I’m in Dallas, Texas, in 107 degree heat (that’s 41.666 in Celsius, for you UK’ers (rounded to 42, but 41.666 is funnier), wondering if I’m going to perform my solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s written, rehearsed, I’m ready, and I’ve invested over $6,000 (£3869) in this.
I don’t live in Texas, God forbid; I live in Berkeley, California, next to San Francisco, where it is, yes, much cooler in both senses of the word. My sister, an oboist (an intrinsically funny word like “Sudetenland,” but only the over-70 crowd laughs when I say it in my show) lives in Texas because there’s plenty of work teaching marching band students here. (She’s in my show.)
My brother followed my sister to Texas because it’s cheap and so is he. (He’s in my show too. He would like you to know that my portrayal of him is totally inaccurate. However, after viewing a low-res video of one performance, he declared it, “Actually not that bad.”)
My siblings lured my elderly mother out here from New England, where we grew up, and where they emigrated to from the real England. (Yes, I am sucking up to you UK’ers.)
Why is it every time I try to take a break from my day job something terrible happens?! I planned to celebrate my 40th birthday in Auschwitz—what better way to contemplate aging and the meaning of life and death? Three days before I left, my then-boyfriend’s brother had a catastrophic brain and spinal injury. So I spent my birthday in the intensive care unit, which, it turned out, accomplished the original goal.
I’ve always told my siblings that I would only move to Texas if I were on my death bed—and now that seems likely. The medical system is excellent, and it’s my mother who is. Dying, I mean. (She’s also in my show. In fact, she practically is my show. She was in the Hitler Youth. My father is a Jewish Holocaust Survivor. They had me, hence my self-referential title: “Hitler’s Li’l Abomination.”)
And therein lies my dilemma. My mother is in hospice in her home. I’ll have spent six weeks helping care for her, sleeping in her bedroom, coming running like Pavlov’s dog when she rings her bell with a request for more chocolate or the bedpan. I have seen my mother’s vajingles more in the last month than I have seen any women’s put together, including my own. (Obviously I’m straight.)
This is the most painful experience of my life. It puts every bad haircut, forgotten line, and the breakup with my boyfriend of eleven years in perspective. (Yes, he’s in my show. “With parents from opposite sides of the greatest conflict of the 20th century, who have I chosen as a partner? A White Supremacist!”). And yet…I want to go. I want to bring Hitler back to Europe. I want to tell my mother’s story. (And my father’s. He’s in my show as well. He isn’t dead or dying—as far as I know, at least. I’ve only seen him once in the last 36 years.)
The thing is, my mother can’t tell her own story anymore. Right now, she’s being finished off by stage 4 metastasized lung cancer. But for the last five years, she was developing a frontal temporal “dementia”—a misnomer because she doesn’t run down the street naked, hair akimbo, shrieking about alien cat-people invasions. Her memory is intact, but she can no longer speak. In my show, I tell a lot of her best jokes. I rehearse in front of her every day now. Talk about tough audiences—an 84-year-old bedridden German hopped up on hydrocodone and morphine.
But when my mum saw the show last year at the Boulder Fringe, even though she couldn’t say why, she loved it. And I was so proud to have her there.
So what do I do? My mother could pass on before I leave, while I’m gone, or after I come back. Regardless, will I be able to perform? I managed to without any problems when my boyfriend left me to live with his mother on a mountain in Arkansas surrounded by meth addicts and feral animals to begin a new career carving animals out of logs with a chainsaw. My mother and I have no unfinished business with each other. I can’t have any last deep conversations with her. I’ve forgiven what I have the arrogance to believe I am entitled to forgive. I can jump on a plane to fly back if she becomes “imminent” (hospice euphemism) and return after she “transitions” (ditto).
For all I know, she’s dying in the other room while I write this. But it’s unlikely, because on the baby monitor I can hear my sister reading to her from her current favorite book: After the Reich: The Brutal Occupation of the Allied Forces.