Requiem for a Grand Lady
One morning shortly after my sister died, I woke up and for the first time in my life I was terrified. The shelves which surround my bed seemed empty of books that once had nourished my mind and served as a celebration of life ⎯ The Cosmic Code…Masters of the Drama…Civilization, Past and Present. These packages of thought, along with many others that cram my bookcase, had always been sturdy companions in my life, faithful sources of knowledge, understanding, and joy. Suddenly, I thought of them as meaningless. I looked toward my collection of operas ⎯ Aida, Tosca, Turandot ⎯ they too, had always fulfilled their promise of joy, no matter how often I had heard them. But, when, from time to time, I unwillingly but presciently imagined what my life would be without her, I knew that I would not be comforted by music we often heard together.
That morning was the first time in several months that I had turned attention to myself ⎯ or rather, that thoughts about myself had been forced on me by this overwhelming feeling of terror. That feeling compounded the profound grief I experienced because of the death of my incomparable companion.
On that dark morning, I realized that my profound grief would change my life. But I also remember how my companion and I promised each other that we would somehow survive the death of the other for the sake of the other.
As I write to you I am reminded of my last words to you three months ago when death suddenly came to our dinner table. I remember shouting those words into your ear as you died in my arms. I don’t know if you heard them. I remember that while I said those words I was concerned that if you did hear them you might be disturbed by the desperate tone of my voice. Your death was instant, but time stood still as I tried to express a lifetime of love in just a few chaotic seconds. Now I am writing a letter to you, and once again have no way of knowing whether or not you can ‘hear’ me. They are words which I have repeated daily these past three months, at times in the form of thoughts, at others in whispers ⎯ “I love you…I love you…I love you.”
Several days have passed since I wrote to Prudy. The terror continues. My state of being may be described by a metaphor: I imagine a brilliant night sky in which the stars suddenly disappear. Morning never comes because there is no longer a sun ⎯ a universe abruptly extinguished.
In my universe the metaphor is a reality. It begins with a frantic 911 call when I already knew that my sister had died in my arms. At that time reality had become more like a nightmare. The paramedics arrived and attempted to revive her although I had urgently pleaded for them not to do so, as she wished. Yes, I had instinctively called for them, as I had for previous emergencies, but this time I wished I hadn’t. Prudy and I had made a promise which we thought would be honored through our health proxies ⎯ the assurance that no attempt to resuscitate her. Apparently we hadn’t been specific about a DNR order. As a result, the paramedics insisted on resuscitation and rushed her to a nearby hospital. I followed the ambulance with the assistance of a neighbor who drove me there.
When we arrived at the hospital, Prudy was swallowed through forbidding swinging doors. I was ushered into an office where an “official” badgered me with the obligatory financial questions. In the inexorable manner of hospital personnel, it was made clear to me that insurance matters took precedence over my need to prevent the physicians from keeping Prudy alive artificially. They put her on a damn machine. I was handed a paper which was represented to me as certification that “heroic measures” would not be taken. The response to my pleas was, “You are not qualified to decide because you are emotional.
I waited for hours. Hospital personnel evaded my questions and avoided me. Finally, I went home, not knowing whether or not I was correct about Prudy being already dead. I expected a phone call all through the night telling me that it was over. The call didn’t come. The next morning I went to the hospital. I was horrified to see Prudy on a lung/heart machine. To this day I am devastated when I recall that her eyes were open wide as though she were afraid.
I’ll never know why the physicians countermanded our wishes. I have reason to hope that the decision was profit-oriented. I’ll never know the truth, but as I looked into her eyes which gave the appearance of being startled, she seemed to be asking me, “What’s happening to me?”
I fought the authorities for one more day in order to free Prudy from her counterfeit animation. They finally let her go. At her wake, I was comforted to see her eyes closed. I closed mine and remembered her eyes as they had always been ⎯ always gentle, always understanding, always compassionate. As friends and relatives extended their condolences, I had numerous flashbacks reminding me of her relationship to each of them. She had encouraged and supported everyone who came into her life.
