Monday, April 6, 2020

DEATHBED, a stage play

photo by William Neumann

Instead of cleaning closets I decided to see what I could upload to provide a humorous distraction.  After some tweaks, I’m sharing my full-length play DEATHBED, the story of an Italian family whose Super Bowl plans were interrupted by a call from the hospital.   
In 1998 as I was writing my book MOTHER (a novel about grief) I often found myself crying. I started writing DEATHBED on alternate days to cheer myself up.  Through it, I surrounded myself with an Italian family not unlike my own, that adapted its unique dramas to play out under the constant threat of death. 
Please write to me at and let me know what you think.  I’ve written a series with these characters, and would love to see the project continue.
By all means do inquire about these wonderful actors and gifted director.  I will forever be grateful for their contributions.  Details are in the credits.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

When December Brings Loss

My Uncle Dick always said December was a bad month.  His mother, my grandmother who lived with us, had died in December, and I remember we had to put the Christmas tree out of sight.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, we weren’t allowed to play music in the house. At the time I thought that was one of the superstitions Italians lived by, like not wearing red to a wake, not saying the word accident in a car, and not looking at a dog when you’re pregnant.  But no, my parents were serious.  No music. 

Since my sister and I were of concert age, we had a lot of good songs in our repertoire, which we used to sing while hand-washing and drying dishes.  We were not at all pleased with this “no music” rule, and hated that our tree was relocated to the unheated porch from our living room where we could enjoy it.  My younger brothers didn’t seem to mind.  In their minds, Christmas would come anyway.

Prior to my mother’s passing, she listened repeatedly to the three tenors from her in-home hospital bed, hooked up to her oxygen, my Aunt Judy beside her, my father watching disinterestedly in the background as he rolled his meatballs for the holidays.  “Nessun Dorma” was pretty much on repeat, and they would talk with pride about my grandfather playing the timpani at an opera house in New York.

The last December of her life, my mother would move from the hospital to rehab to my parents’ home in Lakewood, New Jersey.  I called her daily, sometimes from my New York City office where on a clear day I had a view of the Statue of Liberty. I couldn’t help but think about her parents passing through Ellis Island on their way to Hoboken.

Throughout her illness, my mother always assured me she was fine.  Only one time I remember her admitting she cried, when in rehab someone sang, “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”  The thought of her unhappy haunted me worse than the times I’d seen her gasping for breath.  But now I had a second song to compete with “Nessun Dorma,” which had played in my head since my last trip to the hospital. Though my mother did not die in December, the damage had been done.  I never heard that Christmas song again without thinking of her alone in rehab; it had the same affect as the Ave Maria, which routinely slammed me back to my family’s funeral masses.

By the time my Aunt Tessie passed in December, I had a house that was regularly visited by my siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, pre and post-repasts.  We never hid our tree or denied the family music.  We went the other way.  We broke out the wine and sang together.  We ate pound cake, ham, cookies, and pastries, told familiar stories, trashed people who didn’t show up for the wake, and otherwise bonded in disbelief at the thought of another one of us on the other side.

We took it very personally when Dean Martin left us on Christmas Day--my uncle claiming it was proof that December was as bad as he insisted.  None of us pointed out how many people had passed in every other calendar month, because frankly he was very entertaining.  But in 2015 when Uncle Dick took a fall in December, there was a mild, understated panic that immediately called to our minds his “December is a bad month” prediction.

It was a wrap-up year for my family.  Our house in New Jersey had been for sale, my daughter Emily had gotten married, my daughter Elizabeth was settled in Suffern, my son Sam had moved to Florida, our Golden Retriever had passed, my husband, Steve, was leaving his job in the city, and we were about to take our empty nest to the Pennsylvania countryside.  So when my uncle, the last of my mother’s siblings, died on December 18th--the day of our house closing, it seemed all too fitting. 

We couldn’t have the family over for the pre or post-repast gathering because we had just handed off the keys.  Instead we picked up pizza and went to my cousin’s house to help each other absorb the shock. My cousins told me he passed while “My Way” was playing; I didn’t envy them such a popular radio song.  At least I would only be on a hair trigger for “Nessun Dorma,” “Ave Maria,” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”

I don’t face December with trepidation. But I have grown to understand why our Christmas tree, an access point for memories, was stuck out on the porch. And I get why there was no music the year my grandmother died. Music can sear your heart and mind so permanently, your normal, grown-up defenses can’t protect you.  A familiar melody, and suddenly you’re looking into the eyes and soul of a departed loved one, grieving as though they just left you.

