Goodbye, Roger Rees: I’d Know Your Face in Ten Thousand

I heard the news that Roger Rees had passed away while I was in New York on Saturday. It was like a mule kick to the gut.

The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby

Back in 1982, my parents patiently indulged me, their wide-eyed child, as I watched The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby, which had been broken up over four nights in a row. This was astonishing for many reasons, mostly because my dad’s soul mate was Archie Bunker, and he prefered movies like Friday the 13th and Bo Derek’s 10. (He once took me and my sister to see Bo Derek’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, which was straight up child abuse.) So, it was a huge deal that they sat with me through all eight-and-a-half hours of PBS as it aired Trevor Nunn’s production.

Roger Rees’s Tony and Olivier Awards-winning performance as Nicholas made me a lifelong fan. I don’t know if he ever landed another role that used his unique talents quite so well, but I continued to follow his work, ever hopeful. In 1999, I decided to create a fan website for him. It was crude by today’s standards, but it adequately reflected my devotion. I even started a Yahoo group so I could meet other fans. That’s where I met Jolande Hibels, who had this incredible collection of playbills for every stage production in which Roger had ever appeared. I linked to her astonishing Roger Rees gallery on my feeble website.

(I still recall the bitter outcry of the women on the Yahoo group many years ago when I informed them that Roger was gay. I suppose I should have broken the news more gently.)

Mrs. Winchester

As I wrote Mrs. Winchester in 1998, Roger was my muse. Mrs. Winchester is about a rich woman’s obsession with the dead and a poor man’s ill-fated love for her. I pictured him as Carl, the bewildered foreman who comes to work for Sarah Winchester as she builds her “bizarre yet beautiful” mansion, yet winds up falling in love with her.

mrswinchester

The script was a quarterfinalist in the Austin Film Festival competition the next year (I think), but nothing came of it. It has since been optioned twice and placed in other competitions, most recently as a Finalist in the 2012 Shriekfest Screenwriting Competition. Everyone who reads it raves about it. I think Roger’s spark brings the story to life.

(Haven’t read it? Don’t worry. I’ll probably adapt it to novel as I did Mr. Wicker. Then maybe someone will realize what a brilliant fucking role Mrs. Winchester is for a late-50s actress. We desperately need that.)

When I First Met Roger

It was after an L.A. Theatre Works production of Lady Windemere’s Fan in 1999 that I made my way into the lobby to meet him. At first, I wasn’t going to do it because the theatre people very coincidentally had sat me right under Roger’s microphone in the front row, which made me feel profoundly uncomfortable. But afterward, as I chatted with a friend in the parking lot, I decided I’d be damned if I was going to let this opportunity slip away due to embarrassment. That just wasn’t my style.

On my way back to where I’d hoped to encounter Roger, I had a delightful, flirty encounter with Eric Stoltz in the elevator, which helped me relax a bit. I sat on a bench, waiting until he appeared. As he approached, I stood and introduced myself, explaining that I’d built him a fan website.

Eyes cast downward shyly, he asked, “Why on earth would anyone do such a thing?”

I replied, “Well, you’ve given many people like myself so much joy. I just wanted to do a little something to give back to you.”

He melted before my eyes, making all kinds of utterly charming and sweet declarations that I no longer recall. All I remember is that he signed my program and I left, walking on clouds. I didn’t even sleep that night, I was so pleased.

1776

RogerandMeTwo years later, he appeared in a production of 1776 that opened on September 4, 2001, here in Los Angeles with my friend Mark Ryan.

It was so much fun seeing Mark and Roger on the same stage. I’d asked Mark to vouch for me, to tell him I’m not one of those fans.

After the show, I waited in the courtyard and, to my terror, Roger emerged before Mark did. He recognized me immediately and was incredibly darling. He kissed me on the cheek, hugged me, and kept telling me how wonderful it was to see me, asking how I was doing, etc.  I managed to wrangle a friend of his (Rick?) into taking a couple pictures of us with my camera. The poor guy, bless his sweet heart, had a lot of trouble with my camera. As he messed with the settings, the whole time Roger kept turning to me, still just as lively and happy, asking questions as to get to know me better.

