I had just thrown out the wilted flowers and arranged for the funeral home to pick up the shiva chairs when Donald Trump was elected president. Bill, my husband of 32 years, had died 10 days before the election, and I was obsessed with completing tasks: digging through files to find original life insurance policies; ordering additional death certificates; dumping everything from the James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State University into the trash.
As I crumpled and tossed away the “Surviving Your Bone Marrow Transplant” folder and the guidelines for an Immunotherapy CarT cell clinical trial which he was going to be a part of, all I could think was I can’t believe this. Bill went to work every day during his two-year lymphoma journey and was even at his office the very day he was admitted to the hospital for the last time.
As I tried to process my loss, I was completely unaware that I was also braiding together Bill’s death and Trump’s election into one horrific, grief-filled incident.
I was mourning for Bill, but didn’t realize I was also mourning the loss of America as I knew it.
Both events were emotional mysteries to me, so I spent days researching, hoping that knowledge would help me get to the “acceptance” phase. I met with Bill’s oncologist to re-create a timeline of his disease’s progression and read everything about the plight of white, working-class males who felt ignored.
I spent my days reviewing studies on Diffuse Large B Cell Lymphoma along with newspaper articles analyzing the surprise outcome of the 2016 presidential election. I was confused and forlorn, unable to participate in even the most benign small talk. I was mourning for Bill, but didn’t realize I was also mourning the loss of America as I knew it.
Anyone familiar with Bill knew he was a complex man. (Read: he was difficult.) He spent his career working in the theater at the management level and was passionate about bringing quality Broadway and world-renowned theater pieces from London and Dublin to the communities he worked in.
He did this all while revising budgets so every production made money for the arts organizations he worked for, most recently the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) in Ohio.
Theater was in Bill’s DNA and had been since his first job working for Actor’s Equity Association as a field representative. In 1986, we were living in Minnesota and our daughter, Emily, was a newborn. “Phantom of the Opera” had just opened on Broadway with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, both of whom originated the roles of the Phantom and Christine.
I was mourning for Bill, but didn’t realize I was also mourning the loss of America as I knew it.
This was years before “Phantom of the Opera” became “Phantom,” the global icon of musical theater. It was a show Bill was determined to see, and he had to be the first on his block to have the “Phantom” experience. He lobbied me for weeks, hoping I’d agree to a quick overnight trip to New York, but I was reluctant. I had mixed feelings about leaving our baby when she was only a few months old; I was a first-time mother!
Knowing how ambivalent I was, while at the same time being 100 per cent committed to experience the production, he arranged for us to see a matinee and fly in and out of New York on the same day. For years, the original playbill from the first Broadway production of “Phantom” sat in his drawer, under a sea of socks and T-shirts. At the time, it never occurred to me that his obsession with theater, an art form he felt had the ability to exert positive change in someone’s life, would eventually leave me angry and resentful.
But it did. I knew his view of theater as a panacea for the problems riddling the human condition was a noble, altruistic sentiment, so I couldn’t tell him he was wrong, that human lives were not more fulfilled through theater.
Of course I was proud of him, watching with pleasure as he turned this belief to a reality with every production he chose to present in every city we lived in ― Chicago, Minneapolis, Toronto, Boston, Columbus ― but his job was always his priority and he immersed himself in the unique challenges facing each community.
I wanted him to be a different person and found it hard, even impossible, to accept his obsessive personality and need to leverage theater to enhance intelligence and sophistication. When I was angry with him, which was quite often, I’d snap, “You’re only around for special events and vacations. You’re like a divorced dad!”
Throughout our marriage I only saw Bill in sweeping generalizations...I rarely saw the details, the meaningful moments he created.
Throughout our marriage I only saw Bill in sweeping generalizations: a self-centered workaholic with misplaced priorities that left him disconnected and emotionally absent from the day-to-day challenges of raising a family. I rarely saw the details, the meaningful moments he created.
When he took our son, Ben, to Fort Myers every year for Red Sox spring training I said, “Of course you’re doing this because it’s fun,” my tone dripping with sarcasm. “But what you don’t get is that being with the kids is not always fun. Being with the kids is not another version of presenting theater!”
When he took our daughter, Emily, on late-night drives through Toronto which helped her insomnia, drives that always ended with french fries at a 24-hour Burger King, his thoughtfulness barely registered with me.
