On January 9th of this year I signed a contract with Georges Bourcahardt agency for the rights to produce “Happy Days” with Janet Ward and Dale Fuller at Wow in 2009. Two weeks later Janet was diagnosed with stage four, metastasized lung cancer.
Immediately I didn’t care about the play anymore. I just wanted my friend to get better. There were optimistic doctors and whenever I told someone they had a story of their mother or their uncle or friend who beat the same disease. Janet’s spirits were good and she wanted to keep working on the play. She said it would help her heal. We scheduled some rehearsals but it quickly became clear that fighting cancer is a full time job. I dove in to a side project we had all discussed: the production of a chapbook of the poetry that Winnie tries to remember.
I should have written here then, when she was sick and we all had hope. But I didn’t write. I couldn't bear to put it down that she was in danger of death even as I tried to believe she was safe. I didn’t want to have to answer the next question: if she dies, will you go on with the production?
Though we all kept optimistic (myself perhaps blindly so) each visit to the doctor brought a change of outlook. After one round of radiation, chemotherapy was stopped as she was too weak. New symptoms revealed new tumors. More radiation, and again too weak. On April 24th she was moved from Sloan Kettering to Calvary Hospice in Brooklyn. On Wednesday April 30th, on my second visit to her there, I read poetry to her, tried to sing a little, and talked in a stream of consciousness about what she had meant to me and how mad and sad I was that she was dying. That afternoon, with her sister and her niece next to her she died.
Janet was my good friend for over 15 years. She introduced me to wonderful people, to music, to poetry. We talked plays, books, plays, whiskey and boyfriends. Even at almost 20 years her junior, I could not keep up with her jazz-club-playgoing-almost-every-night-out routine. She was hungry for life and all it’s joys always learning and growing, heart always open, always excited about an artist, a film, a piece of music, a musician. I’m stunned that I will never again experience meeting her for brunch and having her pluck her notebook out of her bag and read me a new poem. I will never again hear her laugh, or see her purse her lips and raise her eyebrows as she makes a deft analysis of a film or a play, which she did so well (the analysis, not the eyebrow raising, though she did that well too) that I encouraged her to start reviewing for papers. I will never again see her in a play. She was a terrific poet, a marvelous actress and a wonderful woman and I miss her more than I can say.
Even before she left us though, the horrible question was looming: what will happen with the production? It could no longer be put off. Janet’s sister Judy was the first to bring it up, suggesting the project as a cause people could donate to in her memory. The suggestion made me frightened, proud, hopeful, guilty, trusted. In the swirl of these contradictory feelings, realizing that for some, continuing was an assumption, not a question, I started thinking: can we continue? How? It felt to me almost a betrayal of Janet to recast her but also like a betrayal to drop the project. Janet loved the work, she loved Beckett and she loved us.
Dale and I talked about it. He was adamant; we can’t possibly go on, the project was Janet; meaningless without her. I asked Janet’s daughter Sarah what she thought and her reaction was immediate; Janet would want us to continue. At Sarah’s home a day or two later, surrounded by a crowd of folks who loved Janet, Dale and I spoke again and we decided to go on.
We can’t go on. We must go on.
We asked Janet’s friend and ours, Asta Hansen to join us. Asta was in the workshop with us when Janet and I first worked on the play. She worked, in fact, on the same section of the play directed by the leader of that workshop, Joe Chaikin. Asta is a also marvelous actress. Luckily for us Asta is available and willing to take on the part.
Instead of producing it with Janet, we will produce it dedicated to Janet.