I have fifty thousand things to do (including getting a crown in 90 minutes), but number one on my Christmas list is to properly finish this story. I appreciate all of you who have been so devoted to me and my blogging adventure for the past six months. I am…..I don’t know…..it’s just so cool to get to do this every day and even though this sounds hokey, I am overwhelmed by the amount of love and time you pour into this. Who knew these little stories would become so popular? Not me. When I started in June I was writing for myself and my Aunt Barbie in Akron, Ohio, who has always been my first and best reader.
Get ready, Barbie, we’re going to talk about your Mom today.
To remind you of where we left off yesterday, Rob proposed to me in the pitch black and we called my parents, who then told Rob to have me call Meema in the hospital right away.
Let me explain. Apparently, Meema (who was my Dad’s Mom) had an issue with her kidneys (I’m going to get this all wrong, but I will try to get it as close as what I know to be the truth). She was living in an assisted living situation….which she hated….because she’d rather eat glass then go down and play Bingo with a bunch of old people, but it was good because they could make sure she was okay and taking her medicine and all that junk. Somehow Meema managed what no one else could quite pull off in that joint, she actually made her apartment look like her home. Not some apartment in an old people’s home, but really, JUST like her home. She was helped by the fact that she’d moved there from a one bedroom apartment, and had, in fact, always lived in a one bedroom apartment for my entire childhood. This was just a fact of life for me as a kid, I had a groovy grandmother who traveled the world with her best “friend” who was a Roman Catholic priest, and she lived in a one bedroom apartment above a barber’s shop. Out her window you could see “Tinkerbell” who lived on the top of the water tower. Fairies left presents on the windowsill, even in the month of July. Normal.
So, of course she managed to make her assisted-living apartment look like home, and by “home” I mean it looked like a museum shop filled with her inexpensive but beloved treasures from around the world. There would be a Michaelangelo print hanging above a King Tut candy bowl. That kind of thing.
She hated seeing anyone work hard on her account, so the cleaning people my Aunts’ sent over to help her out were usually told to sit down and Meema would make them lunch and “hear all their little stories about life” as she described it. Sometimes they would dust, but usually they would leave feeling like they’d had a good therapy session, with a World Art book under their arm so they could learn something. Got the picture? That’s what she was like. She was wonderful.
I can only imagine the reaction of the nurse’s aid who found her on the floor. I’m sure they were friends, and I’m sure Meema had given her life advice, and I’m sure that even though she was probably jaded about old people, Meema had gotten under her skin, because that’s how she was. But however the events unfolded, by the time I heard about it, she was in critical condition in the hospital in complete kidney failure. She was refusing dialysis because “living a life with needles stuck in you wasn’t living a life.” She didn’t have long. Honestly, I had no idea how bad it was when I called her that day.
And now I have to split and get that stupid crown on my tooth. I’ll finish up in a little bit. You go wrap presents or make cookies or whatever is on your list and I’ll see you in a bit.
It is eleven hours later (12:32am), I have a temporary crown on my tooth and we leave tomorrow morning to drive to Cincinnati. Have I wrapped presents? No. Have I packed? No. Am I going to blog more? Yes. Am I going to throw all the presents in the car in bags and wrap them when I get to my Mom and Dad’s? Absolutely.
Let’s get back to the phone call. It is a surreal thing to go from ecstatically happy to profoundly worried in one minute, but that’s what happened. Because I have an odd memory for detail, I remember struggling to get a connection out, and for a time it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to make the call until we got back to Singapore, but somebody somewhere cut me a break and the call went through from my 3rd world country to her high tech hospital room. I’d been warned that she didn’t sound good and that I might not be able to talk to her at all. My Aunt Rae was with her and I expected her to answer the phone, but it was Meema’s voice I heard with a feeble hello.
“Meema? It’s Sharon. I’ve heard you’re not feeling well.”
“Sharon? Are you calling from China?”
Let me pause for one second here, because I have to tell you THIS was the moment I knew she was really sick. Meema had traveled the world. She knew I was in Singapore. She can tell you town names up and down the coast of Ireland. The rest of the conversation went quickly.
“I have some really good news. Rob and I got engaged today. We’re going to get married.”
“Oh, honey. That’s wonderful news. He’s a dear. Please tell him I love him and I love you, too.”
And that was it. That was the last time I ever talked to her. We had one more week of performances left in Singapore, and then we were flying back to San Francisco to play Cupertino, California for two weeks. I struggled with whether or not to fly back to Cincinnati from Singapore, but the expense was overwhelming. If you think a last minute domestic flight is expensive, try a last minute flight from Singapore to Cincinnati. I think it was $4,500, and this was in 1994. At one point I almost did it, especially as her health started to really decline in the week, but my Aunt put the kibosh on it, saying simply, “Mother wouldn’t want you to see her like this.” I was crazed because everyone else had flown in, but I knew she was right. Meema and I had always talked about how unfair it was that we were born generations apart, when in reality all we wanted was to be best friends. The deterioration of her body felt like a betrayal to our friendship. She liked that I always saw her young. My Aunt was right.
I got little done in the last week in Singapore, but I did manage to buy material for my wedding dress. I had no idea what I was doing, but everyone told me I’d be an idiot not to get it because the fabric quality was so good and the prices so cheap. I bought it out of a bin on a dirt floor, and it was whitish and some kind of expensive silk. It did eventually become my wedding dress, but at the time that I bought it, I was too sad to care.
Meema died the morning after I landed in San Francisco. I flew to Cincinnati for the funeral, enduring some of the
most horrific jet lag I hope to ever know in my life, but got there just in time for the funeral, which was awful and sad and we were all just a mess. Refusing to wear black, I wore a flowered hat Meema loved. I distracted my distraught Aunts as they rolled Meema’s coffin into the hearse with my exotic engagement ring and tales of the crazy Singapore Zoo, and the monkeys, and the monsoons and Rob proposing on an island in Indonesia.
Meema would have liked that.
She always told me to marry a man who wouldn’t get in the way of my career, “You need a man who supports your dreams,” she would tell me “You have things to do in this life and I don’t want some man fouling it up.” The first thing she told Rob when she met him was, “You’re so handsome, like a Vermeer painting.” And the second thing she told him was, “Make sure Sharon travels. I want her to see the world.”
She would have liked our wedding.
She would have loved my kids.
She would have hated that I wrote about her getting old and dying, but too bad Millie, too bad. It’s part of my story now.
Les Miserables is all about the journey of life, from beginning to end, and the salvation that waits on the other side. Every day that I mourned life without Meema, I had a husband-to-be to plan a future with, and at night I got to do a show where I sang about salvation and remember that someday I would see Meema again. Lucky, lucky me.
This is the season to celebrate the people who have touched your life, whether they are still with us or not. Even though our time together was short, I am grateful that you lived, Mildred Schierloh Wheatley. I wish we’d been born in the same generation, because you were one cool cat.
Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken:
To love another person is to see the face of god
Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy Hannukah. Happy New Year.
See you all soon. Thank you for reading. I have to go pack.
(To start our next story, Broadway West, go here)