All the details that together comprised Bill’s character were overwhelmed by a voice that screamed: “He may be attuned to the kids right now, but he’ll take work over family any day.”
Decades later, when it finally registered that Donald Trump was elected president, I felt disdain for the man who stood for everything I abhor. I, like many others, was in total despair about his victory. When his cabinet decisions became public I cringed: an attorney general who is hostile to race; a secretary of Health and Human Services who is avowedly pro-life; an Environmental Protection Agency director who is a climate change denier; a Department of Education head who believes in a free-market approach to schools.
Why was I content embodying the stereotype of the beleaguered wife, married to a man only validated by work?
Art masterpieces helped console me through Bill’s death and Trump’s election. Going to the Columbus Museum of Art or visualizing famous works by my favorite artists gave me peace and inspired me to make visual associations. One of these connections was that the canvas of Trump’s life was the exact opposite of a canvas painted by the post-Impressionist pointillist painter, Georges Seurat. In Seurat’s work each dab of paint was a detail, dependent on an infinite number of other details, to create one unifying, expansive landscape.
Trump’s canvas was also a landscape, but instead of consisting of an amalgamation of uniform details, his canvas consisted of the bold and brash strokes of sexism, racism, lies and xenophobia. Each stroke was an independent action: accusing the former President of wiretapping Trump Tower; instituting a Muslim ban; surrounding himself with racists. They all exerted a flurry of chaos without relying on other related actions for impact. They all stood proudly alone in their horror, telling the whole Trump story from birth to present day ― a story of profound insecurity, stunted emotional development, and a frantic need to be surrounded by enablers.
Since I saw Trump’s actions as self-contained depictions of his character that defied generalizations, I started seeing Bill’s identity through the lens of his actions as well, something I had never done before.
Trump taught me to respect my husband’s actions as succinct reflections of his identity, powerful enough to tell his whole story.
I knew that anyone married for over 30 years rarely went through the process of thoughtfully considering their spouse’s individual actions. Instead, it was easier and faster (and time is of the essence when you’re raising a family) to fall back on broad generalizations: she’s a great mother; he’s a good person, or in Bill’s case ― he’s a workaholic with misplaced priorities because the theater comes before everything else.
It was hard to revisit some of the actions that comprised the myth I had clung to for years: I was married to a man who put his passion for theater first. But I did revisit them and slowly began seeing these actions as gestures saturated with meaning. They were microcosms of his psyche, single vignettes powerful enough to contain his values with far more accuracy and specificity than any sweeping generalization ever could.
And so I remembered many of Bill’s simple and straightforward actions involving his relationship to the theater, that really weren’t so simple and straightforward, because they were expressions of his entire being, his unvarnished identity. They were actions I had overlooked for years, thinking they only spoke to his reverence to the art form, never thinking they were potent enough to reveal his unique narrative in a single moment.
When his number one priority was making CAPA the first totally diverse arts organization in Ohio, I interpreted this commitment as yet another one of his attempts at making theater relevant and accessible to everyone. I chose not to dissect the actions that helped him achieve this goal, but instead thought: Diversity is today’s buzzword, and Bill wants to make sure CAPA doesn’t get left behind in the 90s, so of course he’s thinking about how to keep CAPA current … again. That’s all he thinks about!
At the time, I didn’t see how his actions revealed his entire history brimming with compassion, including his years as a young adult when uncompromised caring was neither popular, nor encouraged in our society. But now when I think of his desire to change the CAPA culture, I see it as a window into the person he was.
I keep asking myself the same question: why had I been so comfortable writing off his actions, assuming they were only a function of his obsession with theater, and more importantly, why was I content embodying the stereotype of the beleaguered wife, married to a man only validated by work?
There’s very little I could could thank Donald Trump for, but I do have to thank him for showing me that his actions didn’t just speak louder than his words, they forcefully shouted his message, leaving his words to cower in timidity as they struggled to form generalizations.
Trump taught me to respect my husband’s actions as succinct reflections of his identity, powerful enough to tell his whole story ― the story of how he formed relationships with the people he loved, the story of how work became a critical part of his identity, the story of how he viewed theater as a form of redemption with the power to make people more human.
Trump taught me that Bill’s actions, like his own, deserved to be contemplated rather than subsumed in broad, sweeping generalizations. He taught me that Bill’s actions were the actions of love.