I usually can write about grief, even poetically. This time it's harder. This time the loss is abrupt and without warning. This time it is my stepfather, David, who died on Friday of a massive heart attack. This time I didn't get to say goodbye. While he was not married to my mother anymore, he is the one who had been in my life since age 3, who brought me to theater and writing, who enlarged our lives that had been made small because of my first stepfather, who was a deeply disturbed human being, someone I could best describe as a Methodist Artaud, signaling through the flames of his own suffering, unable not to take those nearest him down with him.
David came along in 1969, and suddenly - from my point of view - I was only 6-7 when my mother and he got together - they had met earlier in 1966 (but my mother was still with the first stepfather) - the world got bigger and brighter. Instead of crying, my mother was smiling. Instead of liver, we ate pizza and could drink exotic liquids like Pepsi, even eat...Oreos! My first stepfather had been a whole foods Nazi. Some of this was good: eating organic vegetables from our own garden, etc. but some of it was really bad: forced eating of liver being a main one and no sugar - at all. This very forced-feeding practice was the centerpiece of a writing exercise I did at Kripalu this past week in fact...maybe will add that later. But the point being, David came along, and even though he was damaged and sad from Vietnam and having to take care of his younger brother and sister because his mother had just died young, as had his two fathers, all of alcoholism basically, he also had great artistic passion, and so brought me to the theater.
Oh, so big deal, all kids get to go to the theater you might say, but not so much in back of beyond Maine and also most kids don't get to go to theater rehearsals
and sit next to the director and help him time the scenes while watching her future stepfather rehearse his part in You Can't Take it With You and have the extraordinary experience of walking onto the realistic looking living room set and then see that the stairs that looked like they went upstairs from the front, when you went to the back, went back down
. This was an astonishment - pure magic to my six year old eyes.
Or be rattled to the core when there was a blackout and an explosion sound, so disturbed in a luscious way - the way only live theater can do - that I remember trembling while eating a reheated chicken pot pie in the back with all the actors who treated me like their special little friend. I was part of this big family of happy adults. I had never seen happy adults before this. That could play and laugh and cry and be warm and fun. And this was all - I should add - a community theater production. So these adults had other jobs in the real world, but this was how they spent their evenings, preparing for shows. I sat next to the director riveted by his power and how he had people move around and timed everything. I loved working the stopwatch for him. I would have gone to the moon for him.
The other huge part of my life that expanded was being able to stay at the cottage on Peaks Island, Maine, that tragically the family had to sell recently, but where I spent many summers - on a sunporch looking out to the Atlantic. That beauty saved my life over and over and over again. An ocean, the tide, the sunrise, the moonrise, the sound of waves crashing against the rocks over and over and over again.
All of this after living in isolation and fear from the disturbed first stepfather - moving around downeast Maine, having no friends my age, and just being basically scared. I wrote a lot apparently - poems in magic markers I gave to my mother, and played with imaginary friends, but I had no fun place to go.
We then moved to Connecticut and David and my mother worked in the arts, him at the NTI and she at American Dance Festival at Conn College. In the midst of meeting all these wonderful artists and seeing work by all the luminaries of the avant-garde in the early 1970s who passed through both places, including Peter Brook, Joseph Chaikin, Living Theater, even Richard Foreman at the dance festival - not knowing who any of them were and wondering what the hell was going on but all of it leaving a deep imprint...then in the midst of that beauty and strangeness a horrific period of time where I was left with a caretaker who also went nuts - for real - and I've written about all that so not gonna do it again, but it was David who saved me from her. His sister who had been living in this deeply weird situation with me was able to extricate herself and go get him. My mother at the time was in NYC. If you saw my play Autograce
in 2014, you saw a version of this incident, and the scene in which he entered the house and got me out.
