Post-Mortems, Producing Rogue, and Preparing for Mom’s Death

My mother’s urine is purple.

This was an unexpected observation, even for me, who was her primary caregiver for over 8 years. The splotches on her back, the thinness of her skin, the protruding of her bones, the open position of her jaw, the rattle of fluids in her chest cavity and throat, the weeping of her body’s toxins through her skin. . . these weren’t entirely unexpected.  She’s dying of kidney failure, just like her mother did. She’s not officially dying of the spinal illness she’s suffered for almost the last 14 years.

So the purple urine was a tad eyebrow-raising. Apparently, it is a kidney failure/toxins mixing thing that happens (although not terribly common).

***

IMG_9453It’s a week past the strike for Rogue Festival, and while there are still odds and ends that need clearing up with the event, I’ve been doing a post-mortem in my head.

I believe in post-mortems. I do them a lot for the shows I direct. When I leave a theater company, a job, a relationship, I post-mortem it.  It’s good to know what contributed to the successes and failures of the thing. They need to be looked at and, at the very least, acknowledged.

Rogue Festival has its own, built-in tradition of this called a “Bitch & Fix”. During the last week, however, the post-mortem has been about me (personally) and how I’m feeling about the last 9 months of doing the job there.

And that’s a little harder.

***

When I was taking care of my mom for the better part of a decade, she required an extremely high level of care. She became catastrophically ill in the matter of a week. I gave up plans for a move out of the area in order to take care of her and suddenly I was in the middle of the constant crisis that caregiving for someone so very ill creates.

Theater became the flip side of that life for me. Whereas home was full of stress, imminent emergencies, and unimaginable emotional fatigue, my life in the theater tended toward creative expansion and control. It wasn’t always orderly or calm, but it wasn’t on the verge of death.

In fact, the five years I spent producing and directing my own store-front productions gave me a deeply satisfying run of creative work. In the rehearsal rooms of The New Ensemble, I felt calm, at rest, truly gratified.  I did everything I could to keep the experience of caregiving for my mother from touching the creative life I so carefully constructed. Those lives didn’t touch. Those emotions didn’t touch. Rigidly separated like my peas and mashed potatoes.

***

As a producer, I used to think I kept my nonsense together pretty well. I’m only now beginning to understand that I probably didn’t hold things in as much as I thought I did. I just wasn’t aware of the myriad ways I was letting my repressed emotional life out. (And sometimes I was NOT repressed at all, I’ll admit).  

But the work of my middle age seems to be about feeling my feelings when I feel them, acknowledging them, being with them. Not apologizing for them unless they result in a lapse of character.

***

File_001The appointment to the job at Rogue came officially just a few days before my wedding. I had already had an incredibly busy few years of steady work – mostly for other people. I had just let go of a big event that I no longer enjoyed producing because it didn’t give me enough creative satisfaction. I was at a place where I wanted to get back into the regular rhythm of producing my own work (a couple of times a year, if possible).

But when it seemed that the Rogue needed someone to fill a potential void, I stepped forward. I did it with Jaguar’s commitment to help wherever I needed and to get out of the way wherever I didn’t need him. Jaguar said, and I felt, that the Rogue has been a part of this creative community for 16 years, and it wasn’t time for it to go away yet.

But I also knew that that meant that any plans I had for my own creativity would be put on hold for a while. By Fresno standards, the Rogue is a beast of DIY ingenuity. There are no central offices. No paid staff. Many of the venues spring up practically overnight and disappear even faster at the end. 

And there’s a lot of planning. And even MORE details.  The Rogue cannot function properly without a team of people who are empowered to handle their areas faithfully. Otherwise, the leader will crumble beneath the weight of it.  It literally seeped into every crevice of my mind. I couldn’t get through a night without a stress dream. There were more than a handful of tearful afternoons in front of poor Jaguar because I was so frustrated with how un-creative I felt, how much I missed doing my own work.

But I kept going because the Rogue has been a part of this creative community for 16 years, and it wasn’t time for it to go away yet.

***

In January, just as I was in the middle of adjusting my three page long task list, ordering tee shirts, and finishing the program, I got a call.  My mother had been in home hospice since October, but she’s been sick for 13 years at that point. The reports of her dying had been highly exaggerated.

But this call was different. The hospice workers were upping their visits from once a week to almost daily. She was officially in kidney failure.  “It could be any day, or she could last a few more months. No one really knows.”

I hadn’t paid my mother a proper visit in many weeks at that point because the work of Rogue had taken over. I couldn’t stop what I was doing. But I couldn’t keep going like I was.

We went down to visit her that night. She was still responsive and comprehending a lot of things, but would slip into delusion from time to time. I got to hold her and talk to her and cry with her, “because crying is important,” as she used to tell me when I was a child and refused to cry.

The next day I had a meeting at Goldstein’s with board president Victor to hand off the program files for the printer. I mentioned to him that my mother had “taken a turn” but that I was setting up a system so that the board of directors could keep going with my agenda and access to my google drive if I had to step away for a few weeks.  

I informed the year-round volunteers of the same and also that I wouldn’t be able to meet as often as I had hoped because I needed time to spend with my mother.  (They were champs, btw, and several of them took on extra tasks so I could have the time I needed.)

