Jul/Aug 2018 Miscellaneous

Death: A Play

by Tina V. Cabrera


(Actor and Writer sit back to back on a yoga mat. Writer's shoulders are slumped. She wraps her arms around her knees. Actor sits in the lotus position with a perfectly straight posture.)

ACTOR: Why am I here?

WRITER: I called you. Don't you remember?

ACTOR: Yes, but why am I really here? I must say, I was quite surprised by your request for an audition. Your script is not yet complete.

WRITER: True, but there's enough here for a beginning.

ACTOR: Or an end. A theme: DEATH.

WRITER: More than just a general abstraction as that. Remember? We spoke about the situation. How Papa is still alive, yet I am already grieving. I am afraid my premature grief is affecting my work. Thus, the unfinished script.

ACTOR: Yes. Yes. Your work is suffering. Because of death. Thus, the theme.

WRITER: I suppose there's no one else to blame but myself for the confusion. After all, I feel compelled to create drama where there may not be any...

ACTOR: (Continued) Papa is terminally ill, yes? Sure to die sooner than later?

WRITER: Yes. He has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, which has spread to his vital organs. He can no longer taste his food and can no longer walk. He gets around the house in a wheelchair. He refuses any kind of medical treatment (you know him—his resistance to hospitals and doctors), and besides, his doctor suggests that he is too old and frail for treatment anyway. I was about to say...what did I mean to say? I am at an impasse...

ACTOR: (Continued) Papa is in what you might call...the sunset of his life.

WRITER: Your words, not mine.

ACTOR: Splitting hairs. Mine yours, what is the difference? The point is, at 85, Papa has lived a long, full life. Death in this situation is not exactly a surprise.

WRITER: No it isn't, which makes my early grief all the more unreasonable. That's my head talking, not my heart. I try to call every day. He is over a thousand miles away.

ACTOR: An opportunity for dramatic irony.

WRITER: What's that now? How so?

ACTOR: Dramatic Irony: When there is a gap between what an audience knows and what a character believes or expects. Make it so that your audience does not yet know that Papa is not yet dead, and the first thing they see is "Act I Scene 1: (Broken, grieving, Actor sits at invisible typewriter, face in hands, sobbing in front of a photo of Papa.)"

WRITER: That's good, that's good!

ACTOR: (Uncovers face; eyes are dry) I do apologize for my lack of tears. I am a method actor and I must say, I do not feel the depth of sadness that you describe. Papa seems resigned to the inevitable. Death is death, whether by accident, or illness, or any other cause. Everyone dies. Whether this person or that, Death—as they say—does not play favorites. Death is not partial. If love is blind, so is death. At the risk of sounding insensitive, we can say that Papa is merely representative of millions who will—who must—suffer the same fate.

WRITER: Please do try and remember your place. I am the playwright, you are the actor. Your role is to inhabit my words and bring them to life.

ACTOR: Ah, of course; however, will you not allow your lead actor some creative license? After all, without the actor...

WRITER: (Continued) ...there is no play.

ACTOR: On that cheerful note, let us return to the apparent plot of this script. Papa is dying, we know this, and we wonder why it is so difficult for you to accept when it is expected and inevitable. Do I have it right?

WRITER: Yes, that's the gist. Though I haven't quite decided on...on...what is the...

ACTOR: (Continued) Primary conflict?

WRITER: Now who's splitting hairs?

ACTOR: Main Conflict: Can be external or internal. In your case, it appears to be primarily internal, though you could argue that external factors play some role in the protagonist's struggle, such as cultural and social influence. At any rate, the conflict is part and parcel of the plot, which involves more than just action, but a combination of sequence, pacing, and action that shapes the audience's response and interpretation.

WRITER: You sound quite versed in literary terminology. Impressive. Of course, I haven't worked out all the details of the plot just yet. Heck, I'm not even sure what the theme should...

ACTOR: (Continued) DEATH?

WRITER: You ought to hear yourself, really. You repeat the word "Death" as if it were your mantra, a sacred liturgy. As one versed in literary terms, you should know that something like DEATH is not a theme. "Death" is a topic and a very broad one at that. Let's narrow things down, shall we? Death of Papa, not just any father. Not some shadowy vague thing. Not some archetype or stock character. To hell with universality.

ACTOR: But is not one of your goals to engage your audience by portraying a theme they can relate to?

WRITER: Of course.

ACTOR: An audience can only connect if they can relate. Your narrative borrows from the very tradition you despise, to draw in your audience, a universal theme. Like it or not, Death. It comes for us all.

WRITER: Death and taxes.

ACTOR: A truism, a platitude. Something so obvious or trite that pointing it out is pointless. Do I have it right?

