When I first met her, she was one of a hundred new faces in the cast of a show. It was January 1991, and I had just graduated from college and moved back to my hometown to start The Rest Of My Life. The first order of business was getting cast in Follies, an annual song-and-dance extravaganza whose cast members quickly became my extended family, my professional network and my closest friends.
I’m sure I talked to her five or six times before her face and name—along with the many other faces and names in the cast and crew—started to solidify in my mind. She was about my parents’ age, and she’d actually been friends with them in a past life when they were newlyweds who traveled in the city’s theater circles with her.
And while she was measurably older than I was, she was quintessentially young at heart, often hanging out with us kids during breaks and after rehearsals and performances.
Blessed with a confidence and a commanding presence that belied her relatively short stature, she owned any role she played. Her voice had a rawness that lent a great deal of character to her solos and her funny bits of stage business. And she never let fear hold her back. In fact, I’ll never forget the self-satisfied evil she dredged up from some delightfully dark corner of her otherwise Midwest-wholesome, every-hair-in-place self to play Snow White’s witch in a Disney tribute. One look in her eyes told you she didn’t care if she came off as greedy or cruel—she would be the fairest in the land, and no pasty white virgin was about to stand in her way.
And when she played the irascible Miss Lynch in a summer production of Grease a few years later, I admired her for throwing herself so delightedly into the role—but I admired her more for yanking a wooden ruler out from between her boobs every night on stage with the kind of force that sent one terrifying word shivering up and down my spine: splinters
And then one January, soon after that year’s Follies rehearsals had started, she was gone. They’d found a mass in her abdomen the size of a cantaloupe. It was ovarian cancer, the bastard cancer that advances so stealthily that women don’t even know it’s eating them alive until it’s almost too late. She promptly underwent her surgery and stated her treatments, and I’ll be damned if she wasn’t back where she belonged—right there on stage next to us—when the show opened that March.
But she came back with a few accessories. Follies shows are always about glitz and splash; if the costumes and sets aren’t colorful enough, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a few more layers of satin and lamé. So when her cancer treatment dictated that she go through life for a while with shunts and tubes connected to a backpack full of I’m not sure exactly what, she just wrapped her backpack in coordinating fabric and stood proudly on the stage, singing her heart out and sharing the glow of the lights with her Follies family.
Two weeks later, as we were all striking the set, she came up to me in tears. I had told her on opening night how great it was to have her back with us—backpack and all—considering the alternatives. She told me it had taken the entire run of the show for the reality to really sink in: She had come this close to death. But she didn’t die, because she had more solos to sing, more bows to take and more friends to hug. And she thanked me for being a part of that journey with her.
Her cheerful defiance against an almost insurmountable barrage of relapses and complications inspired everyone around her for more than a decade. She was in the hospital again, we’d hear. But we all knew she would not go down without an epic fight. And we always knew her time wasn’t yet up. Besides, she never showed any signs of admitting defeat—at least not to us. She always threw her energies at living her life and enjoying her world and beating the enemy that kept encroaching on her fun.
I started hearing acknowledgements of defeat from our friends when I was home for Christmas this year. She’s had major surgery, and it looks like it’s just a matter of days, people would say. You should go visit her while you’re home, they’d tell me. Give her a final hug and say your goodbyes, they’d recommend.
So I did. I spent a couple hours visiting with her in the beautiful home she and her husband shared on a hilly, wooded development just outside of town. And for the first time since I’d known her, she looked little. The pain from the surgery kept her stooped when she walked, but she had no intention of being anything but the perfect hostess while I was there, meeting me at the door, offering me a drink and giving me hugs when I came and when I left.
We talked about everything that day. She was as frank with me about her cancer and her relatively bleak prospects as she was about her full intention to pursue every possible cure her doctors could suggest. We shared Follies memories. She gushed over my four-page Christmas letter. I told her all about my life in Chicago, the ups and downs of my job, the places I’ve traveled, the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus, the miserable relationship I knew was about to end.
And before I left, after two more careful hugs and a belabored walk to the door, she handed me a memento: a potted clipping from a flowering cactus. A piece of something she’d cared for while others were caring for her. A living legacy.
The implication was clear: She’d finally accepted her fate. She was ready to go … but not ready to be forgotten. And she wasn’t going to go without a dramatic flourish, engineered to achieve lasting emotional impact.
But I refused to transplant the clipping from its cardboard pot into something permanent when I got home. Because I wasn’t ready to face the permanence her death would bring.
She lived three more months—long enough to see another March Follies. And when she finally died on Sunday morning, she left a huge shadow on a stage filled with witch’s capes and wooden rulers and dolled-up backpacks and a lifetime of flawless hair.
Your revels now are ended, Joanne. You’re now such stuff as dreams are made on, and your life—your presence, your fortitude and your undying grace in the face of adversity—is finally rounded with a sleep.
And you know what? You were the fairest of them all.