For a long time, I was unhappy that it was more of a Roger photo than a Roger-and-fan photo, but you can see by my expression that I was delighted beyond words to be standing next to him.

(I should note that national disaster had struck the day before I was originally supposed to see this performance. They moved the show out to the following weekend. That night in the courtyard before Mark and Roger emerged, I met a young man who was friends with Mark’s agent. He’d lost two friends in the Towers, including one who had proudly just hired a staff of 45 people… He broke down. I hugged him, a total stranger, whispering to him my sympathies as he wept. What a terrible time that was. But what a perfect time to see 1776. Roger announced to the audience that they were selling signed posters of the show and that proceeds were going to the NYC Fireman’s Relief Fund. I bought one, naturally.)

Bad Fan! No Biscuit!

Years passed. Work and writing displaced the time I’d previously spent doing fannish things. I neglected the website, but I never entirely lost track of Roger’s career. I didn’t see everything he was in, but I tried. I was bitterly disappointed by Going Under, even though it had seemed as though someone had made a movie just for me, as BDSM and Roger Rees were two of my favorite topics. I was not remotely disappointed by his appearances in CheersThe West Wing, Robin Hood: Men in TightsThe Prestige and Frida. But to be honest, there is so much that I’ve missed, it’s ridiculous. I’d probably love his work in shows like Oz, Warehouse 13 and Boston Common. And so much more. He was a prolific performer, not just on stage, TV and film, but even in audio books.

His directing talents were formidable, as well. Bret and I saw Peter and the Starcatcher, which was written by Roger’s partner, Rick Elice, and directed by Roger on Broadway. The show had won a number of Tony awards. Unfortunately, the production we saw on tour in Los Angeles wasn’t quite our cuppa. (I vaguely recall it had something to do with the lead actress.) Still, it was entertaining (“Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod!”) and I’m glad we saw it.

Death

I didn’t know that Roger was ill. He hadn’t been ill for long, apparently. In fact, he’d just been the lead in a Broadway production called The Visit when his sickness forced him to leave.

On Saturday when the news came out, I’d just been part of the Thrillerfest Debut Author breakfast at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan, where I’d gotten the chance to introduce myself and talk about my award-winning debut book, Mr. Wicker.

There I was in the midst of some of the most famous novelists of our time: Lee Child, Heather Graham, Sandra Brown, Charlaine Harris, and many, many more. The conference so far had been tremendous.

But later that day after breakfast, as I was sitting in the lobby between panels, I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across a photo that Mark had posted of himself and Roger in 1776 with the news of Roger’s death.

11745700_10153078984313763_5410279621463294138_n

Even though Roger was 71, it felt much too soon for him to leave. My heart broke even more deeply as I thought about Rick and his grief. They’d been together for over 30 years and married for four.

I’m glad I didn’t hear of it before breakfast. As the reality of Roger’s passing soaked into me, I could think of little else. Words cannot express the sadness I felt as the day wore on, knowing that such a special presence would no longer shine on the stage.

“I’d know that face in ten thousand,” Nicholas says. And it’s true. It’s a face — a voice, a person of eminent grace, humility, kindness and talent — that I will never forget.

Perfume Drinkers and Pig Tails: Márquez the Marvelous is Dead

 

“…memories materialized through the strength of implacable evocation and walked like human beings through the cloistered rooms.”

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Mr. Wicker starts with this quote from one of Márquez’s classics. It was the first of his books I’d ever read and it continues to haunt me with its scorpions and butterflies. In fact, my new YA novel is rife with references to this amazing story as the 16-year-old protagonist is reading it in her AP English class when she meets the boy of both her fondest dreams and coldest nightmares.

I fell in love with Márquez when I read that book, with his passionate imagination and permeable reality. I had read many fantasy authors but nothing captured my own imagination and inspired it as deeply as this tale. I probably loved it in part because of Márquez’s highly visual writing style. The page, canvas. The pen, paint. Motion, color, metaphor: Márquez is king.

