by Gary William Crawford
Helen was a true professional, even though she was in only one play I directed at the little theater. She threw herself into the play, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, with such enthusiasm that it is no wonder that she is haunting me. She thought of the role as a life and death issue, and I find in her ghost both serenity and fear. It has made me think deeply about such things and believe that the human spirit is so precious that it must never be destroyed or truly die.
Yet there is terror, emptiness, loneliness, and cruelty, and all these things I saw, and still see, in Helen. In many ways, she was my friend, in the way that women can bond with each other, and in her, I saw me, and in me, she saw herself. There are mirrors everywhere.
But what shattered the glass was her sudden death, a massive coronary. It was unexpected. Somehow I knew she was going to come back. Her sudden and ardent love for the theater and acting was powerful enough to send her back to me. Yet I am nervous and fearful that she wants me to go with her to the other side. I am worried that her spirit may cause me to die.
But she was going to play the lead role, the mother Beatrice. Joanne Woodward played that part in the film version of Paul Zindel’s play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. In the dress rehearsal, Helen was extraordinary. She brought her own personal losses and fears to the part, and everyone really thought that she would win best actress in the role in the little theater that year.
Perhaps in some way I was the character Beatrice’s daughter Tillie in the play. Much of my caring and sympathy was much like Tillie. At the play’s beginning Tillie, in a voice-over, said: “He told me to look at my hand, for part of it came from a star that exploded too long ago to imagine. This part of me was formed from a tongue of fire that screamed through the heavens until there was our sun... This tiny part of me was on the sun when it itself exploded and whirled in a great storm until the planets came to be.”1
I was like Beatrice’s daughter Tillie, and I felt more that way as I got to know Helen. I saw beyond her, as she did, at the universe that seemed about to cave in on her. This play spoke to Helen. She identified herself with Beatrice.
I will never forget the opening night in the green room as she prepared to make her entrance. Tears came to our eyes as we hugged. I felt for her because I knew her husband and children were not present. Her husband felt that Helen should be at home, and even at one point, had given me an angry phone call saying that I was going to be the cause of a divorce.
I told Helen, “Break a leg” and went into the audience.
Tillie’s opening voice over echoed through the theater. And then, the curtain closed. I wondered what had happened, so I ran backstage and several of the techs were surrounding something on the floor. As I got closer, I saw Helen on the floor in the wing. She had been preparing to make her entrance. The stage manager went to a phone to call EMS.
But when the paramedics got there, all attempts to revive her failed. The stage manager went out in front of the curtain to say the play was cancelled. As for me, I cried like a baby as she was carried away. I was a lost child, and there were mirrors everywhere.
* * *
Helen’s husband approached me at the funeral, and said to me, angrily, “You see what you’ve done. She should have been at home with me and our children. Not some looney play.”
I left the funeral, barely able to hold back, and cried as I hadn’t done since I was a child.
* * *
About six weeks after Helen died, I was in my apartment and heard a little girl outside saying a strange rhyme. Curious, I went outside and saw the little blonde girl jumping rope. She was very good at it, and she stopped when she saw me, and said, “It’s not your fault.”
I didn’t know what she meant, and I asked her, “Who are you?”
She looked at me with a serious expression and said, “I am anyone and everyone, just like your hand.”
I thought of Zindel’s play, and for some reason, the little girl appeared to be someone I had always known and always will. There were mirrors everywhere.
I never saw the little girl again, and I cannot help thinking that she was Helen.
* * *
I am fearful that Helen wants to take me with her so that we can jump rope together. It seems appropriate that I go with her, just as she put her all into the play, and walk with the angels and hear them speak. I am happy and terrified at once, so you will understand when I disappear into that realm I spoke of with so much trepidation. It’s not easy to cross over.
1 Paul Zindel, New York: Bantam, 1972
Copyright © 2007 by Gary William Crawford