Moments Upon the Stage
by A. Elizabeth Herting
There is nothing poetic in death. Death is painful, degrading and filled with shit and bodily fluids and torment.
Claudia Cooper had been witness to endless days of suffering. It had been almost two weeks, and yet her father lingered on. What on earth was he waiting for? The hospital called her when he was admitted, her name being the only one he’d listed. She hadn’t spoken to him in well over six months. Now here she was by his side, the only witness to his final, heartbreaking days.
Claudia and her father had never enjoyed a typical loving relationship. He’d gone away when she was six years old, leaving her with years of abandonment issues and phobias. At least that’s what the non-stop psychobabble parade of her therapist’s greatest hits mentally spat out to her daily.
Her mother, Claire, had gone on an eternal quest to “find herself” after her father left, whatever the hell that meant. The only thing it meant to Claudia was being dragged from one shrink’s office to the next. The entirety of her childhood spent examining every nook and cranny of her mind when the only thing she wanted to do was escape in a great, dramatic flourish. Exactly like her father.
What are your emotions, Claudia? On a scale from one to ten, can you describe your level of anger? Tell me, Claudia, about the day your father left you...
“Enough!” she said to the sleeping, shrunken man in the bed, her voice reverberating around the dingy old hospital room. The only thing the crew of psychotherapists and all the other “ists” in her life needed to know was she yearned to be free. Free from being forced to endure any more mental prodding.
She suspected the stifling, soul-crushing looks of concern were a facade to mask professional indifference. They had no stake in her, not really. They were being paid handsomely to nod sagely, asking her the same questions in ten different ways and angles. She had tried throughout the years to explain it to them but with very limited success. None of them ever believed that she didn’t hate him for leaving, not at all. She was consumed with envy that he had escaped.
* * *
She jumped up from her chair as he moaned in pain, the only real response she’d seen from him in over an hour. The hospice worker had been in earlier, keeping him hopped up on morphine and Ativan. Apparently, dying causes anxiety. Who knew? Claudia tried to swallow her bitterness as she watched him struggle in his manufactured sleep.
If this is how we check out, I hope to get hit by a bus or jump off of a cliff. Anything but this agonizing slog into eternity or total nothingness. Claudia didn’t know which she would choose, preferred not to think of it. Every breath seemed a chore for him, his suffering excruciating as his body waged war against itself in a feeble effort to slow down the inevitable.
Her mother had bounced in earlier that morning on her way to her latest meditation ceremony. What rot. Claire’s penchant for chasing shadows instead of acknowledging her own breathing daughter left Claudia no other option than to become the adult, the years adding to the wall of resentment between them.
Claire leaping from one situation to the next without any care of the consequences was maddening. Claudia felt each burden in her mother’s stead, weighted down with them. Her mother emerged time and time again from her chrysalis, an exquisite butterfly floating away to her next adventure. Claudia had been abandoned, more of a moth than a butterfly if she were being honest. Both of her parents had followed their own paths away from her, always away.
* * *
Her father fancied himself an actor. He spent years treading the boards of every second-rate, dinner theater and off-off Broadway production. Broadway, but only if you were referring to Broadway Street in south Toledo, Ohio. She remembered that his biggest credit was as “Man ***2” in an episode of Friends many years back. She had recorded it on their old VCR, rewinding his brief scene over and over as a child, trying to reach out to him through the television screen.
He would land the occasional acting job here and there but, to him, it really didn’t matter much. As long as he could scrape by, it allowed him to follow his real passion. The only vivid memories she had of him were of his booming voice. The dramatic pauses and expressions he used while reciting the only lines that ever held any real meaning for him. She always wondered at their potency, the ability of written words from centuries ago to possess and enthrall her father, making him wander the back streets, festivals and theaters in search of them. No, Claudia and her mother only ever had one true rival, a man who had died in 1616: William Shakespeare.
* * *
Karen, her father’s main nurse, came in to check his vitals, moving through the room with practiced speed. Claudia really liked Karen, her blunt speaking style and dry sense of humor striking a familiar chord with her. They’d gotten to know each other well and become fast friends. Claudia knew she needed one honest person in her life, especially now that her father was nearing the end.