By the time I’d read Love in the Time of Cholera, I was drunk on the magical realism of other South American authors such as Isabella Allende, Laura Esquivel and Julio Cortázar, but Marquez still reigned supreme. I loved that Marc Klein and Peter Chesolm used Cholera in Serendpity, a John Cusack film that is very close to my heart for many reasons. The image of Florentino eating flowers and drinking cologne so that he can taste Fermina was so wildly romantic that it infects my every creative impulse. Of course, not every character is like Florentino, but part of me wants to recreate him in every romantic gesture because we can sympathize with his desires for intense connection. The experience of connection that transcends physical boundaries is one of my favorite themes in magical realism and certainly the most profound for me in Márquez’s works.

I struggled with his last book, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, and I have yet to read Living to Tell the Tale, but it promises our greatest and most personal insights into one of the most brilliant literary minds of our age.

And now Márquez has passed. The world mourns. I, too, feel the weight of this loss.

But the world should also celebrate — with perfume and pig tails. Full moons and diamonds. Love letters and oranges. With trembling and anger. Truth raw, naked and sweating on a sleepless night.

For Márquez has at last merged with the infinite. Let his memory materialize in our words and dreams.

 

The King of Shadows is Dead

Gustave Doré’s illustration of Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”

When my mother died, I had recurring nightmares that she had been buried alive. She spoke to me; I heard her voice muffled under the dirt or in empty dream houses, echoing in dark corridors. As I accepted her death, the dreams faded.

And now my father has passed away. Since he had been The King of Shadows, I expected him to haunt my dreams in frightening ways. Instead, I’ve been dreaming about building things. I’ve twice dreamed that I was building a shinkendo dojo with sensei. I’ve also been dreaming that I am an Imagineer building new dining experiences and attractions at Disneyworld. I built things in my dreams last night, too, but I don’t remember what they were. A tent? A skyscraper? It was shelter of some sort.

My father was a diplomat to Greece for the State Department. He went on to become an investigator for the Franchise Tax Board for many tumultuous years until he took an early retirement.I suspect that my subconscious is busy building because of all the damage my father did to my life and those around him. He hurt animals. Children. Everyone close to him. His death brought crises because of his ill planning and even more ill mental state. (I’m still exhausted from dealing with said crises after his death.) More Grendel than Augustus, he raided and destroyed the cities of my life. For years, I tried to rebuild what he had crushed in his meaty hands. Sometimes the cities lasted a while. Many perished. I eventually learned skills that helped me withstand his assaults. But when I stepped into his house after his death, I watched with alarm as my memories tore everything down.

These last two weeks I sometimes sink into despair, wishing that he’d been a different person, wishing he’d been the father who sat beside me, encouraging and loving, instead of the strange, dangerous creature that he was. But as I acknowledged all those years ago in my story “The King of Shadows,” he was the one who opened my imagination.

He would sit by my bed at night, telling me stories. Fairytales. Ghost stories. Tales of sorcery and horror. He’d motion toward the shadows, demanding that they stop their movement toward my bed. And they would, too. Like children with gentle fathers, I did not fear monsters at night when my father commanded them to be still. My father was the King of Shadows. They – like me – fled from his outstretched hand.

Professor Katherine Hohlwein, one of my English professors in college, once said that the way to make a poet was to take a sensitive person and hurt her. I wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for my father. I wouldn’t be a musician, either, as he was both a composer and performer. When I was six, my parents bought me one of those baby pianos with a color-coded strip of paper to place over the keys so I could plunk out pieces in a correspondingly coded music book. I very soon tired of it because I hated the high-pitched plink-plink of the keys. I wanted to play Daddy’s piano — the wooden Chickering & Sons cathedral in the living room that made rapturous sounds. Whenever Daddy played, resonant notes would thunder through the apartment: joyous, passionate, sorrowful. So I climbed up onto the enormous, hard piano bench and placed the color-coded strip over the piano keys. The narrow colored strips didn’t match the much bigger keys, but I figured it out soon enough.

I played and wrote music for many years with his help and encouragement, but some cruel streak in him decided that neither music nor writing were to be my future. He took drastic steps to ensure that I couldn’t study music — or anything else — in college, even though I was an honors student and acclaimed musician in high school. If it weren’t for my mother and my own subterfuge, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college at all.

