My career had yet to begin. I was closing in on a paying gig as a writer but it hadn’t happened yet. If you’re in my situation – no prior job, no WGA membership, no credits – you need to do what I did. Seek out fellow young, hungry producers or directors, work out stories with them as a team, pitch them to anyone who will listen.
I was fortunate to find a friend and champion in David Bombyk, a smart, ambitious, charming guy from Michigan. He was a year younger than me. We laughed a lot when we got together to gossip or break stories. I can’t remember who slipped my spec script to David – Martha Coolidge? Kip Ohman? David and I partnered on several spec pitches and a couple of bona-fide (paying!) development deals but – alas – none of our joint efforts survived to see the light of day.
David made it big without me when he found, developed and co-produced “Witness” in 1985. The same year he produced “Explorers” and in 1986 he produced “The Hitcher” with his friend Kip Ohman.
Kip succumbed to AIDS in 1987 at age 41. I met David for lunch a few months later. He looked haunted and thin; he talked about how hard it was sorting through and dispersing Kip’s belongings after he was gone.
It was the last time I saw or spoke to David. He died on January 20, 1989, age 36. His mother got in touch with me shortly after the funeral and sent me a beautiful ceramic vase David wanted me to have. He collected them.
She was charged with the excruciating task of sorting through and dispersing her son’s possessions. I can’t imagine how painful that must have been.
AIDS took a lot of good people, especially in the 80s. For me, David Bombyk was one of the great ones. Unfailingly kind, loyal to his friends and brilliant when it came to developing scripts. Witness has long been a staple in screenwriting classes to illustrate a near-perfect script. I see David’s fingerprints on it. I don’t know if I’d have a writing career at all if David hadn’t believed in me before anyone else did. I’ll always be grateful; I’ll miss him and his laughter forever.
I wish I’d written more about this. Easter was my Lutheran pastor father’s favorite holiday, probably because it’s symbolic of redemption and forgiveness – the most important tenets of Christianity as he practiced and preached it.
I would’ve written more if I’d known this would be his last Easter but – as ridiculous as it sounds – I never believed there’d be a “last” anything for him. Even as he edged into his eighties and eventually turned 89, a world without him was inconceivable – which meant he’d live forever.
I wasn’t alone in assigning him immortality. On one family holiday, he distributed copies of his self-published autobiography to his children and grandchildren. Driving home with Sam and Alex, I told them to treasure their copies because “he won’t always be here.”
“No!” Sam said, genuinely horrified by this possibility. I knew exactly where she came from. There could never be a “last” anything for him, we needed him too much. So how could I have guessed this was his last Easter? And if somehow, I’d known in advance – what would I do differently?
A lot of things although I know he’d absolve me. After one memorable late night dinner, when my cousin Wayne, his wife and mother were in town and we stayed up until midnight talking, the subject of death came up. As a pastor, my father saw more grieving people than most. He said it’s universal – every single person who loses someone they love has regret about things said and done or unsaid and undone. Everyone.
Then he said – very clearly – “When I’m gone, don’t feel guilty about anything you could’ve said or done. It’s all right, exactly as it should be.”
So why do I feel guilty anyway? Not only about him – about my mother, who followed him less than a year later, and Yolanda, who left us a few months ago. I owed all of them more than I gave. I didn’t see the “last time” coming even when it stared me in the face. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I told myself I had plenty of time – I could say “I love you” or do that favor “later”. When it was more convenient.
But time ran out. It’s too late to write down what we talked about on my father’s last Easter. It’s easy to say, “No regrets.” It’s hard to let go of them when I miss him so much. What I wouldn’t give for one more chance to talk to him.
Jake’s unexpected death in his fifties was a shocking wake-up call for a lot of people. He died in the car as Anne was driving him to the ER after a cold/flu took a turn for the worst.
I met him in 1978 when I wrote the Success show at Lirol. It might have been a passing acquaintance except that – sheer coincidence – Jake lived less than a mile away. Consequently, he was invited and attended all our parties and quickly became friends with all our other friends. Jake had an extraordinarily large circle of friends. He met his future wife Anne at our parties- she went on a few river-rafting trips with him too – but they remained friends for years before they married and had a son.
As the photos reveal, Jake was a party animal, an extrovert’s extrovert, our very own “wild and crazy” guy. His stamina was legendary because he could party all night and still perform successfully in his demanding job as assistant director/ line-producer (more about this career in my 3/16 blog). He loved adventure, fishing and the outdoors. He seemed fearless.