Even as her father whittled away into decrepitude, he was still quite the charmer. The golf-ball sized tumor in his head had mixed up enough of his wiring so that he could only recite Shakespeare quotes. This fascinated the hospital staff, especially Karen, who referred to him as “the Bard.” Claudia actually thought it was fitting. She could see the pleasure in her father’s eyes each time Karen came in, could tell he was still trying to flirt with her even in his final days, the old bastard.
“Hiya, kid, how’s the Bard holding up today?” Karen asked, briefly squeezing Claudia on the shoulder on her way to the bed. Claudia noticed that Karen was constantly in motion; she didn’t think she had ever seen the nurse stay in one place for more than a minute.
“Not bad, about the same I guess. Earlier he woke up and said, ‘I burn, I pine, I perish!’ I tried to find it in the book. I think it was from either Lear or The Shrew,” Claudia said sardonically.
She had purchased an enormous bible of Shakespeare’s works in an effort to understand what her father was saying. The strangeness of the tumor caused him to string together random lines from the famous playwright to tell them what he needed. It had become a game, trying to pull out his meaning from the archaic writing.
Claudia begrudgingly admired the poetry of the words, finding a spark of the passion that had ignited her father’s life-long obsession. Claudia didn’t want to admire Shakespeare, wanted to hate him. Her latest shrink would say she partially blamed him for her father’s absence, as irrational as that was. After a while, Shakespeare’s words grew on her, Claudia puzzling out each phrase as her father attempted to communicate. It seemed she was her father’s daughter after all.
The Bard, sensing his favorite nurse had entered the room, opened his eyes. They were clouded by drugs and sleep, yet still brimming with a spark of his old mischief. Claudia felt a tug at her heart, still loving him a little in spite of it all.
“Doubt thou the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move. Doubt truth to be a liar, But never doubt I love,” he intoned, a trace of his rich baritone still breaking through as he recited the well-loved words.
“Oh, wait a sec... Let me look. I believe that line is from—”
“Hamlet,” Karen said, holding his hand gently. “And I’m rather fond of you, too, you old goat, although I am sure you say that to all the girls.”
Claudia looked up in surprise at the nurse, finding a trace of tenderness there. She knew that Karen was recently divorced, in her mid-fifties, still lithe and pretty. If circumstances were different, she knew the Bard would pursue the relationship, age difference be damned. He was an unabashed ladies’ man; it went with the territory. As it was, the only date he had to look forward to was quickly approaching. Like the “ides of March,” as Shakespeare would say, for her father would never live to see his seventy-first birthday.
“I know how to do my research,” Karen said cheerfully to him, “especially where my number one patient is concerned.” She took a damp cloth to his forehead, smoothing back the wisps of receding hair, propping him up with one arm and quickly fluffing up the pillows underneath.
“For a quart of ale is a meal for a king,” he sputtered out, a jagged cough cutting off the last word.
“I’m sorry Bard, we’re not serving ale today, but I will get you some fresh ice chips.” Karen took a small plastic spoon from the nightstand and carefully wet his lips with the ice she’d brought, the Bard looking up at her gratefully. Ice was the only thing he could tolerate these days; any kind of food caused immediate vomiting. The hospice nurse had told them that at this stage in the dying process, feeding the patient was actually cruel. The Bard hadn’t had a real meal in over a week.
Satisfied that his thirst was quenched, he leaned back onto the pillow and fell into an uneasy slumber. Karen pulled the blanket up around his frail body, tucking him in like a small boy and turned off the light above his bed. Dusk was seeping in through the only window in the room, giving the objects within an unearthly glow.
Karen approached Claudia, looking at her with a critical eye. “Kid, I hate to tell you this, but you look like hell. You need sleep, a hot shower and a decent meal. The Bard’s not going anywhere. Why don’t you go home and freshen up? My shift’s over. I’ll sit with him a while.”
Tears sprang to Claudia’s eyes. She shared her father’s affection for the kind lady. Claudia never realized how much she craved what Karen offered freely: maternal concern. How her shrink would love to analyze that!