She came into my life when I was six years old. She was born at home while I was playing in the back yard. The doctor called me into the house and introduced her to me, “You have a little sister now.” I wondered how she could have such little fingers and toes and then I went out to play again.
For the next four years she was just another fact of life. Then, the day after her fourth birthday, she cried all day because her big party day was over. She had experienced her first disappointment. I failed to comfort her because even at that young age I had no illusions about life. Birthday parties come and go. I did not relate to disillusions because I already knew that a disillusion is engendered by an illusion. Therefore, I thought, it is foolish to cry over the inevitable. I didn’t know that I should have gone a step further and dealt with her suffering whatever its source. I didn’t know that I should have comforted her.
Two years later I fared better. I saw her sadly playing with a toy “tea set.” She was patently lonely. That I could relate to. I joined her, and this time she had a party she had not expected. When the party was over she didn’t cry because I promised her that I would come to tea again. I was happy to be there for her. This was to be the pattern for the rest of our lives together. We were always there for each other. Our tea party lasted sixty years.
When we were adults, our tea party was elegant. Our guests were the very best life could offer. I invited Science, Theater, and Philosophy. She introduced me to Poetry, Grace, and Love. We both discovered Loyalty, a constant guest at our table. One day, an uninvited guest came to our table and the tea party was over.
Shattered fragments of our party are scattered throughout our home, jolting reminders of our abrupt separation. Today, three months after Prudy’s death, I looked through a drawer in which she had preserved mementos. I was profoundly moved by the discovery that she had saved every birthday card I had ever sent her. She had also saved playbills and newspaper articles associated with my theatrical life. How like her to have cared.
There were also special letters and cards from others in our lives which she had carefully kept. Among these was a love letter from her deceased husband, my dear friend, Bruno. He had written it before their marriage, when the three of us were young. I hesitated to read it, thinking that I might be intruding on their privacy, but I was compelled to appreciate anything that was important to her, and I wanted to remember him too. Mementos have a way of inextricably mixing delight and sorrow. His words are beautiful and I know that their promise to her was kept throughout his life. I know how important that letter must have been to Prudy when she first read it and lovingly placed it with her cherished mementos. As I read it, the dusty paper on which it was written so long ago was moistened by my tears.
Bruno had brought Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture to our tea party, and already knew our constant guest, Loyalty. When he died, Prudy and I sadly placed one cup and saucer aside and gradually put our lives together again. Eventually we turned our attention back to our guests, particularly Poetry and Theater. I went on directing shows and Prudy went on writing lyrics and editing material for some of the outdated revues I directed.
For a variety of reasons, including her protracted struggle with the paralysis of both her legs and the lower middle-class struggle for survival, she did not persistently pursue a career as a lyricist. In spite of that, she had once been commissioned to write the lyrics for a feature film. However, the film was withdrawn because of a union dispute.
Today I needed to hear her voice, so I opened a drawer in which she kept her writing files. I selected one of her lyrics randomly and was startled by a fragment which seemed at once prophetic and timely:
…And the wind blew gently toying with her hair
Carrying our laughter for the world to share…
Suddenly the wind changed, sweeping through the sky
Making dust the green hills, turning rivers dry
We could feel our bright hopes slipping through our hands
And the wind blew coldly through the shifting sands
The shifting sands have thrown me into a chaotic landscape. It is a universe of quantum emotions. The same object simultaneously evokes severely contrasting emotions. I see our favorite lamps set in our bay windows, and I at once feel poignant nostalgia and withering sorrow. They had a special meaning for us.
