I traveled around a great deal…I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something…Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music…I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! -Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
At 12 pm the line starts forming outside the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, New Jersey. Hundreds of children wearing bright costumes and clutching their parents’ hands stare at the posters in the window announcing the arrival of the Australian children’s band, The Wiggles: a quartet consisting of one ballet dancer, one opera singer, one classical pianist and one guitar-playing musical encyclopedia.
I hold my little girl on my hip as we wait to have our ticket scanned. We squint in the late September sun. Fall has not arrived; we’re sweating in our dress-up clothes. She has qualms. She says she might prefer to see them only on DVD. Will they be too big? Will they look directly at her? Will she be asked to join them in dancing? Alas, I assure her, we must stay in our seats. She smiles brightly and crookedly and I feel a shiver pass through her. She’s excited to see Emma Watkins up close even though she doesn’t know what up close is, really. We enter the cavernous theater and she sees the sets that are so familiar from youtube uploads of other Wiggles concerts.
You always get butterflies in a theatre. Every neuron in the brain tingles: something big is going to happen.
Today also marks my mother’s 75th birthday. She was supposed to go to the theater as well. Her boyfriend has tickets to see Cabaret. Instead, she is in the Close Observation unit of a hospital. She’s been delirious all week; her thyroid is riding a roller coaster.
Later I will wrap my mother’s legs in a heating pad, sing a surreal happy birthday with the hospital nursing staff—they have birthday cakes in case—coax her to eat half a sandwich and beg the on-call doctor for more pain medication.
When I tell my mother I have to leave to put my baby girl to sleep, she will grip my arm wildly. Please don’t leave, she’ll say. I’ll kiss her goodbye until tomorrow. She reminds me of my daughter, who clutched me so tightly today as the concert began that she cut off my airway.
My mother follows me. At the concert I watch my daughter dance with toddler-abandon and try to scale the stage to join the cast. And there is my mother, at my shoulder. My mother was a dancer. My mother was on the Broadway stage. My mother is having a birthday in a hospital today and I am a state away.
And she is right there, at my shoulder. I’m watching my child in the thrall of her first theater experience. She is so much like my mother when my mother was a young girl. I am so much like my mother, too. My daughter’s fresh-from-the-bath curls that I’ve combed for the show are the same curls that my mother combed on my head. When I look at my daughter, I now see what my mother sees–feel what my mother feels—when she looks at me.
My mother’s mind is weakening though her struggle is valiant. As her thyroid levels stabilize, her mind grows sharper. Still, the damage of a massive brain bleed years ago will never heal. She lives in a world of uncertainty. What happened five minutes ago? What is happening now? What will happen in five minutes? It’s as though my mother has perpetually just awakened in a rowboat and can’t find the shore.
My grandmother took my mother to see A Streetcar Named Desire when she was seven years old. My mother remembered two things from that day: tremendous excitement (enhanced by her mother’s swearing her to secrecy) and the ring of Jessica Tandy’s voice at the end of the play: “Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!”
In December of 1947, a little girl with big brown eyes stares at the players on stage at the Barrymore Theatre. On September 27th, 2014, an even littler girl, who has inherited her big brown eyes from the first little girl, stares in wonder at the players on stage at the Wellmont Theater. It is the birthday of the girl from 1947.
Time loops and swirls around both girls. Past and present bump headlong. The girls briefly merge.
Then they separate.
My daughter falls asleep in my arms on the bus ride home. Her face is tear-stained from weeping when the show ends and The Wiggles leave the stage.
My mother weeps when she sees me arrive at her hospital room. She tells me her mind is alive now that her baby is in the room. She says she feels like a new person. She asks me to stay forever. She is joking, of course. Except she isn’t.
It is after midnight now.
Tomorrow I begin again.
I will take my daughter to the Sunday farm market. During nap time, I will make the journey to the hospital. I ride the loop. I am more faithful than I intended to be. I intend to cut out at some point, when it hurts too much. What, exactly, is too much? For my mother? Nothing. Is it reasonable? Is it sane? Is it possible?
No, no, and yes.
We blew out the candle on my mother’s cake tonight. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She is still so beautiful, my mother. But she was supposed to be forever young.
Then I realize that she is. She is forever young. She is still the little girl at the Barrymore Theatre in 1947. She is still the mother who told me the story of the little girl whose mother took her to the Barrymore Theatre in 1947. She sat transfixed and heard “Fire, fire, fire, fire!”
We blew out the candle on my mother’s birthday cake tonight.
“I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger–anything that can blow your candles out! For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura–and so goodbye…”
It is September 28th as I finish writing this chronicle of September 27th. Yesterday we blew out the candle on my mother’s cake and today I will walk into her room and say “hello” with a big smile.
I will never say “goodbye.”
For a mother and daughter, there is no such thing.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actor and a ballet dancer. She has been caring for her mother, whose brain was soaked in blood in a massive stroke at 68, for many years, while raising a young daughter. This essay is one of many dedicated to her. She has written for The Mid, The Huffington Post, Mamalode, Off The Shelf, Coffee and Crumbs, and others.
Featured image by Tiffany Lucero.