Hospital patients as life coaches; testing “What would Bette Midler do?” in the face of loss (and her mom’s dementia). It’s all in this week’s Tragicomedia, as artist Nancy Gershman interviews Beth Crosby, a Los Angeles-based actor/writer; alum of Second City Theatricals and The Groundlings; and co-creator/co-star of the cult comedy videos, “Jessica and Hunter” comedy web-series Visit Beth on her website, BethCrosby.net.If your grief needs company, grab someone who’s grieved before Purge your grief by writing a part for the deceased in your one man show Be a thoughtful DJ on your friend’s deathbed Long term hospital patients make ballsy life coaches Try this new bumper sticker: What would Bette Midler do? Glancing at photos of the deceased reminds you of your priorities Show up for your life without hiding the drama The world needs your ying and the next guy’s yang Your To Do List
“Oh boy. It’s been the hardest year and half of my life. Here in my mid 30s, death is becoming a Thing now. I had a really good friend die of a brain tumor when I was 21 and that was crazy. None of my friends understood what I was going through. They were definitely nice and listened, but they had no interest in ‘going there’ with me. One minute they’d be sitting with me, and the next minute it’s “Ok, let’s get some coffee now; let’s get a bite to eat.” You’re selfish at that age; especially actors and students in general. I guess I felt so alone because I really wanted somebody who had been through this before and had sat with their grief just like I was sitting with mine.”
“What saved me when Beth died that young, I think, was going to therapy. But more importantly, turning Beth’s life into a musical – quite literally. I’ll never forget. I had to create a “one person show” about my life for class two weeks after Beth died. We could dance, sing, whatever. So I decided to stick in a piece at the end about Beth and what I was going through. It was a modern dance piece.
Dance is for me the purest form of self-expression. I feel I’m a writer now, but I wasn’t at that time. I couldn’t be in my head when I was dancing. (I could be but it wouldn’t have been very good dancing.) Anyway, everything led up to this ending where I danced a duet with another girl playing Beth. I knew she had a huge career ahead of her. Beth was like a 40 year old jazz singer living in the body of a 17 year old. So me and Beth’s stand-in danced to a Joni Mitchell song, her favorite. The show ended up affecting the entire class, with people coming up afterwards to talk to me how much it moved them. For me, it was such a great way to purge what I was feeling.”
“On Beth’s deathbed, she couldn’t speak anymore, so we played lots of music. She was almost gone but I could see the music registering in her eyes. Most mind-blowing of all was what happened next. I was staying with her at hospice for a few days, speaking to her and playing her favorite musical The Fantasticks, over and over again. I get back to school and learn that the musical they planned to do got cancelled and instead, they were going to do The Fantasticks! Throughout that show – in my brain – I pictured her backstage and on stage with me; watching everything, giving me the strength and courage to just let go and perform.”
“As an adult, I’ve already experienced three significant people dying in my life. But it was these three people who reminded me what was getting in the way of living my life. They helped me get to the bottom of what was holding me back from professionalism. And that was my self-consciousness. It made me afraid.
As an actress it is my job to audition. But it’s fucking scary putting yourself out there day in and day out. Proving yourself every time you want a job.
Last year on my Grandma Jane’s deathbed, I began to ask myself: What am I afraid of? I had spent lots of time with people who knew they were dying and who seemed to be operating on a different plane. The way they talk to us: it’s almost like there’s no more time for bullshit, chit chat, let’s talk about the weather. So I’m thinking, what am I afraid of: of failing and not being any good? Who fucking cares? That was when Grandma Jane made my number one goal as an adult – getting past my fear.
My best friend’s mother Josie was like a second mom to me. She passed away recently from pancreatic cancer, not even 60. Josie, too, would tell it to me straight: that she had complete faith in me; that I could achieve my wildest dreams if I’d only get out of my own way. Because what do the dying have to lose? She reminded me I needed to believe in myself and stop listening to that little voice that says Don’t try this, don’t try that. Instead, Josie was saying, Do it anyways.“
“If I’m procrastinating – like every time I write – it takes several attempts because perfectionism always gets in the way. So my therapist said to me at some point: “Act as if you’re Bette Midler every time you go to auditions.” Yeah! What would Bette Midler do? I get What would Jesus do, but I relate to Bette Midler more! Now I perceive Bette as insanely confident and I can relax a bit. Because I’m realizing it’s not up to me to decide who gets the part. If I really want a part now and I am invited to come back multiple times for testing, this kind of attitude is changing my life! Because I used to get really, really nervous before auditions. Now I can be a wreck before and a mess afterwards, but thanks to Bette, never during.
