Nine years ago almost to the day, I finished the second show of our two-show Saturday, and headed home to the actors’ house. I was feeling really unsettled and irritable.
As I walked out to my car, I ran through my day and night, trying to find some logical reason for my mood. It had been a perfectly normal day. Another great show. Nothing to explain the deep dread I was feeling in my gut. The unsettled sense in my bones.
I found myself driving aimlessly through the fairly quiet streets of the city, crossing over the river bridges again and again. This city in Illinois was unique in that you can literally drive across a bridge and be in another city, and then drive over another and be not just in another city, but another state. Without intending to, I was going back and forth, back and forth, from one city to the next, over and over again.
Something about the way the dark water was moving under the bridges in the light of the cloudy-mooned sky seemed to reflect something dark moving through me. At a certain point, I was literally overcome with emotion and had to pull over on the roadside. I felt so utterly sad, so desperately powerless, so…lone.
When I finally hit exhaustion, I drove back to the actors’ house to try to sleep. Just one more show to do, tomorrow afternoon, then I could make the trip down to see my Mom.
The next week was our last week of the show. It was bittersweet. I was sad for the closing, but relieved, too. I was looking forward to being able to just visit Mom for a long visit before heading back to NYC. The traveling back and forth on my days off had built up an accumulated tiredness that lurked just under the surface of my passion for the play and for my mother. My emotional and physical resources were being stretched thin.
Back to the actors’ house. The new cast for the next show had just moved in. We’d been a cast of four, swimming in the abundant space of the big many-bedroomed, two-story house. The cast for the new show was huge, and the peaceful house was now filled to the brim with with people, pep and parties.
My room was right off the common room, and as I made my way through it to my room that night, I did not bother to interact with anyone. Normally, the people-pleaser in me would have mustered up an insincere smile as I passed. This night, not only did the lively chatter and the blaring TV not suit my mood, it grated on my nerves.
I tried to sleep but was restless. Around 1:30 AM, desperate for some escape into sleep, I stuck my head out the door, asking that they have some respect for the rest of the house and take the party elsewhere, upstairs, anywhere, so that I could get some sleep. I’m sure I seemed like the biggest wet blanket ever, but God, did I feel awful. I finally fell into a fitful sleep.
The next morning, I started awake to find a voicemail from my father. I knew when I saw the message that something was up. I will never forget that feeling in my gut, looking at my phone, seeing his name. And before I actually heard his voice saying the words, my body already knew what had happened. From somewhere deep inside, it gave a kind of primal groan – half silent, half aloud. I threw on clothes and grabbed my purse and keys.
I stumbled out into the common room and started lurching in a daze out towards my car. I passed some girl who had awoken early — I don’t know what she must have thought was going on – I am pretty sure I was white as a ghost, and I may have been crying. I waited until I was out on the street before calling my Dad back. It was if the house did not deserve to be the place where I would hear the words that she was gone.
He answered quickly, and we spoke as I wandered in the middle of the street. My father and I decided that since I already had a flight to go home the next day, I’d just keep it…no need to miss the show to get back that night. The funeral home would not be open…Monday morning made the most sense. I’d have a day and a half with him to sort things out, and then I’d fly back to Illinois to finish my contract out that week and drive my things back to NYC after the last show that next Saturday. Then I’d return to Texas.
I hung up with him, faced with getting through the rest of the day and night. I knew I would do the show that afternoon…that my mother would want me to…that I wanted to. That is what you do, as an artist, as an actor. You bring your life to the stage. Your truth. No matter what. But what to do with myself until I had to be at the theatre?
I knew one thing. I did not want to be around the actors’ house with those chatty, happy people who didn’t know me from Adam and had no reason to care about my loss.
While in Illinois, I had met a local woman, who, it turned out, was in town caring for her parents. She’d given me her number for some reason. Midwestern kindness. “If you need anything while you are here…” I barely knew her, but she was my next call.
That woman met me at Appleby’s and sat with me until it was call time. A total stranger, yet she sat with me and got me through those awful first six hours of shock. I hope to be there for someone some day in the way that she was for me. At a moment’s notice, she dropped her day’s plans to sit with a total stranger. I do not remember a thing we talked about, but what an Angel she was.
It’s funny. You can know someone is going to die, but it doesn’t prepare you for anything. The actual death still rocks your world. It’s just as shocking. I’ve since lived through sudden loss and additional prolonged deaths, and there isn’t much difference when you actually get the news in terms of the affect of the actual grief and the loss.
When it was finally time, I went and did the show, which was actually a grace. Having something in my life such as acting — it is an anchor, it grounds me to the world and to my core. It was a blessing to have a show that day. I figured I could either be heartbroken outside the world of the play or take my heartbreak and transform it within the world of the play. You bet I picked the latter. My cast mates and the production team were incredibly kind and supportive. I will never forget their loving kindness.
Afterwards, I quickly went to gather some things, and then I treated myself to a hotel out by the airport so that I could have some quiet and not be in that house! The next morning I boarded a plane and flew down to be with my father and begin to make all the necessary arrangements.
I later found out that my mother had begun to feel distressed that last Saturday evening just around the time I left the theatre. While I was driving across those bridges, over the river over and over, so distressed, she was experiencing great physical distress and fear. And that hour I was tossing and turning? That was around the time when my Mother actually died. It’s strange, but I believe that some part of me knew what was happening with her. They say energy can travel across time and space. I know it did that night.
I miss my beautiful mother every day. But I also feel her in my bones, hear her melodious voice in my mind. Her presence is strong in my heart. Her words come back to me as the years pass. All those talks we had at the end are stored in a bank in the back of my mind. She gave me so much to draw from. I see her in my reflection in the mirror more and more as I get older. And I do not mind at all.
Her death changed my life.
She was the heart of our family. All families have one. The person who is the love center. That was my mother. Our family has had to reconfigure. We’ve had to try to find a new balance. But the truth is, the heart center can never be replaced. You go on as a family, and love as before, of course. But you always feel the absence of that missing heart.
People came out of the woodwork to offer condolences. Baggers at the local supermarket sent flowers to our house. It turned out that she knew all their names, and their kids names, and their stories. Friends from my childhood that I had long since lost contact with came to her memorial because they had felt seen and heard by my mom. She had so many friends from high school and college and beyond…I’m talking real friends, not just acquaintances.
If I can live my life even one tenth of the way she lived hers, I will have lived a life of great value. I am so grateful for all she has given to me. For all she continues to give me.
My priorities shifted as a direct result of losing my mother. She left me with a legacy of living and loving better. Of having true curiosity about life and of others. I saw that all that remains when someone dies is how they made you feel. It made me wonder what I would leave people with when I die. It made me want to be more like her. To make people more at ease. To take more time to really see and be with others. To listen more. To make them feel seen and heard.
Her death made me see people, the world, differently. I grew up buying what was sold to me on TV — MTV was born in my youth, after all. I believed what I was surrounded by in all forms of pop culture: that celebrities and stars were the people of the greatest value. The beautiful people – the movie stars, the models and the rockstars – were the ones to admire and aspire to. It shaped my whole value system.
But after my mom died, that changed. I know now the beauty and honor in the quiet, ordinary heroes, the ones who live lives that maybe no one ever notices or reports on. The ones who love and listen and give for no acclaim. Who give their attention to others with no expectation or need to be adored back. Those people are the real rockstars of this world. I admire them and aspire to be more like them today.
More like my mom, who was one of those. A true star.