He was surprisingly well-read and literate, with a special interest in history, which most people might not guess based on his gregarious outdoors persona. All the years I knew him, he had a loyal dog at his side. I remember the Doberman best. Jake named him “Lucky” because Jake saved him from a junkyard existence.
Although Jake was extraordinarily unlucky to have his life cut so short, he packed an awful lot into the years he had. There just weren’t enough – not for him, not for the people who knew him. Anne’s fears at the memorial were understandable – I would’ve felt the same way if I found myself a widow in a sea of couples – but also unfounded. Both she and Jake are unforgettable.
I didn’t know Don Martin well – certainly not as well as Jon Crane, his best friend, or Christine Vanderbilt, his girlfriend. All of us lived together in the Law House at USC for six months in ’75. After John and I moved into our own apartment, Law House friends like Don and Anne Kurrasch came by to play bridge.
John and Don shared a semi-friendly rivalry – their regard and respect for each other was secondary to their burning desire to win – to be more successful. John could beat Don (and two or three additional opponents) at chess playing blindfolded, which impressed the hell out of me. Don’s academics were stronger. John had an edge; his parents were supporting him for three years of law school (this was renegotiated when we got married but that’s a story for another time.)
Don’s family couldn’t afford to fund his education. Fiercely ambitious, competitive and determined, Don worked his butt off and paid his own freight. Given his struggle to reach Law School, Don wasn’t about to slack off and blow it. Don stayed home and studied when everybody else chugged pitchers of Margaritas at El Cholo’s – although, to be fair, Don was a charter member of the “How many Tommy Burgers can you eat?” Club. He had the self-discipline to defer gratification.
At the time of my diary entry, our circle of friends took Don’s recovery as a given – until Don died. His iron will was useless. Everything he learned about law went to waste. Would he have chosen differently if he could’ve glimpsed the future? Of course. What about his circle of friends, John and myself included? Did his death inspire us to live better today?
From what I can tell, not much. We convince ourselves that what happened to Don won’t happen to us. We’ve got all the time in the world.
Yolanda moved in with us in 1984. She loved Chris, Sam and Alex with everything she had – especially Sam, although she never admitted favoritism. The tip-off? She always referred to Sam as “the princess.” Alex was Ahni and Chris was Goose because that’s how the princess pronounced their names. Yolanda balked at calling us John and Kathleen; we were forever Mr. John and Mrs. Kathleen.
She confided her cancer to the princess, who stepped up. She drove Yolanda to all of her doctor’s appointments, sat by Yolanda through every chemo, visited every day when Yolanda was hospitalized. The rest of us pitched in but the princess earned Yolanda’s second nickname for her – my angel.
On Friday February 10, Yolanda’s doctor estimated she’d live thirty days. She had thirty hours. When she drew her last breath at 1:30 AM, we all understood it was for the best. Her pain was excruciating, cancer terminal, death inevitable. No surprises. We knew where this road led.
Except we didn’t, not really. We’re in shock. All day I shushed our dogs so they wouldn’t awaken Yolanda – as if anything could. Three fat cats looked increasingly concerned – where’s our Fancy Feast? ‘Where’s the human who opens cans?
The light is on in Yolanda’s room. For a second, I think she’s there. I haven’t been in her room alone in years. Everywhere, pictures of our children – framed on her bureau, taped to the wall, stacked in photo albums. She carried their photos in her wallet. She loved it when strangers thought they were hers. Was I jealous, did I worry she’d spirit them off to El Salvador? No. If anything, it endeared her to me. If I couldn’t be there, who better than someone who loved them like they were her own?
On a sheet of paper tacked above her bed she drew a cross and scrawled, “Please god please god no cancer. Please god no cancer.” A purple spiral notebook was scribbled with recipes. She saved expired coupons for things she didn’t buy. A few of her clothes trailed price tags, waiting to be worn. Whoever clears my room when I’m dead will find comparable artifacts.
The photos we leave behind show what we did. Fragments of incomplete projects remind us of all left undone, bits and pieces of Yolanda. I should have known her better, more deeply, sooner. I don’t know her sister’s name or phone number in El Salvador and I don’t speak Spanish even if I did.
So what did I know about Yolanda? She made the LA Times her own personal illustrated blog. She drew devil’s horns on basketball players she hated, basically everyone but LeBron and the Clippers. She trapped a rattler outside our door by slamming a concrete slab down on its head. (I would’ve been dead from heart attack.) She didn’t drink, smoke or party. Her modesty did not permit her to wear shorts, swimwear or sleeveless blouses – ever.
