Francisco Giants. She knows she is dying and she feels that her inner spirit, through the mystical realm of poetry, is being acknowledged in a respectful, very deep, way. We are co-conspirators of the divine and we are enthralled in its glow.
A month after her dress-rehearsal, and just two days after my sister Roberta’s death, I am about to head over the Bay Bridge to deal with the final details at Salem Lutheran when my cell phone rings. Heidi says don’t get on the bridge, turn around and head over to Marilyn’s as she has just died.
Marilyn, who always wanted to die peacefully in her own bed, had indeed died peacefully in her sleep, in her own bed. A good death, the kind most people say they hope for. I cry for her disappearance from my life — she is one of my best friends, a dynamo arts supporter, a surrogate mother after my mom died, and a beloved theatrical colleague (she was the producing director of The Playwrights' Lab for a decade). But I also feel that I have just witnessed, and participated in, a blessing, in her life and in her death.
(Slow fade to black)
Scene 7: "Pineapples"
(RON & BRYAN's apartment. RON is in a hospital-type bed; he's weak, with a cough, raspy voice.)
RON It’s not ending in fire or ice.
BRYAN You’re surprised?
RON I was kinda hoping. This is…(gasping for breath) the shits.
BRYAN (holding back tears) Yeah, I know, Ron.
RON (pause) Bry, did you try my parents again?
BRYAN This time I didn’t leave a message. They hung up on me. Again. Christ, it’s only been 15 years we’ve been
together. They’re still back in the 1950s — you’d
think they could have come to grips with reality by now.
RON That’s the only time I wish I’d stayed in the closet — I miss them. I guess I can say it out loud now that…l want to see them before I go. (beat) Before I die. Damn, but it’s hard saying that.
BRYAN I know, I know, Ron. Maybe you should get some rest.
RON "Rest"? You’ve got to be kidding. I want to talk to you, Bryan. I’m going out, the doctors say soon… I love you, loved you ever since I first saw you in that Angels of Light show— when was it, 1981? You were so adorable in your turtle dancing outfit. Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve told you all this so many times, but grant a dying man his demented repetitions, O.K.
BRYAN I don’t mind hearing it again. The earth moved for me, too. (pause) And I was so proud of you, Ron, when you finally told
your parents about us, even though you suspected the
consequences. You’ve made me so happy, for so long.
(Long pause. THEY hold hands tighter and just look into each others’ eyes.)
RON I’m glad it’s cancer and not…you know. At least I’ll spare our friends having to come to yet another AIDS funeral… So many swept away. Into the ether. Gone. So much waste. So many lost (searching for the word) pineapples.
(They look at each other and start giggling, while crying.)
RON I had another word in mind, but it… got away. You know what I mean.
BRYAN I always know what you mean, love. We’re an old married couple: You finish my jokes, I know what you’re thinking by the way you hold your shoulders or tug on your ear; we say and think the same things at the same time.
RON Bry… listen to me carefully. What I want to say isn’t easy, but I’ve got to say it. (pause) I want a divorce. Not
because I don’t love you; just the opposite. If we’re not
connected like that anymore, it’ll be easier for you to — not
to forget me but to move on in your life. Do you understand
what I’m saying?
BRYAN Jesus, Ron, you sure know how to flatter a guy! (pause; slightly irritated) I know I’ll move on, eventually; I know that. Give me some credit. I don’t know how I’ll manage, but I will.
RON (weakly but with inner strength) O.K., Bryan, O.K. (pause) Promise me something? When I’m gone, think of my love as the water that will keep you up when you feel like sinking; if you have to, just tread me until you can swim again. I’m taking your love with me, wherever I’m going, into the… into the… pineapples. (THEY look at each other and start giggling; THEY can’t stop. RON begins coughing.)
(Slow fade to black.)
Scene 8: "The Adventurer"
MARILYN: I’ve never been afraid of dying. Or living, for that matter. I loved piloting glider planes. Could have crashed. Didn’t. Just floating on the thermals. Not many women doing that at the time. Great fun!
