Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Installment 3

Back in Brazil, I was warned to expect a rough patch of road ahead by a man I met at the Spiritist Center--a healing and educational hub outside of Rio, where I was doing research for the novel. But at the time I did not understand the meaning of what he said. Bebeto, my augurer, is himself a healer as well as a documentary filmmaker who volunteers as a translator for the other healers at the Center whenever he can.


"You must gather your resources," he said. "A big change is coming to your life." He also said I might lose my way for a while, but that when I find it again, my life will be "transportada." When I got back to the hotel, I looked up the word in my pocket-size dictionary. Transported. I still couldn’t figure out what he meant. I think of this encounter now and wonder: Transported, as in passing from this life to the spirit world?

We exchanged phone numbers -- he planned to be in Los Angeles working on a project for a few months and promised to call me.
I think of the words of Pete Catches, holy man of the Lakota Sioux: "We do not inherit the world from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children."
I will have to walk that line very carefully. As much as I will need the children’s love and support, I must remember, this journey is mine not theirs.

Bill Johnson brought to our marriage his three daughters, Wendy, Sally and Debbie, ages 10, 8 and 4; I brought my two-year-old son Mark. Together we had two more sons, Billy and Anthony. After that we stuck to puppies.

When I met Bill he was a Broadway producer; I was a young actress. I auditioned for a play he was co-producing with his brother-in-law, David Wayne, who was also starring in the production. The reading took place in a darkened theater, I remember, and I read with a bored, drowsy stage manager who could barely stay awake to feed me the damn lines.
My irritation informed my reading, which was totally inappropriate for the sweet ingénue character I was auditioning to play. From somewhere behind the stage-lights a voice asked me to start again. Peering into the dark, I asked, Start from where? "The top," the voice answered, a bit impatiently. My reading got no better, and the voice in the dark thanked me and called for the next actress.

Not surprisingly, I did not get the part. Some months later, I was in a soap opera. I became friends with Susan Slade, the production assistant, who had once worked for Bill. She invited him to come watch the taping of the show from the control booth at CBS. When the camera zoomed in for my close-up, Bill turned to Susan and said, "That one. Terrible actress. That’s the girl I’m going to marry."
Many years later, when we were already divorced (both of us having remarried and divorced again), Bill fell ill with pseudo bulbar palsy, a debilitating disease similar to ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. I was living in Santa Fe at the time, and he was living an hour away in Albuquerque. We saw each other several times a week-- dinner and sometimes a movie. And holidays with whichever children were able to join us. In our own way, we were a family again.

When Bill got sick, I divided my time between his house and mine, taking him to doctors’ appointments and remaining at his side when he had to be hospitalized. "The divorce didn’t take," he liked to explain to doctors and nurses.
One night when he was still feeling well enough, we went out to dinner in Santa Fe at a favorite restaurant of ours. We sat at a table next to the fireplace and ordered the house special: New Zealand mussels in a sauce of white wine and shallots. Over dessert (Bill had an epic sweet tooth) he looked at me with dark serious eyes and said, "I never want to be a burden on the children."
I said, "No, nor do I. Let’s make a pact. Let’s only be a ‘burden’ on each other."
"No," said Bill who was more than a decade older than I. "Not on you, either."

He meant it. Less than a year later, his illness had progressed to a point that was no longer tolerable to him. He chose December 7, 1998--Pearl Harbor Day. That had been his war -- he was an Air Force lieutenant –- and he did have a keen sense of history. Did he consciously choose to end his suffering on "the day that will live in infamy"? We won’t know. We won’t know for how long he planned it, either. When did he know no one would be in the house? I had left to go to Santa Fe, an hour away, for a lunch meeting; Billy was flying in from Los Angeles at three, and Anthony was picking him up at the airport. That gave Bill three hours, maybe four.

I was running late, and I needed to stop at my house in Santa Fe to pick up a few things. A change of clothes, perhaps. A book. The New York Times for Bill. The phone on the kitchen wall was ringing as I walked in the door.

Billy’s voice, choked, a sob, "It’s Dad– he - took his life." I remember letting out a terrible howl. Shock, horror, but most of all, rage.

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