January 10, 2007

My little friend

Earlier this week I acknowledged an anniversary. It was a date I wish I could have skipped, but as it does every year, January 7 arrived.

[insert squiggly Wayne’s World flashback effect here]

I was at the rehearsal studios for American Musical Theatre San Jose, waiting for my first crew meeting to start. A woman approached me and introduced herself as “Val.” She was very petite. Tiny. I think she could maybe reach the 4’9″ on the colorful ruler on a convenience store door jamb. She made me feel welcome instantly and calmed my anxious anticipation about joining the wardrobe crew and becoming a full-fledged theatre geek. I loved how short she was! For the first time ever, I felt statuesque at 5’1″.

We did many shows together, standing backstage, cloaked in black to seem invisible, waiting for our assigned actors to exit the stage and strip in front of us, so we could clothe them. Val became my dresser mentor. I’d ask her how to fix rips in costumes, how best to iron out the stubborn wrinkles from linen, and to please find out who in the men’s dressing room was straight. (Usually no one.)

When we weren’t doing a show, Val and I got together for lunch, dinner, or a movie. We enjoyed the same music and shared books with each other. I told her about my awful first (and usually last) dates I endured while on my search for Mr. Right, and she laughed. She told me I should write a book about them.

One August, some of us dressers got tickets to see Dave Matthews Band. I’d never seen them before, but was looking so forward to sprawling out on the lawn and dancing and drinking beers. The day of the concert, Val sent me an email asking me to please drink some for her that night because she wasn’t feeling well. She had been experiencing dizzy spells, similar to vertigo.

Val was diagnosed with lung cancer. Stage 4. She had never smoked a day in her life, but her lungs had been attacked by the ugly, hateful monster that she referred to in her e-mail as “The big C.”

She didn’t want us to be sad. She wanted us to act normal. So we did. Throughout her treatments, when she was up to it, we’d go see a movie, carefully choosing something lighthearted, that wouldn’t remind us of the disease that was wreaking havoc on her tiny body. On one of our outings, we chose Space Cowboys. A bunch of old fogies being vaulted into outer space for one final trip? Sure! That’s safe! La la la. Until the character that Tommy Lee Jones played was diagnosed with…cancer. Shit. Hesitantly, I looked over at Val, sitting to my left. Her sister, on Val’s other side, looked at her too. Val looked at both of us, and the three of us lost it. While the solemn scene projected on the screen, we burst into inappropriate guffaws until tears poured out of our eye holes. We had tried so hard to steer clear of cheesy tear-jerkers, yet we could not escape the dreaded “Big C,” even in a “fun for the whole family!” comedy. But Val still laughed. And we did too. Because when you were with Val, that’s just what you did.

When she was in the hospital a much-too-short while later, a crowd of her friends rallied around her bed. These were all ladies she knew from theatre. Some of them had children who had grown up performing with Val’s daughter. Others worked with her creating costumes for the local children’s theatre. And of course, the dressers were there, and some of her actor pals as well. We took shifts, watching her sleep, sitting with her through the night. At times, she could barely speak, but still found the strength to ask for a margarita. Or tiramisu (which I was more than happy to provide). Other times, when she seemed totally knocked out on morphine, she’d smile, quietly eavesdropping on the conversations surrounding her.

One night, when I arrived to relieve Cheryl, she claimed that she had The Man for me. Her nephew. Ooh! I was excited. He was close to my age. (Bonus!) And balding. (Woo hoo!) He was a dentist. (Nice!) He owned his own home. (In the Bay Area, no less!) He was divorced from a woman who walked all over him. (Oh, how I loved rescuing!) Val lay still in her bed as Cheryl and I each held one of her hands in ours, James Taylor played on the CD player and the fiber optic Christmas tree flashed dots of color on the drab walls. I started to relay my prior dating horror stories to Cheryl and told her one that had been Val’s favorite. As I was getting to the funniest part, Val, who I thought was snoozing, started to laugh, her lips forming into a crooked little smile, and her mouth emitting wheezy giggles like Snagglepuss. Again, I laughed with Val until tears came. But the tears were different this time. I was losing my friend. And I didn’t want her to go away.

January 7, 2002 was Monday. In theatre, Mondays are dark. Val’s theatre family would not be working that night, and would be available to hear the terrible news of her passing, and support each other.

Val’s service was just 4 days later. During the funeral, a little bird sat atop the skylight ceiling and darted around the windows of the church. The priest had a very thick accent that made it nearly impossible to comprehend what he was saying. As he went on and on about our friend, Valerie (who’s this Valerie person he keeps talking about? Her name is Val.), it was all we could do to keep from snickering. And then the bird outside began to chirp. And then it started to squawk and click its beak and toes against the glass. This continued for a few minutes. Cheryl leaned over to me and said “That bird is Val, telling that guy to shut the fuck up already!” I don’t remember one thing that the priest said (even what I could understand). But I will never forget that bird.

Val orchestrated everything about her farewell, right down to choosing the songs she wanted played at her memorial service, later in the day. When we entered the room, we were greeted by the unmistakable sound of Elton John’s voice exclaiming “The Bitch is Back.” That song makes me think of her, every time I hear it.

And I laugh.

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