WRITER: Yes. Too obvious to mention.

ACTOR: I will mention it anyways: Only two things in life are certain—death and taxes. So why resign oneself to one and not the other? Waste energy and emotion on something you cannot change?

WRITER: (sarcastically) What would you, oh wise one, suggest?

ACTOR: I am glad you ask. Channel your energies to the cares of the living and let the Dead be dead.

WRITER: Which brings us back full circle. Of course that's what I'd like to do, but it's obviously not so simple. For one thing, I already said that Papa is not yet dead. That is why we are here, you and I, back-to-back, mind to mind. Mind hears the logic, but heart... (clasps hands over heart) After all, I am only human.

ACTOR: (Sings) "I'm only human, born to make mistakes." One of our favorites.

WRITER: Yes, yes. Another one: (together) "I can't go on I'll go on." What about "Rage against the dying light."

ACTOR: Bah humbug!

WRITER: Resist, resist.

ACTOR: You do go on. I must say, I will never understand the human propensity for redundancy. Why you'd think it was the end of the world rather than the end of just one life. You do not seem to learn from the past. I will never understand.

WRITER: Maybe that's because you are not human, after all.

ACTOR: (Turns around so that they are now face to face) Look at me: Am I not you?

WRITER: Yes, of course. I really had no other choice.

ACTOR: Foil for your most human sentiments.

WRITER: (Perks up, sits straight and places hands on Actor's shoulders) That's it!

ACTOR: Like the digressions in the heroic poem Beowulf in the most unexpected places: The poet tells terrible King Heremod's story as foil, anti-thesis, to highlight the virtues of our brave title hero. (Closes eyes.) Why am I here?

WRITER: I called you. Don't you remember? I asked you to audition for the part.

ACTOR: The part...of foil?

WRITER: (Speaks in a softened tone) Come now, you are much more than just that. You fill a supporting role, yes. But you're great at stepping in and out of character, just like that. See things objectively, as you do so splendidly, so difficult for me...I haven't quite decided yet, but enough. Let us return to the original subject with which this all began. I called and requested an audition and you accepted, with some hesitation.

ACTOR: (absentmindedly) Yes, yes. And how am I doing so far?

WRITER: Splendidly. You took a limited amount of information and ran with it. Now tell me, what more do you have to offer in the way of originality? I'd like to see your talent. Anything you like.

ACTOR: I would very much like if my performance would perhaps serve as subtheme to the main theme—-for cannot a narrative have more than one theme?—which we agreed is DEATH.

WRITER: Well see here, I never agreed...oh never mind. How about I give you a role and scene and you give me what you can. How about I play my dying father and you be me.

ACTOR: Splendid. I can do that.

WRITER: (Clears throat) Baby, have you read my love letters to your mother yet?

WRITER: Letters? No Papa, I haven't. Do you want me to?

ACTOR: Oh yes, that's why I gave them to you after all.

WRITER: (Steps out of character) Good, good. You have it right. I—we call him Papa, don't we?

ACTOR: Yes, of course, of course, though it always made us feel a little bit uncomfortable, especially when he used that term of endearment in public. And they both—Papa and Mama—demanded that we address them as Papa and Mama, rather than as Mother, Father, or Mommy and Daddy.

WRITER: You, yes, you're right. You know me better than I imagined. You are probably wondering what Papa's letters to Mama has to do with anything. I'm just going with my gut here. I suppose we will see. The point here is progress, process...

ACTOR: (Continued) Perfect. I asked for a subtheme, which I have faith will be illuminated by this most curious subplot.

WRITER: I'm not totally convinced that the obstacle to our moving on has to do with Papa dying as it has to do with something else entirely. Death at an old age should make things easier. It should be easier to accept than say, a loved one's untimely death, like sister's. She died at 48, and it did not take...very long for me to get over.

(There's an uncomfortable silence for a long few seconds.)

ACTOR: Now, now, one guilt-trip at a time. No one gets to choose how they will die, unless of course they commit suicide. Millions of people die from cancer every year, one of the leading causes of human death, no? Death by cancer, even if at a younger age, is not entirely unexpected.

WRITER: Come now, stop intellectualizing everything. Logic and reasoning have their place, but I'm not so sure they do when it comes to matters of the heart. Why does my heart ache so just thinking of Papa passing, yet this same heart hardly ached when sister died?

ACTOR: If what you experienced (or failed to) with sister was not a matter of the heart then perhaps it was a matter of religion.

WRITER: Meaning?