Two years ago I heard her urgently call me to join her at our television. When I got there she quickly explained that a series of lamps were for sale and she didn’t know which to choose as the limited supply was running out. When the final choice of lamps was presented to us I said to her, “That’s the one!” She agreed immediately but needed her credit card and the telephone, items she could not quickly reach given the limitations of her physical handicap. I rushed to get our order in before the televised offer would expire. I succeeded within seconds of the time limit. We ordered two lamps, one for each bay window in our living room. When they arrived, I placed them on the window sills and turned them on. Her beautiful eyes lit with them, happy to see her dream become a reality. In the lower middle class, events like these are great victories. The lamps, along with their reflection on the side panes of the twin bay windows, helped cheer us throughout the year. We were especially fond of them through winter nights when they seemed to protect us from the cold and dark. They are still there. I light them each night. I glance at them from time to time and feel suspended between comfort and pain, experiencing a mixed emotion I never knew existed. And when it is time to put them out each night, I whisper her name and wish her “Good Night.”
There are many other beautiful items in our living room. Many of them were created by her husband. They are works of art which, like Prudy’s lyrics, are counter to a culture which entered its first stage of Alzheimer’s Disease at about the time of our adolescence. The three of us were weaned on Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Aristotle at a time when those men were already fading from the collective memory of our society. Our living room reflects the values of a civilization in its twilight.
I have left that room just as it was when Prudy died. She loved the crystal and every other item in that room. Each piece had a special meaning to her. A few days after her death I washed the crystal as though to let her know that her precious collection and its sparkling memories would be lovingly preserved.
I’ve also gathered lyrics which she had scattered here and there. The paper on which they were written is yellowed and has gathered dust but her words are still fresh. I read them all and carefully placed them into a single folder. A copy of them will be kept in my memory. It is unfortunate that they have not been put to music, but I will keep them alive in me as poetry.
Prudy had saved items which Bruno had left behind. I am keeping those along with hers until some disinterested person comes along and discards them after I die. They include paintings and sculpture which grace our living room. Most of them were created by Bruno. They will remain here until that disinterested person comes along.
Like an earthquake, death has many aftershocks. That bottle of perfume, that pair of slippers. What do I keep? What do I discard? When do I attend to that unfinished piece of business? I dread dealing with legal documents which require financial closure. I open Prudy’s posthumous mail and read words like “deceased,” “final,” and “a death certificate is required.” The mailbox contains brochures offering her a cruise or enhanced health insurance. The phone’s answering machine cheerfully announces, “Hello Prudy, how are you?”
Toward the end of each day I watch television for passive distraction. Prudy and I used to do this together when there was nothing else to do or when we needed to unwind after a difficult day. Television is generally a very good means for putting people to sleep without medication. Because of this, I start to watch it at a very late hour just long enough to sense that I am ready for bed. At times, I fall asleep while watching.
When I wake from this brief slip from consciousness, I turn to my left where she used to sit. I take a breath to speak to her. The emotion generated by sudden recall is shocking. Because we often impulsively told each other of our experiences, this phenomenon also occurs during waking hours. Although I halt my speech, I am jolted by the unspoken thought, “Prudy, look at that beautiful ⎯” And then I remember.
About three weeks before her death Prudy was besieged by a host of unfortunate circumstances. The organization for which she worked decided to provide its membership with electronic management rather than servicing it with live employees (you know, downsizing, press 1, press 2, press 3). Prudy was asked to wait for the board’s directive to prepare all office material in our home for transportation to a location in Manhattan.
She could have accomplished the task without pressure if the directive had been given to her in a timely manner. But the directive was delayed for several weeks. Suddenly, the shortsighted leadership considered the matter urgent. This required a mammoth effort on Prudy’s part to ship a plethora of business items from home to the company.
At that time she and I were also engaged in preparing a show I was directing, so I was unable to fully support her. As a result she was frantically sorting files and packing boxes during a period of unseasonably warm weather. I saw the strain in her face and body movement. I tried to help her, but she insisted that I concentrate on the show while she handled the transition herself.
The one thing she asked me to do was search for a letter which was given to her four years ago that contained critical material through which she could make an important professional point to the lackluster board of directors. We looked everywhere but could not find that letter. She was desperate to find it.
