For William Todd

Not Waving But Drowning

picture of English poet, Stevie Smith

by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
 And not waving but drowning.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
*

William Todd, partner to my dear friend Diane died, five years ago today.  When Diane phoned to say William, for whom she administrated end-of-life care for months in their tiny apartment, had died in the night, Manny and I weren’t surprised. We had visited the night before. The end hovered in the room.

I had always been very fond of William, who was among the most knowledgeable, literate, artistic men I have ever known, as eager to learn as to teach.

I remember Diane, who had been heroically devoted and conscientious for months, telling us, after we had been away, that William had lost most of his body weight. I wasn’t afraid of that. What I feared more was that I would annoy him. Inadvertently, I would add to his discomfort when he had been suffering so awfully for so long. For instance: after saying hello, I asked, “Are you scared?”

His face lit up. For once, my inappropriate curiosity was appropriate! Too weak to talk much, he said, “I’m petrified.”

Diane had set up a table near the hospital bed brought in by Visiting Nurse Service of New York. On the table was a photograph of William and his sister in Liverpool, ages perhaps seven to ten. I saw that same handsome, nonchalant little boy in the photograph lying in the hospital bed. He shook his head.

I said, no, you’re the same.

Another photograph was of a man in flight gear. Unlike me, William rarely talked about himself. And at the end, talking was difficult for him. Manny asked if the photograph was his father. He indicated yes. His father had fought in WWII as a bombardier. The last word I heard William Todd say was, “bombardier.”

Sitting with William as he died, I witnessed moments when he broke through the terrible pain and became more than lucid–pure. His death convinced me that a person’s death involves triumph, not an earthly triumph, but something larger than sorrow, and everlasting.

The poem above by Stevie Smith was familiar to me but when I spotted it on a blog William was designing years ago, it suddenly became ingrained in my memory.

Fletcher Assumes

 

Fletcher Assumes


Fletcher hadn’t answered Brooke’s calls because he had spoken “at some length” with the troupe’s regular director. They acknowledged that Kirsten should be stronger, but who cared? Fletcher did, of course, but if Terrible were Ophelia, he would need to direct her.  “Or did you assume your little sister would comply with your every dictate, Abominable?”

“We might have agreed. And what if I was calling about something else?”

“I assumed not.  Because Kirsten rang Alan, who rang me. Yet my faith in you never wavered. I trusted you to smooth any ruffled feathers. Just as you always do.”

“Oh.”  Brooke still wanted to talk about the play, for he had never openly praised her before.  But if she asked to talk later, after she’d had some toast and coffee, he might not answer until next spring.  Or if he did, he’d ridicule her.  Sometimes his rants were funny, and usually instructive, but Fletcher cultivated a scathing manner so that if he drunkenly lashed out, people were like “typical” and left him alone.

Upbraiding her was Fletcher’s style of mentoring. Because if he didn’t respect her, he wouldn’t have given her Hamlet.  He wouldn’t have insisted that Brooke be his assistant director starting when she was only twelve-years-old. Then as now, Ma was the house manager, the PR director, and producer for the summer theatre.  Fletcher required infinitely more assistance than Jenny could give him—but why Brooke?  When the general consensus of her even then had been: wild, extravagant, and impudent.  Ma had said that wasn’t true but as it happened, Fletcher appreciated such traits.

Brooke did not. If she could, she’d be restrained and focused, not excessive and impetuous. Most of all, she would be the kind of girl whose father never beat her up.

Tara said that because of Pop, Brooke must always beware of confusing abuse with affection.  So insulting! Did Tara view her as a candidate for a pop psychology TV show?  Like, calling Dr. Phil?

“Not exactly, but you can’t dismiss the documented results of child abuse.”

“Shut up, Tara.”

Only the girls, Ma, and Pop knew. And for now, Pop stayed away.  Brooke would never admit that she missed him, but she did. So let Tara think Fletcher was the worst of it.

Anyway, sporadic tirades aside, Fletcher liked them both. And he loved Ma, who made sure he remained the lifelong director of Woodstock’s summer theatre.  Because Fletcher’s long dead lover, Sir Jeremy, whom Fletcher called Dickie (to this day) had especially loved Ma.

When the couple had arrived at the realty after opening The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, Sir Jeremy was immediately taken by Ma, who reminded him of his cousin Lily. Ma had just started working at the realty, upon finishing high school. She answered the phones and listed places for sale, which she kept in a black binder. But Sir Jeremy had requested her opinion. first on the property and then on the house they were building.

Fletcher was the one who told Brooke that his lover, who died before she was born, had been a baronet, like a character in Jane Austen. And that Dickie had known Andrew Lloyd-Webber all his life. In most of his theatrical extravaganza’s, Baron Lloyd-Weber casually added handful of Dickie’s lines, and then Fletcher’s, to The Phantom of the libretto.

Fletcher in those days had been like a punk-rocker. The big craze was in the 70s. Fletcher belonged to the Trainspotting  era.  Dickie had seen him hanging around and so Fletcher, who was doing “nothing legal” picked him up. Dickie, who loved Fletcher on sight, thought he was brilliant and promoted his ideas for all Lloyd-Webber’s pre-1990s productions. “Nothing but smart ass wisecracks! But then Dickie taught him everything.

Ma had been their one friend in Woodstock. They would invite her to their parties at the octagonal house rising from the creek near Mid-Mountain Way. Then in 1993, they moved there for good—Dickie was fatally ill.

Ma ran errands and arranged appointments. She fixed martinis and listened to them trade lines from Shakespeare and Noel Coward. Both of them, it turned out, hated musicals. When Dickie died, Fletcher drowned his sorrows in gin. During the 21 years since, Fletcher’s one activity was directing Woodstock’s summer play.

But at that moment, he was telling Brooke about Children’s Minds. Fletcher, like Ma, Tara, and billions of others, loved the show about a pediatric psychotherapist who figured out kids’ secret torments and what to do about them.

Brooke said, “I’ve never watched a whole episode.”

“So he said.”

She panicked, hearing this.

“You babysat for his children, did you not?”

“Yes. But Jasper was away, working on the grand finale.”

“But when he was there…?”

Her impulse was to throw down the phone.

Fletcher shouted at her. “Certainly, you know your boyfriend earned four Emmy’s before he was 25.”

“Fletcher! What do you mean—boyfriend?”

“Tut-tut, nothing personal. Few so-called straight actors are so…unpersuadable.”

“You mean unpersuadable by—you?”

“Naughty minx, by any man.”

“I can’t believe you asked him that.”

“Don’t be coy, Abominable. Jasper King is so good-looking he must acquire real skill or his career will amount to audiences drooling over him.”

“Disgusting.”

“Indeed. After saying your Hamlet amazed him, he accepted my offer to coach him next summer. The man has a lot to learn.”

Brooke felt creepy. Something about Fletcher guessing she’d be home with a hangover…But she refused to let Fletcher get to her, and said, “Any other weekday, I’d be at school now.”

“Appalling! You must cease your attendance this minute!”

“Last fall I attended a playwright workshop on 42nd Street, because you recommended me! I applied to Vassar early, using my freshman year test scores. So Presidential Scholarship or not, I’m going.”

“Perish the thought! You’ll then direct Hamlet like everyone else.”

by kathleen maher

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