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Artifacts of a Life Well Lived

On September 10th, 2018, my father passed away with grace and dignity. His wife of 35 years, Marijke, and my brother, Chris, were at his side. My eldest brother, Caleb, and I were in the air on our way as my dad slipped from his earthly body of 90 years into eternity at 6:46 pm. He was also attended by his incredible caregiver, Leviah. Leviah is Fijian and well practiced in caring for people as they transition “back home”. As is the Fijian custom, Leviah washed my father and clothed him in the casual attire my father liked to wear in this life. By the time I arrived at 1am, my father’s body was in a bed downstairs. There was a sheet covering him and a candle glowing at the head of his bed. Marijke had retired to bed, but both of my brothers greeted me with long hugs. We were happy to see each other. There are few things more comforting than a hug from a loved one during times of grief and mourning.

I was grateful that I made it back to see my father one last time. His spirit was no longer animating his body, but the expression on his face was one of quiet satisfaction. As if he got one last glimpse of his time on earth before he left and he was pleased with what he saw. His expression was the last sentence of a book that took almost a century to write. It was the summation of a story you didn’t want to end, but for which you were forever grateful. Caleb put his hand on my father’s beat-less heart. “His heart is no longer warming his body. He is cooling.” What happens to all of the feelings that his heart contained over his life? He was such a sensitive man. As an actor he lived and loved so many lives in that heart. His own and all of the characters into which he poured himself.

I was struck not by the sense of loss, but rather the sense of liberation of those feelings, finally free from the fragility of the human heart. No longer a candle casting light, but rather the light itself. In seeing his lifeless face, so regal and well utilized over the course of his career -painted, mustached, scarred, and festooned with the nose of his signature Cyrano, I realized that my father was not dead. He was more alive. He was finally free from the bottle like a genie, free from fret, from the pain of a decade of illness, ready to expand, to love anew, to play, and create. We all felt his great expansive love as the four of us bumped around the house the following morning. We prayed in gratitude for the life he lived so richly, for his kindness, for his generosity, for his sweet and tender artist’s sensibility, for his poems, for his innate fairness, for his fierce devotion to his craft and his family.

In his 60 plus years of performing Cyrano, King Lear, Hadrian the VII, Macbeth, and countless others, thousands of performances over his life, none of us could remember him missing a single show, nor a rehearsal. Even though he battled childhood onset diabetes, which would send mere mortals into a world of medical chaos given the schedule my father kept. He combatted the disease that finally took him in old age by living a disciplined life. Two egg whites for breakfast and an English muffin. Tuna sandwich for lunch. Skim milk for afternoon snack. Protein, light starch and vegetables for dinner.

When it was finally time for me to leave my father’s house to return back to work, I had to leave at 3am to catch an early morning flight. As I was setting about prepping the coffee for my predawn departure, Marijke went to the other room and came back with an artifact of a life fully realized. It wasn’t much on first viewing. A rather thin, dented-up black thermos. “This was your father’s. It is thin so it could fit in the briefcase he would take to rehearsal. It’s what he put his skim milk in.” Like his heart that contained the love of so many lifetimes, this little, fragile thermos, contained the skim milk that sustained his body during long rehearsals where his blood sugar would otherwise plummet. That thermos was witness to the discovery of so many performances that went on to enchant audiences. It travelled with him from character to character and in so doing has transformed into a treasure of remembrance for his youngest son.

Thank you, dad, for your exquisite beauty. Your laughter and light lives in all of us, even as we are pulled by the undertow of grief that the world no longer contains the meter of your precious heartbeat. Safe passage beloved father.