The Roles We Play: When the Hardest Performance Ends

Thursdays are my hardest day. They always have been, as long as I can remember. In high school,  Thursdays meant two more laborious days of mind-numbing school (stoichiometry, anyone?). In college, Thursdays meant hanging out in my PJs until midnight while everyone else was out partying. Did you know that Thursdays became the new Friday sometime around 2005? Yeah. Me, neither. I stayed in and studied for my weekly Friday morning sight singing test. Every damn Thursday.

Somewhere along the line, my Thursdays eased up some, but not really. They just became second nature and I enjoyed them more. In the professional world, Thursdays mean show openers and concert nights, sometimes auditions. Other times, Thursday means late-night margaritas because Fridays are my coveted (and only) day “off.” This specific Thursday, today, means ten lessons divided up into two teaching blocks that sandwich a droopy, midday lunch/practice/get-shit-done session during which I play (and inevitably lose) the mental game of “don’t drink coffee while you sing.” It is what it is.

Last Thursday was the hardest Thursday of all my life.

I found out my grandmother died.

It doesn’t really matter what you know or what you don’t know, or even what you think you know, or know you don’t know. Nothing prepares you for death. Nothing. No amount of assumptions or expectations can prepare you for the moment your own mortality becomes disturbingly real. Tangible, even.

The arrangements were swift. Found out on Thursday (damn you, Thursday), dropped everything and drove across the state the next morning, funeral Saturday, reluctantly returned on Sunday, the “day of rest.” Life resumed on Monday. Damn you, too, Monday. You’re just as bad as Thursday. Damn all the days.

Being me, I volunteered to sing at her funeral. Volunteered. To my family’s credit, my mother’s immediate reply was “are you sure you want to do that?”

Of course, I said. I’m a professional. This is what I do. I choose music, I play, and I use my voice to celebrate the life and times of people who have gone on.

I kept it together like a fiend. Like a BRICK.….okay, I almost lost it. Almost. I did allow the grief to flow after the songs themselves were over (Homeward Bound by Marta Keen and Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which shouldn’t need a link). I even got to jam with my cousin, who is a guitarist, though it’s ironic that the one and only time we’ve played together was in that moment. The roads we take….

It was hard. Really hard. I witnessed my depression-era grandfather, with his total rock-solid demeanor and unending loyalty to his wife, break down in tears several times, which is something I’ve never seen in all my life. The hour before I left, he gave me some of her jewelry to keep. That’s something you think you’re prepared for, too, and when it happens, trying not to totally lose your shit is, well…impossible. I’ll never be able to erase the image of him with his hands planted on her casket moments before it was to be lowered into the earth. You just think you’re prepared for it, and you never will be, not ever.

My mother, my beacon, my shaper. I don’t know if I’ll ever be strong enough to do for her what she did for her mom last weekend. One day, I’ll have to, and that’s mortally terrifying.

Her ceremony was simple and beautiful. She loved pink roses, so we cleaned out every flower shop within a 40-mile radius. I stood by her with the family that raised me and my cousins that I grew up with, each of us decades older in that moment. I spent the day pretending (successfully) like I knew what I was doing in the kitchen, and if nothing else came together, at least there’d be good, strong coffee. My other grandma brought a fruit tray and made dinner for us on Friday (“sometimes, all that’s left to do is cook,” she said). We ate fried chicken and chocolate cake and laughed about how we used to play pranks on her because she liked a meticulously organized fridge and we were little shit-stirrers who would go in and move the dressing bottles around and wait to see how long it would take before she noticed. She hated that.

When the laughter settled and those thick pauses dissipated, we said our goodbyes. I stripped off my black boots, my knees aching from a long day of kitchen-managing in heels, and broke down in my husband’s arms. My husband, the only person who is allowed to see my vulnerability, who knows that the best, most “with-it” version of myself can only serve as a fortress for so long until the walls have to come down.

Yes, the hardest things happen on Thursdays.

Today marks one week since her death. I thought I was fine until a colleague asked me how I was and I lost it.  It wasn’t the most lost version of lose-itness. When I really get going, I develop these ridiculous headaches because all the muscles of my face contort into this blubbery, mascara-laden mess when I have a good cry, resulting in some fairly attractive sinus swelling. I didn’t get all the way there, but I did immediately attempt to tuck away that sad vulnerability, that sense of utter mortality that makes us human and beautiful, and I just couldn’t bring myself to withstand yet another performance. Sometimes the performances have to be turned off, the roles are no more, and what are we left with? Nothing but our most naked, sensitive, exposed, and unguarded versions of ourselves. I had never met that version of myself until last week. It’s sort of like the Raw-Chicken-Robin: tender, full of holes, and pummeled by a meat mallet.

It’s still inside me, that “non-performer” that doesn’t feel the need to keep it all together or have all the answers. My grandma always knew me as that version, though she was proud of me and my life, and always took the opportunity to tell me.

If only I could have had one last opportunity to tell her that her legacy will live on….

photo 3
damn kids. 

photo 1

Something tells me she’ll know.

Happy Thursday.

 

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