Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why I Tell The Story... "Once On This Island" 20th Anniversary

Me enjoying my glorious beverage at the "Once on This Island" cast party.
I wanted to write a celebratory blog to honor one of the best and worst experiences of my life. I pondered over and over about what I should say, and the only think I could think of was the truth. So, I apologize up front for the flat-out details of my innocent life, but I felt this story defines me and changed my life.  And this story didn't specifically happen to me, I'm just one caught in the waves and tried to do something to help.

(deep breath) Here I go.

This has taken me a long time to write... 20 years in fact. It happened that long ago. January 1994. I was at a friend's house doing nothing of importance. I was 18, recently graduated from high school, day-dreaming through life. I received a phone call from my dearest friend Greg. I thought it strange - why would Greg call me here? I couldn't understand his words at first. They didn't make sense. Todd has Leukemia. What did he mean? Leukemia? The words formed clear in my mind. . .

Todd has Cancer.

SIDE NOTE: People grow soft spots for others in their lives, occurring in these tender years when you are touched by someone so profoundly, you feel that it's a part of who you are, why you do things, how you think and feel. . . I have a soft spot for both of these people.

Todd was funny, popular, sarcastic, he was the lead in all the musicals and played the awesome villains in the school plays, he had an incredible singing voice, and he, his best friend Greg, my brother Josh, and I had formed a powerful bond together through those teenage years. We had called ourselves "The Quadumvarette" (citation on spelling) and when we were together, I felt invincible. Josh left on his LDS mission, gone for 2 whole years, I felt the stronghold we had shift.

Sarah and Melissa - Ti Moune and Little "T"
and the rest of the cast in the drama room..
A few days before this phone call, I had hung out with my friend Todd. A group of our friends decided to see the hypnotist show and I invited him along. I hadn't seen him in a while. I'd known that he had been sick, but he came anyway. He jokingly showed me his new inhaler and told me he finally went to the clinic and the doctor there couldn't read his chest x-ray. "That doesn't make sense," I remember saying. "Who can't read a chest x-ray?" Todd was weak crossing the street and I worried about his cold, but nothing else had entered into my young mind. He would be fine. It's just a chest cold.

Todd has Cancer

Cancer is the biggest word on this planet. I knew I should have visited Todd in the hospital that night, gone and seen him. . . but I didn't. News traveled fast around all our drama friends. This was sensational and horrifying. People who hardly knew him felt some great attachment to his condition, because of everything he did as a role model at the school. His hospital room flooded with people. . . but, not me. He received posters, balloons, cards, a life-size cardboard Clint Eastwood that terrified the nurses every time they walked in, he had so much support from the community. . . and I still didn't go see him.

Was I heartless? No. . . I was scared.

I finally went after four days. I didn't have the courage I needed to see him until then. I really needed my brother there, but he was still had a year or so to go. I tried to be strong. To me, and equally to Greg, Todd was part of a foundation that no longer could support itself. I felt strong at the time, and still, I was not prepared for how strong I needed to be.

(I apologize to Todd for how detailed this is.)
Gina getting all prettied up!
In the hospital room, among all the cluttering declarations, was a person I didn't recognize. This was not the same person I knew. This couldn't be Todd. The young man was swollen, hooked up to every imaginable beeping device in the hospital, his eyes were lined with blood from the blood thinners, a giant tube was shoved down his throat, and tubes stuffed in his nose. The nurses were preparing to take him to a procedure, so I only stayed for a minute in the room. I learned from his mother that Todd was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Leukemia Lymphoma, very treatable, but very advanced. A tumor the size of a human lung and grown in his chest, collapsing his windpipe. He couldn't talk or sing. His mother was very clear that he was very, very sick, and that his prognosis didn't look good. For the first time in my life, I faced the reality that funny, hilarious Todd may not make it.

I felt compelled to go back into the room, pulled by an invisible string. I thought it might be the last time I saw him alive. I made up some stupid excuse to go back in. And then I was there and it was just him and me. I looked at him. He couldn't speak and I couldn't imagine what he was going through. He looked scared and embarrassed, in a hospital gown, hooked up to everything. I felt so sad and helpless, I couldn't do anything. I couldn't help. What would I say? In my cowardess, I said nothing. I turned and left the room, so he wouldn't see me cry.

