Dark Comedy, Gay Elders, Chronic Disease, and COVID
“I cry all the time…We both cry all the time, then what we do, we cry, and we take our tears, and we put ’em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays until they’re all frozen and then… we put them… in our… drinks.”
Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
I’m terrified my friends will get coronavirus and die.
Even with mask requirements being dropped and increasing rates of vaccination. I love them all so much. We are writers and artists and activists. And we are old — the population most at risk. We are elders with stories to tell and much more to create. Each of us is dealing with our own compromised health in different ways. Some are still coping with HIV and remind us about the horrors of the last great pandemic. Some friends are teetering on the edge between tolerable days and insufferable days.
I’m most worried about Murray.
He’s only sixty-four and has had COPD for over a decade. Advanced COPD is a debilitating lung condition. There is no cure. Murray is very proud of his independence and self-reliance. He lives alone, and he hates the idea of home care. But he is terribly frustrated that his few friends and family do not appreciate what a disability it is to be unable to breathe normally.
Just walking across the room exhausts him.
Doing laundry or dishes are once-a-month activities at best because housework saps every bit of his energy. He is normally obsessed with cleanliness. Now, crusted clothes and cookware lay in great piles in his tiny apartment. He puts food scraps and garbage in the freezer so they don’t attract bugs — who knows when he will have the strength to take the trash out. It takes him days to recover from the effort of taking a shower. He tries to eat regularly, usually organic foods, but the act of eating increases the phlegm in his lungs, which can take all day to expel or dissipate, so he often has just one small meal per day. He is slowly wasting away. Most of his calories come from wine.
Murray is certain that if he is exposed to COVID he won’t survive, and he’s probably right. A common cold virus last winter put him in hospital for a week. So, he has cut himself off from all direct human contact. He has his groceries delivered to a table in the hall outside his apartment door. He insists that delivery persons wear gloves and masks. He won’t let anyone into his subsidized housing unit and he hasn’t been outside for months now.
Despite all this, he somehow manages.
A handsome man, tall and lithe, Murray’s once jet-black hair is now snow-white. “Yes, Mae West, I’ve drifted,” he would say. He radiates a gay charm and humour that’s infectious. He has one of the best attitudes about life I have ever encountered. He revels in beauty and diversity. He loves to talk with all kinds of people, though he despises the intolerance of religion and the racism of conservative politics. When we are together and in our cups he often breaks into song and dance as if life were a Broadway show. He might suddenly belt out “Here we come, on the run, with a burger on a bun” imitating Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble being drive-in carhops, balancing an invisible tray on his hand. I can’t tell you how many times he has laughed himself into a coughing fit.
On the other hand, he has no illusions about how fucked up things are.
Murray is a music and movie aficionado. He knows almost every song from every musical ever written, and he can tell you the career details of almost any actor — stage, film, or TV. He is listening to the ‘Top 500 Albums of All Time’ in reverse order. He is probably Elvis Costello’s biggest fan. His apartment is a shrine to Barbra Streisand. He stays abreast of current affairs but loses himself each day in the rerun of a golden era film. He has a bevy of new cable TV shows he can’t wait to tell me about.
Murray falls asleep almost every night listening to the audio recording of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which he views as America’s best dark comedy-drama.
Two or three evenings a week I phone Murray and we talk for an hour or more. He always greets me with, “Hello darling” in his deep Lauren Bacall voice. We are old theatre queens. He and I have done hundreds of stage performances, and were together in a few, some of which were epic — West Side Story, Mousetrap, Torch Song Trilogy, Macbeth. We reminisce. We talk about shows in which we could still play the old man parts, though in his case the part would require a wheelchair and an oxygen tank.
Many of our mutual friends were still acting and directing when COVID hit. It devastated the theatre community. Some of our actor friends have taken to Zooming. One younger colleague, who runs a small-town playhouse, has been staging weekly readings of Shakespeare, engaging his community of actors in unrehearsed, online theatre workshops. Murray suddenly had the realization that theatre performances on Zoom are an ideal medium for a chronically ill, home-bound actor. He hatched a plot to host live readings of contemporary plays.
For his first Zoom reading Murray decided he would, of course, do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He cast himself in the Uta Hagen/Elizabeth Taylor role of Martha. He sent out invitations on Facebook and found three other excellent actors to read the parts of George, Nick, and Honey, actors he had worked with in the past but hadn’t talked to in years. Within days, almost a hundred followers had signed up to view the reading. Murray planned to stage the three-act play over three weeks in one-hour chunks. He enlisted the help of a librarian friend (who is well-versed in Zoom technology) to stage manage and prep participants. I was in charge of sound effects. Murray binge-watched Zoom tutorials about flattering lighting, screen views, and recording options. He draped a sheet behind his laptop desk to hide his disheveled apartment. He borrowed a wig from his sister.
Act I went relatively well. The off-stage sound effects didn’t work, but ice-tinkled glasses and elbow-padded sweaters added a nice touch. The actors were balanced and compelling, though Murray grew visibly haggard toward the end. The next day he was exhausted. The demands of being simultaneously a director and a lead actor taxed his stamina. He had developed a throbbing ache in his lungs, like broken ribs he said. He pushed through the pain.
Then he got much worse.
Gasping for air, he called 911 and spent several days in the hospital, a scary proposition for a person with compromised lungs as COVID cases were peaking. It turned out he’d developed pleurisy and pneumonia. Act II and Act III would have to wait. Back home and feeling better after a month of antibiotics and prednisone he plowed ahead. He replaced himself as Martha with another excellent actor and completed production of the play on Zoom.
This last hospital stay was traumatic, though. Murray finally agreed to schedule home care workers to help him with household chores and showers. But this, too, posed many challenges. He is understandably paranoid about having strangers in this apartment whose contacts and exposures are unknown. He is adamant about them wearing masks and washing their hands the minute they come in. He even found a ditty on his Alexa device that counts down the amount of time you should spend washing your hands — a full twenty seconds — and he plays it each time a care worker arrives.
Getting Murray fully vaccinated was a drama in itself.
It takes advanced notice and planning for him to travel, so arranging spur-of-the-moment appointments was impossible. He got increasingly angry when he saw people much younger and healthier getting vaccinated ahead him. He was horrified to learn in conversations with his care workers that their agency had no requirement they be vaccinated. Many are opposed to the COVID vaccine. Changing this policy and practice may become his new crusade.
Murray’s health continues to deteriorate, but he hasn’t felt so alive in years. He’s got an audience and challenging goals again. Dozens of people email, asking about parts in the next reading, offering kudos on the success of Virginia Woolf, and ‘liking’ the posted recordings. He joins other theatrical projects on Zoom when he can, and he is contemplating another production soon. The pandemic, that could easily chew him up and spit him out, and still might, oddly helped him reconnect with friends and move forward in managing his illness.
Murray and I have had plenty of heart-to-hearts. I’m named in his advanced directive. I haven’t seen him in person for a year. I’m stuck in Canada until the border opens again. Still, we laugh and rage and cry all the time. We both cry all the time. We put our tears in a goddamn ice tray, mix another drink, and Zoom.