Microscope of Grief

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

The novella 'Coming to Los Angeles' continues as a serial this week.

WHEN DID I BEGIN to let them still the emotional core of my artistic nature?

I must take responsibility for my own complicity in the act - no one forces a conservative Mennonite to remain. But my peers and I were at a disadvantage, and they had the tools to quiet us - guilt, ignorance, our need for authoritarian approval.

Most of my peers stayed. I remained until I was 25, made compliant by the community's use of control rods, which were lowered into my emotional core at childhood.

THE CONTROL RODS used to tame a nuclear reactor are filled with cadmium pellets, which absorb the free neutrons, whose movements begin a nuclear reaction.

Machines lower control rods into the nuclear core. When the rods are pulled out, free neutrons begin to move. Eventually, a stray neutron strikes a 235U atom, which releases more neutrons, which starts a chain reaction, which creates energy.

If the control rods are completely withdrawn, a chain reaction spins out of control, and you get Three Mile Island. Lower the rods - activity slows. Withdraw the rods - activity speeds up. If every control rod is dropped into the core - all energy stops.

WHAT KIND OF pain does an artist with an overheated core experience within a conservative Mennonite community like ours?

My sister Marjorie - just three years older than I - was born with real talent in music and drama. Unfortunately, her skittish energy didn't blend into the community's mosaic of emotion - she was called a showoff, too emotional, childish. These are adjectives that could describe almost any diva onstage today.

I cannot know what Marjorie went through. She was a casualty of my community's battle for control, a young woman in a society that privileged males. I was a young man, learning different lessons, perhaps.

I responded to her behavior by joining the pack - criticizing her, trying to control her, annoyed that she stood out. I'm not assigning blame - the fault is the system, the way it repressed individuality.

The gift of an artist - or perhaps the curse - is her ability to perceive the world through different eyes and respond instinctively. What an artist sees can sometimes destroy her - as can the reactions of a community addicted to control.

Had Marjorie attended an Ohio public school, the choral director would have worked with the guidance department to create an academic schedule that complemented her gifts.

My sister's musical talents would have been valued - not ignored. The school would have provided academic counseling and tutoring, perhaps medication, if needed. My sister would have been praised for her ability to perform, rather than shamed for her academic struggles. Upon high school graduation, she might have been guided into a conservatory of music, or drama school.

Marjorie's physicality would have been valued, disciplined through voice and acting lessons - instead of severe corporal punishment.

Today I grieve for the pain my older sister experienced. Her emotional core could not be stilled. Marjorie kept throwing up every control rod, no matter how many were lowered into her soul.

I WAS COMPLICIT with the community's authoritarian leadership. In an effort to distance myself from my sister, I accepted the control rods they kept lowering. Marjorie was an embarrassment to my already eclectic family, I thought. How foolish I was.

And then Marjorie left, and I remained. It would be years before I realized what she had known intuitively: an artist cannot begin to find his voice until the control rods are raised. My acceptance of the control rods also sprang from my need to avoid the pain I felt whenever I spoke out - and felt the pack nipping at my heels, bringing me back into line.

I WAS IN MY third year of college when one of our five pastors reprimanded me during our twice-annual, private confession of faith ("I have peace with God and my fellow men and would like to partake in communion"). I got up, thinking we were finished. But my pastor remained seated.

Refusing to look in my direction, he reported that they had been hearing reports. Some of the young men attending college were "hugging women a lot."

I tried not to laugh. My minister thought we were having wild sex - in reality, I was attending a Christian evangelical college, singing in a choir whose primary venues were church concerts, and enjoying the warm family atmosphere of a group in which hugging meant acceptance.

I looked at my pastor. There was no explaining this. He finally released me, uncomfortably.

THE REALITY IS that I loved my family deeply. I still do. And it's a hard, distressing thing to find that the cost of growing up will be rejection.