During the final years of my life, after the doctors gave me the bad news, they said I should just go on living normally until I couldn’t — it might be the heart that led to my death, or perhaps the tumors in the lungs. But they told me there would be no pain. What a marvelous gift!
As I could sense the end approaching, I found myself slowing down and seeing the world like a child — fascinated with whatever I saw or heard or touched, and spending as much time as I wanted in these delightful examinations. "Bernie, look at this piece of colored glass on the rug — isn’t it absolutely gorgeous?" And he’d get out of his chair and join me lying on the rug for many minutes, marveling, at the way the sunlight light worked absolute magic on that tiny piece of colored glass.
Other friends would come over and, at their insistence, I grudgingly agreed to haul out and sort through old photos; it’s not my favorite activity: It’s hard to move forward when you’re facing backwards. Let’s just get on with it!
But those old photos seemed to please my friends and they got me to tell the old stories yet again — about the boys when they were small, about how Ralph and I met and fell in love and got married and about his death. And of course about all many artists and arts groups I’d worked with, especially in the Bay Area. What delicious fun we all had!
And working with new music and new plays kept me directly involved with up-and-coming actors and composers and writers -- and made me feel younger.
I was always the producer, never the artist. But a few years ago, at the urging of my colleagues in The Playwrights’ Lab, I finally took the plunge and wrote a short play myself. It wasn’t great theatre — about Sarah Palin meeting Eleanor Roosevelt — but it sure was fun.
I got into the "biz" through the side door, so to speak, by ushering at local theatre and music companies in Los Angeles and San Diego. I just so loved being part of that aesthetic world and so I started helping the producing companies in other ways, mainly by raising money and serving in various administrative roles — things I learned from my long tenure at the Community Chest of Los Angeles.
Another thing that provided me with heart-opening joy was my becoming, relatively recently, a GRANDMOTHER! I’m not sure I was all that good with my own kids when they were small. But as a grandmother, I sort-of got another chance, and found myself in love with young Calvin, Desi and CC. I couldn’t believe how happy spending time with those grandkids livened up my later years. And helped bring me even closer to Ted and Chris again.
Another thing that got my heart racing was politics. So often I just wanted to spit, I was so angry. Not just at the right-wing Neanderthals — the poor dears can’t help being mean-spirited and greedy — but at liberals who don’t want to get their hands dirty by fighting back and standing up for what they believe in. I got so hot under the collar sometimes that I wound up publishing angry letters in the San Francisco Chronicle, and even wrote an entire essay on FDR and the New Deal for an internet website. My essay wasn’t going to change the world, but I always believed that you had to stand up and do something. I also gave money to candidates and causes, even when I didn’t have a lot to spare. If we so-called "good people" don’t fight the good fight, how good are we, really?
After my near-death experience, I knew I had an undetermined amount of time before my departure was for real. Sure, there were more times when I needed the oxygen machine and the morphine, but the extra time I was granted was both boring — "will this waiting period never be over with?" — and filled with genuine and moving encounters with my friends and family.
I miss them terribly, but I am so grateful that they helped escort me to the final scene of my life's drama. I couldn’t have lived so well so long without them. And, as it turned out, I couldn’t have died so well without them either.
But I could do with another glass of wine, somebody!
Scene 9: "Meditations on Mortality"
(The Oracle setting.)
ORACE Your surrogate mom sounds like quite a woman. What was it like for you when she shuffled off her mortal coil?
BERNIE I didn’t cry all that much when I first entered her room and saw her dead in her bed, her mouth wide open in rigor mortis.
First because it wasn’t a surprise death, an unexpected
death, a bad death. Then, too, we had spent some
wonderfully rich time together during her final weeks. But
also I think I was still somewhat numb from Roberta's death,
and had armored myself emotionally in self-protection mode.
ORACLE Somewhat like what happened when your actual mother died, yes?
BERNIE I hadn’t thought of it like that, but yes. But this was
different. Marilyn was a role-model for how to grow old
gracefully and courageously. I remember thinking: If I can be
that active and feisty and adventuring in my mid-80s, I’ll
take it, and the death that follows.
