Originally published HERE
I’m writing this to recall the first anniversary of Mariana’s passing. It’s good get past all these milestones: the first this; the first that without her. But, trust me: I realize that there will always be a hole in my heart. I just need to try to make some nice decorations around that hole to make it presentable.
There was a lot of discussion during the 2017 NBA Playoffs about one of the best players on the Boston Celtics. His sister had recently died in an accident, and sports pundits opined about whether or not he should feel an obligation to continue to play while dealing with his grief, or if he would want to play (regardless of whether or not he felt an obligation).
This topic resonated with me, and here is why:
My wonderful wife Mariana passed away on February 25th, 2017. She was in rough shape for the last few months of her life, and I had to make decisions about how much or how little I would (and/or could) continue to work during this time. I wanted to be with her as much as possible, but economics dictated that I work at least part of the time. This was tricky, and I felt that there were no “right” or “wrong” answers to this issue.
Backing up a few months, a new Chicago jazz venue called Winter’s opened its doors in November of 2016, and its owner Scott Stegman was kind enough to offer me some gigs during its opening months. But I had already accepted a gig in the pit band for a show that was having a 10-week run, so I had to respectfully decline his offer in the hopes that there’d be future opportunities. I was right, and Scott offered me a bunch of gigs, the first of which was on (yes, you guessed it) 2/25/17.
As that date approached, I was clearing my schedule as Mariana’s condition worsened. But I was so looking forward to my Winter’s debut, and they were wonderfully kind about letting me make a last-minute decision. They had someone lined to take my place if I felt unable to make it.
Waking up early in the morning of February 25, I looked across the room at Mariana in her bed, and, based on her stillness, my suspicions were true: she had come to the end of her journey. I’ll spare the details, but it was a surreal (but inevitable) end to a journey of my own. And also for the journeys of our boys Charlie and Luke. We said our goodbyes and let the new reality sink in as best as we were able.
Some time that afternoon, I realized that I needed to decide about the Winter’s gig. I reflected on the questions that arose: Should I stay home and be with Luke, Charlie and close friends and family? Or, if I chose to play the gig, would it be disrespectful of Mariana’s memory so soon after her passing? And would I be able to focus (and stay awake) after this long, stressful and exhausting day?
I decided to go for it: the bandstand has long been a sanctuary for me, and the chance to make music with some of my favorite players (Andy Baker, Larry Kohut and Phil Gratteau) beckoned with the possibility of taking my mind off of what had just occurred. I’m glad that I did: making a joyful noise surrounded by friends, family and random music-lovers was a balm for my soul. That, plus a couple of cocktails.
From my extremely unreliable perspective (I recall feeling like I had dropped some LSD), the music felt much like it would have on any other night. Perhaps a bit more heartfelt. I keep meaning to find an opportune moment to ask Andy, Larry or Phil how they recall that evening.
Is there a moral to this story? I don’t know. Maybe it’s to trust your instincts. And let the chips fall where they may.
On the occasion of what would have been our 30th anniversary (7/19/17), I’ve reconstructed (from some scrawled-out notes) the remarks I gave at Mariana’s memorial in March, 2017, held at Skrine Chops in Forest Park, IL.
MARIANA WHITAKER RENCE KAHN (2/9/55-2/25/17)
I can’t decide if this is a really great reason or a really crappy reason for a party. A little of each, I suppose.
Let me get the cliches out of the way first: Death is part of Life. This is something that slowly dawned on me over the course of 400 Lion King shows, staring at the back of Bob Sutter’s head. The Circle Of Life is not just a song; a few weeks before Mariana died, our great-nephew was born. Welcome, Leo Kahn Bortman; you will pick up where others leave off.
Mariana was very private, very proud, and, like a lioness, fiercely protective of her family. Very selfless, too; she wouldn’t even tell people her preferred pronunciation of her name! I heard Ma-ri-AN-na, Ma-ri-AHN-na, Mah-ri-AHN-na, you name it. She really and truly didn’t care. Not surprisingly, I took a kind of wimpy approach, with a lazy third syllable: Ma-ri-EN-na. Her selflessness continued right up to the end: she wasn’t completely comfortable hearing all of the wonderful cards and letters that were sent during those final days, but I read them all to her.
We met in early 1986, right after the Bears won the Super Bowl. I hired her, actually: she was auditioning for a couple of shows for which I was the Music Director. One of the shows was “Baby”, and she was trying for the part of a gym teacher who’s trying to get pregnant. In her (not required) attempt to spin a basketball on her finger, it careened across the room, and she went chasing after it, giggling all the way. She pretty much had me there. She was great in the show, and sang like an angel. I remember that there was one particular song that had one particular note she sang, and it melted my heart each and every time she sang it.
Hanging out early in our courtship, she asked about my parents. I told her that my Dad had died in a plane crash when I was 16, thinking (in my 28 year-old male immaturity), “That’s going to floor her, and she’ll be putty in my hands.” Instead, she said, “That’s really interesting that we have that in common: my mom died in an accident, too. When I was 12, my parents and I drove to Las Vegas from LA, and my mom told me to sit in the front because I usually had to sit in the back. A drunk driver was being chased by the cops, and he rear-ended us. My mom was killed, and my dad and I walked away from the crash basically uninjured.” Now, you can read whatever you want into that amazing story; stuff about fate and whether Mariana was meant to be on this earth or not, but my immediate reaction (again, the 28 year-old male) was something like, “Okay, that blows my story out of the water. Mariana for the win.”