No child wants to lose his family. All my life, I've wanted to please my parents, make them proud of me. It's difficult to grow up.

Did I flee from the pain of being true to myself because of what my actions would generate? In a community that values cohesiveness and rejects individuality, it's a hard, distressing thing to become an adult.

I RECOGNIZED IN MY friend Kim an artistic core that was white-hot. I remember arguing about whether or not we should mike our student leads during The Pirates of Penzance. It was not an option - Kim was a purist who believed that opera demanded a natural voice, not one electronically transmitted.

Kim knew who she was, and she was driven by what she believed. She demanded the best from her choir students - and they gave it to her. She collaborated with me - accepting my eclectic nature and respecting what I brought to the partnership - and she made each production more than a high school show.

Her dreams stretched beyond her teaching career. As she began to give recitals within the North Canton community and perform with the Akron Lyric Opera, I realized that Kim intended to become an opera singer. I admired her individuality, passion for excellence, free spirit, and ability to empathize with those she loved.

She was a wakeup call to my creative side, the most alive person I knew.

BY JANUARY 2000, John David Drake had showed that he was serious about my offer to produce an original musical - the book was finished and in my hands. He titled it Lost in LaGrange.

Setting the show in the world he knew best, Drake told the story of a high school with a problem - they have never staged a musical. When a math teacher volunteers to direct it, the kids jump aboard. The choir director collaborates unwillingly. The result is a comedy of errors.

In addition to composing the music, composer Kendrick Strauch also put a band together onstage and performed with them. The show attracted over 600 audience members three nights in a row.

ACROSS MY YEARS at Hoover, I had forced myself to adopt the habits of a Type A personality. Besides teaching five or six classes of 25+ kids each day, I was also advising the drama club, directing up to four shows a year, and running a yearbook program with an annual budget that eventually climbed to $87,000.

I remember one day in particular. That afternoon I had met with my editors and yearbook representative to turn in the final pages of the 1998 Viking yearbook. Immediately afterwards, I walked down to the theatre to open a new show.

Why did I feel the need to do so much? Maybe I was keeping myself too busy to think. Perhaps I was searching for meaning. Possibly I was beginning to raise a few of the control rods in my life, and the rush of energy needed an outlet.

I know now that writing focuses my energy best, calms me - I sink down into the chair and move through the computer screen into another world. The endorphin rush is powerful, healing. After a good day of writing, I'm at peace.

But back then, I didn't have the discipline or commitment to find and enter that place. I wasn't ready for the silence of creativity. My energy was frenetic, scattered - a shotgun blast of pellets into the universe, rather than the clean, hard shot of a rifle bullet aimed at a specific target.

MY INABILITY TO SAY no and my need to become the Golden Boy had a dramatic impact on my personal life. For example, in the summer of 1996, I had fallen in love with Wendy Wagler - dark, curly hair, upbeat. Over the next six months, I had grown to love her. Marriage loomed.

But Wendy saw with clear eyes that what I loved most was not her, but my work. I had no vision of a family. I was too self-absorbed. Things came to a head after Hayward talked to me about directing South Pacific, and I agreed to do it. When I shared my plans with Wendy, she put her foot down.

"If you direct this show, we're finished," she said. She considered me. "The way it is - you barely have time for us."

Shortly afterwards, I ended the relationship.

KIM SOMETIMES TOOK a break in the midst of her hectic schedule to visit me on the other side of the building. She said it calmed her down.

She would sit and watch as students approached me where I was seated at my desk, always working - creating playbills, correcting yearbook spreads, grading papers. Students interrupted me constantly, asking for advice or help.

I would chat with Kim between interruptions, and then she would return to her room. She must have been relieved that someone else had a schedule more hectic than her own.

But the nature of my drive came out of a different place than Kim's. Whereas she was focused on what she loved, I was throwing the years of my life against the wall of the Universe, hoping something would stick. I was speed-dating my talents - teaching, acting, directing, producing, advising. Each gave me pleasure, but none of them produced the kind of passion that burns white.

