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The Comeback

A Tragedy Overtakes a Blissful Comedy

Now to answer several pressing questions. How is my wife, Sarah, doing? Why has Shakespeareances.com lay fallow for more than three months? What’s next? And, perhaps the primary question for readers of Shakespeareances.com, what was William Shakespeare’s most popular play the past year?

These questions all are interrelated because Shakespeareances.com resides at the intersection of all things Shakespeare and all things life. Not all the answers are within my grasp, but as Shakespeare does, we can present life’s pressing questions, and do so by starting with a stupid joke.

A couple took off on a four-week European vacation and left their house and cat in the care of a neighbor. A week into their vacation, the neighbor heard from the couple. “How are things?” the husband asked. “Well,” said the neighbor haltingly, “your cat died…” “That’s terrible! How?” Upon learning the cat had kidney failure, the husband complained how the neighbor hit them with such bad news without properly preparing them for the shock; and just a week into their vacation, too. “You could have told us that the cat was on the roof, but you’re working to get her down. A few days later you could tell us she had fallen off the roof but was at the vet being cared for. Then, after we got home, you could have told us she had just died the day before.” The chastened neighbor apologized. “Well, too late now,” the husband said. “Anything else?” “Yes,” the neighbor said, “your mother is on the roof.”

When last we left off, Sarah was wired to an electroencephalograph for a week of testing at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. See "Time's Passages: My Love's Labor Now My Winter's Tale" for that account, but here’s a brief recap. Sarah had been having increasing issues with cognitive retention for about two years before she began experiencing what were believed to be seizures in March 2018. Meantime, I was entering the thick of the Shakespeare Canon Project, attending all 42 Shakespeare-penned plays at 42 different theaters across the North American continent in one year. Fourteen months on of baffled doctors, dwindling income and increasing debt from the subsequent loss of Sarah’s income and increasing expenses, and both Shakespeareances.com and my book recounting the Canon Project (Where There's a Will: Shakespeareances through the American Way) falling relentlessly behind, we ended up in the Hopkins Epilepsy Monitoring Unit. Sarah was hooked up to the EEG the day before I learned I had just been officially offered employment as editor for the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety.

The Johns Hopkins test discovered that, yes, Sarah was having seizures in an area of the brain associated with memory. An adjustment in medication has brought the seizures under control: Sarah’s had only one obvious seizure since the EEG test. That one came about a month later and occurred minutes after her employer officially terminated her (I've long suspected stress may be a trigger, and from the onset of the seizures, several episodes coincided with specific interactions with the company).

Sarah was referred to Johns Hopkins Medical Psychology Clinic for a battery of tests in July to determine if her cognitive issues were related to the seizure disorder or a separate condition. Last week, having not heard anything, I contacted the neuropsychiatrist who presided over the tests. He said he sent his test results to the referring Johns Hopkins neurologist. I contacted her, and her office replied that, in response to my inquiry, they had just sent the test results to Sarah's presiding neurologist. Nobody yet has told us what’s in the report. The only instruction I received came from the neuropsychiatrist to book an appointment for Sarah at the Johns Hopkins’ Memory Center using him as a referral. "They will have the electronic records," he said. That’s a big clue to the literal punchline: I had previously been told that only patients diagnosed with dementia are referred to the Memory Center.

That news was enough to push us beyond stalling acceptance of what has already become a new normal for us. The tragedy to come has begun. The future is now.

And the past is present. Sarah’s mother had Alzheimer’s, its onset coming before I even met her for the first time. After Sarah’s father died and as Sarah’s Air Force career advanced, we moved her mom with us from station to station, setting her up in local nursing homes with Alzheimer’s units. Because of Sarah’s duty tempo and deployments, I became my mother-in-law’s chief care manager, from doing her laundry to taking her to doctor appointments. Sarah and I both anticipated that this family history may befall Sarah, too. Now, at 61, Sarah is closely tracking in age her mother’s initial descent into the disease.

My experience with Sarah’s mom plus many other personal and professional contacts with dementia and brain injuries helped prepare me for this moment, recognizing the symptoms and alerting doctors who were slow to believe me (the gap in their understanding was not being accustomed to living with this supremely intelligent woman who rose to the rank of colonel in the Air Force and became a valued consultant after her retirement from the military). My experience also helped me lay out a double-sided strategy for when this day of reckoning would come: I would fill our lives with experiences—all the traveling, theater, baseball, concerts, and other passions we’ve enjoyed together—while Sarah could fully appreciate them. Then, we’d continue that activity after onset to keep Sarah mentally engaged as long as possible. Some day, we’ll be relegated to staying home, watching TV, reading books, getting by. In a later some day, I’ll have to psychologically let her go even as she continues growing old in her own private existence. As long as my health holds up, I’ll be there for her though she won’t know me, in that present nor out of our past.