"Grass! To soften the road."
Over the months Todd went through numerous radiation and chemo, ending in a Bone Marrow Transplant, donated from his sister, a perfect match. I visited three to four times a week, though I hated seeing one of my favorite people struggle in so many ways. I remember him grabbing a handful of his coppery colored hair and handing it to me. He meant it as silly, but it was just another shocking reality to his condition. His muscles shrank away and his voice was but a whisper. The strong, dynamic star from high school changed before my eyes.

In March of that year, we learned that his family's home in Idaho had burned down, losing nearly all of their earthly possessions. Even baby pictures were destroyed. I couldn't believe how horrible their lives had become in such a short time. My friends and I tried what we could to cheer him up. We filmed some movies for him like "Hospital Pleasure Girl" and "The Dame Edna Experience with guest star Emma Vader, Galactic Pioneer of the Galaxy". But, as a bystander, there isn't much you can do. Some fights need to be fought alone. I knew this, but it still didn't seem fair.

So, why am I telling you this?

There had to be something we could do. We were eighteen. We still thought we could change the world, naive to the fact that our lives may change by this little decision. In order to make a difference, we needed to do something. . . so what could a bunch of theater geeks do? The answer was so obvious - we would do a play, one last play together, and donate the profits to Todd and his family.
"Much longer than your nose."

The play we decided on was called Once On This Island, a newer play at the time, that shared a life of an island girl, who sacrifices everything she knows for the freedom to love. Once we decided on this, everything fell into place. My friends, Kirt and Clin directed it together. Grabbing the cast wasn't hard - all friends and former cast mates of Todd's, even Todd's brother Eric joined the cast. The high school dance teacher, Mrs. Petrovich-Musig, volunteered her time to choreograph the play. We traveled around from church to church rehearsing, like wandering gypsies. We secured our old high school for the performances, and our old drama teacher Mr. Burrell, helped with the stage production. The set comprises of a few risers and trees we found in the hallway of the school, our costumes were old, tattered clothes from goodwill, donated fabric for skirts, and flowery patterned pajama pants. Our props were umbrellas with tinsel attached for rain, and strips of fabric tied around our fingers for wind.

What we lacked in the expense, we made up in heart. Each one of us felt it from the very beginning, that this show would change who we were as people, because we all were trying to show, in our way, how much we wanted to help. The spirit of gratitude that encircled us at that magical time in our lives was undeniable.
"One small girl... In a tree..."

The songs changes us too. The play is told by storytellers in one act. The lyrics wrapped around our hearts and told us what we were doing was noble and generous, and would influence us, as well as the lives it touches forever.

We performed the show in July of 1994. Todd was out of the hospital during the performance, but he was still too weak to open a pop can. At one point in the play we ran down into the audience. I remember seeing him as I danced about the aisle. His smile told me a thousand things. I felt his appreciation for what we were doing, and I know it helped restore his hope. The money raised seemed inconsequential to the healing of a heart.

"We remind them... where they're from."
This is in tribute to that time: to memories, friendship, and the feeling of doing what is right, helping in our small way. This experience not only altered my course, but changed my future decisions. I went back to the University Hospital to work, in some ways to say thank you for the life they saved, but in others to see how I could help improve people's lives within my human limitations. I became a registered Bone Marrow Donor and became an advocate for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. This experience saved my life as well.

I remember a song that has stuck with me over the years, "Why We Tell the Story."

Life is why (We tell the story)
Pain is why (We tell the story)
Love is why (We tell the story)
Grief is why (We tell the story)
Hope is why (We tell the story)
Faith is why (We tell the story)
You are why. . .
We tell the story

So I hope that you will tell this tale tomorrow
It will help your heart remember and relive
It will help you feel the anger and the sorrow
And forgive

For all the ones we leave
And we believe
Our lives become
The stories that we weave
Todd and his wife Cynthia March 2014

1 comment:

Rick said...

Beautiful, tragic, honest and brave. Thank you for sharing this.