The following is a special guest post by one Maclen Jacob Zilber. He guessed his mother's password, for the purpose of surprising her with this blog post when she woke up. What a rascal...
How can one take the life of a woman who put 80 years of happiness and 80 years of pain into 46 years, and even attempt to sum it up?
That was how I started a speech about you, Mom, about a year ago to this day. I guess it's 47 years now, eh? I am still a little bit daunted by the notion of summing up your life, nor could I necessarily do it justice, much as I suggested before. At this stage in your life, you have little use for material goods, nor were you ever much of a materialist, which, to coin a phrase, begs the question: 'what do you get for the woman who has everything and nothing?' The answer is that I have the memory of an elephant, and, while I can't "even attempt to sum up" your entire life, I can give an honest try at writing the story of our life, in reverse chronological order.
[Muselings: While you're reading these little snippets, try to think of a memory of you and Carla, or of how Carla affected you, that stands out. If you feel comfortable sharing it, I'm sure it would put a smile on her face to read it in the comments. An additional note is that this post, because it's written primarily for Carla and only secondarily for her readers, there are some parts that the lay reader may not understand.]
A couple of days before I left for college, we went to The City to see "In The Loop." We both knew at the time that it was possibly the last time that we would ever go somewhere alone, without you requiring any assistance, and, frankly, it was quite scary at the time. We walked along the Embarcadero, for a longer time than was necessary to find the theater. This was partially because it was one of those rare days in San Francisco in which the weather measures up to the city itself, and already-friendly Franciscans walk with a bit more pep in their step, as if a ceiling of fog ordinarily kept them from standing up straight, and in its absence, were relishing the freedom of being outside for the first time. It was also partially because the iphone's GPS was getting us lost, and the theater was not particularly easy to find. We had some conversation while walking, but mostly we just soaked in what was likely the last truly great day that we were going to have together.
We got to the theater after going through a series of confusing elevators that would have been in a Marx brothers movie, if the Marx brothers were around in the age of elevators (If I said that sentence in conversation, you probably would look at me indignantly and say, "The Age of Elevators? Who are you, a Sci-fi writer from the '60s?" I would probably respond, "That joke would have worked a lot better if you had used a specific name, like "Arthur C. Clarke"). On the topic of the Marx brothers, the movie, in many respects, traced its roots all the way to "Duck Soup," the last war satire with the same cocktail of levity and import.
After the movie, we went to a very expensive restaurant. You were in a wheelchair (duh), and I was in a t-shirt and jeans (lack of style sense is a disability too, okay!), and the staff of the restaurant seemed curious about why the hell two people who weren't dressed all that well would dare set foot into their establishment. It must be a special occasion, the waiters seemed to think. Otherwise, how would the riff-raff get in? You explained to them that I was leaving for college, and were amused when they thought that I was your brother.
In fairness, though, I once thought that I was your brother when I saw a picture of a seventeen-year-old Jason Smith and he looked exactly like me. "I don't remember wearing those clothes!" I confusedly remarked. "That's because...you didn't...that picture was taken well over 20 years ago."
The following day was the worst day since the day of the diagnosis. We watched a movie and I cried. We went to a sushi restaurant, and I cried. We'd laugh at a joke, and I'd cry. I knew that there were still going to be more days with you, but I also knew that they were numbered, and that I was now transitioning out of "our life," and into "my life." But while we were at that sushi restaurant, in a lull in which there was no conversation, I looked across the table and felt a smile wash through my face like hot cocoa. I realized, as I sat there and we just smiled, that everything was going to be all right. Everything was going to be fucking terrible, but it was also going to be all right.
When we got home, and it was time for me to leave, I made a joke about buying one of those Calendars with every minor holiday on it, and coming back for the "Festival of Stockholm" (sorry Swedes, it's minor). We hugged, and I left.
Going to Orlando to see the "Holy Land Experience Theme Park" with you and Jamie. There isn't a whole lot of ground on this that hasn't been covered, but I have to say that my best memories of the trip are not the souvenirs or the amazing video footage, but just sitting around the sports bar watching basketball and exchanging witty banter with you. I think that years from now I will still remember the following scene, though I'm not sure how much good this will do for your reputation:
[Carla, Mac, and Jamie are walking back to their apartment in a themed Disney Resort. Okay, they're not walking back to their apartment, they're trying to find somebody who can unlock the door to their apartment, since the door is locked from the inside. An adorable little boy, about eight years old, is walking by with his dad.]
Adorable little boy: And that would cost 200 moneys!
Carla: That kid's a [can't finish, laughing too hard. Catches breath] That kid's an [same thing happens again, can't talk because of laughter]
Mac: That kid's a what?
Carla: That kid's an ihh [laughing] that kids an ihh [keeps laughing]
Jamie: This can't possibly be as funny as you're making it seem
Carla: [several minutes later] That kids an idiot! [laughs hysterically some more]
Jamie and Mac: -Mocking comments you would expect after somebody called a little kid an idiot and laughed uncontrollably for five minute about it-
Sitting in our old apartment on Kains street, around October or November of 2008, and having you ask, "you know where I think a great place to go during the winter would be?" I have a fun little eccentricity where, whenever people ask questions that are practically unanswerable, and are functionally intended to get the person who hears the question to ask a question to the questioner, I will guess, rather than asking the intended question. I said, "Sydney?" And you said, "yes, how did you know?" With that, it was decided that we were going to go to Sydney, how could we not?