And that’s when I heard them. Wild things, deep things, dark things. Squeaking and howling, cursing the light. They strutted, pranced, and gyred in their abysmal procession toward the sarcophagus.

As a grownup, I’ve taken the shriveled seeds that he gave me and nurtured them until they flourished into gardens of belladonna blossoms, lily of the valley, nightshades and blood roses. Deadly thorns and fragrant blooms. My creative life thrives in moonlight and monsoons. In heatwaves and sandstorms. I make mirages shimmer and chase clouds across the sky. Mountains lift me on their shoulders and vast ocean waves carry me like a princess on a silvery palanquin.

I am the daughter of The King of Shadows. I have inherited his legerdemain of the foulest fairy wood, the power to command the shadows…

Gustave Doré’s illustration of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”, 1868

And now I sit on the throne, but I rule with a different heart and hand.

My throne is not twisted and ugly. It glimmers with starlight, ensconced in gnarled tree roots, canopied in jasmine flowers, draped in azure silks. I invite the unholy, the bruised, the bankrupt of spirit, the heartbroken and monstrous to rest at court until I find stories for them so they can sweep into the night skies and commit terrors. Those creatures of pitch and craft are mine now. They are all he left me.

I’m blind with tears. For his death. For his life. For how much of him is in me.

But it’s time to build cities of forever.

It’s going to be beautiful.

Sleeping Beauty Gustave Dore

The Woman Who Worshipped a Pirate Goddess is Gone

Rebekah_OwenWhen Rebekah Owen was 13 years old in 1976, her father murdered her mother with a revolver as Rebekah and her younger siblings played next door. This totally devastating incident helped shaped one of the most compassionate and optimistic people I’ve ever known. Yes, she went “wild” for a long time after that — drinking too much, sleeping with all the wrong men. She married three times to men who only hurt her. When she finally met her fourth husband, Mike, a couple of years ago, she confided in me that she didn’t want to get married again because she was “a three-time loser,” afraid that marriage would doom her relationship with this sweet and wonderful man — a man who finally truly loved her.

And now, at 49 years old, she’s dead from brain cancer.

We’d been friends for almost 20 years, having met in 1995 at a nonprofit we were both involved with in San Jose, CA. While I liked her instantly when we met, she later changed my life one day with a simple gesture of kindness. (This day is memorialized in my unpublished memoir. A handful of agents are reading it as I type.) We remained steadfast friends over the years. She kept my life’s biggest secret close to her heart and loved me through the hardest times of my life, always offering words of wisdom, love and compassion. And she helped me move out of the house when I divorced. (“No one should go through that alone! Been there, done that!” she said.) She liked to answer the phone by saying “Hi cutie!” and end the conversation with, “Love ya!” I loved her, too. And told her so whenever I could.

I kept the few secrets she had and always will. But it was no secret how deeply her father had wounded her life.

“Life easing up is called death.” — An email to me on August 4, 2008

In late 2008, she moved from San Jose, CA to Dallas, TX. She was a real estate broker and The Crash had hit her hard. Dallas seemed like a good alternative. She was learning to work with short sales and foreclosures. Ultimately, Dallas didn’t work out. Among other issues, it proved too religious for her, too conservative and cultish. To make matters worse, her dog, Rebel, died just before she returned to California in 2010. Rebel’s death crushed her heart. “That dog loves me more than any guy I’ve ever been with,” she once told me. “Tell me: why do I need a man, again?”

rebeldog

Rebekah believed in Jesus and considered herself a Christian, but her beliefs were far more nuanced. Her liquid spirituality enabled her to be flexible, accepting and resilient…

Now my god is not some assyrian 20 something with surfer dude hair. My god is a girl. 

She’s a cartoony, kinda chunky, pirate-y gal with a great twinkly laugh and a strong presence – she’s not menacing but you just know you can’t take her down. 