I knew next to nothing about love.

ON THE LAST NIGHT of my spring break in April 2000, I was on the phone with Laura Schmidt, a girlfriend with whom I had a long-distance relationship. I don't remember what we were arguing about, but she caught my attention with a comment.

"Steve, I think we knew each other in a previous life," she said, "and I think we're still trying to work out our differences."

I hung up and sat quietly for several minutes, thinking. Her words had given me an idea. What if I were a young man - no, what if a young man were in love with a woman - what if he left her after promising God he'd give up everything for the priesthood in order to save his own life? Martin Luther had done that.

I opened up a new Word document. And in 15 minutes I had written a summary for The French Inquisitor, a screenplay that looks at eternal love through the metaphor of past lives. It was my first original story idea.

The next day I went to Borders and picked up Syd Field's books on screenwriting - all formula and plot points - and I began writing.

AT THE END of the school year, I flew to Orlando, Florida, to read AP Literature Essays for the College Board. Approximately 800 English teachers were hired that year for an eight-day stint. We were housed in excellent hotels. We ate delicious food and worked at tables set up in a gigantic gym, about nine readers each, marking AP essays during the day and exploring Orlando's nightlife with our colleagues during the evenings.

When I arrived, I bought a couple of tee shirts. Since I usually stood to read, most people eventually saw them. My favorite showed a picture of a bright green alligator with the caption "Bite me!"

Shortly thereafter, I ran into Genevieve Morgan from Los Angeles. I immediately mistook her name for Guinevere of the Arthurian myth. She didn't find my mistake funny, but we still became friends.

When Genevieve found out I was writing a screenplay, she told me a story about a reporter from Los Angeles who interviewed everyone coming out of a grocery store. He asked each of them: "Tell me about your screenplay." Nearly everyone was able to talk about a screenplay they were writing.

During one of our many conversations, Genevieve offered to introduce me to a screenwriter she knew when I finally completed The French Inquisitor. And when I told her I was thinking about moving to Los Angeles, Genevieve reminded me that her school was always looking for good teachers.

I thought Genevieve might be able to advise me as I looked for a teaching position to support myself while I broke into film. At the end of the trip, we exchanged email addresses and phone numbers.

I KNEW NEXT to nothing about the inner life of a writer - even less about generating creative ideas. Like most English majors, I had had little competition in college classes, so I believed writing fiction would also be easy. How little I knew.

In the years since that first attempt at a screenplay, I've learned that writing takes significant downtime. It takes a commitment to reading and researching and thinking and brainstorming and chasing ideas up and down blind alleys.

In addition, a writer needs to have passion for his story - the intensity cannot end until the story is finished. Most important, a writer of fiction must enjoy solitude. The writer has only himself and the imaginary world of his story for company.

Of course, you soon learn to prefer that world.

BACK HOME, I DECIDED to press ahead with my screenplay idea. I invited two friends to be my co-writers - and we began working together. Using all the bad writing habits I had learned over the years, I decided to give myself a deadline. I set a date and invited actors I knew to my house to read my new screenplay, which had not yet been written.

My friends showed up to read. While some cooked in my kitchen, the rest of us gathered in the living room and labored through what I had mostly pounded out the night before.

Perhaps the writing sounded okay to them. Perhaps. Maybe they didn't know any better. I doubt it. After all, the story idea was a good one, and the dialogue kinda sounded like people talk to each other. Perhaps. I know better today.

The writing was crap.

WE ALL BELIEVE that we want people to tell us the truth about our work. But few of us do.
I recently talked to Drew Struzan, whom The Boston Globe called "the last of the great poster artists." He's currently creating the art for Steven Spielberg's new Indiana Jones film.

We were discussing how a teacher inspires his students - when Drew told me that he refuses to grade the work of his students. I was surprised. What if an administrator insists?