ORACLE You’re not telling me that you were growing up at last, willing to conceive of your own death?
BERNIE I think I was like Marilyn in that death is nothing to be apprehensive about. It is debilitation and pain and isolation that seem to be much more frightening. I admired her determination to go out singing and laughing and diving headfirst into the poetry of life. She was still floating on the thermals, with an impish grin on her face.
ORACLE Say more about your attitude about death.
BERNIE I don’t want to give the wrong impression. My interactions with Marilyn and Roberta — and later my mother-in-law — in their last days rarely involved any thoughts on my part about my own death. I was intensely focused on what they were going through and how I might best help them. But the time
since then has helped re-shape my vision, helped open me up
to my deepest fears and longings. And I thank you for some
ORACLE Give yourself some credit as well. I just nudge and suggest.
You're the one who's willing to plumb these deep mysteries.
But why do I have a feeling that another log is about to be
added to the funeral pyre?
BERNIE Once again, oh great oracle, you have intuited correctly.
Scene 10: "Frau Irene Linsmayer"
BERNIE After Roberta’s and Marilyn’s passings, Heidi and I were anxious to get away from death for awhile and go take a break, do something, anything, have fun like normal people. We decided to go somewhere we’d never been — in this case, to Turkey — as a pleasant distraction, before heading up to Germany to visit Heidi’s 97-year-old mother, whose health was starting to seriously fail.
My mother-in-law, Frau Irene Linsmayer, was a strong, vibrant woman — at least she was when I had last seen her two years before. She was living now in a pleasant assisted-living facility in downtown Munich. We are standing outside her room with trepidation.
We ring her loud doorbell and knock on her door, but there is no response. We know she is bed-bound these days, so we enter the room. The blood drains out of my face as I see her lying perfectly still there under the covers, mouth wide open, skin pale, not moving.
"No, no," I murmur, nearly sinking to the floor, "I can’t take another one."
Heidi goes closer, puts her face near her mother’s and then informs me that I can breathe again as her mom is just sleeping deeply.
Eventually, we are able to gently wake her, and things get back to normal. Over the week, often to give Heidi a few hours off, I take over sitting quietly by her bed, holding hands, stroking her hair and her cheeks, telling her news of her grandsons, whispering words of love in her ear.
In contrast to all the mother-in-law jokes that permeate our culture, I find myself as a rarity: I had always loved my mother-in-law. She doesn’t speak much English, I don’t speak much Bavarian, but we communicate both by mixing up the two languages, and by a tongue we invent through touch and laughter and just enjoying our company together and loving Heidi together.
There is also a bit of delusional thinking on her part that symbolizes the special bond between us. In her later years, when her mind was growing a bit wobbly, she told everyone that during the Nazi years in 1930s Germany, she had taken me in as a child and hidden me, to save me from persecution. Weird. I wasn’t even alive in the early-Holocaust era, but because she loved me she concocted this story of devotion and maternal protection. I laugh at this mish-mash of history, but I love, and accept, the powerful metaphor she unknowingly has come up with. And, of course, after my own mother had died, I had yet another surrogate mother, whom I addressed as "Mama."
But, now in her 2012 days, those tight bonds of togetherness are about to be irrevocably broken. On the first day I am with her, she is still the "Mama" I had known. Even with limited energy, she speaks sentences, she is alert, she sings songs with Heidi and me, she runs her hands over the hair on my arms with fervor. But two days later, the slide toward death is palpable: She barely speaks, she doesn’t want to sing again, she is in more abdominal pain, and she is getting visibly thinner. She isn’t able to keep her food down, and she is drinking less and less. We know this is really serious as she no longer wants to drink her beer.
As had been the case with Roberta and Marilyn, Irene does not want to be taken to the hospital for testing or exploratory surgery. Though she often has talked about wanting to live to the 100-year-old mark, she now realizes the kind of slippery death-slope she is on and, with some irritation, she grudgingly accepts her fate.
