AWWWWW! yelled the audience of 200 drunk french vacationers. On a beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, I lay face down, wearing nothing but sparkly lavender tights. Spotlights shone on me brightly in the tropical night air. My big nose poked through the thick cords of the trapeze rig net and I rested for a few moments. I had missed the trapeze catch and disappointed the inebriated, loud crowd. (Sadly there are no photos of this event.)
Trish went after me, and being better by a lot, caught her set split trick gracefully. She raised her arms and smiled, showgirl like. She was a born circus performer. Eventually I got my turn again, and the crowd cheered wildly when I made the catch.
The year was 2003. Trisha, 38 at the time, Emma 3, Lily unborn, and I, 33, had gone for the first time to a Club Med.
Club Med’s main allure was child care. We, exhausted young parents, thought we would lay around the beach, get some sun and maybe do some scuba diving.
The diving turned out to be terrible, but we all did flying trapeze from 4-6pm each day and really enjoyed it. Despite the big ‘show’ at the end, I left it behind in Punta Cana when we departed, thinking it a vacationer’s lark.
The start of a long journey
Back home, Trish raved about her trapeze experience to anyone that would listen. She searched for a local trapeze school. The closest was based in Baltimore harbor and had just opened. For several years after that, she would skip work once a month, drive up there and fly. She found joy in it.
Trish always had a thing for swinging and heights. In her 20’s she did bungee dancing in an experimental dance company in Northern California. She got more serious with flying in 2009 when the trapeze school moved down to Washington D.C. and she could go almost weekly. When we had less money, she would sacrifice anything, including eating and movies and clothes, to get to the rig and fly.
Trish, Trapeze and TSNY
After the 2010 cancer, flying became a metaphor for cancer survival. Right before she started chemotherapy, she performed in a show at the school, dressed like a circus performer.
The school instructors made pink bands for everyone to wear, served pink cupcakes and dedicated the show to Trish. Here is a video the girls recorded that night wishing their mom good luck.
Months later, after the chemotherapy, the reconstruction surgery from her double mastectomy threatened to remove the primary muscles she needed to perform trapeze – her latissimus dorsi. She had to make an agonizing choice between her sexual identity (reconstructed boobs) and her athletic identity (trapeze). She chose reconstructed boobs, hoping she could still fly after some physical therapy.
But she was so relieved when the doctor was able to do the surgery without removing those muscles. She again had high hopes for a full life of trapeze after recovery.
Getting back on that rig for the first time lifted her spirits, and made her trust more than any doctor’s diagnosis that she was free of cancer.
But of course she wasn’t. The cancer metastasized in Spring of 2012. Her last trip up the ladder was May 28, 2012. And of course she didn’t know that was her last at the time. We thought she might still have years left.
After our trip to Africa, Trish became increasingly paralyzed from the rapidly progressing cancer. No matter how much pain or suffering she endured, the two beacons of hope she held in her mind were flying once again on the trapeze rig, and swimming with whale sharks.
I think until the very last day, she never gave up the confidence that a miracle would happen, and she would somehow get back up that ladder and swing.
One last time to the rig
In mid September, as she lay on the hospital bed in our house, I called the trapeze school and asked if we could book a final private class. Brian eagerly agreed to fit it into their busy schedule. Trish would only watch, but she really wanted to see her closest instructors, Meghan, Mandy, Scout and Brian; trapeze school friends Ingrid and Carrie, and Emma and Lily, fly one last time. Laura joined us to photograph it. (And did a brilliant job. Many of these are her photographs)
Emotionally, Trish was a very private person. But I could see the little movements of her face that signaled swirls of pain and joy and and anger and confusion and pride as she watched us that day.
Trapeze was her identity and it had been stripped from her before death, like an insult. But she could also see her daughters experience the exhilaration and fun of a pursuit that might last them a lifetime.
And I played the jester role, as I had all summer, to keep the mood light. I put on the Bad Ballarino tutu, took off my shirt, and made Scout catch me that way.
The look on his face as I left the bar at him was priceless. Trish laughed, and rolled her eyes, at her husband, the clown.
As the class ended, Laura took some group pictures. Everybody cried. We got Trish into the car and back home. It was her last trip outside the house. She died a week later.