"I give them all A's," Drew said. "How do you judge a young artist? How can you even evaluate them when it takes years for an artist to even develop to a point when he can produce anything substantial?"

He had a point. An artist becomes who he is because of the unqualified support he gets from those who love him. Our dearest friends and sometimes our family love us for our flaws. They tell us we're wonderful.

It's not that they're lying. It's just that they love us. An artist's growth is an organic process. As any mother and father will attest, you don't go to your daughter's dance recitals because you love art.

I ENTERED my sixth year of teaching, completely unprepared for the event that was about to take place.

I had grown up under my father's dogma, which stated that the only true faith is found in the conservative Mennonite community. Any denomination other than our non-conference, conference conservative Mennonite church - well, you're taking a chance.

Since then, I had rejected that belief. Although I didn't know who was going to get into heaven, I knew my father's standards were too high.

But how does one go about rewriting the Book of God in his life, rethinking death, life, birth? I remember the moment in therapy when I realized that my childhood map of the Universe didn't match the truth of the world I knew - what I saw, heard, smelled, felt, tasted.

Could I abandon the myths I had been taught? I finally gave up trying to make sense of it all. So I wasn't prepared for what happened next.

LATE MORNING, August 24, 2000, second day of school - I was teaching English when an announcement came over the loudspeaker.

"Would all choir students please meet in the choir room."

Several students got up to leave. I watched them go. Students were called out of class for a variety of reasons. I kept teaching. Only after class did I find out what had happened.

My friend Kim was in a coma. There had been a car accident. As I faced the reality of what had happened - my world collapsed.

I thought back over the last few days. The past Monday had been our annual Convocation Day - filled with the sort of long speeches and seminars that all teachers dread but tolerate.

Kim had gotten permission from Campbell to miss that day, which allowed her and Mike to spend additional time vacationing with Mike's family in Edmenton, Alberta - sightseeing through the Canadian Rockies and attending the wedding of Mike's first-grade buddy.

Tuesday was Teacher Work Day, and I spent it in my classroom, preparing for the year. Theodore Leaf, a junior and my costume designer, stopped by to talk - I would later cast him as one of the leads in the fall play. Suddenly, Kim walked in.

The moment lingers in my memory. Kim looked fit, tanned in a little summer dress. She was finally driving the choral program. She had established her leadership during the first year, had strong plans for the second.

Dramatic as usual, Theodore's jaw dropped as he looked at Mrs. Melin. He remarked on "how chic" she looked. His flattery was normal - and Kim ate it up as usual.

It is the last memory I have of Kim before her world turned over.

KIM HAD AWAKENED earlier than usual that morning because the school had changed its schedule. She had a half-hour drive from West Akron to school. She was adjusting. No more sleeping in.

But when Kim got out to her car in the morning, something looked out of whack. She went back in to talk to Mike - the cars apparently weren't parked as usual - but then she returned and took her own car, a 1992 Buick Skylark, aqua blue.

She left the house and turned onto Pershing. As she approached the intersection of West Market, she saw that the red light was still blinking. Or maybe she didn't.

ABOUT A BLOCK from the intersection was a fire station. They heard the sounds of a crash.

"She was hit by a jeep first on her left, which threw her into the other lane," said Mike. "Then she was hit on the right by another car. A third car got involved as well."

The fire station dispatched "an EMS unit there almost immediately," said Mike. "They took her by ambulance to Akron General. She was brought in as a Jane Doe - apparently her I.D. got knocked under the seat. They called the school when they found something connected to it, and the school gave them my number."

"IT TOOK a half-hour to get her out of the vehicle," Mike said. "She stopped breathing in the vehicle. They gave her CPR while she was still in the car, using a 'bag' - something that simulated her breathing. If the fire station hadn't been so close, she wouldn't be here."

Back at the school, the news devastated the students and teachers. Rumors ran rampant. Students organized prayer circles. Teachers sent cards - they felt helpless, out of control. They desperately wanted to DO something.