She loved our forays to Costco – “the big store” – but recently I was too busy to take her until she was too weak to go. There are so many things I meant to say – should have said – but didn’t. I hope she knew – I think she knew – how much her kindness meant, how her patience and loyalty changed our lives, how many others – my sisters, parents and friends – grew to love her like we did and always will. How much we’ll miss her smile, her red coat, her curly hair, her commentary on current events (you thought she’d stop at sports?) in the LA Times, all part and parcel of the boundless heart and infinite capacity for love we knew as Yolanda Hernandez.
We’ll meet again, Yolanda.
(I’m not trying to make a political point about immigration. However, since Yolanda was an illegal immigrant when I hired her, here are the facts. She always worked, either caring for the elderly or children. She neither asked for nor received welfare. She became a US citizen in the early 90s. For the next twenty years plus, she paid taxes like everyone else. In other words, she writes checks to our government without cashing checks from them. Our country gave her something more valuable than food stamps – a chance at a better life. The way I see it, she was lucky to get into our great nation – but not as lucky as we were to get her into our family.)
My father rarely talked about himself; he preferred listening. He had a gift for asking questions people wanted to answer (maybe all clergymen or psychology students master this technique).
Invariably, when a boy came calling he found himself seated opposite my father, awaiting my entrance. My dad charmed them all. “Your father’s a great guy!” they’d enthuse – surprised, because he was so much more amiable – so much easier to talk to – than they assumed a religious figure might be.
None of them realized how skillfully he drew them out, inspiring them to excited monologues while he revealed nothing. I like to think I learned from his example, although self-publishing my diary entries argues against it. If this isn’t talking about myself, what is?
He didn’t dwell on himself at home either, preferring to draw my sisters and me out about our feelings and interests. On those rare occasions when he did, I wrote his stories down in my diary. This one had a profound effect on me.
I miss his calm wisdom and understanding more than I can express. Publishing my memories of him is as close as I can come to letting him live again.
I dimly recall a Louis CK routine about how getting a pet is like putting down a deposit on heartbreak. (His version is funnier.) Odds are high you will suffer through the loss of several pets in your lifetime if you’re an animal lover like me. Losing Nicky was a heartbreaker.
Nicky was a golden retriever mix, around 4, when we took him home from the Glendale Humane Society. I can’t imagine why anyone would give him up. His nickname was Nick Mellow. He used to plunk his rear on the sofa like a person while keeping his paws on the floor. I’ve never seen another dog do that.
Then he stopped eating and we began the round of vets. Their best guess was that something or someone poisoned him (apparently antifreeze tastes sweet and is fatal to dogs). He kept getting worse. Finally, we hospitalized him in West Los Angeles, hoping a definitive diagnosis might lead to a cure. He spent two full weeks there.
Every day, either John or I drove 45 minutes each way to visit Nicky. We coaxed him to eat with chicken strips or treats and hoped our presence reassured him he’d be coming home. After a series of tests and surgeries, racking up a bill of almost 2K (not a bad deal today, but a fortune in 1985), they sent him home on November 12, no clearer about what the problem was than when he was admitted. They said maybe he’d get better. The next day he crawled down our stairs to be with us again. Less than 8 hours later he died.
As a result of this experience, I promised myself I’d never take extreme measures to save another pet. The tests and surgery only caused him more pain. Nicky was miserable caged away from us in a hospital; we should’ve kept him comfortable at home. If we hoped by spending a lot of money, we’d increase his odds of survival – we were wrong. In retrospect, we should have accepted the inevitable and made his last two weeks at home as comfortable as possible.
As terrifying as this ordeal had been, it dwindled to nothing compared to the horror those doomed in the towers endured. Could there be a more excruciating choice than whether it was better to burn or jump?
As I sat there, rigid and awake, it occurred to me that perhaps my hysteria wasn’t about dead or dying rodents at all. Maybe I was sublimating my helplessness in the face of the darkness, chaos, uncertainty and mortality of our world.
If I’m not strong enough to walk past a mouse, what chance do I have against Al Quida?
On a less philosophical, more mundane level, I was cursed with hideous hair styles in colors I didn’t know I loathed until it was too late to change them. I struggled to recognize myself in the mirror; I couldn’t spot my image in photos. Even when someone pointed me out, I couldn’t accept that weird lady was me.
If this was fiction, I’d deliver a more satisfying, uplifting arc. To dissolve the curse and live happily ever after, I needed to I summon my inner resources and look that lifeless mouse in its unseeing beady eyes.