“Thanks, K, I don’t want to go all the way home. Maybe I’ll just jump in the shower down the hall and try to eat one of those cardboard sandwiches in the cafeteria. That should do the trick.”
Karen pulled up a plastic chair, settling in right next to her father’s bed. “Well, if that’s the best I can get from you, I’ll take it. The Bard is lucky to have you, Claudie,” she whispered, using Claudia’s childhood name.
Claudia smiled, she had told Karen about her nickname, enjoyed hearing it from her. “I am sure that he knows it.”
Claudia nodded, quickly turning away so that Karen wouldn’t see the tears escaping. She crept out of the room as Karen held her father’s hand. The picture of the two bathed in the dying light would be forever imprinted onto her mind. Regret coursing through her, she closed the door and went off in search of sustenance.
* * *
Before leaving town, her father would visit her occasionally. He never stayed in one place long, finding a new company or theater after every production. Sometimes, the infrequent child support checks would include a card or playbill from his latest show. Claire, constantly complaining about their financial situation, railed against him at every opportunity. Claudia could understand her mother’s frustration; her father was impossible to pin down.
When her parents first met, they were young and part of the same acting company. Claire had fallen hard for the brilliant young actor during A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sighing over his jaunty, mischievous Puck as she danced around him, an expendable extra, trying very hard to be noticed.
Claudia was living proof that he noticed. They married within two months of meeting. Claudia was brought into their idyllic existence as the living embodiment of their bond, her enchanting mother eclipsing all others in her father’s eyes. All others except for the great playwright himself, his tantalizing words reaching out through the centuries to snatch him away from them.
There was never any doubt that he was the better actor, his raw talent and masterful delivery making him an instant hit wherever they went. They lived like gypsies at first, his parents traveling from theater to theater, going where the acting jobs led them. He played every role, in every possible combination and part. All of the heroes and villains, all of the bravado and drama and tragedy, all of it lived within him. Her mother grew resentful, hating the way he threw himself into his work, even at the expense of his little family. They grew farther apart as he stayed at the theater late into the night, eventually finding excuses not to come home at all.
He would try to communicate with Claudia directly, but Claire would intercept all correspondence throughout the years as they tried to drown their sorrows in endless psychoanalysis. From time to time, she would hear word of him, a review here and there online or a snippet of her mother’s angered conversations.
Fascinated by the thought of him standing on stage, she imagined him thrilling an audience with the sheer force of his presence. Claudia had tried taking drama classes in school, but never felt any passion for it. She was awful, if she was being honest with herself, finding more poetry in science and math. She became the left brain to her parents’ right half, preferring logic to magic and wispy dreams.
When she was a junior in high school, her father’s latest company rolled into town to put on a production of Othello at the run-down theater downtown. Claire was away at some New Age therapy convention out of state, leaving her daughter to her own devices.
Rebellion wasn’t Claudia’s style, but she decided that this would be her only chance to see him. He was surprised and excited to hear from her, eagerly agreeing to a meeting. They were to meet at a coffee shop right next to the theater after his matinee performance.
Claudia called herself in sick to school that day. She’d been able to pull it off, calling the school for years; apparently she was quite a fine actress when impersonating her own mother on the school’s attendance line. She bought a ticket to the show and sat as far back as she dared, defiantly daring her father to impress her.
The instant he entered, her heart sank. Without wanting to, she became utterly engrossed by his performance, so raw and emotional. The flowery language sounded foreign to her modern ears, but his delivery of the lines did not. She could hear in their impact, an explanation for his desertion, a reasoning behind it. Ration and logic were turned on their head as she watched her father up there in the dark. All the love she craved from him was living and breathing in his rage-filled Othello.
She ran out at the end, right past the coffee house and out of his life for the next five years, refusing all contact with him. It wasn’t until she was in her twenties that she relented, her father calling and e-mailing the second she moved away from her mother’s house. She never told him why she stood him up that day, could never bear to think of it.
Claudia reached the cafeteria lost in her memories. All the time they had lost, so many years of missed opportunities. Only now, when it was too late, did she have a chance to know him. When the hour of his death was at hand.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by A. Elizabeth Herting