I struggle with putting work before everything else; defining myself as a sketch comedy performer; an actress and a writer. But what Grandma Jane’s death has taught me is that at the end of the day – and I know it’s cliché – it’s all about connection and the people in my life.”
“My cousin and I put together Grandma Jane’s memorial as if it were a Broadway show. It’s almost like we were wanting to make up for lost time. I regretted that I didn’t spend more time with Grandma when she was alive and when she was sick. That’s a hard thing to face up to. But you can.
We wanted everything to be J-A-N-E. We agonized over the music and the photographs. We had a picture blown up of Jane at her best and most vibrant (in her 30s), radiating light. That’s how you want to remember someone. Grandma had a stroke, and it was not her anymore – the way I knew her my whole life: a funny, loud, ballsy woman. Today, I keep that same picture on my cork board above my computer, along with Josie’s picture. There’s something about that photo with Josie looking straight at me, giving a thumbs up that gives me all this energy and life. I just have to glance at it; it’s almost a subconscious thing. I’ll forget it’s there and when I glance up at it I’m quickly reminded what my priorities are.”
“Last year my mother had a heart attack and triple bypass, and had to move her to assisted living at the young age of 74. She’s relatively young for her health problems. Now her strokes have affected her short-term memory. Going to a Cheerios commercial right before I’m putting my mom into assisted living as tough. It’s hard to turn off these feelings you’re having and then having to be the best creative person you can be. So I’ve come to terms that if I have to show up to auditions as a depressed person, then this is what they’re getting. What matters is that I showed up. And the work got me out of my head.
In an ideal world, I’d love someone to throw me a million dollars and say “Now go be with your mom.” This whole memory loss is pretty new. It’s so sad but I have to laugh at it.
I’ll give you an example. They had a luau at Mom’s assisted living place. It’s The Big To Do. Next week is the Luau! Dancers! Food! Mom must have called me 5 different times to invite me to the party. I have to laugh or how horrible is that? Every now and then, I have to stifle wanting to say, “Are you fucking kidding? What’s wrong with you?” Instead I go, “Yeah! Wow, luau. Wwesome. You bet I’ll be there.”
I know it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I hadn’t realized the extent of this kind of memory loss. To make up for lost time, I think I will start taking more pictures of my life, which normally I wouldn’t have. I might bring my mom pictures of my boyfriend; pictures of myself on set. Maybe make these into photo albums. I think this could be a cool thing when she forgets what I tell her verbally.”
“Sounds cliché but going through this with Mom has given life a new level of meaning. When you’re going through it, you say how long will I be able to do this?
But now I know, it will make me a better girlfriend; a better creative person. It know for a fact it will help me write a better TV show about assisted living.
This has also been coming up for me with Josie and Jane’s deaths: Does my life have meaning? My day job is auditioning for commercials. I’m coming to realize normal people don’t do this. I love acting on TV, but sometimes I’m wondering is this my contribution to the world? I worry about this. Well, Josie’s daughter is a scientist who works in a lab that is ironically looking for a cure for cancer.
The other day my boyfriend (who is a writer/director) and I were talking to Cecile about her work. There she is, explaining all this technical stuff to us and saying, “Yeah, we might have created this pill that could cure this one type of colon cancer.” Our minds were blown. The conversation moves on, and now we’re talking about comedians and saying “You know that actress Bla-Bla-Bla? Ugh, she’s totally hack.” And we’re explaining to her what “hack” means. That it’s something cheesy; not original; just bad.
When we left, my boyfriend and I sat quietly in the car and just looked at each other. She’s curing cancer! And what are we fucking doing with our lives?
But listen to what happened. Often when I get into the Jessica character at events, I’m referred to as a gay man living in a woman’s body. So at one of these Gay Pride events a guy comes up and says, “Hey, I was in the hospital last year. Things were not looking good for me. But I watched your videos a lot and it helped me with what I was going through. It brought me joy.”
Even though people don’t say this a lot, making people laugh is a gift to the world. I guess Cecile and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum. You could say I’m the Ying and she’s the Yang.”Your To Do List
- Give a parent with dementia a photomontage of what your daily life looks like, so you both can “practice” with it. Because their attention span may be short, include only the most important activities so you can point to each image within the “picture” and talk about it. In Beth’s case, it might include her practicing her lines in a mirror, or sitting on a live set before cameras.
- Place this “Day-in-The-Life-Of-My-Daughter” (or Son) on your parent’s nightstand in a soft quilted frame with plastic covering the photomontage – and not glass – so that it’s not too heavy for them to lift when you’re not there.
- Have your photomontage made by a digital artist trained in meaning-making, so that the final concept will be conceived as a single “storytelling picture” and not a jigsaw puzzle of events that might be overstimulating to a dementia patient.