That’s not what happened. At the crack of dawn, I raced to the local McDonald’s and used their restroom. Waiting for my McMuffin, I called my super to dispose of the carcass (reminding him that under no circumstances could I see its corpse in the trash). He was like, whatever, crazy lady.
I can’t avoid death. I can’t even avoid mice. The best I can do is minimize my chances of encountering either one. So far, so good.
On days when nothing much happened to me – and there were many – I recorded stories about my family, about my roommate’s family, people I didn’t even know, if they intrigued me. Looking back, these got-to-fill-up-the-page entries are frequently the most interesting because – since I’m not in the story – I’ve forgotten most of the details.
Why not just leave the page blank? Please. Do you really think someone who kept a daily diary from 1964 until the present could tolerate a blank page? Maybe it’s a tad obsessive-compulsive but for me the effort has been more than worth it. Why?
I never would’ve remembered my father’s anecdotes about the old folks home if I hadn’t written them down. When I reread this diary entry last year, it was particularly poignant because my father was near the end of his life, about to be admitted to the Lutheran old folks home where he once preached. How did it happen so fast? Would anyone remember, if it wasn’t written down? Why does it matter?
For one thing, how else would I know what it’s like to preach to elderly patients with dementia? More importantly, revisiting his stories brought his spirit back to life for a minute. I could hear his voice, his gentle laugh. That old lady had it right. He was so beautiful.
Three days before she died, I received a letter from Natalie. Uncharacteristically, I wrote back immediately. I don’t remember what I said but at least I wrote back. Her brother found my letter, unopened, on the kitchen counter, when he arrived in Ukiah after she was dead. My name was on the return address. That’s how he knew where to contact me and let me know she was gone.
Fall, 1961. “A family with a daughter your age is joining our church,” my father says. Natalie is short and round with blue eyes and blonde hair in a Prince Valiant cut. I’m the fourth grade giraffe, tall and skinny with wavy brown hair. She’s an outdoor-oriented extrovert, a born entertainer. I’m a sullen sedentary introvert longing for center stage despite my lack of talent.
Obviously, we’re destined to be best friends.
January, 1967. Natalie and I are sophomores at different high schools. We claim to be cousins and people believe us despite how little we have in common. Natalie’s in Choir and Pep Squad. She’s secretary of the Future Teacher’s Club and wins a speaking role in the school play. The Beatles reign on my stereo while she remains loyal to the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.We graduate from our respective high schools in 1969. She and her future first husband Bobby are voted Cutest Couple and featured on a full page in Fremont’s yearbook. I leave Wilcox as anonymously as I served my time. She goes north to college, first Pacific Lutheran in Washington and then Chico State. I head south to UCLA. Natalie majors in PE and Education, I choose Film Writing. We get together briefly every summer but during the school year we forge new friendships.
Natalie and Bobby divorce. The next time I hear from her, she’s engaged to the man of her dreams. She doesn’t ask me to be a bridesmaid in either of her weddings. The outdoor ceremony takes place on a blistering August day at the Ukiah ranch where they live
Summer, 1988. Natalie, her husband and their daughter spend two days with my family on their way home from Disneyland. Natalie’s jumpy, a restless bundle of uneven edges and darting eyes, nothing like the laughing Natalie I remember from childhood. She smells the same, a summer collage of rose-scented soap, saltwater or tears, sunblock, healthy sweat and new mown grass. She tries to hide the small scaly patches engraved on the skin on back of her hands and elbows. She isn’t any smaller, but in some profound way she is fading before my eyes.
Not long after, she gets divorced again. In the spring of 1994, Natalie’s mother – in many ways her anchor – dies. Natalie spirals down, then goes into freefall.
While at work as a kindergarten teacher, she passes out, drunk, in the ladies room. She’s fired from her dream job. Next, she loses her driver’s license. After that she loses custody of her daughter.
Fall, 1995. I hate it when she calls late at night. She rambles, repeats herself and slurs her words. I make excuses to get off the phone.
March 26, 1996. I open Natalie’s last letter. She never learned to type so it’s handwritten like all the others. The round, precise cursive lines of blue ink on the first page remind me of the tight, controlled perfection of her record acts.
Her writing deteriorated with every line, crazily sloping out of control by the time she signed her name. I wanted to believe her but I didn’t. Even so, I never thought alcohol would kill her at 44.
I hope she knew I loved her. I know you can’t save people who don’t want to be saved but I wish I’d tried harder. Whenever her name is mentioned, I still tell people she was my cousin. She’s buried next to her mother in Massachusetts instead of Ukiah. I’ve never been to Massachusetts but one of these days I’ll go.