A dark theatre, mid play. Lights up on a cemetery in upstate New York. A young drag queen, Bitchina, enters studying a slip of paper. He finds the spot he’s been looking for. He speaks.
“Oh, there you are. Hi, Mom. It’s Bitchi—William. Billy. I know I don’t look like myself. In fact, I think this is the worst I’ve ever looked. Or felt. Well almost. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come back. I would’ve brought you flowers, but I’m lucky I made it here at all…No, Dad doesn’t know I’m here. No, I’m not going over there. When I left, I left. I only came back to see you. I miss you.”
It’s June 7, 2002 opening night of my play The Melted Lampshade at the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis, directed by my friend Bü before his move back to Salt Lake City. I sit in the back row between my boyfriend of nearly eight months, who holds my hand the entire time, and my best friend of nearly two years. They both flew up from Chicago. Mom, Dad, and my younger brother sit in the front row, stage left, in part because my brother is in a wheelchair from a car accident in high school. They drove in from Detroit.
The play, which I’d started writing five years earlier as a 22-year-old college student, is filled with the things that a gay 22-year-old playwright in the ‘90s is wont to write about: drag, fear of AIDS, early signs of one’s sexuality and coming out, parental conflict. It’s the story of New York City entertainer William AKA Bitchina, whose childhood imaginary friend Frederick one day turns real and leaves him. Bitchina’s lesbian best friend and Frederick’s boyfriend must deal with the fact that their loved ones aren’t quite the people they thought they were. We learn that Frederick first appeared to William at his mother’s funeral and we witness many of their moments together under their favorite tree. I didn’t tell my family everything about the play. I wanted them to experience all ninety minutes of my homo-surreal fantasia live and in the moment.
The play ends, lights up. During the performance, I couldn’t see my family’s reactions. Going in, I worried most about Dad, so sure he’d think Bitchina’s animosity toward his father equaled some pent up resentment toward him. But as I reach the front row, I see that it’s Mom who’s most upset. She is sobbing.
“I didn’t know you were in so much pain,” she blurts.
“And I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything to stop it.”
“Mom, Mom, you don’t understand, the play is fiction!”
“No, it’s not!” she says. “I watched you grow up. I saw you struggle. I knew you didn’t like sports. I didn’t know what to do…”
I liked some sports as a kid. Played softball and soccer and fifth string JV basketball. Wasn’t great, but I liked them. And I rooted for the Tigers during their 1984 World Series run. “Bless You, Boys!” There was Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. And puppet shows and other extended family entertainments. Three years of tap dance lessons including one year of jazz. And the summer night before sixth grade, when I broke down while returning homeward from Boblo Island, a now defunct amusement park on the Detroit River. On the deck of the ragtime era Boblo Boat, Mom held me, her almost 11-year-old boy, as I tried to figure out where I fit in, and cried and confessed to wanting to quit dance lessons. So I can’t say that she was never there and that she didn’t try or succeed.
Back in the theatre, I’m kneeling in the aisle, next to my crying mother still sitting in her seat. I’d been so caught up with worrying about Dad’s reaction to things that had nothing to do with him, that I didn’t realize Mom would be upset by the things that did have to do with her—and me, and growing up, and everything. A lesson to you all: Never tell your mother it’s fiction—because she knows. Meanwhile, Dad is fixated on how one of the scene shifts did not go so smoothly. The mechanics of it all. Very my dad.
In the play, Bitchina says to Frederick: “Before she went away, I used to drink some of her coffee. I didn’t like it too hot, though. She would let me have the last few gulps when it was colder.”
Yeah, that was Mom and I. My small hands around a tall, pale magenta ceramic mug, the outside textured with craters and crannies. Sometimes lipstick on the other side of the rim. Sometimes grounds settled at the bottom. Sometimes sitting on the brown pullout couch in our brown and gold ‘70s den. She hadn’t thought about all that in years.
In the play, Bitchina at the cemetery continues: “I’m sorry they removed your breasts. When Dad told me that’s what they were doing, I didn’t understand what that meant. He said it was so you wouldn’t be sick anymore. So you wouldn’t come home from the doctor’s every Thursday night and throw up from the chemicals, too weak to play or make dinner.”
