I had heard about her years before I knew her. I married her college roommate and she told me of stories of sitting in bed crying over the way the world was run. They discussed the tragedies of college life. They ruminated about the terrors of what the future might hold. I also was told how beautiful and soulful she was. She was the perfect roommate and friend for my wife at that time in her life.
Mary Beth was an Italian beauty who life seemed waiting to christen her with delight. She had been a star of her high school choir and theater. Now she was going to a little Ivy college in Pennsylvania. She had tried out for the theater and choir and was rejected. This had crushed her. She was not quite sure what to do with this new thing called rejection. She was accustomed to adulation. So she packed up the dreams of singing and performing in a bag marked yesterday.
She met her husband in college. They had an idyllic life. He worked for a corporation that provided well for their family. She had two daughters she adored. They were the zest of her life. She was happy for many years. But on occasion the shadows of her rejection would haunt her. Not just the rejection but the fact she had let this rejection shape her. Her daughters grew and needed her less for the everyday functions of life. Her husband’s career continued to prosper. Age had made her re-evaluate the rejections that life offered. She had always been known for telling it like it was. She had a fiery personality. But there was a part of her that felt it was all show. She was directed in life by external happenings and not the take charge person she presented. One day at the grocery store she became aware that she wanted to sing. She was more afraid of what that might mean for her life than the actual doing of it. She could see the road ahead and it would cause a disruption in everything she currently cherished. She only hope that somehow the family she loved would not reject her.
So she began her new adventure in life. She sang and played in bars and clubs anywhere that would take her. She was learning more and more how to play her guitar and write music. Writing was not something she knew was inside her. But the words and music poured forth. But she was a married woman of over twenty years. She was so behind in the life that called her. The friends were different. The hours were different. Then one day she woke up and knew in fairness to her husband and being honest to herself she would have to leave. The journey called her to places he could not follow. But the girls would be heartbroken and confused. The happy family was now changing and would never be again. She only hoped they would not reject her and somehow understand that to live who she was was the biggest gift she could give them. But as she had doubted herself when she had been rejected so she now knew life was all a question. Was she doing the right thing? Was it fair to her daughters? Or Husband? She was older now and lived with the doubt of her life. She now knew she was free to make choices for herself that did not necessarily satisfy others and even sometimes did not satisfy herself. But choosing to not be chained by rejection or expectations was the freedom she desired.
Her career started with raves from the critics but the initial new voice soon became the older to be criticized voice. She realized she was behind decades in her career. Whatever magical thinking she may have had were quickly doused with cold water. But she was on a journey now that rose above criticism. But always the questions were there.
This was the spitfire who was now in my living room letting me listen to her ‘dress rehearsal’ for a gig she had in a couple of nights. She had decided to see her old roommate and thus had made our home her base for the next few weeks as she performed in neighboring states. She was at the top of her craft of playing and writing her music. She was a performer with charm and a beautiful voice. But a dark cloud hung over her visit. She was battling cancer and was expected to die in the next year. Her body seemed to be rejecting her. She was thinner than the pictures I had always seen of her. Her battle with this last rejection was well on the way. The evening had been magical as she had shared her music. I felt now that I had heard her perform I knew much about her. The cynic, the lover of life, the no holds barred woman she was came out in her music.
The next morning she awoke and her lip had swollen to ten times their normal size. I made a poorly timed joke about she needed to leave off the collagen. This was not helpful. I then tried my expertise with impaired immune systems by saying that this was all a part of dealing with cancer. She looked at me horrified. My bedside manner was lacking that morning. She was concerned she would be unable to perform looking like this. There was also the underlying motif to her words what all did cancer have in store for her. I agreed to take her to Immediate Med to avoid the crowded emergency rooms.
On the drive there I saw both her fears and strength revealed. She wanted to perform as long as she could. She did not care what cancer had planned. She could handle her body’s rejection. But her music was her life force. She knew her daughters who were now in college would be fine. ‘They were strong and had survived her’, she grinned. It was an allergy the doctor said.
On the ride home from the doctor she laughed at how scared she had been this morning. I could hear in her voice she would not let cancer rule her life. She was going to live and play until she could not. Her body was not rejecting her but was calling her to somewhere new. The fire had been relit.
She would live for a year after her visit. She performed in one of the local clubs by her home even in the final stages. She looked anorexic, her hair was thinning, she did not have the energy she once had but she still had something to share. My wife was able to see her perform in New York for the first and last time. Mary Beth wanted her to see that she was not crying in their dorm bed anymore. She was living her questions and doubts and had become quite the woman.
She died in her apartment, by her bedside were her sister, high school friend, and college roommate. Her daughters who lived in Germany were on their way. When I heard she had died I was blessed with the memory of how she would have loved to be remembered singing in my living room vulnerable but strong, sharing her music free and alive.
Links to a memorial for her and one of her songs: