I had not been back to the Motion Picture Home since my husband died one year ago.
I had finished the book about how we met, how we hung on close all the way to the end. And then how I have learned to swim on my own.
The book also shows the story of the attempt to close the home, an iconic place the film business created for its people to go through their last years. There are far more of those years for most of us now, and far fewer places for us to be.
There is absolutely nowhere like this posh, easy-going ranch, where you're surrounded by land and trees, where the rooms are filled with air and light, and where the caregivers seem chosen to become the family which cheers you on, never flinches at your quirks or passions, and never forgets the hug you need.
Of course I must visit on this first anniversary of your death, I told myself.
But it would be hard to go back to the sunny ranch land place to see the nurses, the staff, the view of distant mountains from your room where we'd lie together, making love when you could barely move, humming, roaring low, finger tapping, when you could no longer speak.
I couldn't make this drive out there myself. I asked George, the young writer who has edited my book, to drive me. He's from Wisconsin and New York, and had never seen the Coast Highway or Topanga Canyon, two of the L.A. person's Wonders of the World.
Before we wound down Santa Monica Canyon to the Coast, we stopped to pick up an enormous amount of chocolates, cupcakes and armfuls of flowers to take to Stuart's nurses, and to Lizzie, who is in charge of activities. She made sure almost everyone I knew would be there.
The gifts were as much for the people we loved as a testament to my family's tradition of benevolence. A disposition Stuart shared.
I've spent about as much of this year reading Stuart's journals as I spent re-writing the book about our 30 years together. Two years before he died I was certain the book was done. It was about learning how to love. We never believed he would really die. And, in many senses he has not. All through the journals the one thing, which springs out like a flavor, a fragrance, is how much he loved giving to me, to people he worked with, his family, and mine.
The journals are filled with descriptions of jolly holiday baskets of food from Harrod's, flowers, treats for me, gifts to all our children, restaurant dinners, theater tickets he'd arranged for friends, clients, people looking to pull their lives together. He earned fortunes and, like many creative people, he spent far more. He loved when I arrived at the Motion Picture Home here with flowers and chocolates for everyone. Now these are gifts from both of us to all of you.
As George swung the car around the curve to the entrance, I remembered the night -- just after we received the notice the home was closing -- that we'd have to leave. A group of us, The Family Council, stood here with banners, "Save the Home," our fierce faces lit by TV crews. We were so desperate. The illnesses killing the people we loved were scary enough. How could we move them from the only world where they felt safe?
This day, when we walked into the lobby. The guard lady smiled at me as if this was yesterday, and the Rabbi sauntered up, tall in his burgundy yarmulke, and held me close. No one said, "How are you?" or, "Are you okay?" This is the place where they don't ask dumb questions.
Lizzie, built like a grand overworked owner of a Provençale farm, has the aura of the ultimate master of ceremonies, which she is, hosting all events. She held me tighter than I've been held all year; I brought flowers, but what everyone gave me back was a garland of embraces, strong and knowing. It was homecoming, like back to the school where I learned how to give. The flowers and chocolates are fine, but have nothing to do with the exchange of expressions, the way we face each other. We are veterans. Don't say war's tough unless you've been there. This is why I snarl at people who say, "Sorry for your loss."
I was not surprised my heart was pounding as I came closer, down the hallway, past the movie star pictures, family portraits to all of us, then round the bend, to the West One nurse's station where he'd be there, in his wheelchair, his RAF hat in place. I glanced in what had been his room. No, the blue plaid blanket is gone. That is not the shape of his haunch.
Embracing Saida, Stuart's main nurse, who called me that last Friday and said, "You better come, now." I was as close to recovering a moment from time as I've ever felt. This was exactly the big way she'd greeted me that night.
Were it not for George, reminding me of the family of writers, the life I have now, I would have stayed, slumping into the empty wheelchair in the corner, clutching onto these warm-hearted Third-Act life guides.
Now The Motion Picture Home's story has an extraordinary new chapter. Three of Hollywood's most dedicated dreamers have contributed $90 million so we can keep taking care of our own. I know I'll have a place to be. I'll be gathering writers here, holding packets of screenplays, poems and memoirs, in my bony arms.
I'll play your jazz discs, walk the paths as I did, showing George the rose gardens, the herd of topiary pigs, the pine trees where we'd sit on the hottest Valley days and you'd recite lines from poems you'd composed; and consider beginning others you feared you wouldn't be around to finish. When I came home I glanced over my book. One good thing about being an alive writer is the work is always there breathing, eager for a touch, even a well-meant trim, a polish. I make a cup of Yorkshire Gold tea, sit at my desk. And pick up my pen.