"For me a brain tumor and its treatments are not a pause in the adventure of life, but instead a part of the adventure of life." Mary has survived big hair, a brain tumor, coming out, distressed bowel syndrome, hallucinations, radiation, and a car wreck. Here Mary takes us from public transportation horrors to the joys of sharing life with you. Though you probably won't want to have a brain tumor; you will wish that you could see the world through Mary's eyes. Sister Jen
Happy Birthday, Sister Jen!
Friday, May 31, 2013
Fear Circling Hope
Last night, my partner Ann and I attended the one-acts at
her school. I worked as an English teacher in schools for 26 years, and in that
time I attended lots of sports events, celebrations, and plays, but I never
attended the student-written one-acts. With generally 180 teenagers in my
classes, I felt that I read enough of their writing, and I needed a break.
When Ann suggested that we see the student written "Fear Circling Hope, I was excited to go.
I don’t work with teenagers any more, and I miss them and their writing. Besides, I’m
pretty sure that Laura Ferri, the theatre teacher at Ann’s school, is
brilliant. Six springs ago, when I was teaching in a high school with many
students who were poor and immigrants to this country, Laura and I had briefly
discussed having our students work together. Though I was nervous about bringing
my students together with her more privileged students, I believed that the
exchange could be life-altering in some good way that I could not yet envision,
and I believed that my students had the right to work with someone as talented
as Laura, so Laura and I
When Laura called at the end of April 2007 to start work on
some real planning, I had not yet told anyone outside of my family about my
tumor, and I said to Laura, “This isn’t a good time for me to work on this.
I’ve just learned that I have a brain tumor.” Laura scrambled to get off the
phone, and I learned that I needed to practice telling people about my tumor as
I would practice a part for a play. This would be a performance.
When Ann told me Wednesday that the ensemble would be
performing “Fear Circling Hope”, an act that they had toured in San Francisco
hospitals—a play inspired by the journals of 100 teenagers in intensive care—I wanted
to go. I was not just willing, but eager.
I love teenagers, and I’m fascinated by people’s experiences
with life-changing health conditions, so the play would be perfect for me.
There were four one acts that night, and we planned by-pass
the first three and to arrive in time for “Fear Circling Hope.”
however, we got there earlier than we intended. The second one-act was just
ending, and we could hear lots of laughter. We settled in for the third
one-act, “Philadelphia,” a short and clever play written by the professional
writer David Ives and directed by faculty member, Ellen Graham. The play
a young man lost in the metaphysical black hole of Philadelphia, a horrible
place where you can never get what you want and can only eat Philly Steaks.
Another fellow was in metaphysical LA, which was much sunnier, and a waitress
was somewhere else.
What made the play good was the clever script and the Abbott
and Costello delivery. I laughed, and it wasn’t the laughter of
aren’t-these-teenagers-clever. It was that-was-funny laughter.
After “Philadelphia” and an intermission, “Fear Circling
Hope” began. This play began with the sound of a heart beating—hands thudding
against chests—and then the heart stopping. Students were alternately teenagers
in hospital pajamas and doctors in white coats. Every now and then
a character personified an emotion: grief, for example, wore a black mask and
did not have a face.
This play was not funny, and I had not expected it to be,
but I hadn’t expected to work to hold in my sobs. Though I was not a teenager
when I was in the hospital for neurosurgery and recovery, I had experienced so
many of the scenes I saw, and I had asked so many of their questions: Would I get
better? How much better? Who would I be now?
When one character went to the hospital after a car accident
and was surrounded by a bevy of people in white paying attention to his body
but not to him, I remembered my own car accident and my own bevy of white-gloved
Towards the middle of the play, a character who was
paralyzed hallucinated that she was tap-dancing with her doctor and nurse.
Since the people playing the characters were real, they tapped an impressive
lightness on the stage.
As they tapped, I remembered my own hallucinations—not so
cheerful and a bit bizarre: in the Intensive Care Unit, I was teaching a class
and needed to give them an assignment before the nurse could change some tube.
In my room, I thought a party of colleagues had come to see me, but it turned
out just to be my mom and Ann. Another time, I thought I was in the
crematorium. That sounds grim, but it wasn’t. It was frustrating with its ineffective supervisor and my flame-retardant pajamas.
The tapping lightened the tension for me, and I recovered my
sense of distance from the play: I was again an audience member, not a patient.
With the characters, I returned to my life of wonder. I
marveled at these teenagers’ poetry and all they must have learned. I was
humbled by how important art is and how little I knew that before. As one
spoken duet said:
Sometimes I wonder,
what the world would be like,
if it cracked itself open
and learned to fly.
I wonder sometimes,
what it's like to be free.
Today, I am able to breathe normally again, and at the play last night I
even composed myself in time for the lights to come up, but I will not forget
how intense my response to this play was. The students are right: grief does
not have a face. It is nestled between my bones and only emerges when it’s
invited by some unbidden memory. But the grief is always there.
My life is joyful. It’s true. And part of that is because
grief is a part of me now. It is a part of who I am.
One character quoted Albert Camus:
"In the midst of winter, I found in me an invincible summer."
In my winter, too, there is an invincible summer, and in
my summer there is an indomitable winter.