Yes, but, how do I feel now, at the confluence of what’s destined and what is? Can one truly prepare for this moment? At the risk of sounding arrogant, yes, because I have. Preparing for now? People, Sarah has been on this roof for more than two years. My mother entered hospice for almost a year before she died from colon cancer. I cared for my father for six years after his debilitating stroke and watched as his body finally, slowly, began breaking down. With both of my parents, the end-of-life grief came well before the end of their lives.

Deep in my subconscious, Shakespeare seems to have helped prepare me, too. My two favorite plays are King Lear and Henry IV, Part One. In the one, the title character's ego leads him into making a stupid mistake that lights a fuse fueled by his progressing dementia leading to inevitable chaos. In the other, Prince Hal maximizes his current carefree life in preparation for his destined life as his nation’s ruler. The readiness is all. That’s a line in Hamlet, which, with The Tempest, are my next two favorite Shakespeare plays, two works that also have something to say about my current state of mind. Among the allegorical parallels of The Tempest and my life is the role of forgiveness. I don’t hold anything against God, fate, or Sarah, though I’ve sometimes gotten a bit testy with her memory lapses and displays of blatant stupidity. I’m still not used to that, and I’m learning to lower the temperature of my reaction to Sarah when she no longer meets my former expectations.

She is intelligent, present tense, but her impaired memory can’t track all the signals it receives. The intensity of this condition always varies, and the combination of seemingly perfect Sarah fronting a mind already straying off the tracks can be discombobulating. A few weeks ago, at her request I left her in a mall near my office while I spent the rest of the afternoon at work. She got disoriented, lost her mobile phone, and somehow ended up with a security guard who let her use his phone. At the same time, I was trying to reach her, my call automatically going to her voice mail. In the voice mail she left me as I was trying to reach her, she only asked if I was going to come get her; she didn’t tell me where she was. I called the caller ID number, got the security guard, and he led me to her.

That episode changed the dynamics of our lifestyle—or maybe not. A few days ago, I came home from work to find the lawn had been mown. A couple of weeks before, I had shown Sarah how to unfold, set up, and turn on our battery-operated mower, and though she mowed the yard under my watchful eye, she never could repeat the sequence for me. (Not employable, Sarah still wants to contribute to our standard of living, and as she doesn’t have the mental capacity to help with Shakespeareances.com—I’ve tried so many times to train her on various aspects of the site—I’m giving her lessons and checklists for housekeeping chores.) So, who mowed the yard? She did, she told me. By herself, as the neighbors weren't around to assist. She had even set up and started the mower on her own, even following along the instructions in the manual. Following instructions, recipes, and simple checklists has been a problem for her.

Sarah, gorgeous as ever, stands in the middle of the Folger's Great Hall. Her "brain" is a red Washington Nationals purse hanging over her shoulder down to her waist.
Sarah in the Great Hall of the Folger Library before attending this month's Folger production of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One. Hanging by her side is Sarah's "brain," the ever-present pouch containing her memory and cognition tools. Photo by Eric Minton.

My day-to-day existence with Sarah has become an adventure, which I approach with genial humor to keep her stress level down. Though she’s largely unaware of the roller coaster ride our life has become, she maintains her sense of humor, too. She gets frustrated at the memory lapses, but she’s almost always upbeat, and I try to keep her in that state of mind. That goal conflicts with my other goal, to coach her on incorporating tools and habits she needs to work with and through her impairment, such as maintaining a daily calendar of routines, keeping a notebook at hand in which she writes every activity she's done and information she needs to follow up on (the notebook serving as her memory), and carrying her phone with her—and keeping it on—at all times. I have tried to be stern, but too often I let her slide back into the life of a lazy cat watching the world pass by through the window of her Web browser. After the mall incident and subsequently feeling more and more overwhelmed with the work, chores, and tasks piling up on my plate, I finally laid out my own reality for her in no uncertain terms: I simply can’t spend the time and emotional energy to help her take charge of her life if she always defaults to a feline existence, so I was determined henceforth to regard her as the equivalent of a pet cat (I'm very good to cats). She has since become the Energizer bunny, managing the cleaning and upkeep of the house and, on her own volition, mowing the yard. She still hasn't gotten into the habit of regularly using her notebook, but she's becoming more disciplined with checklists, calendars, and her iPhone. I’m as proud of her now as I’ve ever been throughout her successful career.