ACTOR: Come on, let us not play innocent. You know exactly what that means. Christians say that to grieve is to be weak. Christians expect to see their loved ones again in some form, whether in heaven or earth, in some paradisaic realm. If they believe this with all their mind and heart, then their grief is only passing and they praise God—for heaven hath one more flower. At the fated hour, they will be reunited with their loved one once again. All this to say that perhaps you did not mourn sister because you believe. You have faith.

WRITER: You know us better than that. We may have been full of faith once, but we lost our religion long ago.

ACTOR: I always sensed some proclivity for spirituality. Now that we are face to face, it makes perfect sense.

WRITER: How so?

ACTOR: Call it a sixth sense, though I am not much for the obscure.

WRITER: What? You've demonstrated quite literally an affinity for generalization. But let us lay our differences to rest. Back to the subject at hand, I do not believe in any kind of hereafter.

ACTOR: Neither do I.

CHARACTER: Of course not. I haven't quite worked out your character arc. I'm not sure there's room for such contextual exposition, such world-building in a stage play like this.

ACTOR: Let us return to the primary issue. You are trying to figure out why you cannot let go of dear old Dad—forgive me: dearest Papa. If it is not because you lack faith, or because you are weak, then...this is my character arc, my purpose. I am trying to fulfill my role, the gist of which is to play my part in getting us closure. Since we do not believe in a hereafter, we cannot accept that we will never see dear old Dad again.

WRITER: Papa, it's Papa. But perhaps yes, if it isn't because of Christian weakness or failure to combine faith with feeling.

ACTOR: Perhaps it is after all, LOSS. I get that, to an extent. We will miss Papa.

WRITER: Maybe.

ACTOR: The letters. Act II.

WRITER: I will decide what comes next. I am in charge.



WRITER: I think it time for a soliloquy. Step into character please.

ACTOR: Certainly. (Clears throat.) I will try.

WRITER: Good, you have it. Always clearing my throat. Sounds much like "smoker's cough." Sister died of lung cancer, when I was certain I was the one who must have had it. I smoked on and off. She never touched a single cigarette.

ACTOR: Very well then: "Today is the anniversary of my sister's death. Four years to be exact. I remember getting the text. It was the day before Valentine's and I was sitting at the breakfast table. After silently reading the text, I turned to my husband, who asked what was the matter. I did not cry, so perhaps he could tell by the look in my eyes. I read to him the message word for word. He came from behind and rubbed my shoulders, even though I was not crying. I never did."

WRITER: That was good and true to life. I think however that we should go even further back; my lack of what you might call a normal response to sister's death began elsewhere and earlier. Here, let me show you:

"My husband was driving on our road trip to Kansas for Thanksgiving. I got the phone call with the results of my sister's tests. She had cancer, lung, and the lesions had spread to her brain. What happened next felt scripted, as if I was being directed by ulterior expectations for terrible news like this. I threw the phone and screamed. 'My sister, she has cancer.' And we didn't speak for the rest of the trip."

ACTOR: You are being too hard on us. We were not all that close.

WRITER: I'm not finished. "When she died three months later, I posted this to my social media wall: 'In memory of my sister who died, just short of her wedding anniversary.' That was it and I added a photo I borrowed from a relative because I did not own a photo of my deceased sister. Condolences from close and distant friends, from friends of friends, essentially strangers. I had also posted a tribute—remember?—to Cleo. She had to be put down due to cancer a couple of months prior: 'In memory of my precious fur baby, who stood by me for eight years, through single-life trials, through getting my graduate degree. Sweet precious kitty.' See, Facebook reminds me on the anniversary of both their deaths, my sister and my cat. The memorial tribute word count for pet is longer than for sister.

ACTOR: We were not close.

WRITER: No, I suppose we weren't.

ACTOR: You cannot choose your family, nor can you choose who you love.

WRITER: Another aphorism, another platitude. It's been less than a year and I do not mourn anymore for sister. Papa is not even dead yet, and I already mourn.

ACTOR: Are you sure this is grief you are experiencing, or is it altogether something else, something gnawing at you just under the surface, enough to make you feel guilty for feeling something inappropriate. You are about to lose someone you actually love. But before he goes, is there something you want to say?

WRITER: To him, or to myself, or to someone else? To no one at all? I don't know. I don't know. Something tells me...

ACTOR: The Letters.

WRITER: Fine then. Let us begin.

"Joji Dearest, I couldn't find the right phrases to define the feelings in me. As if I'm lost in a place of nowhere. I don't know what to think or what to believe. For the first time in my life I felt like a child lost and deprived."

ACTOR: Excuse the interruption, but are you still playing Papa and I you?

WRITER: (Annoyed) Yes, that is the idea.

ACTOR: Would you like me to play you reading Papa's letter?