My mother knew she was no match for the tree or music. I’m not either. I’d just rather acknowledge the heartache and go down crying. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019


When my grandparents emigrated from Italy to Hoboken, they left behind their eldest daughter, Miette. Her great crime was marrying--I assumed she eloped, because instead of taking her to America with her husband, they boarded the ship without her.
My mother, who hadn’t been born yet, relayed the story she heard of how Miette was screaming and crying for her family as the ship departed for America. Miette already had five siblings, and I assumed her life had been about taking care of them, helping her mother bake bread, changing non-disposable diapers, doing a whole lot of laundry and primitive domestic tasks that would make our generation cringe. 
Is it any wonder she opted for a family of her own?
As a consequence of being left behind, Miette’s five siblings born in America had never met her. The family wrote letters, sent money, and eventually, well after Miette’s parents, two husbands, and one brother passed away, agreed to send for her.  Somehow, my father managed the paperwork to the government’s satisfaction, agreeing to support and provide for Aunt Miette in America.
My parents decided she would live in our house as my grandparents did.  My mother told me Aunt Miette had a daughter my age that I would be expected to help when she arrived in America.  It was not unusual to have Italian visitors stay in our attic for weeks at a time—third cousins, we were told, who worked as longshoremen.
For a family that routinely celebrated holidays with accordions, guitars, and group singing in two languages, the day Miette arrived exceeded all expectations.  She came through our kitchen, grabbed, hugged, and repeatedly kissed my Uncle Sally, the brother she remembered most from Italy. We have a video of their reunion and it still brings tears to my eyes. 
As nieces and nephews, we watched in amazement as the reunited siblings sat around the kitchen table, speaking Italian, eating, drinking, singing, and celebrating. I don’t think I’d seen my mother as happy since she before lost her parents.  She immediately began taking care of her older sister, teaching her a few English words, washing her hair in our kitchen sink, cooking her favorite meals, doing her laundry in the washing machine Miette enjoyed watching as a novelty. 
As time went on and Miette looked forward to her daughter’s arrival, she received a letter from Italy.  Her daughter had married (eloped or gotten pregnant?) and would not be coming to America after all.  Miette’s siblings encouraged her to stay in America—none more than my mother who loved her not only as a sister but also a friend. 
Soon Miette made the decision to return to Italy. Perhaps she remembered being on that dock watching the ship leave, the pain of that horrible separation from her parents and siblings.  Perhaps she never really liked America, despite its colored TVs, washing machines, and many conveniences.  Perhaps she loved it all but just needed to be near her daughter. 
When the family said good-bye to Aunt Miette, it was forever.  In the seventies, only a handful of people we knew had the means to visit Europe.  We rarely even phoned outside our area codes because of the cost, much less flew about to other countries. In any case, it was a once in a lifetime visit that would be followed by letters, just like before.
When I called my mother on my honeymoon to tell her I was in Italy, she cried on the phone. Maybe it was because she was happy one of us made it over there, but I doubt it.  She didn’t value traveling.  I could picture her on duty, cooking or making coffee,  fumbling for tissues in her smock. Maybe she cried because my life had grown into something more than either of us thought it could be, something beyond our presumed boundaries.  Or just maybe it was because I thought to call her, to include her in my moment of joy.
Our successive generations will never feel the pain of being separated by an ocean.  We all travel.  If someone lives in on another continent for a while, we can FaceTime, Skype, or maintain a digital presence in each other’s lives.  We can share texts, pictures, and videos in seconds at the touch of a button.
I wonder if that’s why losing someone feels so much worse these days.  We communicate with each other constantly--until we can’t. We cling to our faith and the promise of heaven, but we can’t comprehend permanent separation. Maybe because the only true separation we have left is death, and we simply have no context.