There was a lot that devolved from there, he was deeply affected by that episode as well and it exacerbated his PTSD from Vietnam and no one knew what to do with me so I ended up at my grandparents on the Cape. But then a couple years later, once David had written a play that would end up on Broadway, GR Point
, and that was moving forward and my mother and he had recovered enough to bring me back, we all lived in a house in Providence, RI. David had accepted he was gay - that was a drama, because in the 1960s you weren't allowed to be gay, and in the 1970s only a few people were and they usually weren't Vietnam Vets with plays about that experience headed for Broadway, so it was all very confusing and hush-hush on the public level, yet privately we were living in an episode of Absolutely Fabulous like all the time. I was Safi.
But again, surrounded by lovely actors and dancers and people in the arts of all kinds, and I was drawing and making theater and writing, even if I was a bit distrustful of the whole disco fever whirling around me. And of course that world crashed out around us - first my mother and he divorced because it was too much for her, for them both - and she flourished professionally and so did he and they stayed friends, and I went on to a boarding school and started directing plays - not surprisingly I suppose - and writing and all that but mostly: plays.
My high school graduation was hilarious - I introduced my mother, then when I realized how impossible it would be to introduce David (ex-stepfather) with his lover and my mother and her fiancé (future stepfather) and her father and his second wife (my step grandmother) and David's best friend from college who was a mentor/uncle person to me, also gay but not David's partner, and David's half-sister, Barb...etc. etc., I just said instead this is my mother, Robin, and Tom and David and Peter and Robert and Lily and Barb and Walter...etc.
This was in 1981. About 10-20 years from then this would not have seemed unusual. Trust me when I tell you in 1981, this was not a common sighting. However, I knew, even as I made dark humored jokes about it all - we all did - that for all the chaos - and there was
chaos - it was special.
Then AIDS came along - was coming along - and pretty much all the people I had known growing up in the 1970s around that time died or were dying of AIDS. Miraculously, David was not one of them, nor Walter (who was his friend from college and such an important stable figure for me growing up - even though he like everyone had his own demons and addictions). But we mourned deeply and for what seemed like fucking forever.
In 1981, I ended up going to his university, Wesleyan, which was something I never thought would happen - but did for a variety of reasons. Our lives remained intertwined, through out various theatrical and his screenwriting endeavors. We had times of being very close and times when we were at severe odds, emotionally and artistically. But never did we lose respect or love for each other.
His biggest honorific to my mind was referring to me as troop. This was a term of respect, because he knew I too had been through the wars. He always said coming into the apartment where I was with Mrs. Levine, the caretaker, had reminded him of a battlefield. This was not the only one either, and he knew that. We both struggled to deal with our damage through art - writing and theater. We succeeded and failed. We were harsh critics of one another and each other's biggest allies.
He tried to warn me about my first codependent marriage. I hated him for it. He was - for the record - absolutely right. I will never forget one of the many moments wherein we stood or sat somewhere laughing like teenage girls. This was while I was getting divorced from my first husband who had dumped me for someone younger, telling me that on the day I found out my first play was to be published. I had the anthology and handed a copy to David, saying, "Here, this is the thing that cost me my marriage." And he said, "Good trade."
It was cold and windy, we were on a sidewalk in NYC after some event or other, can't remember which, and we laughed so hard I practically peed myself.
That is the David I love so much. I love all of them, and of course the little me misses the one who saved me, and that is a part of the firmament that will never be replaced, but the times we made each other laugh, so hard and so much people probably thought we were stoned, but after a certain point in time (another long story) we weren't. It was just the absurdity of life, the one we shared for fifty years.
I can't remember what it was, but something happened yesterday, as I was walking to a meeting clutching my bagel and coffee, and I thought or said something to myself that I knew would make David laugh and I could see him, I swear to God, see him laughing in front of me, those eyes twinkling and that impish grin, and I hope that will always be the case. I can't bear to be without that laugh, anyone who knew him knows what I mean.
I will leave you therefore with two photos that encapsulate our times together. One (semi-fictional) from Autograce
(Stephanie Willing and Derrick Peterson in 2014) and one from 2013 of us at Elephant & Castle (that John Barclay-Morton took - it was the first time he had met David, and he, too, was charmed). David gave me the ring that is visible on my hand in that photo, that I have worn every day since.
Goodbye David, I can't believe you're gone. And in some ways I just refuse to.