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masks

She belongs here

Posted on 2006.05.17 at 01:54
Current Mood: okayokay
Current Music: Roll With the Changes - REO Speedwagon
I had a friend named Kathy. She died on the 4th of July three years ago. I want to talk about her for several reasons. First of all, her birthday was just a few days ago, on May 14, and I always used to send her a card. Second, and more importantly, there are various people who know me primarily or exclusively through this journal, and I think that if I want to have any hope of communicating some sense of who I am through this medium, I must include my relationship with Kathy in the discussion. The third reason is more therapeutic – I’ve outlined my relationship with Kathy to a handful of close friends since her death, but I really haven’t spoken in any meaningful way with any of mine and Kathy’s mutual friends, most of whom are in either Michigan or California. Believe me, I’ll understand if this post is more of a subterranean emotional slog than you want to know about, so if that’s the case, feel free to keep walking! Otherwise –


To say that Kathy and I had a deep love and a singular bond between us would serve as a handy summation, but it has a generic ring to it, and our connection was anything but generic. I’m going to start before the beginning: It’s the spring of 1978. I’m taking part in an all-day festival of one-act plays at Wayne State University’s Hilberry Studio. I’m acting in a student-directed piece. While waiting for my play to come up, I watch the other entries. A woman steps onto the stage in whiteface. I am transfixed. My mouth probably fell open at some point. She is slight, pale, wearing a black t-shirt and black jeans. I don’t yet know whether she is beautiful or pretty, but I know that she has an intensity to her performance, coupled with a total command of her every move that should probably send me scrambling for a thesaurus – Incandescent? Transcendent? Captivating? No, let’s forget about adjectives this time around. She never says a word, and a week later I couldn’t have told you what the play had been about, but the image of her standing there, and the delicate kick to the stomach that her performance delivered, remain etched in my brain from the retinas on back.

Fast forward a little over a year. I’m in rehearsal for my first professional production – Steambath at the Attic Theatre in Detroit. I’m also taking a movement class at the Attic. On day one, we await the arrival of our teacher, a fellow named Jim Tomkins, and in she walks, as a fellow student – that mime from the previous year. I immediately begin to wonder if I should even be there; after all, if such an accomplished performer as herself is taking this class, it might be far too advanced for me, since this is the first theater class I’ve ever taken. That fear turns out to be unfounded, as Mr. Tomkins is very good at dealing with each student individually. In addition, it quickly becomes apparent that I know more about performing than I thought I did, though Lord knows I was a pretty raw talent at that time. And a funny thing happens when I first speak to Kathy. I mention that I’m in rehearsal for Steambath and I suddenly find that she is regarding me as if I’ve accomplished something – as if I’m someone she might profit from knowing! I can see that her initial friendliness is at least partly motivated by a desire to network with someone whom she believes might be able to help her professionally, but I’m not offended at all. Even that early, I realize that all we’re dealing with is a beginning, and beginnings are generally shallow by their very nature and necessity.

Now as for our friendship – that blossomed the better part of a year later in the spring of 1980, when Kathy and I were both cast in the Attic’s production of The Mother Lode. I will write a great deal about that play someday; there’s a hell of a story to be told there. But I digress. There is a part of our growing relationship that was invisible to me at the time, and which I therefore cannot summon from my memory. It seems that we progressed almost overnight from a nodding relationship to one of complete trust and comfort; if we were at the same event, we would quickly gravitate to one another and remain so for the duration. There was a strong sense between us that each was in the presence of a peer, if that’s the right word – someone who could perceive and understand things on the same level as the other.

Not that we always agreed though! We had our share of vehement debates over the years, and those debates hung as part of the decorative bunting on the iron latticework of our friendship, and were moreover a tangible part of our own personal growth and maturation. We talked. Goodness, did we talk! I can think of at least four different restaurants in which we were regulars, at all hours of the day and night, eating and drinking and thinking and talking. We both had wide-ranging interests, and our conversations reflected that. A given conversation might range from a debate on the role of the artist in society to an examination of ancient Jewish animal sacrifice rituals to an extended session of the two of us singing and harmonizing together.