While in the audience, Mom sat directly in front of Bitchina, maybe four feet away as he talked to his mother at her grave. Mom says, “I saw myself die—and I still might from all this…” I got her chemo night right too. I was older than Bitchina was when Mom had her first round of breast cancer—eleven or twelve. Her second came along my freshman year in college. In 1999, a year after my move to Chicago, she fought multiple myeloma, a not-leukemia blood cancer.
I’d asked for a good, pure, emotional response to my art. And I got it. But that’s not what I’m thinking as the theatre clears and Bü holds me as I finally cry myself. I feel horrible—like I ambushed her. I say to Bü and my boyfriend, “I thought I was going to be happier than I am.”
Mom and I calm down as cast, crew, and posse make our way to Nye’s piano bar for an opening night party. We snag a room near the back after getting my brother in through the fire exit. I need a drink. I have a Cosmo or two. Mom has what I’m having. We all raise our glasses: To opening night! To friends and family travelling to be here! After much conversation things wind down. I say “goodnight” to my family, and some of us wander to a martini bar down the street. I order another Cosmo.
The next morning, my boyfriend heads back to Chicago on an insane 6:00 flight. In my sleep I’d forgotten he had to leave so early. My best friend’s flight isn’t until much later, so he and I meet up with my family. We all drive to the old milling district where the Gold Medal and Pillsbury Flour signs compete in the skyline. My friend takes a photo of us: me, Mom, Dad, brother, together on a bridge, arches of another distant bridge leaping behind our heads, the Mississippi River misting.
I didn’t know this would be my last photo with Mom. Didn’t know that the voicemail she left when they returned home would become this final tangible record of her voice. I didn’t know that a month later, she would take a fall from paralysis setting in from Guillain-Barre, a rare nerve disorder that future patients on House may or may not have. Didn’t know she wouldn’t snap out of it like most people apparently do—her body so wrecked from everything else—and that we would be burying her for real by the end of August.
After my mother’s death, a moment my boyfriend revealed to me when I got home from Minneapolis takes on even greater significance. He told me that as we were leaving the opening night party, Mom kissed his cheek and said, “I know you’ll take care of him.”
Mom may have missed the mark on my fictional intentions. And Lord knows I didn’t quite connect how my art would affect real life. Or how much the pain of figuring myself out and the fear of losing my mom at too early an age directly propelled my play. But Mom did get one thing right: My guy is still here after all these years, taking care of me. How could I let him go after a blessing like that?
If a college housemate hadn’t given me his extra dresser lamp; and if I hadn’t accidentally burned a hole in its shade with candle flame; and if I hadn’t received a pen pal letter from one “Bitchina de Milo” of Salt Lake City (that I never answered), I would not have written The Melted Lampshade. Maybe a play about all this. But not this play. And if I hadn’t met Bü years later through a pen pal I did answer and then learn that Bü was in fact Bitchina, I may not have given him the script. And then I would not have this final, real time with Mom.
Sure, I saw her over the previous holidays when she first met my boyfriend. And then again in March for a quick trip home to take my brother to a concert. Then after the fall at the hospital with consciousness fading, movement near nil, and speech reduced to grunts and nods.
The universe has a crazy fucking way of organizing itself, doesn’t it? Of giving us something we can grab, even as we punch our bed over and over, sobbing uncontrollably ourselves, and the one charged with taking care of us holds us, maybe unsure himself how to stop the pain.
Michael A. Van Kerckhove is a Chicago writer originally from Detroit. He is a 2013 graduate of DePaul University’s Master of Arts in Writing & Publishing. His nonfiction and interviews have appeared in Off the Rocks, The Everyday Gay, Midwestern Gothic, Consequence of Sound, How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, TYA Today, and Belt Magazine. He is active in Chicago’s vibrant live lit scene, and has told stories as part of Guts & Glory, Story Club, Is This a Thing?, Mortified, You’re Being Ridiculous, and many others. He serves as Executive Director of Theatre for Young Audiences/USA. Much more at michaelvankerckhove.com.