Actress and author Kathryn Leigh Scott has written nonfiction before. Now With You Now Without follows up on her previous work Last dance at the Savoy, and her recent short work, The Happy Hours, both of which center on her relationship with her late husband Geoff Miller as he struggled with the disease Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a neurological condition for which there is so far no cure and no treatment. He passed away on April 16th 2011. In those books, she poignantly discussed her role not just as wife but as caregiver to a loved one with a terminal illness. Here she writes about the passage from caregiver to widow.
Although with an aging population, it is certainly a timely topic, in the hands of a lesser writer, it could also be a major downer. Scott’s uncanny ability to write as though she’s sitting across the table from you gives the book an accessibility the topic needs. You can’t educate, let alone inspire, your readers if you’re depressing them. Even when dealing with the most serious subjects, Scott’s disarming and self-deprecating humor surfaces. Scott candidly discusses her cordial relationship with her first husband, Ben Martin,who actually got along so well with Geoff that the three of them stayed at Scott’s London cottage at the same time, with Ben helping with Geoff’s care.
“How does one manage without two husbands?” she asks. “I could only hope they wouldn’t conduct any private ‘can’t-live-with-her-can’t-live-without-her’ chats while I was out of the room.”
Scott makes it clear that while assuming the role of principal caregiver for a spouse fundamentally attacks the romance of a relationship while simultaneously making the disabled spouse even more than ever the center of the caregiver’s life. The needs of the disabled spouse come before the needs of the caregiver.
“For the better part of several years, I’d been essentially housebound,” Scott writes. “I’d grown used to a routine – early to bed, early to rise, and days largely spent fulfilling Geoff’s needs. I felt safe at home. I could cry whenever I felt like it. Life did not require mascara and lipstick, or even shoes.”
When that person is gone from the caregiver’s day-to-day life – whatever one believes about an afterlife – it is a shattering loss and difficult transition. People say strange things when someone has died – from narcissistic statements about how your loved one’s death has affected them, to how they know how you feel because their dog died, to the dreaded “he’s in a far, far better place.” No one in the throes of recent bereavement wants to hear that, and Scott is no exception. The bereaved caregiver, like anyone who’s lost a loved one, wants the loved one there with them. Typically, you feel the need to tell the departed about your day – certainly anything important.
Readers of Last Dance at the Savoy and The Happy Hour know the author’s love of travel, which was shared by Geoff Miller. Travel had been the antidote of choice when Geoff’s limitations began to have adverse affects on the couple’s relationship. Unfortunately, those limitations also greatly complicated travel itself. Geoff was increasingly overwhelmed by his deteriorating physical condition. He couldn’t always control his movements – knocking his bowl of soup to the floor while reaching for his spoon, or involuntarily scratching his face repeatedly while trying to adjust his eyeglasses. A memorable, and at times unnerving, trip to China, taken after Geoff’s death, would, she realized, not have been possible with Geoff’s limitations. Nonetheless, she felt his presence in a Shanghai bar where a band played Geoff’s traditional jazz favorites.
Scott makes it clear that the former caregiver can expect a certain amount of well-intentioned but ultimately hurtful advice. The fact that one is entitled to one’s opinion should never be confused with the right to express it to others. A well-meaning friend seemed to question her sanity in visiting Geoff’s grave – “You don’t really think he’s there, do you?”
In fact she did feel closer to Geoff by his grave: “I didn’t mention the spiritual connection to Geoff that I felt in that tranquil setting with trees, grass and expanse of sky, or admit that I did speak directly to him, pouring my heart out.”
The caregiver has to find a way to rejoin the world after the death of the loved one they’ve cared for. Scott credits Geoff himself for helping her get back in the saddle, almost like a guardian angel:
“I stayed close to home during the months following Geoff’s death, but I sensed him hovering, pulling the strings, and steering me back to work, travel and fully engaging in the world again. If not for some divine intervention, how else could I account for the abundance of writing and acting work coming my way – and the opportunity to return to London? After considerable delay, Dark Shadows, the television series that launched my career, was being given its third silver screen incarnation, thanks to two of its devoted fans, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.”
The Dark Shadows reboot gave her the opportunity to reunite with original series castmates Lara Parker, David Selby and Jonathan Frid, as the four of them traveled to England to film a cameo appearance in Tim Burton’s reboot. The timing of the production was almost serendipitous. Had principal photography commenced earlier, Geoff’s needs would probably have prevented her going. Had it commenced much later, the elderly Jonathan Frid’s frail health might have prevented him from participating. (Frid, in fact, passed away before the movie’s May 2012 release.)
While she knew she had to get used to missing Geoff, she wanted everything else in her life to remain the same. The demolition of an old building that housed a familiar coffee house and the introduction of modern cushioned chairs in a favorite old church became subjects of resentment. And yet things do, change. Following Geoff’s death, Scott also found she’d actually been neglecting her own healthcare, and she describes poignantly the process of catching up on overdue exams and procedures. She joined a support group for recently bereaved spouses. Not surprisingly, one of the other male members asked her out soon after. The fact was at that point she couldn’t even imagine a new relationship.
“In New York,” she writes, “I did not miss palm trees or driving a car. I loved walking everywhere and occasionally riding a bike or the subway. I felt liberated living in a more confined space, free of all the chores of managing a house. I still spent long days writing, but taking a break meant walking down the street go buy an apple or banana off a barrow or strolling by the river. I was back living full-time in my old neighborhood, where almost fifty years earlier I’d filmed a Coca Cola commercial in the florist shop on the corner.”
If not now, when? became a mantra. It came to be buttressed by another important piece of advice. She recounts, poignantly, the advice of an elderly widower she met in her grief support group, who told her “You can’t hold out for ‘someday’ because it may never come.”
She credits neighbors in New York, both single women, for showing her how to make the most of all New York can offer. They’d both known Geoff and were a link to the life she missed having with him, but they also helped navigate the transition to living in a world without him. In some ways, that is the key – remembering and honoring the time with the departed, while adjusting to life without them. With Scott, time was clearly part of the solution to that quandary, which balances awkwardly with “If not now, when?”
The answer to that question might well be when the time is right. She did in fact ultimately meet a new man in New York, a cultured divorcee with degrees in business and law, who speaks multiple languages and shares Scott’s own cultural and culinary interests. It might bear noting that they met through a chance encounter that led to conversation, and not the intervention of a well-meaning friend. As the book frequently makes clear, timing is everything.
Like Last Dance at the Savoy, Now With You, Now Without is poignant, candid and almost painfully intimate. The great strength of Scott’s writing is its deceptively casual, conversational ease. She writes like she’s talking to you, a skill few writers have, and one that turns the pages for the reader. But while the exquisite Last Dance at the Savoy had to deal mainly with loss, Now With You, Now Without is a walk with the author into a new future to be faced with strength, grace and optimism.
Now With You, Now Without is published by Grand Harbor Press, and will be available in paperback, ebook and MP3 CD editions on October 31, 2017.