I won’t lie; my stress level has risen quite a bit. It’s not Sarah’s prognosis that has me worried, per se, but the consequences that have come from the continuum of her past, present, and future condition. When she stopped working last summer as a paid-by-the-hour contracted employee, we lost two-thirds of our family income even as our expenses started rising, in part from Sarah’s condition, in part due to the Canon Project, and in part because a parade of ill events stampeded across our lives (see "The Worst is Never the Worst until the Worst: Finding Comfort in Edgar in Times of Woes"). Though I am now getting steady pay enhanced by some ongoing freelance gigs, that income doesn’t make up for Sarah’s lost income, and getting out in front of the debts has been challenging as we continue getting hit with big-ticket expenses (including hearing aids for me; no more cover in my reviews for poor-projection theatrical performances). My job, by law, only runs through next May, though legislation is moving through Congress to extend the commission to the end of next year. Not only do I have to prepare for that future, I want a financial state that allows me “to keep Sarah mentally engaged as long as possible.” Part of that future I’m sure includes Where There’s a Will, but that project has stalled as I juggle managing Sarah’s roller coaster state with a heavy work schedule that has me traveling almost as much as I did last year for the Canon Project.

Shakespeareances.com has fallen by the wayside, too. I asked Sarah straight up if it was time for me to close up that shop, and she said no way. She’ll mow the lawn, clean the house, tidy up the kitchen, and manage the newspaper recycling, thank you very much, while I get back to this important passion. So here I am. And I’ve just completed the dual effort of updating Bard on the Boards and the Shakespeare Plays Popularity Index. Thus, we get to the last and most pressing question of my first paragraph: What was Shakespeare's most popular play this past year? Ironically, it is one pertinent to the theme of this essay, and it reached the top only through the condition of my current state.

In the past, I set the 12-month period of ranking plays according to their production frequency from August 1 to July 31. I’ve now adjusted the Index year to make it September 1 to August 31. September 1 is truly the traditional end of the summer Shakespeare Festival Season, and I've learned how much the flow of theaters setting next-season lineups continues at a steady pace through August (the pace slows significantly between Labor Day and Christmas). OK, I also didn’t get to updating Bard on the Boards and the Index until Labor Day Weekend, and that's the real reason I adjusted the Index year, but I truly believe September 1 is the better demarcation. I’ll claim serendipity.

That extra month of counting announced playbills in the Shakespeare Plays Popularity Index allowed one Shakespeare title to overtake the play that had comfortably held the top spot throughout the previous 12 months: Hamlet, sprinting from four back at the end to top As You Like It, 30-29. The pastoral comedy had led the field by as much as five throughout the year. Macbeth came in third with 27. Rounding out the top five were the two most popular plays overall in the seven-year lifespan of the Index, Romeo and Juliet (26 the past year, 139 in the Index) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (24 and 168). Hamlet, by the way, is now only two productions short of Romeo and Juliet in the overall Index.

Also in the past month, The Tempest, currently at 102, became the eighth play to surpass the century mark. The others, after Dream, R&J, and Hamlet, are Macbeth at 128, Twelfth Night at 125, Much Ado About Nothing at 116, and As You Like It at 114, the last two passing 100 in the past year.

One function of the index is syncing up production frequency of specific plays to the socio-political context of the year. The index this year reveals a couple of interesting trends. A big gainer was Henry V, moving from a rank of 27 with six productions in 2017–2018 to 11th with 15 productions in 2018–2019. Another play seeing a significant rise in popularity was Measure for Measure, landing at 16th this past year with 12 productions after being staged only four times in 2017–2018, tied for 28th among all the plays. Among those plays with which Measure shared that 28th ranking was Antony and Cleopatra, which more than doubled its prevalence over the past 13 months, landing at 20 in the rankings, tied with King Lear at nine productions.

The play experiencing the biggest drop in production popularity was All’s Well That Ends Well; its 14 productions in 2017–2018 was good for a 12th place ranking, but in 2018–2019, the play hit the boards only five times, landing at 28th. Love’s Labour’s Lost halved its number of productions from 12 to 6, dropping from 16th in the ranks to 24th the past year. The big gainers look to be reflections of the times, but these two big drops are indicative of the waves some of the lesser-known Shakespeare titles ride over the course of a decade. Except for Henry V and, to a lesser degree, Antony and Cleopatra, no such wave shows up the past 13 months for any of the middling-popular plays. Rather, the Bard’s most popular plays dominated playbills. The trend we might be seeing in the 2018–2019 Shakespeare Plays Popularity Index is not a reflection of social and political issues but economics as theaters and festivals pursued more box office reliability over artistic messaging. I get that: I’m in the same boat.

Another significant result of the 2018–2019 index is that every Shakespeare-penned play plus his poems made the list. I could have done the Shakespeare Canon Project again, this year; Will continues to kill. However, we’ll be curtailing our Shakespeareances travels for the next several months until my work calendar clears up and our ledger firms up. Meantime, now that Bard on the Boards and the Popularity Index are up to date, I’ll start catching up on the 68 reviews I’ve not yet written from the past 14 months and get back to working on Where There’s A Will.

It won’t be easy juggling all of this with my job and managing the household and Sarah, too, but do I have a choice? The answer to that question is easy: no. Not when I still have that constant inspiration that is Sarah in my life, not to mention her constant encouragement which she backs up with her own Herculean effort working so diligently to think straight.

Eric Minton
September 15, 2019

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