2022 was a year rich with experiences and irretrievable loss. It was a year that deepened my belief in the power of art. Which part, and how much of that, would I like to share with you? Do I speak as 2022 Lauren, or Lady Delaney, lost between decades like a note in the pages of an old book.
One year ago, my beautiful, beloved, 91-year old grandma began a precipitous decline. From the New Orleans set of AMC's Interview With a Vampire, I paced outside the extras holding tent while she sat in a Kalamazoo Hospice bed, laughing philosophically when I told her that 2021 Lauren would be playing a turn-of-the-century prostitute in a lavish brothel scene:
“Well, what else were we Irish gals going to do when we got off the boat?”
She always got a kick out of my adventures in a career that she and my grandpa were largely responsible for tripping off. They built dollhouses and I filled them. They also built a life together, 59 years worth. And a home that was their grandkids' home too, where Christmas magic lived, where stacks of beignets towered, and where I remember peering down into the yard one late summer afternoon, in that strange way we sometimes find ourselves voyeurs of our own lives, at my family gathered there laughing, grilling, and drenched in something more than sunlight. In that moment, more than any other before or since, I was certain that God is real, and that this world spills over with His love like an overtopped vessel.
When my hooker gig was up, I booked it north to the beautiful lady who had presided over that summer palace, driving through the day and night. For the next three months, our family wrapped her up tight in love and hand-knit afghans, kissing her face and watching as the flame in her flickered. As she slipped away and away, we squeezed hands tighter, repeating back to her the old stories we had laughed over so many times before, their words well-worn grooves, incantations whose promise was safekeeping. We played music for her that she had loved and Broadway tunes that Grandpa had made true by singing to her. Misa Luba, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Lieutenant Cable filled that heavy room with happier noise, and with a defiance aimed at death's indignity settling onto a body that we loved. The spell of those daily concerts was not enough to hold her to us, and day by day she faded, until the only stirring of life was the tremble of her lips receiving the water we sponged into her mouth. For the two weeks before her death, there was no telling if Grandma was in there anymore, or if the music was reaching her. We played it anyway.
And then one day, when there were very few left, the abbey nuns began singing "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" From where my mom and I sat across from each other, arms falling asleep on the cold bars of grandma's hospital bed as we clasped her hands, we launched into another well-worn script: the tale of our Maria---my sister, the sassy little troublemaker---who enjoys the distinction of being the only grandkid ever spanked by Grandma. That infamous spanking---warranted, Grandma maintained, by Maria "stomping that little foot of hers"----had ripened with the years into a delicious distinction for both Grandma and Maria, who would wink at each other at each retelling, mutually delighted by their shared feistiness. As the nuns sang from my phone, my mom and I performed the story of Grandma's favorite troublemaker for the millionth time to a bed that felt mostly empty: "How do you solve a problem like Maria, Grandma? Your own little Maria sure is trouble!" But when we looked down into that bed, we were struck dumb.
Because that beautiful lady who had lain unresponsive for two weeks---while Sidney Poitier sang his resounding "Amen" and the University of Michigan marching band "took the field"---now beamed up at us with a smile whose light was so wholly and gorgeously hers (those eyes sparkling with laughter!) that there was no mistaking it. The unexpectedness of that moment, the realization that she had never left us, took my breath away. It lasted a minute and then it was gone. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
In the title story of George Saunder's book, Tenth of December, a man whose body is reduced by terminal illness sets out to end his life, only to fall into affirmation of its irreducible value:
"He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many - many drops of goodness...many drops of happy – of good fellowship – ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not – had never been – his to withhold.”
What is this mystery in which we find ourselves, in which a song or story can form the link between hearts, if only for a moment, a bridge to where we are going, from where we have been? What is this world, engineering its circumstances so that one smile, thrown and received so casually a million times over, can suddenly become a staggering gift, knocking the wind out of you?
The home that my grandparents built no longer exists, but I play their music and I make the art they gave me, and in those "many drops of goodness " I keep the cup to overflow. "Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing," said Orson Welles.
And so I do.