I miss Wendy Wasserstein.
To be honest, I never knew her. But I came of age with her plays in my college/post-college years. The Heidi Chronicles and Sisters Rosensweig ran in New York in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s when I was living in the West Village. I sat in the theatre and took in every word her characters spoke.
I was working and studying, contemplating meaning and future plans, all the while loving life as a 20-something in NYC, taking in as much theatre and blind-dating as I could. And while Wasserstein’s characters seemed old to me with every option open, she showed life decisions about work, friendship and family with good humor and oh-so-perfect dialogue that resonated. Three decades later, I realize I have journeyed with her witty insights and internalized wisdom.
In between, the Wasserstein dialogue slipped from my mind. I lived life: graduate school; a move to the Midwest; a meaningful career with a 6-day work week; marriage; three children; sandwich generation responsibilities. I didn’t lift my head much, trying to be home with my children, line up good childcare, write sermons and eulogies, and make sure I had a clean, unwrinkled black suit. Life threw some curves and I faced some professional gender realities, but I forged through, reaching within, and, when I had time, I speaking to friends. Good friends, travel and fun times were there, but perspective? Witty lines? Not so much.
And then last summer I sat down for dinner and drinks with three childhood friends, all of us the same age — just past the 50-year mark. Over dinner we pondered our second acts, distinct for each of us. Work-place re-entry. Readiness to make a bang in a career whose part-time predictability had allowed for raising children. Wrestling with what to do with an immanently empty nest. And then there was me. I had kept my professional life strong, continued to seek that elusive balance parenting three children, and was now wondering about personal next steps post-divorce.
We spoke with brutal honesty and good humor about our successes and our uncertainties, with a confidence that came along with life – a different confidence than we had in our 20’s in Manhattan when all was bright and shiny. Certainly all of us have good lives and are grateful. Yet, between and among us we have come to understand day-to-day parenting, loss of our own parents, wrestling of family dynamics, and confronting professional decisions. And while more times than we could count we did not have had a clue how to figure out real-life moments, we did what we needed to do, finding our own inner resilience. We were all strong and beautiful, even if we couldn’t always see that either.
I left the restaurant that evening energized – even as the talk reminded me of the vulnerabilities we face. That I knew — in two decades as a rabbi I have seen at every turn that so much of life is unpredictable. How we deal with it, is another story.[i] Here, though, we have choice. We all make our choices as we live our days.
Talking with my friends that night occurred in a protected space, out of time while right smack in it. Reality was front and center, at the same time that we all had enough history from childhood and high school to remind one another of the moments we might have, well, misplaced in the recesses of memory. We challenged one another in strength and we laughed at the brutal honesty of it all.
The conversation was so good, Wendy-worthy, really. No one wanted it to end, and no one wanted to return to the call of what had to get done that night or the next day. I left the restaurant wanting to write it down it was so good. I didn’t, though. Didn’t think I could.
We jumped back into our lives. And then a few months later, real life hit hard. One of us found a sudden lousy diagnosis. Her plans changed. The other three of us “talked” across the country incessantly, endeavoring to support her and, frankly, confront our own terror and helplessness. My rabbinic experience felt tossed out the window, depleted as I was, fearing for my friend, and, to be honest, myself as selfish as that felt.
I had no good script before me. Still don’t. I decided to write to ground myself, somewhere, anywhere, as my friends and I fumble through the conversations. The words aren’t witty in this conversation. Wendy, where are you? I need you to write the dialogue and give the stage instructions. I need it to all work out. I miss you, Wendy.
[i] “…freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.” Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning.