Accompanying Report: The Understudy – Stepping Into Another’s Role, by Michele Weldon
After her diagnosis and struggle with recurrence of cancer, Melissa found that her professional role as a veterinarian needed to change. Medical leave from her work prompted a soul-searching and redefining of her identity. “Who you are is not defined by what you do,” Melissa says.
The end of life requires major and minor adjustments on all levels. Following the death of her sister-in-law from a brain tumor, Michele Weldon found a new role for herself as a mentor and role model for her beloved nieces.
If there is enough time before the curtain rises, the announcement is typed and slipped inside the Playbill. A crisply polite usher hands it to you as you navigate your path to your theater seat, carefully noting the row letters and seat numbers, nimbly sliding past other patrons, stepping over purses, coats and angled shoes.
If the need is sudden—an accident or illness befalling the star—the seated audience hears through the speakers a brisk announcement by a disembodied voice naming the understudy for this performance moments before the curtain rises.
No matter how stellar the production, this was not what was expected; it is not ideal. The role was cast with another actor who was well-prepared, perfect for the part, one who had planned to stay with the show for the entire run.
But an understudy is needed for every scripted part of a performance. Every player must have an understudy.
The understudy is a competent actor who knows the lines and can walk through the scenes, hopefully delivering a performance that is—if not perfect—at least good enough. As the cliché reminds us, the show must go on.
Stepping into the familial role vacated by a relative or close friend who has passed is never optimal, but can also be positive. The wish is it is not detrimental to the family that survives. It is a role that should be performed gingerly and with reverence for the person who has passed, acknowledging this is a new version of the same part performed by someone lovingly standing in; not replacing the star, just stepping in to fill the shoes. And it can be planned in advance of any illness or tragedy; or it can be reactive to a death unexpected.
Two days after Christmas, 2004, my brother Paul called from his second home in Florida. Immediately I knew something was wrong, his voice sounded as if he were speaking through helium.
“Bernie passed.” He could not say the word, “died.”
My mind raced; I pictured a car accident, a drowning, something freakish, sudden and inexplicable. I asked rapid-fire questions. He answered slowly in a muffled, high-pitched voice unlike any I had ever heard from him.
What he knew then was that his wife of 19 years, Bernadette, had died in her sleep. The five of them– —son Matt, and daughters Marirose and Treacy—had arrived in Florida the night before from Chicago. Bernie went to bed with a terrible headache. Paul left very early in the morning to stock up on food for the week.
What was learned in the autopsy was she died of an undiagnosed brain tumor, six centimeters in size. Paul had slept in another room because Bernie did not feel well, and he knew he would get up early and did not want to disturb her. He came home to ambulances and police cars in the driveway; his children had called 911.
All I knew was that I was in Chicago and I wanted to help; Paul is my closest in age of five siblings and my closest friend. I loved his wife; we had been friends since she and Paul started dating in the mid-80s. I was a bridesmaid in their wedding—we wore blush satin dresses with scalloped hems.
Now was the time to step in and help as much as I could and as much as I was needed. As the mother of three sons, I felt exquisitely lucky to pamper their daughters with girlish gifts and time together since each was small. I loved their son and viewed him as a predictor of my own sons’ development, relishing each lesson of impish energy to calmly inform my notion of boyhood.
But what I could do now was provide more than little girl purses and nail polish, baseball hats and videotapes of their favorite movies. I could show the love for my brother and his late wife by showing up when asked, volunteering often and creating a safe place to mourn and celebrate the mother they lost far too soon. My brother does not need my help financially, but he needs me for the softer moments a mother would offer. And shortly after Bernadette’s death, my role stepping in fully if something happens to Paul was formalized legally.
For the past eight years, I make sure I am available to my niece, Marirose, who was 9 when her mother died. I attend her concerts and we go out for Girl Outings. I can help her sister, Treacy, now 25, with her career choices and advice on everything from appetizers for a dinner party to hair styles for a wedding. For years, I attended the mother-daughter weekends at her sorority at the University of Iowa, along with one of her mother’s sisters. Their son, Matthew, has grown into a young man who looks to his father more than ever before; I support that closeness at every turn. Mostly, I listen.
For all three of them, I want to be the understudy who is always there when needed—and who is also wanted. I know how to play the part of a parent; I have three sons of my own. I am learning how to play some parts of the script their mother wrote. My brother has never needed my financial help, but he knows I will not say no to any request he has for me. He has always done the same for me.
Being a willing understudy for the part left unfilled with the death of a relative or a friend requires humility, compassion and the understanding that no one ever intended for the lead to be unable to take the stage. You are playing a role no one ever wanted to have recast. When you step into the role, you are not hoping for applause, but working for the performance to continue smoothly and praying that your presence does not detract from the legacy of the original star.