Gemma @ 'The Waverly Gallery' - just a shell of a person
Not too long after taking my seat, I noticed someone familiar…
Tony Shalhoub! He was with a woman who must be his wife, sitting a few rows ahead of me. I “know” Tony from his work on the TV series Monk, but he’s also amazing on Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. He also recently won a Tony Award for his role in The Band’s Visit. I acted quickly and managed to sneak a photo of him. I clearly wasn’t the only person in the audience who recognized him — I heard a suspicious amount of excited whispering — but people seemed to be leaving him alone, which was nice. He deserved a night at the theatre without being disturbed.
Monk surprise aside, the show deals with Alzheimer's, which, for those who don’t know, is “a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important mental functions,” and affects more than 3 million people per year. The fact that this disease is incurable has always terrified me, particularly because almost all of our identity rests in our memories. Without our memories, we exist but are just shells. I still inwardly freak out when I can’t remember details like the name of my elementary school music teacher (Ms. Gloria Winograd, PHEW) or even certain everyday words (the other day I drove myself crazy trying to recall the word time-lapse). Thankfully, my family has yet to be affected by Alzheimer’s (and God willing we never will be). However, I have the utmost sympathy for families impacted by Alzheimer’s. I can only imagine how heartbreaking it must be to witness loved ones slowly lose what made them who they were.
Daniel described his family as “liberal Upper West Side atheistic Jewish intellectuals,” which made me BARK (yes, bark) out a laugh. I couldn’t help myself because that description pretty accurately described my family. Daniel, along with his mother and stepfather, Ellen and Howard, all had to cope with the frightening reality of caring for Ellen’s mother, Gladys, as Alzheimer’s destroyed her brain.
Gladys had lived in New York City her entire life and had seen firsthand how the city changed. She had been a lawyer and political activist — the type of person who would gleefully host regular parties. Since her retirement from law, she ran the Waverly Gallery in Greenwich Village and was leading a relatively fulfilling life. Then tragedy infiltrated her safe little bubble, as it often does, and suddenly she was a widow who could sense that her memories were becoming jumbled, but she was unable to put her finger on exactly what was wrong.
A young artist (mediocre and not the sharpest tool in the shed, but sweet-natured) named Don visited Gladys’ gallery from Boston with some paintings he wanted to be shown there, and Gladys, even as forgetful as she was becoming, was still was coherent enough to allow Don to display his paintings in her gallery. She even went as far as to offer him a place to stay in the back of her gallery when he revealed that he was sleeping in his car.
But Gladys’ health continued to decline. In one agonizing scene, Daniel woke his mother with an early morning phone call asking her to come and pick up Gladys, who at this point was so far gone she was hallucinating and having meaningless conversations with the empty chair in front of her. It got so bad that sleep wasn’t even an escape. Ellen dutifully moved her hysterical mother out of her apartment and into her house with her husband. Afterwards, Daniel engulfed his mother in a rib-crushing hug, telling her how the amount he loved her was beyond her comprehension. The hair on my arms stood up, because I knew that Daniel was worried that his relationship with his mother might one day be reduced to that of his mother and Gladys’ due to Alzheimer’s.
A friend of Daniel’s described Gladys’ painful descent into senility as “unanswerable,” and I thought of how most of the human experience is unanswerable. The thing with life is that so much is truly unknown, which could mean that one day you are happier than you’ve ever been and then, in an instant, your world as you know it crumbles. That’s what makes being alive equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. Daniel spoke about how even on Gladys’ deathbed, she was “hanging on to almost nothing, but struggling anyway for one more breath.” Humanity always endures, even when it hurts, even when it’s futile.
But the last words of the play were what got to me:
“She finally died at around two in the morning, and after that, it was a lot easier to remember what she’d been like before.”
When someone is sick, people tend to see the sickness and its symptoms and how it inconveniences them more than they see the person. Daniel realized this and “never want[ed] to forget what happened to her. [He] want[ed] to remember every detail because it really happened to her and it seem[ed] like somebody should remember it.” I knew that I always would.
Presumably attempting to make sense of it all, Daniel thought aloud to us,
“You know, it’s not true that if you try hard enough you’ll prevail in the end, because so many people try so hard, and they don’t prevail. But they keep trying, they keep struggling, and they love each other so much. It makes you think it must be worth a lot to be alive.”
I couldn’t help but think of the words of an elderly woman who attended a senior center where I used to work: “Getting old isn’t easy, but it sure beats the alternative.” I happen to agree, and more than ever, I am going to try to live in the now, and make every effort to not think too much about all that could go wrong, because what good does that do me?
NOW CLOSED. NO WORRIES WE GOTCHU!
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