June 19, 2012 Tumor Humor blog

As I re-read a chapter she sent me of the memoir she was writing, it’s clear her father suffered PTSD. He’d been in the air force for many years, serving in the Middle East in the early 1970s. When he came home for good, the violence and mood swings escalated to the point of catastrophe. After he shot his wife, he walked into the dining room and laid down the bi-centennial .357 Smith & Wesson where Rebekah’s cereal bowl had sat the morning before. The gun was red-hot with a round left in it when he called the cops to turn himself in. At that moment, Rebekah had to become The Mom to her three younger siblings; none of whom could totally fathom what had just happened.

But Rebekah shouldn’t be remembered for her wounds. Rather, she should be remembered for her compelling strength. How she rose above the cruelty and insanity of life to love others selflessly — not as a saint but as a fiery woman who loved sex, margaritas, hard rock and good friends.

I first heard she was sick in an email last June 2012. A brain tumor. I called her immediately. She told me about her memory lapses and how she’d been with a group of friends a few weeks earlier at El Torito when it came to a crisis. As they waited in the lobby for their party to get a table, Rebekah was “blanking.” Weird clumsiness, nausea and dizzy spells had been plaguing her for weeks. She didn’t go to the doctor because she didn’t have any money or health insurance. When the server said, “Follow me this way,” Rebekah replied, “Wait — where are we going?”

Instead of partying, her friends took her straight to the hospital.

“Honey, I am worried,” her boyfriend said.

“What are you worried about, baby?” she replied.

“I was told that any woman with half a brain wouldn’t date me.”

May 5, 2012 Tumor Humor blog

rebekahpirate

Aaarrgh!

In July 2012, she helped me with a horror story about a real estate broker. Her realism improved the story ten fold. I knew it was hard for her to read. I didn’t think she’d be up for it, but she was thrilled to help. She was always thrilled to help. I relied on her input for over a decade of my writing career because she was honest and articulate without being abrasive.

The last time I spoke to her was in — September? October? She had a blog I didn’t know about (or maybe had lost track of). She had a new dog named Shadow that she loved. Mike was her rock. I thought she was #winning. I’m kicking myself so hard right now. I was so wrapped up in my bullshit that I didn’t go see her. I wanted to go see her so badly. But instead I succumbed to self-involvement instead of flying up for a weekend to see my beloved friend who was sick — little does it matter whether or not she was #winning. Who fucking cares?

It was brain cancer. Goddamned fucking BRAIN CANCER.

I had had another friend who’d licked a brain tumor just prior Rebekah’s diagnosis. I guess I took it for granted that Rebekah would make it, too. She was healthy, a vegetarian, a biker and runner. There was no history of cancer in her family. (Although, she did use a Blue Tooth. She’d asked her oncologist if there was a causal relationship between the fact that the tumor was on the side of her head that she wore the Blue Tooth, and he responded that there wasn’t evidence to support it.) Anyway, all these things increased her chances of beating cancer.

But she didn’t.

I’m trying to celebrate her life, but the grief is burning my chest like a spent shotgun shell falling into my dress top. She’d told me once about how her father taught her how to shoot a .22 rifle, but when that shell dropped into her dress and singed the delicate white skin of her chest, she swore she was done with guns. Maybe someday I’ll be done with grief.

What’s adding to my grief is that her Facebook and Twitter accounts have been shut down. Her words and photographs have been taken away when what I want more than anything is to see and hear her again. I’m instead combing through emails and her blog to stop the hemorrhage of loss. I’m sure it’s painful for her family to see those things, but they’re invaluable to her legacy as a human being. She never had children, as much as she wanted them. Her fallopian tubes were severely blocked. IVF was not an option. And even if she’d had children, her words would mean everything to me. They’re the next best thing to hearing her voice.

I didn’t find out about her death until late last night. I’d called and left her a voicemail back in June. When I didn’t hear back, I assumed she was busy. (Question: Why the hell is her voicemail still working seven months later?) We usually went months without phone calls. It was no big. But then I started to worry. I emailed her on Saturday. No response. By Sunday night, my spider senses were tingling. I was obsessively Googling her name, trying to get an idea of what was going on via her online life. As I just mentioned, her Facebook and Twitter accounts had been shut down. I knew something was up.

