Saturday, July 21, 2012

Lunch with Lazarus

I was sitting at the Gourmet Dragon restaurant with my mother-in-law enjoying the most pleasant and surprisingly delicious lunch (may I recommend the Ginger Chicken with Stringbeans?) when an idea for a great screenplay struck. Contrary to the urban legend that everyone has a secret screenplay in their closet, I’ve never even thought about it—until today. And since I’m busy with other things, I freely offer it to the world with the stipulation that I get at least some credit and perhaps royalties when “Lunch with Lazarus” hits the cinemas. But since I’m so generously offering the idea for free, the least the eager reader can do is read the whole blog. So first, a little background.

Back in late May, I posted a piece called “Here’s to Life” about my mother-in-law Pam’s decision to call it quits, check in to Hospice and stop eating. As you can imagine, it caused quite a stir and a significant group of folks— her sister, children, nephews, nieces, friends—got on planes and gathered at her house for a collective farewell. It turned out to be a kind of living memorial service, the Tom Sawyer fantasy we all have probably had at one point or another of hearing the testimony of those whose lives you’ve touched. There was the expected mix of tears and laughter, acceptance and admiration of her decision alongside resistance and confusion and anger, night after night of a ‘last supper” that kept being postponed as she awaited a bed in Hospice. She was able to sit on her couch center stage and hold court as the house cleansing began, identifying each object, photo, journal, piece of jewelry, silver, china, the whole nine yards of a lifetime of accumulation and suggesting where each might go. When the bed in Hospice finally opened, most except my wife and her brother had left and they noted that she packed her bags as calmly and meticulously as if she was planning an overnight at a friend’s house.

Amidst many complications in this high drama was the fact that it was impossible for me to attend without canceling long-planned European workshops and equally impossible for my daughter in Argentina to come earlier than her planned date of July 5th. Having not seen her grandmother for over two years and somewhat planning her U.S. trip around it, she was heartbroken (those interested can read her moving blog on the subject: http://taliagoodkin.blogspot. com— May 31st post titled “Goodbye Grandma) We both had written private letters to Pam thanking her for all she gave and sending her our love, but still wished we could see her once more.

I was in the dead center of the ambivalent camp, at once impressed by her sense that she had reached the cadence of a long and satisfying 87-year symphonic work and why keep repeating the last chord? But also feeling that the music of our lives is directed by forces beyond us and we don’t really get to decide— except for the obvious exception of suicide. And deciding not to eat seemed like a kind of slow-motion suicide.

To cut to the chase. She spent a week or so in Hospice and quickly discovered that it isn’t easy to stop eating when your body is not ready for it and in accord with your mind. And so in consultation with various advisors, she came to the realization that God had other plans for her and she might as well pay attention. So she got a room in the Assisted Living place across the street, figured out a couple of details as to make herself more physically comfortable and today, walked out of her room, down the hall, out the door into the car, directed my wife through a complex maze of Ann Arbor streets, and walked into the Chinese restaurant with her walker to sit down for a lovely lunch. She looked great, her mind was as sharp (as it had been throughout this whole time), her spirits up. Before the lunch, I had played piano and sung with the people on her floor for an hour and she participated enthusiastically. After lunch, we went to her old house to sort through her piano music so she can get practicing again back in her new place. Quite a turnaround!

And so the screenplay. While eating lunch, I had the feeling that someone who so many had said tearful goodbyes to and already started feeling an empy place in their hearts for, had come back. And that’s when I thought: “What if a loved one we lost and mourned for and missed dearly could come back for one lunch at a Chinese restauarant to be with us again. (Okay, it could be Thai or Mexican or Greek—but no KFC or Burger King or Pizza Hut. The lighting is wrong.) What would we talk about? What would we ask?”

Well, lots of room for variation here. But I would make the ground rule that the living person can’t ask the deceased anything about where they’d been except for one yes or no question. Part of the drama would be thinking would question to ask and when to ask it. (“Do you miss me?” “Are you happy where you are?” “Do they have better food than this restaurant?” etc.) The rest would be spent asking all the questions you wished you had asked before the loved one passed on, from the practical “I’m still looking for my old comic books that you and Mom hid” to the deeper “Why didn’t we ever talk like this before?” The whole thing would be like a cross between Dinner with Andre and It’s a Wonderful Life and would need some careful casting (no to Tom Cruise and Jennifer Lopez). Maybe there could be four or five such conversations going on at the same restaurant with all the different constellations of relationships— siblings, parents-kids, friends, husbands-wives, etc. I don’t know— you’ll have to figure out the details. I just want the credit and a little bit of royalties.

But it would be an interesting exercise to create your questions for the folks you know that have gone on before you. I had a long time of saying goodbye to my Dad and thought we had covered pretty much what we could. But still today five years later, questions come up that I wish I had asked.

So there it is. Meanwhile, the conversation at lunch was convivial, casual and undramatic. But I was so happy to be having it. Welcome back, Pam!

PS For those confused about the Lazarus reference, consult your local Bible: John 11:1-45

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