You’ve probably heard of Amour, the Oscar-nominated French-language film. It’s gotten ecstatic reviews for its heart-wrenching depiction of an elderly couple confronting illness and mortality.
But what happens when you lose a loved one who’s in the prime of her life? How do you cope with that?
Another lifetime ago (well, almost — the day before Thanksgiving, 1989, to be exact), I met Elizabeth Walker, a small, freckle-faced redhead who burned for life more intensely than anybody I’ve ever met. She was passionate, fiercely loyal and filled with energy to be wherever the place to be was. After a few stops and starts, we became a couple about a month after we first met.
It wasn’t a smooth ride. We were both in our mid-20s, and neither of us had had a lot of experience in dating. “Volatile” is the term that comes to mind.
Although a political animal like myself, she was much more visceral in describing her frustrations with the system. She had intense feelings about animal rights, the environment, and the dominance of white males in the economic and sociological food chain. Unfortunately, as I was the closest guy around, some of that anger toward men would sometimes redound to me. Sometimes I was cool enough to handle it, sometimes I wasn’t.
We had trouble being completely candid with each other, and that, combined with our mutual insecurities, sometimes led to jealousy.
One Saturday night I was at a party when we spoke after midnight. She wanted to meet me there, but I told her it was pretty late, that there was no reason to come across town at that point. We’ll meet up tomorrow morning and watch the 49ers game on television, I said.
But when she showed up the next morning with the Sunday paper in one arm and a carton of eggs to make breakfast in the other, she was definitely upset that we hadn’t hooked up. All I remember for sure is that suddenly that carton of eggs was flying at my head.
But then we made up.
It went on like that for two years. At one point I broke off the relationship and began dating another woman. But after a few weeks I realized that I missed Elizabeth, and wrote her a letter (this was 1991, pre-Internet, kids) asking her to take me back.
Ultimately, after two years plus, we mutually decided to end our relationship. I thought she was cool with that, but found out otherwise at a rock concert a few months later at a South of Market nightclub in San Francisco.
Long story short, I was with another woman, and Elizabeth did not handle it well. After the concert, she drove to my house with a friend, threw loose change at my second-story window and chanted insults, then etched an interesting design into my Toyota Corolla with a key. Incensed, I considered calling the cops the next day. But we ended up reconciling as friends a few days later — and I had to admit I felt a perverse attraction to somebody who was so melodramatically attracted to me.
Always ambitious, in 1994 Elizabeth and her best friend and roommate, Alice Barden, moved from San Francisco to New York City, where they were going to try to make it — Alice as an actress, and Elizabeth, well, she didn’t have a clear path yet. But she was ready to make her mark.
Elizabeth returned a few years later to San Francisco, where she would end up working for several Internet companies. We would occasionally see each other, but our friendship evolved to a much higher level in 2001 after I moved to Tampa to work at WMNF. That year she moved back to New York City, and we ended up talking on the phone a lot and visiting: I saw her four times in Manhattan in 2001 and 2002.
Elizabeth was a changed person in NYC. She was going to therapy, working on herself. She was less angry, more accepting of people. And in late 2002 she was finally working at a place that she loved and respected, Amnesty International, one of the premier human rights organizations in the country.
Although we talked about seeing each other in the SF Bay area during the Christmas holidays in 2002, that didn’t happen, but it wasn’t a big deal. It was the only time of the year when I could hang out with my best friends, whereas I’d seen Elizabeth twice already that year and would undoubtedly meet up with her back east.
Except I would never see her again.
In early January of 2003, her mother Peggy called me one night with shocking news. Elizabeth was dying. She had been diagnosed late in 2002 with ovarian cancer. (Working at Amnesty, she’d finally gotten health insurance, and her ailment was apparently diagnosed during a routine physical.)
I felt dumb that I hadn’t known before, but apparently Elizabeth hadn’t been telling many of her friends. When Peggy called me, she said Elizabeth’s cancer was spreading to her brain.
I wanted to go back out West to visit her immediately, but A) I had just helped create a new nightly broadcast on WMNF, and B) Elizabeth had a ton of friends in New York who wanted to visit her. Peggy was parceling out the dates when various people could come. Long story short, she died on March 25, 2003 at the age of 39 — before I ever got to see her and say a final goodbye.
I’ll never forget when I got that news. Pam Iorio was on her way to crushing Frank Sanchez to become the next mayor of Tampa, but I stayed home that night, in general shock, talking to a couple of Elizabeth’s friends on the West Coast.
I remember saying that night that I owed it to Elizabeth to keep her spirit and memory alive, whichever way I could.
Elizabeth’s friend Alice Barden went on to do just that.
Alice, as I mentioned before, is an actress. She’s had most of her success in the theater, both in the SF Bay Area in and in NYC, but never quite had that breakthrough that all actors strive for.
Not waiting for the perfect opportunity to arrive, Alive created one for herself. In 2008 she unveiled a play, co-written by herself and Elizabeth, called Alice and Elizabeth’s One Woman Show that played in various workshops to great reviews in New York City, Los Angeles and then in San Francisco, where I saw a performance that first year. It’s been described as two former party girls on the cusp of 40 trying to make it in the Big Apple.
It’s funny, illuminating, and, for me, profoundly moving.
The journey continues later this month. Alice and Elizabeth’s One Woman Show will be streamed live on Thurs., Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. EST, as part of the WiredArts Fest, billed as the first live-streamed performing arts festival.
After her passing, Elizabeth’s father told the San Francisco Bay Guardian, “I always knew she lived on a different plane than most humans.”
Thanks to Alice’s one-woman show, audiences can live on that plane for a little while, too.