Trish’s final words to the instructors
Trish loved the staff at the school, unconditionally. She identified with you all, unusual characters, that ran away to the circus for one (often difficult) reason or another. And in her special understated way she wanted you to be tough, and challenge yourself, and love yourself.
But she wouldn’t dream of telling you that, because it would be too patronizing. She simply had faith in you that you would be strong. And you could see that in her eyes.
Trish wasn’t grandiloquent. Her final words as she got in the car to leave were a teary ‘Thank you’. She was so grateful for the years of support and love you showed her as she was healthy and sick. You will all, individually, and collectively as the Washington D.C. TSNY, be remembered forever by her spirit.
The trapeze metaphor
After her death, I noticed that Trish had a bunch of unused prepaid trapeze classes, and so I figured the girls and I would use them up.
I had no idea how important the school, and trapeze would become to me and my girls in the aftermath of tragedy. Up there on the platform, the kids and I were closer to Trish, and grieving in a constructive way. Each swing was a little memorial to her.
Danniel, Marissa, Kiersten, Meghan, Mandy, Laura, Brian, Carey, Aaron you were present so often for the kids and me in the weeks and months after her passing. We love you for that.
There are a few of you at the trapeze that have played a special role during this incredibly difficult time.
Thank you, Mandy. Like my girls, you share the tragic experience of losing your young mom to cancer. The emotional support you have offered me and the girls and your incredible contribution to Trish’s memorial are gifts we could never return. I can’ tell you how many people said your speech at the memorial was so moving. I have it here for those that couldn’t be there. It’s a tremendous testament to Trish, Trapeze and TSNY.
Mandy, I know, that in loving us like that, you experienced your mom’s love a little. She took care of you while you took care of my girls and me.
Laura, you know I don’t believe in god. But I believe in angels now. You found me when I needed a friend the most. We barely knew each other but you knew what I was going through, having suffered the tragic death of your brother a few years ago. You were comforting and giving in a way that helped me get on my feet and remember who I was as a person – that I wasn’t simply a tragic figure in grief. I realized I had my own personality and character that needed expression too.
I forever love and respect you for that, in a way that you may never know or understand. You are an angel. Don’t let the small stuff get in the way of that gigantic heart of yours. And thank you for reminding me that I am, at heart a vegan. (Read her blog, bitches, I said so.)
Meghan, you and Trish share some of the same soul. She always felt a special connection with you. You remind me of her, in the most comforting way. You make me laugh every time you snarl at a soft-rock song on the radio, work through intense pain and get impatient with the bullshit. You have been a source of comfort to me the same way Trish would have been – quiet and tough.
A few months after Trish passed, Mandy, very perceptively and gently, asked me “so when does this cease to be a metaphor for you?”. The question made my heart stop for a second because I realized for the first time that I was no longer doing it as entirely as a metaphor.
I wasn’t going to trapeze to grieve and be in her memory. I was going to train. “Chin up! Core tighter!, Legs straight! Toes pointed! more arch!” It was evolving from a memorial to an identity. And the three of us will keep doing it. We are all doing weekly training now. We train because we love it. It represents life, not death.
Emma is even taking the metro by herself to get there. (She is a competent, brave girl just like her mom.) Lily is splitting her time between flying and the Spanish Web. Our girls are looking forward to circus camp there this summer. (The girls and I are grateful of the tremendously generous gift the school gave us.)
As I write this, I’m on a plane from London, in my little window seat, tears streaming down my face and neck. My head is spinning and my hands and face are tingling from the accumulated carbon dioxide in my blood, a result of gradual hyperventilation. My nose runs and eyes are blurry and I’m choking on my cries, trying not to alarm the person sitting next to me.
If you’ve ever grieved, really grieved, you’ll know what this feels like. It’s a complete loss of control. And it still happens six months later, less for my own loss, more because Trish had such a short time for a person who was so good at finding joy in life. And I grieve for my kids, who will never ever replace the archetype of mom. They will suffer that forever.
Planes are the place I think of Trish. I just can’t shake her memory here. I’ve cried on every flight since she died, partly because we traveled together so much. But also because I’m high in the air where Trish belonged, flying.
Despite the sadness, the lesson Trish left for all of us is to find joy in life and do it, like she did at the trapeze school. It added so much to her short life. So climb that ladder and swing, people.
You don’t have nearly as much time left as you think. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but if there were one, she would be swinging, high up on the board, knees bent, chin up, ready for the call. Hep!