As for Sydney, I don't think that there would be much to be gained by me talking about the wildlife reserve or the hospital, because you probably have memories of those incidents that are nothing short of Crystal clear. Instead, I'll try to jog a couple of random memories:
- Remember the cruise ship, where they couldn't move the wheelchair to the upper deck, so you, Papa, Lisa, and I got the entire dining hall to ourselves? Remember the ridiculous Australian anecdotes the recorded voice mentioned? Remember the fun we had at its expense?
- Remember watching the movie "21" on pay-per-view? Not a particularly good movie, but I remember it being one of the first normal things that happened on that trip
- Remember the GPS device that spoke in an australian accent, and therefore pronounced "recalculating" as "reCOWLkyulaiting?"
- Remember Lisa Klein's insistence on finding "Spelt in Gleeb," not because she knew that Gleeb had particularly good spelt bread, but because she thought it sounded good?
- Remember our conversation about how, in honor of the phrase "Bringing Coals to Newcastle," we should bring a Nat King Cole album to Newcastle?
When I directed my first play, "Tape" by Stephen Belber. This was the first major bit of theater that I had done without you being in some way involved. Yet, on the very first rehearsal, something odd happened. I realized that I knew how to direct. I had picked it up by osmosis, from standing next to you for a decade while you taught theater classes and directed plays. It was at this juncture in time that I realized that, even without you being present, you would always, in a way, play a role in my decisions. That your wisdom would always be with me. Because it was a one-act play, you and I doubled as back-to-back stand-up comedy routines to warm up the audience for the show. We laughed at the jokes that nobody laughed at and crossed our arms at the jokes everybody laughed at. One joke, a tedious but memorable one straight out of the tradition of Henry Youngman, will forever stay with the people who attended the show.
"My son will now assist me for my final impersonation. Mac?" you asked, as I came out of the audience and lifted you out of your wheelchair. "Ta-da, my imitation of stand-up comedy."
I remember being present for your final concert, and even I wasn't immune from being mesmerized by the effect of the last song. As the last song came to a close, the crowd was silent. Then, as if in a movie, all in the house stood up and broke out into rapturous applause, giving due recognition to the coda of a truly special career in entertainment. I remember thinking at the time, "This would make for a great climactic scene in a documentary." I kid you not.
The final showing of our Opus Magnus, "War and Peacemeal," a satire on war that, come to think of it, makes me eat my words about "In The Loop" being the only modern war satire that measures up to "Duck Soup" in import and levity. Yeah, I just compared a silly work we wrote to one of the greatest films in the history of the cinema, what are you going to do about it?
Anyhow, I'm sure that you remember with crystal clarity the ending of the last show. What you probably don't know, however, is that, backstage during the last show, I cried during your original composition, "I Will Find You." I couldn't see you or hear you, but I know that you did too. All of the "it's a Disney-style song" derision I could muster could only last so long against a song written by my own mother about a mother saying goodbye to their kid. I'm sure that, years from now, I will listen to that song on your new CD (which, readers, if you're roped in, can be downloaded for only along with a whole new album of Carla originals, "Love, Death, and Wings," for $9.99 at this address) and still cry from it. That makes it the norm, rather than the exception, among your songs.
Sitting with you in our small apartment on Kains avenue, along with Sofia Alexander, the three of us seemingly drowning in paper, creating the script to a a wonderful full-length play, "War and Peacemeal." In three days. Back then you could still walk, but it was sort of ill-advised for you to do so, and you often used a scooter to get around during rehearsals. This was really the first creative project in which you and I were equal partners, and I was relishing it. [This will come as a surprise to many of you who watched "War and Peacemeal," but my contributions to the play were most of the soundtrack and the tearjerking bits, while Carla's contributions were the sophomoric jokes and the plot structure. That being said, these contributions intermingled a lot, and she and I still argue to this day over who came up with certain parts of the play.] It was truly a 50-50 enterprise, with neither of us writing an outright majority of the script. It still puts a smile on my face to think of those piles of paper strewn about the floor, the brainstorms and breakthroughs we had, and the wonderful lightbulb feeling when we (okay, if you insist on giving somebody credit, I) stumbled across a way to end a hilarious play with the audience in tears.