The next time I visited my mother. She was barely responsive, but when she was, she recognized me and smiled before lapsing back into her semi-conscious state.

***

File_000 (4)During the Festival itself, we still didn’t know if my mother would make it through.  Her vitals were erratic. When she was conscious, she was delusional. Occasionally, she could string together a coherent sentence.

I called in to get an update on Mom most days. For Rogue, I kept up a string of emails and newsletters. I answered questions of varying levels of detail. I set up the store every day. I facilitated a few decisions that needed to be made on the fly.  I managed to get to a few social outings. I depended upon my previous ability to compartmentalize things as we got into the swing of Festival craziness.

Except, I don’t think I succeeded all that well in the compartmentalization department. I was exhausted for the entire festival, even when I made myself go home and take breaks. I had a few moments of grace, but I also had some moments of assholery. My irritability level was high. My receptivity was low. I particularly noticed this when I’d spend an hour or two at a time feeling guilty that I was at the Rogue instead of paying a visit to Mom.  

I was overstimulated and overwhelmed by emotion for the vast majority of the Festival (and also moderately jealous of most of the artists at the same time).  I think I barely escaped resentfulness, to be honest.  

There was love, to be sure.  I loved that many people had a good experience. I was immensely gratified that the staff experienced few real problems and only minor frustrations through the Festival (they really deserved that).

But I was in a new place for me. A place where my personal emotions were all mixed up in the work I was doing. And I have been there for the last nine months.

Rogue 2017 was the hardest thing I’ve ever produced. I’m so glad it went pretty well.  But I still feel an intense frustration mixed up with it. And that frustration is A) I miss doing my own work, and B) My mom is dying.

***

File_003I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. She made it through the Festival and I went to visit her today. I read to her from Streams in the Desert, her favorite devotional, and I gave her a massage.  She opened her eyes and said, “Touch is important. Did you schedule your massage?”  Which is something she used to say to me when I was taking care of her. A massage every month.

The she closed her eyes again.

***

I haven’t had my massage yet. And I’m still trying to post-mortem my actual feelings about my first year producing the Rogue Festival.  It’s full of dear people I care about. I care about the art and the artists and the audiences. But I’m trying to be clear about everything so I can really understand what I’ve gained and what I’ve sacrificed in all of this.  

Of course, maybe I should just post-mortem it for what it really was. A messy beginning. A messy ending. A beautiful, not-perfect thing.

Like my mom’s life.

Like my life.

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12 comments

  1. Wow. I had no idea you were going through all this!! You were a champ! Thank you for producing!

    1. Thank you for coming! I know the first time out can be rough, but I hope you had a good time!

  2. Sharon Neely · · Reply

    Beautiful Heather. You, Jaguar, Matt, Larry and especially your mom are in my prayers and daily thoughts.

    1. Thank you, Sharon.

  3. Leigh Ratliff · · Reply

    I have an upgraded appreciation of the sincere appreciation I had of you before. I had a dream about you last night: we were in a sewing circle, doing handwork. You told the other person with us (I don’t know who it was) that they were NOT allowed to say what they had just said at 5:15 a.m. the previous morning. You husband was holding a baby, and reading to it in his stocking feet.

    1. The sewing and Jaguar reading in stocking feet seem plausible, but my husband would never be holding a baby. He thinks they’re creepy.

  4. Servetus · · Reply

    I’m sorry about your mother; it’s different for everyone obviously but I was amazed at how unprepared I was. It has taken a long time, is still taking time, and I don’t speak of “recovery.” I want to affirm / support your idea that “post-mortem” is worth it. I find for myself that in the wake of everything, I just want to continue experiencing my emotions as they are; as life gets shorter, that is my first priority and the thing I want to facilitate no matter how difficult. For me, the “time frame” question has been important: if I knew I’d only live twenty more years, would I still be doing this right now? If so, why?

    Thinking of you and your mother.

    1. I was talking to a friend a few days ago about how my current emotional state is pretty much “I don’t mind wasting my own time but I refuse to have my time wasted by anyone else anymore.”

      Thank you for the note, Serv. Much appreciated, truly!

  5. Amy Ryan · · Reply

    You have my deepest sympathy. One way or another, we have all been there or will be there. It sucks to have a slew of people depending on you when you need to be taking care of yourself. It sounds like you’re doing what you need to do: putting one foot in front of the other and feeling what you’re feeling. I know that the Rogues appreciated all you did, and the community appreciates that you stepped up and kept the Rogue going. When you get that massage, remember to pat yourself on the back.

    1. Amy Ryan · · Reply

      I meant to say “when you need to be taking care of yourself and a loved one.”

  6. Dear H, i am really sorry things have been so stressful and demanding and it sounds like you have been asking more of yourself than anyone else around you has.
    Your mom sounds like a wise woman, i hope and pray she can be as peaceful and painless as possible.
    Maybe this one time you can take more time to think about things since so many factors seem to have played into this year’s festival. Don’t rush yourself , try and be kind to yourself.
    And i am sure everyone, artists, all staff who worked to make it happen, the public are grateful for the shared experience which is always enriching in spite of some growing pains.
    I hope you will get more chances to nurture your own creativity again as well.
    For now sending you all my warmest thoughts and a big hug! xx

    1. Thank you, H! I really appreciate it.

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