I consider myself lucky that I am able to see her, and comfort her, in her last days. But, after a week, it is time for me to depart back to San Francisco. I am sorry to leave her, but I also am glad that I can get away from yet another deathbed. It is all too much. It hurts me to tell her goodbye. We both know we will never see each other again.
The original plan is for me to head back to San Francisco, and Heidi will fly home a week later. But I am not surprised when Heidi calls from Germany and says her mom is slowly but steadily failing and she wants to be there until the end — as she put it, "I want to walk with my mom to the portal." That walk takes another three weeks. Heidi sleeps in the recliner the final two nights and is with her mom, holding her hand, until the very end.
Irene had held Heidi’s tiny hand when she was born, now Heidi is holding her mother’s thin, bony hand as she dies. We miss Irene tremendously but are glad she is out of her pain and struggle. She had a rich 97 years. (lifts imaginary glass) Prost!
(slow fade to black)
Scene 11: "The Furnace of Loss"
(Back with the ORACLE.)
ORACLE So, how is your experiment going?
BERNIE The experiment about writing a play about death and dying,
or the experiment in dealing with huge piles of suffering?
ORACLE If that’s how you describe them, OK.
BERNIE I experienced a triple whammy of deaths of those I loved, all within days of each other. Is that enough for you?
ORACLE Is that enough for YOU? Your experiences aren’t just unfortunate, you know, but they are also grist for a writer’s mill.
BERNIE I’d much rather have them alive and still with me. What an
cruel thing to say. But the point is that I’m as confused
as ever about how to deal with death and loss and pain. And I’m filled with ineffable grief and sadness.
ORACLE No you’re not. You’re filled with life, part of which includes sadness and vulnerability — the ability to be vulnered, wounded. Get yourself in gear, man. Death is much bigger than you and your sadness and confusion. It knows better how dying unfolds, and it barely notices you or anything else.
BERNIE Yes, of course I understand my humble place in the
processes of life and death. And I know my quotes too,
another one from Beckett: We "give birth astride of a grave,
the light gleams an instant, then it's night." But it’s still my
life and I feel as if I’ve been pounded by two-by-fours upside
my head and rammed hard in my gut.
ORACLE But you are still standing, still thinking, still being creative. Your foundations are weakened, to be sure, but they are still in place. Plus, you have unknown supports — all those who have gone through the furnace of loss in their own circles of family and friends -- probably including your audiences as
BERNIE I appreciate your comments, believe me. But in my current
state, some clear and simple advice would be helpful.
ORACLE If you’re after pure clarity, that’s not what we oracles provide, you know. We’re more on the order of part-time consultants, offering observations to help YOU piece together the rich tapestry of your life. You still don’t get it, do you? Even after your "triple-whammy," you still want black-and-
white answers, still want someone else to explain it all. You want a template for understanding death. It doesn’t work that way. Jump into the MYSTERY — I thought you were a writer, a questioner, an explorer.
BERNIE Yeah, sure. But Beckett or no Beckett, words aren’t enough,
especially my own words. I’m having a hell of a time, for
example, coming up with an ending of the play I’m working
on about death and dying. Even after all the contemplating
and self-examination, I realize that I don’t understand a
thing. (HE plops down in exhaustion.)
ORACLE I'm so happy to hear that you understand nothing. You're
finally open, ready to grow. As for your play, it will end when
it comes to the end. Trust your instincts, trust yourself,
trust your meditations, trust your characters, trust your
audience. Trust your knowledge that death and spirit unfold
in their own way, in their own time.
(We are shown the Jacks scene one last time. DEATH is sitting on the ground between SARAH and ROBERTA, who are playing the game. ROBERTA motions to BERNIE to come sit next to her. Then, one by one, other actors move into the scene, and present jacks to BERNIE and each other. There is a sense of lightness in the air, lots of smiles and laughter as they pass the jacks around. During all this, BERNIE is gazing around in enraptured wonder. As the lights fade, HE is beginning to smile through his tears.)
END OF PLAY