Thursday, June 08, 2006


The final notes of the overture lingered for a moment and then quietly faded into the darkness. I was sitting among the audience at the Academy of Music as The Savoy Company’s final performance of ‘The Mikado’ got underway. The curtain rose and the set came alive as the men’s chorus began the show’s opening number. Several scenes later the women’s chorus made their entrance, gliding in from offstage beneath flowing kimonos. I watched as they arranged themselves into smaller groups all across the set, moving their silk fans through the air in perfect unison while they sang. After a few moments the director of the show leaned over in his seat and said in a low whisper, “She was standing over there, downstage right.” I was his guest at the show that evening and appreciated the gesture, but his words were not necessary. I had already known for certain where she had been the moment my eyes came to the empty space onstage.
* * * * * * * *
Twenty-four hours earlier, my wife Elizabeth had been in this theater performing with the cast on the opening night of the show. Eight hours later a doctor stood before me telling me that she was gone. Both of our families had rushed to our apartment that morning as soon as I gave them the terrible news. The day was spent consoling each other and repeating the same details over and over in endless phone calls.

At one point I called the director of the show to let him know what happened. After he got over the initial shock he began to talk about a dedication that evening in her honor. I understood his intentions but made him promise me that he would not say anything to anyone before the show. The news of her death would be a huge blow to the cast, and I knew that its devastating impact mere hours before the opening curtain was the last thing Liz would have wanted. The director said he would make up some excuse for her absence and would only tell the choreographer beforehand. They would wait until the following morning before spreading the word among the rest of company.

As we spoke, I decided to make one other request of him. The world had become completely surreal since I had gone to sleep the previous evening, and I was trying to come to grips with what had happened. The guilt that I felt when I pictured her sitting alone in the dark during her final moments was unbearable. I wanted to see where she had spent her last hours doing what she loved most, singing and dancing alongside some of her closest friends. I hoped that it might begin to replace the images and sounds that had flooded my mind constantly over the past several hours.

Little by little, I began to get drawn into the show. The vivid costumes, elaborate sets, intricate choreography, and beautiful music all unfolded in splendor before my eyes. The sense of joy pouring out from the stage gave me a moment’s peace, as I imagined the expression of delight that would have been on Liz’s face the night before. As the finale built to its finish and the chorus members sang with all of their hearts to fill the entire theater with sound, it was Elizabeth’s voice that I heard.
* * * * * * *
Three years later I found myself once again in the Academy of Music, listening as the orchestra began to play another overture. Except this time I was standing in the wings offstage, a member of the chorus in that year’s production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’ It was opening night and the cast had been buzzing with energy in the moments beforehand, but I was nervous for a different reason. Earlier in the season the same director had approached me to see if our son could be a part of the show. He had an idea for a flashback scene that would take place onstage while the orchestra played during the overture. There was a role for a young boy and the first person that he had thought of was Brendan.

I watched with anticipation and pride as Brendan followed his mother’s footsteps onto the same stage that she had performed on during a night like this just a few years ago. He hit every one of his marks perfectly and acted with remarkable grace and presence for a six-year old standing before two thousand people in a gilt-covered opera house. I know that Elizabeth was there watching over him as well.

The rest of the show went smoothly and after the set was cleared everyone began to head off to the official cast party down the street. The crew turned down all of the lights in the theater except for a single bulb atop a stand at the front of the stage. There is an old tradition that one light should be left on in a theater at all times. The ‘ghost light’ is set out to welcome the souls of all those who have passed on to return to the stage and perform with each other once again.

I walked with Brendan out into the small circle of light that illuminated center stage. Together we tied a bouquet of flowers to the stand, eleven red roses from me and one pink rose from him. We said a quiet prayer and told Elizabeth that we loved her and missed her. After a moment we heard some of the cast offstage laughing and dueling in a mock sword fight. Brendan looked up at me in anticipation and I nodded my head in permission. I watched as our son ran off from the stage with pure delight, filled inside with his mother’s spirit and spreading her light out into the world before him.