She strained to dangerous physical limits as she raced against time. She had a sense of urgency for closure that reached beyond the job termination. A feeling of foreboding came over me as I saw a certain look on her face. I had seen that look before. I had seen it in Bruno three weeks before he died. I knew that she did not have long to live. She knew it too. There was one terrible instance when without saying a word we communicated that knowledge to each other. I looked away and had a vision of a tsunami coming our way.
During the next day or two I noticed that she had put many family papers in order. She “casually” reminded me that she had an old $500.00 insurance policy in a particular drawer. She obviously was quietly preparing for the tsunami. But she went on with our daily business. She went on with the costumes she was preparing for my show. She even went on with reconciling our joint bank account. I underplayed my response to her remark about a mistake she had made in the simple addition of figures. Hoping she would not read my thoughts, I told her that neither of us was ever any good at figures, however simple. She responded, “No, I’m losing it.”
An hour later, at dinner, the tsunami came.
It is winter now. Everyday activities in the present are dreamlike while images of the past have an all too sharp reality. They leap into my mind when I least expect them,
and they haunt me as if to punish myself for having been unable to make things better for Prudy when she was dying.
A week or so after her death, I found the critical letter that she and I had so desperately sought. It was the last item beneath the very last folder at the bottom of a heap of business folders and other papers. By its appearance, I assumed it could not be the letter we were seeking. It seemed to mock me. Why couldn’t I have found it when it was so important to her? Why had I not looked at that last item in that drawer? I was so close. Had I turned over that last single sheet of paper, I would have discovered the letter she had so desperately sought. I shouted in primordial rage, “I found it, Prudy, I found it, Prudy, I found it!” The feeling of regret was overwhelming, and remains to this day.
But Prudy and I made a promise to each other that we would have no regrets, that we would focus on survival because the other would want it that way. I must find purpose again so that I may keep that promise. The terror of having no purpose in life is another form of death.
Responding to her great concern about my survival should she die first, I promised her that if I lived through the immediate shock I would survive and that she should do the same if I were to die first. Perhaps the promise itself is purpose enough for now.
This letter to you, Prudy, is my first conscious effort to keep my promise:
Our tea party is over. This time, I am the one who is crying. One of the guests who has remained is Loyalty. I am loyal to your memory. I remember your courage, your brilliance, your unconditional love. I wish you could know how others remember you as
well. Perhaps I can best describe their feelings by reminding you of your favorite film, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. You were deeply moved by its premise that a man who was about to commit suicide because he thought that his life had been meaningless was made to see that his actions through the years had immeasurably altered the lives of others for the better. Towards the end of your life, it saddened me to hear that you, like him, thought you were a failure. You thought that most people were at best indifferent about you. That is not so. Many people remember you with love, Prudy. They speak of you as a legend: the Capra legend. And, contrary to what you told me during our last conversation, they do appreciate the affect you’ve had on their lives. I wish you could hear them speak of you and read their letters telling me how you have forever touched their lives. They are grateful to you. So am I ⎯ immeasurably so. I am like one of those characters in the Capra film: I would not have known love if you had not taught me love.
I remember all the times that you were there for me when I needed you to help me through big problems. I remember those all-important little things too. I remember our rides through Long Island…our shared excitement over the lush green of summer and the brilliant pageant of fall…how we got ‘high’ on the fragrance of nature…how we drew each other’s attention to a special bunch of flowers and the sun coming through the trees. I remember that little restaurant facing Long Island Sound where we used to watch those glorious sunsets.
I remember the ride when we stopped to buy the silk red flowers you admired. We didn’t know that that was to be our last “perfect day” as we called them. The flowers are still in our living room. So are the lamps. They will be kept burning as long as I live.
I remember your gentle eyes, your beautiful voice, and a smile that defies description although everyone speaks of it. I am privileged to have known you, my love. If there is a spirit universe, and if it’s okay with you, I want to spend eternity with you.
But, as always, you are better with words, so let me use your song lyric to tell you how I feel:
Who am I without you
My universe centers about you
If you go
Would I know
My way through this cold indifferent world…
I stumbled and blundered
And so often wondered
Who am I
Till I knew
That I am a part of you.