I can think of only one extended period when our relationship diverged from that model. It was shortly after an unfortunate incident that happened to her. Her car had broken down and while walking to get help, she was “attacked.” I put that in quotes because it was the term Kathy generally used to describe the incident, though she would occasionally use the word “mugged.” She only used a more graphic term a few times, so I will not use it here. This was, as you may imagine, a severely traumatic event for her. It led to more than one suicide attempt in the months to come. She disconnected from everyone, including me. In fact, it was not until over a month after the incident that I even found out it had occurred. I only knew that she suddenly stopped calling; she was always seemingly unavailable; and when I did see her, a simple hug was not exactly resisted, but touching her felt like touching a store mannequin. I am sorry to say that I had a brief period of feeling hurt that she had not told me what was going on. My shame for feeling that way is somewhat assuaged by the knowledge that I was an ignorant young man in so very many ways. But her psyche slowly healed and our friendship re-emerged on the other side, stronger than ever.

I have to mention Kathy’s diabetes, because they are a key subplot to much of what happened in her adult life. Ultimately, it was the effects of that condition that caused her to leave us at the age of 47. How can I put it – she was not cut out for this condition. You see, Kathy did not believe in limitations. She spent her life showing the world that perceived limitations were illusory, born of prejudice or a lack of vision. It is worth noting that Kathy played on her grade school boys football team. She was the only girl in the school to do so and it took the threat of legal action by her father to get her on the team. In fact, Kathy was never much of a football fan. But if you told her she couldn’t do something for reasons she regarded as arbitrary, look out! With regard to her diabetes, this attitude caused her to behave as if her severe under-production of insulin did not represent a limitation, and her workaholic nature was a bad match for those circumstances. More than a few times, she worked herself into severe, disorienting diabetic reactions and probably a few diabetic comas. She did finally reach a point where she conceded that she needed to accept some physical limitations and take care of herself more attentively than the average person, but by the time she got to that point, a great deal of irreversible damage had been done.

Kathy accomplished a great deal in the course of her professional life. She had a recurring role on the old TV series Hunter. For a time in the 1980s, she was on the radio here in Chicago, writing and performing dozens of different characters as a part of the Paul Barsky Morning Zoo. I could go on listing her professional accomplishments, but the fact is that such things were of little consequence to me, except in that her aforementioned workaholic nature kept us apart far more than I would have liked. Kathy, driven as she was, never lost her sense of playfulness, and I think a lot of that stemmed from a philosophical outlook that she described to me on more than one occasion: “We are essentially spirits, flying through the universe, playing and dancing, alone or with others. But for a little while, we are kept inside these mortal shells.”

I have to say that I would not be the person I am if Fate had not placed Kathy in my path. I might be something similar to what I am now, but I think I would be something less. That isn’t a scientific fact and I can’t back it up with any kind of meaningful data, but what it says to me is that I have it in my power to keep a little piece of Kathy’s spirit flying around in this world. I will close with Kathy’s own words. This is from a book of poetry titled Concrete Shoelaces: A Dysfunctional’s Garden of Verse. Kathy self-published (and self-typed, self-illustrated, self-bound, and self-distributed) this book shortly after her brief marriage came to an end. This is probably my favorite piece from the book:

Dogs
I drag this deadened body home each night,
Word weary and world weary, drained and scarred,
And there, with coiléd limbs, and wild delight,
Four gods of frolic wait inside my yard.
Four smiling, toothy visages compel,
Four wildly wagging plumes gyrate with glee,
And sixteen frantic canine paws propel,
The ardent cavalcade to remedy.
Though earthy in their habits, sometimes rude,
Though someone once discarded one and all,
Each loves without restraint, and each one would,
Lay down his life for mine, or fetch a ball.
And though some souls might sneer and snarl with wrath,
I sleep with them, unless they need a bath.


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