Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Warning: sentimental post about dead friend ahead

I'm a fan of the "For Better or For Worse" comic strip. I got hooked way back when it first debuted, I think, and I've never managed to kick the habit. Partly what appeals to me is that, unlike most comic strips, the characters actually age in real time. People grow up, grow older and sometimes die. Pets sometimes die. (Farley's death--dear god, I can still cry thinking about it.) Gay teenagers come to terms with their sexuality. In a COMIC STRIP. It's a little slice of life. Maybe it's a little sappy sometimes, but then, so am I.

A little while back, the Grandpa character had a stroke, and now he's dealing with the aftermath. And so much of what he's dealing with reminds of my friend George, who died a few years ago. So George has been on my mind lately, and I think I'll tell you a little about him, if you don't mind. He was a pretty amazing guy.

George was an actor. A working Equity actor, albeit mostly in regional dinner theatre productions. I didn't know him then, but I'm told he was quite a character--a big guy with an appetite for life as well as food. I know he smoked too much, he drank too much, he ate too much, and exercised and slept too little. He told me that part himself. He excelled at a certain sort of broad physical comedy, and knew how to command a stage. When he was just 40 years old he had a massive stroke. He lay in his apartment for a couple of days before help came, and by then the damage was extensive.

He returned to Tulsa for rehab, and moved in with his elderly mother. His right arm and leg were completely paralyzed, and he had severe aphasia--difficulty in initiating speech. He had everything going on inside his head, and no way to get it out. But he was a fighter, and he learned to walk again. He learned to drive again. He learned to dress himself--go ahead, try and put your clothes on with one arm, I'll wait.....tough, isn't it? He worked on his speech, and eventually had a short list of all-purpose phrases he relied on for most of his communication. "Boy." "Girl." "Bathroom." "Water with lemon." "Chicken." "One, two, three." And the most versatile phrases, the ones he could spin to say just about anything: "Shit!" and "Goddamn!" It was amazing how much he could say with those few words, coupled with a seemingly endless supply of facial expressions and gestures, of course. Comic actor, remember? He also had at his disposal a loud, growly purring noise, which he combined with some very suggestive eyebrow movements to express...let's say approval. Hee.

Eventually, he became a member of a wonderful organization here (the Center) that is devoted to improving the lives of people with physical limitations, including, at the time, a theatre troupe dedicated to providing performance opportunities for their members. That's how I first met George. Early on his involvement with the theatre was limited to roles that required little or no speaking, but eventually they figured out that he could say any number of lines, as long as someone was able to "jumpstart" the line for him. He would memorize the lines, and if he heard the first two or three words, then that "jumpstarted" his brain, and he could say the entire line. At first the prompting was done by someone on stage with him, and then they acquired a little walkie-talkie type device with an ear monitor he was able to wear onstage, while someone sat offstage with a script and prompted right into his ear. It wasn't foolproof, but it worked pretty damned well. The last big role he did was perfect for him, and actually was done at one of the "regular" theatres in town. He played a stroke survivor, and anyone who didn't know that he actually WAS a stroke survivor would never have known. I did his prompting for that play, and I have to say, it was maybe the best work he ever did. It was very understated and subtle, quite different from his usual big, brash comic presence, and his performance was very touching. He also directed plays (you can convey a lot to your actors with "Shit!"--hee) and even joined an improv comedy troupe.

At any rate, I knew George sort of casually for years, then we did a play together and ended up dating for a while. The relationship only lasted a few months, and when it ended (for various reasons, none of which I'll detail here--not that interesting, I promise) we more or less stayed friends, though I only saw him occasionally. I retained an enormous amount of respect for him, and for the incredible amount of strength it took for him just to get through the day. I don't think most people knew how hard it was for him--I certainly didn't, before I dated him. Just standing up is hard when half your body doesn't work--go ahead, try it, I'll wait.....hard, isn't it? He had, at that point, moved into an apartment of his own, and cooked and cleaned and shopped for himself. He was an amazing man.

He was working props on a play I did for the Center a few summers ago (the last real play they produced, actually, but that's neither here nor there), and I noticed he was looking a little tired. He brushed off my "how are you doing?" question with a little smile and a wave, and I went back to the turmoil that is tech week without giving it too much thought. Until he didn't show up for dress rehearsal. Nobody had heard from him, and since it wasn't like George to just not show up, it was no huge surprise to find out the next day that he'd suffered another stroke. A massive brain stem stroke this time. We all did a little googling of "brain stem stroke" and realized that our friend wasn't coming back from this one like he had before. He lingered for about three weeks, if I remember correctly, and then died very shortly after they moved him into an "extended care facility." Okay, call it what you will, that's a nursing home, and George would have hated it. He valued his independence above almost everything else; the only thing more important to him was that he be able to act, and when those two things were taken from him....well, I think his incredible spirit managed one last valiant action, and took him out of there, posthaste.