And then I found this last entry of her blog. It’s titled, “Beating the Odds,” but the entry seems to indicate that she’s not. That’s when I Googled on my iPhone the phrase “Rebekah Owen died” and found a Facebook page called “Remembering Rebekah.” Her memorial was December 19, 2012. Since I wasn’t part of any of her regular social groups up north, no one told me.

I handed the iPhone to Bret and started shaking. After a moment, the tears started and wouldn’t stop.

Truthfully, if I’d learned of her death back in December, I probably would have collapsed. My hands were still badly injured, I’d just lost Ophelia on December 2 and I was rear-ended in a car accident December 3 that left me with whiplash. I was suffering under a brutish, abusive, incompetent manager at work (who was later fired) and I thought I was going to fall apart entirely as it was. If I had known then, I might not have handled it as well as I am today, as deeply as it hurts.

I had nightmares last night about my mother’s death. Rebekah was the first person I had called when I’d gotten the news about my mom. I knew she would understand. Rebekah’s own death has hammered my core. I can only imagine how it must have been for Mike and the rest of her family.

I’ll leave off with a prayer that she and I had often said together:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Love ya back, lady.

 

Oh, Mother, Where Art Thou?

I lost my mother yesterday. She’d recently been discharged from the hospital, where she’d stayed for about 10 days. Presumably she was medically stable, although we knew she was in general decline. Then suddenly sometime early Saturday, she died.

This was my mother in ancient days, holding my butterball sister as I snuggled up to her hip, wearing something chiffon that had been cloned from an accordion:

Me, Danielle and Mom

Yes, I was blond. (Shut up.)

I drove up on Memorial Day Weekend. I spent many hours with her, just holding her hand, showing her goofy things on my iPhone and telling her I loved her. It was the only time I’d been able to spend with her alone since my sister was born. (That chubby little thing that grew up to be a leggy model.)

I loved her so much. She was a very complicated person, I came to learn, with a strange and harrowing history stretching back to the 1920s.

I guess what matters most, though, is what she was to me. Those who follow my writing are already familiar with her highly unconventional religious life. That was just the beginning. Blend in generous helpings of Project Blue Book and In Search Of… with Conspiracy Theories 101, and the aroma of synchretism might choke you. Thick billowing clouds of mystery blinded us between Sabbath and the nightly news.

I drew inspiration from the Neptunian fog. I needed it. I was a spooky child and the world was a scary place. I sometimes wondered how much of the UFO-chasing was because of me. Because she loved me and wanted to understand the odd, sensitive child she’d given birth to so late in life.

Born on a Comanche reservation in Oklahoma, she had barely any education and virtually no intellectual curiosity. Yet, she recognized that I needed a lot more stimulation. A simple store clerk, she sacrificed to give me musical instruments, piano lessons, art supplies, books, puzzles, encyclopedias, and much more. She didn’t let me skip a grade as the LAUSD had recommended when I hit 3rd grade. She wanted me to stay in my Blue Bird troop with my friends. Although she hadn’t many friends herself, she recognized that I needed them and that I’d always keep my mind occupied when school failed me.

There were times when she saved me from dangerous situations. And times when she thoroughly crushed my heart. I once could not speak to her for a handful of years.

She was not perfect. She had moral failings and sometimes demonstrated poor judgment.

She sacrificed the last 20 years of her life to my sister, the leggy model who was in a horrible car accident at 17 years old and suffered a traumatic brain injury. She and my father devoted their lives to being her caregivers. I often didn’t agree with their decisions. I think she hung on through two bouts of breast cancer and numerous health problems for the sake of my sister.

Although the anti-Christ litany made me crazy, I kind of feel sad that she didn’t see either the return of Jesus or the rise of the anti-Christ. I feel sad that she died without the cadence of some annoying televangelist’s voice shouting hallelujah in her ears. It would have given her so much joy.

Maybe she’s faded away to nonexistence or sits in some catholic purgatory. But personally I hope she’s already woken up in the arms of loving parents. A couple overjoyed to have a newborn baby they thought would never come in their 40s…

The way she felt about me.