There was nothing anyone could do. "For 12 days we didn't know if she was going to live," said Mike. And so the report came back every day - Kim was still in a coma.

Mike sent out daily email reports - he had a long list of people to notify, including friends and family. But Mike and the family didn't allow anyone else in to see Kim, not even her closest friends.

And that included me.

NOW FOR THE first time in years, the rigidity of my emotional core began to loosen, broken up by the pressure of caring about my friend.

My first meltdown occurred the weekend of the accident. On Saturday morning, Mike called me - his voice oddly sterile - and asked me if I could drive to the Cleveland-Hopkins airport that evening to pick up Kim's sister Jill.

I agreed, happy to be able to do something. As I drove, I thought about random moments. Kim screaming with laughter as she told her husband about my latest directing faux pas. Kim sitting in a restaurant booth, listening intently - Mike's arm around her - as I told her about my new story idea. Kim at home, worried, upset, as she told me and Mike about a choir student who was making bad choices, and was dropping out of school.

And then, inexplicably, I began sobbing as I headed up Rt. 18, just outside of Medina. I couldn't face Kim's sister. I pulled off to the side of the road. I sat there, alone in my car. I tried to gain control of my emotions.

That unexpected release of grief returned several days later. I was talking to Amanda Swineheart, 19, brown eyes, intensely loyal. Amanda had become a close friend, but still called me by my formal title. She phoned one evening to find out what had happened to Kim.

Suddenly, she asked me how I was doing. I didn't expect her question. One moment I was the emotionally detached teacher she knew, and the next minute, I was fighting sobs. Through my grief, I could hear the worry in Amanda's voice on the other end of the line.

"Mr. D," she said. "Are you okay? What's wrong?"

They don't give you lessons for this, I thought. I didn't know how to feel. The utter lack of control I had in the situation sent me lurching towards emotional corners.

One of my closest friends lay at death's door, and I could do nothing.

WHEN KIM FINALLY came out of her coma, her body had returned to Go. She had to learn all over again how to eat, how to drink, how to talk, how to walk.

Even how to sing - her voice had lost every bit of its hard-won polish. For Kim this was the worst. Her dream career had been opening up in front of her. Then it was snatched away. Why?

Because Kim's condition was kept so private, the community had the impression that it took months for her to come out of the coma. The reality was more complex.

"It took three weeks for her to come out of the coma, but it took another month before she gained awareness or was able to communicate verbally," Mike said.

"She opened her eyes for the first time on the twelfth day - September 5," Mike said. "She squeezed my hand that day, and then she went back into a deep sleep. On September 6th she actually shed a tear looking at me."

It was the last time Kim cried. "Her tear ducts are fine," said Mike. "It's the high-level emotions and connections controlled in the brain - those which create the physical event of tears - that were injured."

MIKE IS STILL haunted by his memories of one night, September 7, when he believes the crucial brain injury took place - well after the accident itself.

Kim was in the Intensive Care Unit - and Mike was the only one with her. The doctors had just taken her off the ventilator that day.

"There were fewer nurses at night," he said. Suddenly, Mike saw Kim's readout numbers begin to drop on the life machines monitoring her progress, and she went into convulsions.

"Her body lost its ability to breathe," Mike said. He ran for help, approached a nurse.

"Something is wrong, you need to come over here," he told her. But the nurse had no time. "I had to go over and get another nurse," Mike remembers. "She finally came over - and then they pushed me out to work on her."

"That was probably the worst moment of the whole thing, except for the accident," Mike said. "It haunted me for three to four years - would pop up like a memory."

"Could this have been the time when that injury occurred?" Mike still continues to ask himself. "Because before, when she first woke up, she was able to cry."

WHEN KIMBERLEY FINALLY opened her eyes for good on September 8, she found that she was helpless - the only motor skills she had were those of a newborn baby. Her prognosis was bleak. The doctors suggested that Kim might live out her life in a nursing home - since half of her body was paralyzed.