When you get a phone call from a friend before 7:00 a.m., it's almost never a good thing. My friend Robin called to give me the news, and we talked about what a blessing it was--how George would have HATED lying there like that indefinitely, how we ourselves would hate it. A blessing, certainly, but a loss, too.

I hadn't been able to bring myself to visit him in the hospital. There was a Terri Schiavo-ish difference of opinions among friends who did as to how aware he actually was, some insisting that he was "in there," and knew they were there, another saying "he's gone, Liz...you don't want to see him like this." In the end, I debated, and didn't go. An act of cowardice, perhaps, but I couldn't do it. I didn't want to see him like that. I felt guilty about it for a while, but no longer. Wherever he is now, he knows I was thinking about him, and that's what counts.

After the funeral, as we gathered to eat and drink and grieve, one of his oldest friends played us a tape she'd found--a voice demo tape he'd made for his agent. It was very funny, and very sad. I realized I'd never heard his "real" pre-stroke voice, and wouldn't have recognized it.

I miss George. Oh, not in a "oh my gosh the one true love of my life is gone and I'll never love again" kind of way. I hadn't seen him all that often in his last couple of years. I don't miss him every day, week or month. But occasionally something happens to remind me of him--like a cartoon Grandpa stunning his cartoon grandchild by saying *#%$! when that wasn't what he really wanted to say at all--and I think of George, and I'm sorry he's no longer here. He was a good guy. He was, by turns, frustrating and stubborn and sweet and thoughtful, and the world was a richer place for his presence in it. What better legacy is there than that?

And maybe it's because I'm SAD that I keep thinking about people and pets I miss, but I'm afraid there's probably one more sad post to come before I'm done. Remember when I said my friend Robin called to tell me about George? Well, she didn't sound too good on the phone that morning, said she had a cold. No big deal for most people, but Robin had Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a particularly nasty form of muscular dystrophy, and a cold was always a very big deal for her. Sure enough, it turned to pneumonia and she was hospitalized. I got another call from a friend before 7:00 am a few days later, and I knew before I answered the phone what she was calling to tell me. Let's just say that was a very, very hard couple of weeks. Robin was maybe the most amazing person I ever knew, in some respects, so I'll probably tell you about her at some point, too, complete with foreshadowing.

Though I have to say, I'm really kind of hoping that something particularly funny happens at rehearsal tonight, since I have completely bummed myself out now. Come on, someone take an accidental pratfall or something--help a girl out!

11 comments:

lxg_1114 said...
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3carnations said...

I'm sorry for the loss of both of your friends.

I hope you have your funny moment tonight to help perk you up. If you're lucky, it will be something completely humiliating that will make for good blogging tomorrow. ;)

Mary said...

That was a beautiful post, Liz. I never got to work with George, but I certainly knew him just from hanging around Heller. I miss him, too. And I am grateful for the legacy that he left behind. There was just so much joy and love in him and he was so good at passing it on to others.

If you don't mind, could you please post that poem that George wrote? The "Yes" one that is framed at Heller? I haven't been able to enjoy it since I moved. It's so inspiring and reminds me of the wonderous beauty of life. I can't help but smile when I read it. I hope it'll put a smile on your face, too.

stefanie said...

Oh my gosh. That was a beautiful but sad post, and then it got even sadder at the end! I'm so sorry you lost two great people, particularly in so short a time span.

George sounds awesome, and that was a wonderful tribute to him.

Know what absolutely terrified me in that post, though? The part about him having a stroke in his home and no one finding him for two days. Don't all of us who live alone have the paranoid fear of something like that happening to us? Scary.

lizgwiz said...

3car, thanks. And yes, there was a giggly moment last night!

Mary, thanks. I'll try to remember to copy the poem when I'm at Heller next week.

stef, I know. That part terrifies me, too. They can do a lot now to prevent all the horrible effects of a stroke, but only if they start treatment in the first hour or so. What if my dog doesn't turn into Lassie and go find help in time? I don't want to have to be brave and relearn how to walk!

maliavale said...

He sounds like an amazing man -- and you an amazing woman for seeing and appreciating that!

metalia said...

What a beautiful tribute.

lizgwiz said...

malia, he really was.

metalia, thanks.

Edge said...

My dog died last fall. My daughter still asks questions about where she is. A night or two after the dog, Spider, died, my daughter came and woke me up and said, "Daddy, I dreampt of Spider and she was happy in Heaven." It helps ease the pain when I miss my dog.

~Jef

chickadee said...

What a beautiful rememberance - but I'm glad you had a giggly moment that evening. George's strength and perserverence sound absolutely inspiring. I'm reminded of a great bio I read of Patricia Neal, An Unquiet Life, detailing her acting career, and then her survival of three simultaneous strokes.

lizgwiz said...

Jef, it does help thinking they're happy some place. When my friend Robin (who was also a terrific actress) died right after George did, my first thought was how much fun they'd have doing scenes together in the great beyond. No more cane, no more wheelchair, nothing to inhibit those great artistic spirits!

chick, I'll have to check out that bio. I always liked Patricia Neal--she had that great voice.