In the Cincinnati Public Schools 5th grade program (at least in the 70s) one’s class went away for a week of “experiential learning” at Camp Joy. I was excited about the week of camp—I always loved camp food and camp songs and camp camaraderie. The only dark cloud on the camp horizon for that week was that I was going to miss the repeat of the wedding of Rhoda and Joe from the sit-com Rhoda. In the fall when Rhoda left Minneapolis and gave New York another try in her eponymous, new sit-com, I sat, along with 50 million other Americans, and watched Rhoda trudge all the way up to the Bronx (remember Phyllis forgot to pick her up!) and get to her wedding. I loved that episode.
Since these were the days before VCRs and DVRs and Youtube, my father came to the rescue and manually audio tape recorded the repeat episode while I was at Camp Joy with the other 5th graders. (That means he sat there with the microphone held up to the TV volume for the length of the hour-long episode!) Over the years that cassette tape was one of the most-played tapes perhaps in the history of the world! (Or at least my world!) I memorized the dialogue, got my neighborhood kids together and I directed them in acting out the episode. If you offered me a quarter, I can still recite whole chunks of the dialogue from this mid-70s sit-com special episode!
So Rhoda has been on my mind for the last week or so, ever since the announcement in the news that Valerie Harper, the real-life actress who gave life to that inimitable and memorable character, has incurable cancer and has perhaps a few weeks now left to live. I read the announcement on-line, wrote my sister, reminding her of our memorized dialogue of the wedding episode lodged forever in my mind (here’s another fun family fact: about 20 years ago I wrote a long, exam-like list of questions for my sister to answer all based on that one episode…okay, continue laughing at me…)
My sister wrote back and asked, “I wonder how she is going to spend that time?”
So for the last week or so, Valerie Harper, mortality, time, death, all these things have been on my mind. Last Saturday I found an episode of Top Chef and the theme that week had the competing chefs all making a sextet of famous chefs their desired “last meals.” What would we want our last meal to be? How would we spend those last few weeks? Interesting questions…
I am reading a book on my kindle called, The End-of-Your-Life Book Club which is a wonderful memoir of a son, my current age, helping his mother through the last few months of, guess what, incurable cancer. They decide to pass the time in doctor’s offices by reading books and talking about the books. It is a great read. I looked at the end. You can guess the ending. But one of the great observations in the book is that we, as a society, don’t mind talking about ‘death,’ but we do mind talking about dying.
So as the week progressed, there seemed to be more pop-up conversations about death and writers and death. I spoke with one friend about Joan Didion’s book about her husband’s death, and then she recommended Joyce Carol Oates’ book about her husband’s death…not a morbid fascination really, just ruminations about death and mortality. But still I loved my sister’s query: “I wonder how she is going to spend that time?”
Yesterday, Friday is our Saturday, and it proved, um, what would be the word…lonelier than I would like. Not lonely like tragic lonely, just, you know alone, and aware of being alone. Last August when I came back to Jordan for Year #6, one of my oldest friends, a dear junior high and high school friend named Doris, met me just before I left to come back and gave me a bag full of cards. She had gone card shopping with me in mind, and gave me cards for my birthday, Sweetest Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and one card whose envelope read, “Open Only on a Lonely Day.”
In the last seven months I had opened the cards at the appointed time, enjoying thinking about Doris and our friendship and how it stretches over 35 years. But I left that last card in my desk drawer, sure that I didn’t need to open it. Yesterday proved to be the day, however. Again, not because of any melodramatic reason, it just seemed to be a lonely day, and I am a follower-of-instructions.
I open the card, not sure what syrupy, maudlin treacle I might find. The front of the cards reads, “They came to sit and dangle their feet off the edge of the world and after awhile they forgot everything but the good and true things they would do someday.” What a great sentiment! Inside Doris wrote about the many times we have sat at the edge of the world, feet dangling. She wrote of our shared memories, our music, our laughter. She reminded me of how we always “dared to dream” together…what a refreshing and wonderful card. A perfect antidote to a day that felt lonely.
After I enjoyed the glow of Doris’ sentiment, I did some phone calls, and it was strangely back to the week’s theme of death and dying. I spoke to my friend Anne and got an update about her cousin (with whom we have traveled) and her incurable cancer. She is in hospice now, and Anne reported that she is comfortable and “enjoying the care.” She found it hard to believe how serene her cousin is. Not long after that phone call I learned on Facebook that an old friend from my days in the South, a delightful gal named Rita, had just an hour before lost her husband (she is one year older than I am) to cancer. Her posting spoke of love and peace.
Obviously when one ponders those real-life situations, one’s own little loneliness-es pale. But how interesting that the last week has yielded interesting discussions and readings about the process of death and dying, how Valerie Harper appears on television reminding everyone not to speak in terms of memorializing her, she is still living! From the interview I saw on Good Morning America, our Rhoda was certainly dangling her feet and thinking of the good and true things.
So last night Julianne returned to Jordan! She had been gone for a week, doing a speaking engagement at a conference in the USA. She brought back her mother, the irrepressible Joan, who is just as vital and invigorating as someone can be! She called up, talked of going out to dinner, and yallah¸ we high-tailed it to Haret Jdoudna, our go-to place in Madaba. As the evening unfolded, beautiful dinner and beautiful friends before me, it felt just like we were doing what the card suggested, let’s just dangle our feet a little here, over here, in the Middle East, certainly the edge of the world!
You know if you were a fan in the 1970s of Rhoda there was a clever bit in the end credits of the show. The character of Rhoda crossed a street, and reminiscent of the ending on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda whipped off her floppy, bohemian, 70s style hat, and tossed it into the air. Now on MTM that ideal Mary Richards tossed her hat and it froze mid-flight, perfection with the smile and the perfect moment. Rhoda isn’t as lucky, her hat falls on the ground, gets stepped on, and now just getting in everyone’s way.
Rhoda’s life and end credits are like most ordinary people’s lives—you toss the hat up, and down it comes, oh-well-ing as you continue across the street. Rhoda can live forever. That talented actress cannot, but as she makes her way across the stage for a final hurrah, she does remind us to live, to dangle our feet, and to savor the wonder of just crossing the street.