But Kim surprised everyone, including herself, with her will to recover. As Kim became fully aware of the challenges she was facing, she determined that the nursing home scenario was not going to happen.

"She smiled on September 8 with the half of her face that wasn't paralyzed," Mike said.

ON SEPTEMBER 12, they flew Kim from Akron General to HealthSouth in Erie, Pennsylvania, where she underwent extensive therapy.

"It was my birthday," said Mike. "She was transported by ambulance to Akron-Canton Airport - right out on the tarmac. I was with her."

The single-prop plane she flew in had barely enough room for the nurse, medic, pilot, and co-pilot. Mike said he ended up being "wedged into the tail of the plane - the ass end of the body - just a knapsack with me, due to weight restrictions of the plane's cargo."

All this time Kim remained protected from the rest of the world - in the hands of her husband Mike.

THEN CAME A MOMENT I can't explain. Neither can Kim, and neither can Mike - although he was creeped out enough by the situation to record the details in his journal.

Mike had been sleeping in a motel room close to HealthSouth. Suddenly his cell phone went off. He awoke and looked at the caller ID screen, which was lit up.

"It was September 16, 2000," he notes, referring to his journal. "That would have been four days after she was transported to HealthSouth in Erie. It was 1:30 AM."

When Mike had left Kim earlier that night, "she was in a deep, really unresponsive condition. Her body was lifeless and still, and appeared to slip back into a coma-like state," he said.

The nurses told him later that Kim had been "really fussy" that night. She was on anti-seizure medicine, and the side effects were a really high fever.

But what Mike heard and saw on his Caller ID made him "get up and go over and turn on the light by the bathroom vanity to make sure I wasn't dreaming."

"It sounded like the scene of an accident," said Mike. "Voices, really strange noises" - and above it all, the sound of "a baby's cry."

"I remember looking in the mirror while I talked on the phone," said Mike. "There was no conversing with whatever it was. No one was addressing me - but something was on the other end."

He looked again at the number on his cell phone. "It was the same as her room number," he said.

THE IMPACT KIM'S accident had on me was profound. I became more empathetic to the pain others were going through. The accident changed me. And only recently have I begun to see how.

I had turned the microscope of grief upon my memories of Kim. I recalled the way she embraced life head-on. It empowered me to do the same.

For the first time in years, I openly expressed my grief. I stripped off the cocoon wrapped around me since childhood - and for the first time, I began to feel.

Within my emotional core, the control rods were slowly being raised.

THE GRIEF I felt had broader implications. It took me back to a place I resisted. In my insular community of conservative Mennonites, I had lived out what I thought was life. However, the artist in me had been trapped in a virtual coma, my emotional core stilled.

The silencing of my artistic voice was as pointless as Kim's. We had both been shut down by forces neither of us could understand, forces too powerful for either of us to fight against.

I knew what it was like to be hidden away - only in my case it wasn't a hospital room. It was a conservative Mennonite community that took pride in its separation from the world.

I realized I had become a bookworm as a child and teenager - not because I didn't like people, or didn't want to be around them, but because I needed to find a world where I could escape from my community's constant evaluation.

We live through the heart, and a heart can take only so much caring. You have to protect it - and I had, but the cost was my soul.

I UNDERSTOOD VERY little of this as the impact of Kim's accident exploded across the landscape of my life. But the aftershock transformed the way I related to people.

For the first time, I began to connect with others on a different emotional level. I found my voice - and realized it could be heard most clearly through the keys of my computer. It was Kim's accident that had ripped the calluses from my heart, causing deep emotional pain, but also creating within me a burning need to write.

When I recovered my balance, I decided that I needed to do something with the students who were grieving Kim's absence.

To be continued . . .

NEXT WEEK - Chapter 3: The Pain of Caring