It was a small audience at a small theater, and it was the first time I had performed since second grade when I was a seed in an Arbor Day show sixty years ago. Back then, I easily blended in with the other seeds, all of whom were costumed in brown construction paper, and none of whom worried about remembering their lines because we had none. The show consisted of a few songs and poems as the seeds stood in a circle around a tree, were ceremoniously watered, and sprouted papier Mache’ plants from our heads. As far as I can remember, I was a smashing success despite the butterflies in my belly.
This performance would be different. This time I would not be able to hide among my fellow seeds. I would stand alone on stage, a few notes in my hand, waiting for my cue. And then, like a kite without a string, I would be released into the wind, clueless as to where I might land.
The cue came from my wife, Paula, who, when she was in second grade, was the lead in Alice in Wonderland, and over the years performed in many high school, college, and community theater productions. There would be no butterflies for her. For her, the adoration of the crowd would fill her belly and allay her fears.
We were telling the same story from two different perspectives. It was the story of the day Paula fell 75 feet from the top of Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. During the fall, she broke 10 ribs, her collar bone, and her leg in multiple places. She also experienced a serious concussion that prevented her from remembering when or how she fell, or anything else that happened over the next several days. We told her story in two parts delightfully titled: The Unforgettable Story I Can’t Remember, as told by her, and, Has Anyone Seen My Wife? as told by me.
For 25 minutes I sat, stage left, as Paula entertained the audience with a frightening yet engaging tale of that day. She was as smooth as a knife through butter, delivering her lines like a seasoned pro. She said, “The sky was blue, and the hills were a hundred shades of green. Yet, for some reason, I was lying in a hospital bed unable to walk and very confused. I had no idea where I was or what had happened.”
She spoke with confidence, eloquence, and humor, leading the audience through the death of her mother, which took place exactly one week before the fall, her reunion with Henry, the young man who found her, and the day all of us returned to the mountain top one year later. As her time on stage was about to end and mine was about to begin, she said, “But there were four days I just don’t remember.” That was my cue. It was time for this seed to act like a tree.
I thought I’d be nervous, worried that I would stumble over my words. It was a feeling I had experienced many times before. During my career in higher education, I did a lot of public speaking, often in front of hundreds, if not thousands of people. Yet, no matter how many times I stood before a crowd, nerves always got the best of me, my stomach rising and falling as if I was a ship in the North Atlantic Sea. But not this time. This time I was calm.
My calmness came not from any sense confidence, of which I had little, but rather from consequence, of which I knew there would be none. If I was awful, and that was certainly among the possible outcomes of my performance, there was little anyone could do to reprimand me. There was no boss involved that could fire me, and there was no board providing oversight to which anyone unhappy with my performance might complain. It was possible that I might experience a sad or disappointed face from someone expecting more – or worse, a disingenuous happy face congratulating me for my feeble effort. Nonetheless, I fully embraced the notion that fail or succeed, I would bravely walk away unscathed from my comeback performance.
I began with a joke. I said, “You know, it wasn’t even a real mountain. A real mountain must be at least 2,000 feet high, and this mountain, at its highest point, is a mere 1,642 feet above sea level. Not even a mountain!” The audience looked confused. The joke fell flat, but so what – I just kept going.
My thread was the weirdness of it all. Weird that she fell. Weird that no one saw her fall. Weird that she kept confusing her arm with her leg when the doctor asked her to identify her limbs. Weird that after surgery, in the middle of the night, I found her standing naked in front of me, all her IV’s removed, covered in blood, standing on her new titanium reinforced leg. Weird that I felt the presence of her dead mother in the waiting room. Weird that the helicopter pilot, who took us from Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Albany Medical Center in New York, felt compelled to point out the many historical Berkshire sites along the way, including a corn field where someone had carved out a gigantic peace sign.
What wasn’t weird, what was nice and unexpected, was that after nearly 38 years of marriage, we found something new and fun that enabled us to speak with one voice while still maintaining our unique identities. Our perspectives were different, but together they were a unifying story of truth and love. We were two kids on a seesaw, our words balancing each other in midair.
Paula didn’t remember falling; I did. Paula didn’t remember when I screamed her name, over and over again, to the vast expanse of hills and trees – something I’ll never forget. Paula didn’t remember the CT scan of her brain, the surgery, or the fear that she might not survive.
Her memory is one of gratitude for the men and women – nearly fifty in all – that organized and carried out her rescue. For Henry, who had the courage to find her. For the EMTs, nurses and doctors who kept her alive and put her back together. And for family and friends who showered her with love after the fall.
My performance was far from perfect, but it wasn’t bad either. All alone, with no seeds to protect me, I made it through the show. Paula survived her fall, and I survived the performance. Once again, we were separate but together, bound by the invisible connection of our partnership through love and life.
We may never perform together again, and that’s okay. If we do, we’ll be ready. We are two mighty oaks, happy to share our acorns with anyone willing to listen.