The first day that "War and Peacemeal" became even an abstract idea on the horizon. Eleven days before you were diagnosed with A.L.S. (Two years ago today, in fact, but who's counting?) I bought you "The Complete Works of Aristophenes." However, either because I was a [politically correct censor] giver, or because, for a Professor Emeritus of Theater, you don't like to read much, I ended up being the first person to crack open the book. I skipped over "Frogs," "Lysistrata," and everything else that might have been made into a play before. Instead, I zeroed in on a piece called "Peace," (ooh, it's a homonym, he's so good!) a play so unknown that our play opened with "Anybody who has read this play before, raise your hand." Most nights, nobody would raise their hand. If somebody did, the actor reading the monologue, I would say, "psh, you're lying. Nobody has read this play since John McCain was in grade school." In the morning, I excitedly presented you with the idea for our play, and we immediately shot ideas back and forth, hashing together some semblance of a plot in no time. With another mother, OR another director, my idea would probably be met with a response along the lines of, "oh, that would be funny. Good idea," and no further action. With you, the idea was allowed to turn into a capstone worthy enough for you to un-retire from directing, just for this last show.
The day that you were diagnosed with A.L.S. I had gone over to the house of our friends the Cardalls in the morning, and was bizarrely told that I needed to return at 1 P.M. because my grandfather was leaving town, and I needed to say goodbye to him. I guess you can't expect a group of people who just heard the worst news of their lives to come up with the most plausible excuse.
I remember walking into our apartment, with you sitting on the couch, and a look on your face that l knew meant that something truly horrid had happened. I couldn't think what it could be. Had one of my grandfathers died? You sat me down, and told me.
"I have A.L.S."
I didn't know what that was. See what I mean about why we need more A.L.S. awareness? I went on the next two to three minutes of our conversation as if A.L.S. was something like Chronic Fatigue or Crohn's Disease. Then you said the words that changed everything.
"I may have as many as ten years to live."
It sunk in that you were going to die. There was nobody in the world I was closer to, and I was going to lose you. Probably sooner, rather than later. Even for somebody who had never used the word "mom" in his lie, I had the only reaction that anybody could have in that situation. I threw my arms around you and began to weep uncontrollably, saying "Mommy, mommy."
I know for a fact that you know what you said to me after you calmed down. You told me that you were going to lose control of your limbs, until you were completely paralyzed, and that, while you were still healthy, you wanted to go boogie boarding in Mexico. I suggested, movie buff that I am, that we go to Zihuatanejo. And so it was decided. Just like every other dark place, you managed to blast your way through it so that there was some light.
Going to Sayulita, Mexico, because the boogie-boarding waves were bigger than those in Zihuatanejo. Best decision of our lives. This quirky town off of Puerto Vallarta provided the memories of a lifetime, and some day I will scatter your ashes in the city where I had the best vacation of my life.
I'm sure you remember:
- The Sayulita Days festival, one in which not a single "Gringo" outside of the two of us dared to attend. It was like a theme park out of a Steve Buscemi movie. There were rickety roller-coasters that looked like they'd crumble under the weight of two tall tourists. There was a booth, billed as "El Niño Tarantula" in which a little boy stood in a refrigerator box with badly designed spider arms coming out of the box. There was a contest in which you threw beer bottles at other beer bottles, and the prize was a painting of Jesus Christ with a crown of thorns causing him to bleed profusely. You get the idea. You presumed that there was probably some organized crime going on, given the way everybody looked at the two of us so suspiciously, and given the way all of the other tourists avoided the festival.
- The wonderful cuisine. Who would have guessed that a tiny rural town in Mexico would have great italian food, french food, and californian fusion food? I ate sushi for the first time in Sayulita, and now it is a staple of my diet
- Cheeseburgers! The restaurants in Mexico were simply clueless at the idea of ordering a hamburger without cheese. I'd say "Sin Queso, No cheese, no queso," try pantomiming, etc, but, in the end run, like a bad Saturday night live sketch, every hamburger restaurant in town could only make cheeseburgers.
- Our lovable hotel owner saying, "I don't like the chicken fights," and you responding, "Yeah, it's violent." His priceless response, "I prefer the bulls."
- The loud megaphones that played at 6 in the morning that sounded like the type of thing you'd hear from a military junta in a war torn African nation. Instead, it was just people selling fruit.
- The fact that Fox News appears to be the only channel in the English language that gets transmitted down in many parts of Mexico, how weird is that?
- Watching "Mean Girls," and actually liking it.
- Going on the types of waterpark rides that probably would not pass a safety inspection in the United States. Right before they pushed us down the dangerous-enough waterslides, the man who pushed us down on our inner-tubes said "hold on tight," something that you weren't capable of doing. You said afterwards that the thought process went through your head, "well, if this is it, there are worse ways to die."
Ironically, the attempts at boogie-boarding couldn't have failed more miserably, nor could they have succeeded more triumphantly. As you discovered after you got into the water, you could no longer swim. As huge waves, the type of waves for which surfers sought out this tiny village, crashed upon us, you and I began to laugh uncontrollably. It wasn't necessarily at the irony of coming to a town known for its waves when you could no longer swim. Okay, maybe a bit. It wasn't necessarily out of nervous fear, as you could have easily been badly hurt. Okay, maybe a bit. What it was really about was us laughing at the world. The dolphins and the beaches may not have healed you, and they may not have given you a way to beat A.L.S. physically, but they showed us that the world couldn't keep us down. Nobody, not even death, could stop us from enjoying ourselves, from laughing at it all.
And we continue to leave them laughing, don't we?
Happy Birthday, Mom.