Pain was a lightning bolt with jittering spines. I startled awake, tethered to fear, IVs, and a catheter. Groaning, I rode out a wave of hot, ripping sensations, comparable perhaps, to digesting ground glass.
In two weeks the musical Quilters would open. I was a part-time student, two decades older than the other cast members, and married, with children. Resolved to reward director Pat Stien’s confidence in me, I postponed telling her where I was, what was happening.
The first time I watched Pat perform, she used the script for Walter Wangerin Jr.’s story, Ragman. I saw no props, no costume, no scenery, no supporting cast. Pat would be playing all the characters. How could a regal, fiftyish, ash-blond woman conjure a slum on an empty platform? How could she embody the unlikely hero: an urban ragman?
I sat back, skeptical. I may have crossed my arms.
Hospital: day 1, continued
Dr. G crossed his arms. “The body goes rogue sometimes,” he said. “Kidney stones get hung up.”
“But I’m in a play!” I wailed.
“And your bladder’s in lockdown. You’ll stay here, until the stone passes. Doctor’s orders.”
Although I’d passed judgment on Pat’s purist approach to “Ragman,” she then swept me into the story. Somehow she filled that space with the racket of air brakes and sirens. I smelled diesel, heartache, rotting trash. She eased in and out of five distinct characters of different ages. Her body language suggested a range of emotions I could sense in my own body as the story unfolded. Her economy of gesture enhanced the writer’s intent, allowing my imagination to flesh out details.
Hospital: day 2
My body ached. Pain crested and ebbed, almost tidal. I felt riddled with seams, each of them giving way. Limbs contracted then splayed, limp as a patchwork doll. Whenever the pain subsided, I practiced my solo, ran lines — mustn’t lose my edge.
I contemplated the bedside phone, but I hadn’t missed any rehearsals yet. I resisted alarming Pat. The costumes were done. Tickets were selling. My stone would pass before Monday. It had to.
Like editors, directors peg an actor’s struggles. Those we most yearn to impress uniquely observe our pain. As we worked on Quilters, Pat acknowledged — then coaxed me beyond — my need to please, my appetite for applause.
Hospital: day 2, continued
No one was clapping. The stone hadn’t budged.
Pat had cast me for thirteen roles, all ages, male and female. I visualized dance steps. Movements unspooled like a movie reel inside my head. Knowing that choreography defines character, I reconsidered each gesture, posture, stance.
My stone lurched, and that desolation helped me rethink my toughest character: Katie. I imagined I was 6 years old, like her, but here in this hospital bed. I assigned Katie’s grin a new crazy-loose tooth. Swaddling blankets around me I recalled an earlier posture I’d tried — backside to the audience, my bum raised high.
A director practices strategic removal, notes false moves made by actors. She literally calls the shots.
When I’d tried that pose for Katie in rehearsal, Pat, ever eloquent, cleared her throat, peered over her bifocals, and said, “The audience will appreciate subtler physicality.”
Hospital: day 3
I called Pat and explained about the kidney stone.
“Oh, how awful for you,” she said. “I believe you’re going to be fine. But we’ll prepare for the worst. I’ll call Sharilyn as understudy.”
Dismay yanked a double knot tight and high in my chest. An understudy would bolster morale, maybe save the day.
“Can someone drop your script by my office?” Pat asked.
My script? Those highlighted pages crammed with character tips, blocking, song dynamics, and notes — my personal notes. Entrust those to a stranger?
“Okay,” I whispered. I eased the phone receiver into its cradle. It was the right call for everyone. Except me.
Hospital: day 4
Pat called and said, “I’m worried about you.”
“I’ll beat this,” I promised. “How’s the understudy?”
Pat chuckled, “Sharilyn said your notes for the widow Gladys helped her immediately sense her character.”
What had I written?
“You wrote ‘Stiff hips.’”
Somehow I said the right things to Pat, joked a little, then hung up.
It should be my voice bringing Gladys to life. My stiff hips.
Hospital: day 5
What if everyone liked Sharilyn best? She was probably a superior actress/singer/dancer. Quilters would be a local standing-room-only smash. I’d dreamed of nightly standing ovations, all of us bowing and bowing.
Sharilyn had days to master what I’d internalized, then embodied, over weeks of daily rehearsals. Her Katie would never stick her bum in the air as the prairie blizzard roared in and the fire went out and Katie’s sister died and Pa — poor, noble Pa — perished outside, snow-blind and lost.
Sharilyn would nail it. People would weep.
I punched my pillow, pressed my cheek against the cooler side.
The next morning Dr. G sighed. “Go do your play. But your stone could still pass at any time.”
I returned to rehearsals, weak but buoyant. Everyone hugged me, including Sharilyn. Pat’s gaze radiated welcome, relief, pride. And concern. I’d lost so much weight my skirt needed alterations.
I wanted everything perfect. The script described Katie pummeling her dead sister’s chest, which had felt off to me, so I’d never complied. But I changed my mind and obeyed the directions.
Pat and the choreographer each took me aside. I don’t recall their words, only the realization that my body had lied onstage. Katie’s grief, they said, was most compelling when her gestures dissolved midair, when her hands stuttered like birds afraid to alight on the body.
I trusted my original instinct for Katie. After the standing ovation Pat pulled me inside the circle of her arms and said, “You made us weep.”
The kidney stone
Unbeknownst to me, the stone must have passed. Or vanished.
Three decades since that play I still cherish Pat as mentor, colleague, and friend. My second mother. I think of that old Quilters script, its piece-by-piece structure approximating the movements of acting as well as the growth of our relationship.
Pat, now 92, serves me her homemade popovers and ginger peach tea. She passes butter, cheddar, lingonberry jam. She asks me to read a poem at her future memorial service.
Because Pat has taught me to reserve a degree of aesthetic distance during a performance, when that day comes I’ll shelve my raveled grief. I’ll gauge how the poem is being received, then discern which lines need heightened expression or toning down in the moment.
Pat thumbs opens a worn hardback poetry collection to “Walking with the Wind” by Sallie Chesham.
“Read to me,” I say.
She settles more deeply into her leather chair. “I am so weary of walking against the wind,” she begins, “Someday, I shall run away with it.”
Daylight dims around us; the room half-dissolves. I absorb every nuance, but not so I can imitate her. I recognize Time’s basting threads, joining shared pieces of lives into a quilt. And I envision the double knot, one final masterstroke, after the house lights dim.
Walking Against the Wind
I am so weary of walking against the wind.
Someday, I shall run away with it.
Some will say, “What a pity,
She is dead.”
Then you will sharply remember,
From long gone whispers of dreams shared;
And you will tell yourself,
“No, she is free.
She has gone walking with the wind.”