Ann Arbor Theater Vixen: Jenn McKee's Blog

{September 9, 2009}   What tugs at the heartstrings, and what doesn’t

Many of you know that I lost my mother, quite suddenly, at the beginning of this year.

Yes, she’d been fighting cancer on-and-off for 14 years, so it wasn’t as though I’d never faced down the possibility. But it was sudden in the sense that, though my mother was in treatment during her last year, she mainly seemed tired during the just-concluded holidays (and, astonishingly, she somehow still managed to make and serve Christmas dinner for 12 of us). When the cancer spread to her liver, though, she declined so quickly that my sister and my husband and my then-eight-month-old daughter and I were in the air, flying to NC, when she died.

I don’t have regrets. Joe and I had just spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas with my parents, so I got to watch my mother play with and adore Lily, whom she’d already come to love ferociously. (At her NC service, my mother’s quilting friends told me that the previous May, my mother arrived to a meeting and said, “Guess why I’m wearing pink? Because I have a new granddaughter, and her name is Lily!”) Plus, I know that if she’d had a choice, she would have wanted to go quickly, as she did; and because she was incoherent in her final hours, I don’t think I would have gotten any more closure, even if we’d made it to her bedside before she left us. So although the experience was obviously, inevitably difficult, I took comfort in these truths – as well as the fact that because treatments are so much better than they used to be, we likely got to spend years more with her than we would have, had we lived in a different time.

Nonetheless, I wasn’t sure of how smooth my transition back to “regular life” would be. A tough second act concerned the announcement of the closing of The Ann Arbor News. (Mary Morgan, an ex-Newsie who founded the online Ann Arbor Chronicle with her husband, Dave Askins, wrote a marvelous, eloquent piece about losing her own mother at the time the News announced its demise. I’m not going to attempt to match the insights of that essay, but will instead recommend that you all read it for yourselves.) So from my perspective, things looked pretty bleak for a while. I’d never lost someone that close to me before, and I’d absolutely adored my job. I was scared of, and curious about, how I would respond. I had no clue.

The same was true when Lily’s due date came. I’d never so much as suffered a broken bone in my life, so I wondered at how I’d react to intense pain. I’m generally reserved, and I questioned just how and when I would reach my threshold, and what on earth would happen when I did – one of many situations wherein you can’t even guess how you’ll respond until you’re actually in the thick of it.

So my life immediately after my mother’s death involved the same feeling of tentativeness and caution. A few days after Mom’s funeral, I went to the Purple Rose to do interviews for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and actress Michelle Mountain quite innocently asked, “How’s your family?” I broke down crying.

Everyone was kind and understanding, though I was embarrassed, and this thoughtfulness extended through to the Rose’s opening of “Wake.” Both managing director Alan Ribant and artistic director Guy Sanville, sensitive to my circumstances, made a point to warn me that the show depicted the death of a parent. I then wondered, “Am I destined to (uncharacteristically) fall apart at dramas like this for a while? How much will I be able to stand?”

But when the lights went down, and I saw “Wake”‘s story unfold, I had no such visceral reaction. The acting was fine – it wasn’t that; but the mother-daughter relationship on stage bore no resemblance to my lived version. These were different people, after all.

And generally, this has held true this past year. What I’ve learned about myself is that mourning hasn’t significantly altered my responses to particular stories, or made such scenes more immediate or personal. Why? Who knows? Yet strangely, when my doctor, who lost her own mother in January, too, looked me in the eye and bluntly  said, “It sucks, doesn’t it? It just sucks,” I had to fight back tears. I just found this candor and empathy so comforting.

The one show that emotionally shook me up was Redbud’s production of “Wit” last fall, several weeks before my mother’s sudden death. I got a good deal of my uber-rational stoicism from my mother, so Loretta Grimes’ take on Vivian Bearing – as a person more baffled by the choices of those around her than strictly condescending to them – reminded me of Mom in some ways.

And because my mother was struggling unhappily through her cancer treatment at the time, watching Grimes portray Vivian’s suffering was wrenching. My mother was then facing down her disease, yet again, while several states away, and this time, I was only hearing by phone about the pain in her hands and joints,  the ragged mess that was her fingernails and toenails, the fatigue, the dogged-but-flagging determination to beat the cancer back again. Watching Grimes play out the course of the disease in front of my eyes just brought me to my knees. I’d seen “Wit” a few times before, but seeing it at just this juncture of my life made me appreciate my mother and her epic struggle all the more.

But lest you think a genuine emotional response affects a critic, know that while watching one of the play’s most brutal scenes, I was also thinking, “The physical staging of this looks weird.”

My mother teased me a couple of times by saying that it was no surprise to her that I became a critic. She said this primarily because my father is a man who, when confronted by his daughter’s score of 98% on a test, asked, “What one did you get wrong?” So I learned to expect a lot from others, because I always expected a lot from myself.

But Mom, of course, was just as much a member of that club as any of us.


Heather says:

Sorry, I’m just catching up on these. Thanks for this post. I think it’s hard to describe what our lives have been like over the past year, but you definitely did a good job conveying your perspective.

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