Friday, November 1, 2019

A Heart for Dogs

I love dogs.  I have especially loved Golden Retrievers ever since our beautiful Lucky came into my life in 2003.  Losing him left me so sad, I started to follow other dog lovers on social media. Lately, in addition to cute photos, I have been surprised to see videos of dogs being put to bed in pajamas, taken about town in strollers, fed from a fork off a kids’ table, walking the streets with sunglasses, playing the piano, and being read bedtime stories.  
My husband often brought up the possibility of cloning Lucky before he passed, but to be honest, there were a few things I thought were in need of improvement.  For example, he could never be around other dogs without feeling threatened and having a total personality change.  Then my sweet, docile retriever would turn into a barking Alpha male ready to take on that Great Dane or half-pint Poodle walking across the street.  In reality, Lucky got himself slapped by a cat that wandered into our backyard, and he zoomed to the back door with a bloody nose, in need of a safe space.
Once, TV preacher Creflo Dollar advised people who were sad over the death of a dog to get another one like it, even call it by the same name if it would cheer them up.  I never considered doing such a thing, though I did once see the most perfect Golden Retriever for sale by Lucky’s breeder.  This gorgeous creature had been returned due to hair issues--a reasonable consideration, because you really have no idea how a Golden’s hair will mess with your life before you own one.
We met Max and made an instant decision to buy him.  He was gorgeous, larger than Lucky, but he walked next to me on his leash as though he had already had obedience training.  But Max was not Lucky. 
From the time we got him home, he was celebrated, friends brought toys, treats, they were so happy we took the plunge.  Very soon, the calm dog on that leash at the breeder disappeared, and Max acted as if he were raised by wolves, running and jumping on people, scratching furniture, digging gashes in our floors, attempting to take a nice bite out of you if you didn’t pay him enough attention. We called the breeder in a week and she assured us she would take him back, but maybe we could try some advanced obedience training.
After ten days of residential obedience training, Max came home and did all the same things he had before. He’d jump up on the counter, steal and chew through the clicker, stand on my tables to eyeball people, and pull out of his collar or harness on the short walks I dared to take him on.
True, I was able to train him to go to his crate, pick up a toy, ring a bell to go out, and wait by the door. My husband and I exhibited the trainers’ new hand signals, and put into practice all they advised.  We turned away when he jumped, ignored the bad behavior that wasn’t a major threat to his or our safety, and worked with a whistle and cheese in extreme circumstances.  We excelled; Max did not.
We were told having him neutered would help.  It didn’t, unless you count the hours when he was too drugged to be a delinquent.  He even ate through two cones.  When he was in his massive crate, constructed for the ninety-pound dog he was, he gnawed at the latches, rendering at least three unusable.  We tried the vet approved, foul-tasting apple spray to deter him from chewing the crate, but he was determined.  He was chewing every latch on his way to a breakout, and apparently there was little we could do to stop him.
We sought new resources.  An in-house dog trainer suggested holding him on a leash next to me while I sat in a chair at night, to bond and get him settled.  He chewed through two leashes, such was his desire to get away from me and wreak his own kind of havoc.
My husband put him on a zip-line to burn excess energy in a field where we had always let Lucky roam loose.  He barked the whole time and attempted to bite my husband who would periodically approach and attempt to play with him.  It took several tries to even get him back inside and in his crate.
When our adult children visited, they were greatly disappointed to see our lack of progress. He was still trying to bite them, jump on them, and otherwise wear us out.  They were not the first to suggest we make the hard decision and take him back.
I would watch my husband outside with him, trying all the tricks experienced dog owners try.  Steve is a bit of an animal whisperer who grew up in the country and admittedly had much better relationships with his cattle than he did with Max.  My brother, also a dog sensitive, took him out in the field and I watched in horror as Max continued to leap straight up in the air like a fox. 
Steve and I were so burned out, we started taking Max to the day care where his obedience training took place, mid-week, just to give ourselves a break.  There, he could barely wait to get out of the car and go play with his canine friends. We sighed with relief at the thought of having one normal day a week.
We tried everything we could find on the Internet, spoke to everyone we could.  But the hopes we had for Max, walking in the park, companionship, dreaming that his beautiful soul would be part of our family for the next ten or more years, were gone.  We recognized we were for the most part, in a hostage situation.  And though we didn’t want to face the loneliness of life without Max, our children, friends, and family were not coming over much. The ones who did visit, flinched when he went anywhere near them.  We had to face up to our choice--it was Max or us.
After four long months of trying to love Max into submission, we took the long ride back to the breeder.  We prayed for a quick adoption, though we did not hesitate to let the breeder know Max’s habits in detail. Of course we felt sick, sad, and disappointed.
We were immediately offered another dog, a girl, but I wasn’t sure I could opt in for that heartbreak again. As anyone with a love for dogs knows, it’s devastating to part with them.
We provided Max’s picture, which soon went up on Facebook through the breeder. Immediately, a barrage of commentary followed, none of it very pleasant.  People wanted to know what kind of sick people would ever choose to return such a beautiful animal.  The remarks were so vicious, the breeder actually came to our defense explaining Max just wasn’t the right fit.  I knew it wasn’t helping me to read the comments, but I also couldn’t stop myself.
For the next six months to a year, I looked for proof that Max had been adopted.  My husband was secretly calling the breeder for updates, though we tried not to talk about it.  As of a year and a half ago, he hadn’t been, but maybe that suited him, to be with his own on a farm, leaping and jumping and carousing with the puppies.
Yesterday, I saw two fundraisers on Facebook, one for a retired gentleman with serious health issues, the other for a dog needing an operation.  The gentleman had been on Facebook for years and presumably had a far better reach than a dog most people had never interacted with, but as of yesterday, the dog had raised $2500, the gentleman, $20. It left me wondering if there would ever be a fundraiser where a human could outraise a dog.
For whatever social media isn’t, its ability to show us who and what we are is spot on. Those fundraisers reminded me of Max and those accusations that we were somehow heartless and horrible to have returned a dog to a breeder.  But it was the right decision, to prioritize our lives and well being over providing a permanent home for Max. 
Many people say they love animals more than humans, and that is evident when donations are up for dogs and down for humans.  Because as much as we may ascribe dishonest or evil motives to a man trying to raise money for his own health issues, one thing is for sure, we don’t know the motives of the people collecting for the dog, or the temperament of the dog, even if he is wearing cute pajamas.