Improvising My Way Through Loss

"Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith." -Christopher Fry

It was easy to imagine that everything was normal. My mom was in her rocking chair, the television tuned to reruns of The Walton’s. It could have been the 1970s. I could have been eight, crawling onto her lap for her all-encompassing, warming hugs. But, it was 2016 and our conversation was punctuated by her fits of coughing. I watched as her body shook, my fear increasing. She coughed and choked and when it was over she looked at me and said, “Don’t panic.”

My cool, funny mom had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. As a retired nurse, she believed in faith and medicine. There must be something to faith. When I was born three-months prematurely in 1965, Mom made sure I had a good doctor and got all the Jesuit brothers at a seminary in Milford, Ohio to pray for me. I’d made it.

My mom tried multiple treatments, but couldn’t catch a break. I watched as she got weaker. I’d sit with her in doctor’s offices hoping upon hope as the cancer spread and her options narrowed.

I tried hard to keep the faith, but I could feel her slipping away. Feeling empty and numb, I needed something to make me come alive. Some people look to sex, alcohol or drugs. I signed up for an improvisation class.

I’d often read my writing in public, but improv was another thing entirely. There was no script, no created world. I’d have to react to others on the fly. The prospect was terrifying.

The class was in an old chapel. The seats were pews. The air of solemnity was punctured by the jovial hosts. There were four of us, led by a mellow teacher with an unlikely name, Chris Anger.

Chris gave us gentle guidelines: don’t try to be funny; say yes to the premise your scene partner puts in front of you and build on it; think about your actions in terms of your relationship to the other person; and, most importantly, be in the moment.

The group paired off and started doing scenes. My first scene was with a young guy, a stranger. We couldn’t find our rhythm. Things were already going badly when he quipped “Why didn’t you tell me your mother is dying from cancer?” It’s one of those things people do when they can’t think of something to say—they pick something dramatic. He’d voiced my worst nightmare. I couldn’t find the words to respond.

We stopped. I let it go and we started the scene over. Starting over was something I’d learn to do soon. Our failed scene was a good lesson. With improv, each misstep was a learning opportunity. It was a chance to question my approach to the situation. How could I build on what was happening? What could I do to deepen my connection with my partner? What actions and reactions would make things more real?

My heart raced onstage, but I looked forward to seeing what was going to happen next. One night, I was a sad Yugoslavian princess, and the next an overbearing woman running into a high school acquaintance.

My mother got sicker over the course of the classes. Our hugs grew longer, our words fewer. I went to class no matter how drained I felt.

One night, I was in a scene with an established member of the troop. I was his stalker and we were stuck on a riverboat. He talked about how I was following him. I went with it and professed my profound love. He returned my affection with some funny references to our shared history. I pointed out that the boat’s captain could marry us right then and there. End of scene. It worked. I’d said yes, and learned that I didn’t have to be funny. I just had to be in the moment.

These were the same lessons I learned sitting with my mother. I had no control over her fate, but I could be with her, read to her, share stories, and look into her eyes. I could meet her where she was and love her with everything I had. I could be present.

We didn’t get our miracle, but I did find a deeper sense of faith that I can make the most of what is front of me. I can say yes to life and to loss. I can be in the moment, no matter how hard it is. And because I am present, I can make new memories that sustain me in the face of loss.

ELLEN BIRKETT MORRIS is the author of Lost Girls, a collection of short stories. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, and Santa Fe Literary Review, among other journals. She is a winner of the Bevel Summers Prize for short fiction. Morris is a recipient of an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and holds an MFA from Queens University-Charlotte.