WRITER: Fine. I suppose that would make more sense.

ACTOR: If I could make a suggestion.

WRITER: What is it?

ACTOR: Have you thought of using letters that actually reveal something interesting about Papa?

WRITER: Fine then. How about this one, written 5 Jan. 1960 2:10 P.M. If the navy taught Papa anything, it was to be precise. The backstory as told to us by Papa, several times: The main obstacle to Mama and Papa's marriage was apparently Grandma Lourdes. She did not want Joji to marry Manny, and Manny was deeply in love (infatuated?) with Joji—Josephine. They eloped after knowing each other for only three months. They didn't know it was leap year. Mama took her doll with her and wore a yellow dress. How they stayed at Uncle's house that night. How it was all so sweet.

ACTOR: "Joji, darling, I love you so much, and for even a moment I couldn't see you seems to be a decade. If your mom only understand perhaps she'll give me a chance right then. I'm not saying anything against her for mothers are always like that...to seek what is good for their children. But as I had told you beforehand the situation I'm in, somebody got to give."

WRITER: I think he meant to say "something's got to give." But of course, English is Papa's second language. He always asks us to edit his letters before he sends them off.


WRITER: For the longest time, I resisted reading the letters. After Mama died of cancer, Papa gave me the letters and I stowed them away in my treasure trunk telling myself that someday in the distant future I would finally read them. Mama's death was still fresh and so I couldn't face anything to do with the memory of her, not yet, not the photos of her in the casket that sister kept at her house and asked if I wanted to see, and certainly not the love letters. I was afraid the letters would reveal an irretrievable past. Now that I have read them, they verify what I suspected: How Papa knew Mama was the one right away, and how they were—at least to him—so in love. Something Mama told me years ago still haunts me. She said, "When we got married I wasn't really in love. I grew to love Papa over time." This helps explain why there are no available letters from her to him. The longing, the anxiety, the frustration in between the lines, all coming from him.

ACTOR: Which is to say, you never truly know anybody.

WRITER: Which is to say, I ask myself, in some ways, was their marriage a lie?

ACTOR: Is there something else about our Papa you regret?

WRITER: Maybe. Perhaps the real theme of this play is "Death: A Life."

ACTOR: Please no, that sounds too pretentious.

WRITER: If you think that, then why go on? You responded to my request for an audition because something about this specific script called to you, the essentials of our story, the drama, the play.

ACTOR: True. Because this play explores one of the most universal themes, the same story, just our version.

WRITER: Well why answer the call to this particular version?

ACTOR: Because it is a play. And I am an actor on a stage, even if it may be ramshackle, artificial. Now that we have come this far, we have got something to work with and you are approaching some kind of story, a familiar theme...

WRITER: Don't say it.

ACTOR: (Silent)

WRITER: Death, and why it matters.



(Actor and Writer are sitting face to face. Their foreheads touch and their hands are on each other's shoulders.)

WRITER: Before you go, Papa, I want to say something.

ACTOR: What is it, baby?

WRITER: I'm gonna just come out and say it. When I was a teenager, you got so mad at me. I don't even remember what I did, but you took a vacuum tube and beat my legs with it.

ACTOR: What? No, that isn't true. That never happened.

WRITER: Well that's what I remember.

Strike that. That never happened. The memory, yes. But not the confrontation. I could never confront him like that. I don't like discomfort that comes with confrontation, therefore this couldn't have happened.

ACTOR: So we are going with memoir, autobiography.

WRITER: Whatever. Maybe. I don't like labels.

ACTOR: This is it. This is what's bothering you, among other things. You need to confront him before he passes. Please.

WRITER: Maybe you're more courageous than I. Besides, what good would it do to bring up something like that, that happened so long ago. Let the past be the past.

ACTOR: Well then, I think I am ready.

WRITER: For what?

ACTOR: For my real audition. For the finale.

WRITER: Good. Good. Let's have it.

ACTOR: "Oh look at the moon, all shining up there. Oh how she looks like a lamp in the air."

WRITER: Oh, I remember that little ditty. The first time Papa sang it, he did so from memory. He said he remembered it from his grandmother in the Philippines. One of the many stories he told us. We were but a small child the first time we heard it, wearing a cow-print coat and hanging onto his neck. There's a photo of that, which proves that it really happened. We whispered something like, "You're the only man I've ever loved" into his ear.

ACTOR: (So touched and moved, begins to weep) We so looked up to him, didn't we? Before time and life revealed to us that our parents, like us, are only human. Sorry, that is so out of character.

WRITER: (Touched and moved, begins to weep, too) That's fine, really. You know, you and I, we are the same. We are only human, after all.


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