We moved in together in Brooklyn after Mariana had stayed on to do more shows at the theater (it was in Cohoes; a weird little town outside of Albany). She had reclaimed her old job a Sarabeth’s Kitchen: an upscale breakfast/lunch place in the Upper East and Upper West Sides. Coming home after her shifts, Mariana would regale me with tales of celebrities and actors that she’d waited on: Yoko Ono, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Bill Murray, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, John McEnroe, etc. She thought some of them were really nice: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Norman Fell. Others, not so much: Peter Boyle, Peter Max.
Our relationship developed to the point where I thought it was time to introduce her to my family, most of whom were in Chicago. I took the occasion of my Grandma Goldie’s 90th birthday to come in. For weeks leading up to it, Mariana wanted to know who would be there and and what details I could provide about them. It was like she was using the same discipline she’d use to learn a role. When we got to my sister’s house ahead of most everyone else, she looked out the living room window at my approaching relatives, saying “That must be Uncle Stanley”, or “Is that Aunt Carol?” Her prep work payed off handsomely, as everyone took an instant and permanent liking to Mariana, even though she was a shiksah.
We got married. She got pregnant. During her first pregnancy, Mariana’s old college buddy David Greenspan contacted her to see if she wanted to do some scene work. It seemed that Joe Papp was interested in possibly having David do some directing at the Public Theater and wanted to see some of his work presented. David chose to stage a scene from Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, and, thinking a bit outside the box, cast Mariana as Richard. Papp loved it, and loved her, saying, “I just had a marvelous idea: Denzel Washington is playing Richard in the park this summer. How would you like to be his understudy?” Mariana thanked him, but pointed out that she was four months pregnant, and that the timing would be a bit dicey. But, talk about your non-traditional casting: How would you like to see a blonde, pregnant Richard III?
As this pregnancy came to its wonderful conclusion, the Fetus Who Would Be Called Charlie was taking his sweet time in making his appearance (a characteristic that has remained unchanged). Mariana was in labor for a couple of days, and then pushed for four and a half hours in trying to get that damned Charlie to come out. The midwife knew a little something about birthing babies (she’d been at it for about 25 years) and said that she’d never had anyone push for that long. Growing concerned, she called in a doctor. He was apprised of the situation and asked Mariana if she was able to go on, to which she of course said yes. The doctor said “Four and a half hours? What are you, a Marine or something?” She was allowed to go on for a bit longer, and the midwife warned us that Charlie (or Molly….we didn’t know the gender) might not look so good after being squished in the birth canal for so long. The midwife and I were yelling into Mariana’s crotch: “Come on out of there, Charlie or Molly!” Charlie emerged shortly thereafter, looking nonchalant, un-squished and beautiful enough to have his picture slapped onto a jar of Gerber’s.
In 1993, now with TWO baby boys (hello, Luke), I had the bright idea to move back home (MY home, anyway) to Chicago. Mariana had spent most of her life very close to either the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, and I tried to sell Chicago by showing her Lake Michigan. “Look! You can’t even see across it.” She wasn’t impressed. “It doesn’t smell the same.” Nevertheless, she was agreeable to the relocation, and we arrived in Oak Park on 10/5/93. I could tell that she had fully adopted her new home when she gave up her Fangirl crush on Yankee hunk Dave Winfield and transferred it to Cub hunk Andre Dawson.
Oak Park was a great place to raise our family, and we made a lot of incredible friends. At Percy Julian Middle School, we discovered an after school theater program called CAST that Charlie and Luke enjoyed. Mariana started as a volunteer there, but soon ended up as their year-round Costume Designer. It rekindled her passion for theater, and her skills as a seamstress and great eye for fabric and color (along with a fierce work ethic) made her the perfect person for the job. She loved how CAST attracted kids who didn’t really fit in elsewhere, and how their confidence and maturity would blossom while there. Although greatly discerning and appreciative of the talented kids (of whom there were many), Mariana really liked the fact that any kid who wanted to be in a CAST show was assured of being put into one; everyone made the cut. She would also occasionally wear her own costumes, taking on roles that called for a Token Adult. As the Costumer, she literally touched hundreds of kids (but not in a creepy Dennis Hastert way), and we were overwhelmed by all of the loving notes that we got from ex-CAST members.
In May of 2016, her CAST boss Bill McGlynn decided to put on a show that would feature many of the adults from the program (with no middle schoolers involved). He chose “A Trip To Bountiful” and talked Mariana into taking on the daunting lead role. She threw herself into the project, and, as anyone who saw her can attest, did a phenomenal job. It’s really amazing, because she hadn’t done anything this substantial on stage for about 30 years, and it was also the onset of her health issues from which she wouldn’t recover. She would come home and tell me about what was going on inside her body while onstage doing a role that would kick the ass of a healthy person. It made me think of the OB Dr. from 1990: “What are you? A Marine?”
As she got sicker, Mariana slept more and more. We were lying in bed one night, and she hadn’t said a word for several hours. I was channel-surfing, and landed on the James Corden show; he was interviewing Anna Kendrick, who was talking through her nose at 100 miles per hour. I thought that Mariana was asleep, but apparently not: she said (in full voice), “She’s gonna need to shut her mouth.”
She always told me that her favorite song was “Stella By Starlight”. Interesting choice: it’s somewhat obscure (to non-jazzers), harmonically dense and melodically meandering. Interesting choice. Our favorite version was recorded by Miles Davis a few hours before I was born in 1958. Listen to it and think of Mariana.
Luke, thanks for being part of this journey every single day. You’re going to have a lot of great jobs ahead of you, but none more important than the one you did in tending to Mom. Charlie, I know first-hand how hard it is when your Mom is dying and you live 1,000 miles away. Thanks for all the back and forth you did. She was so proud of you guys and loved being your Mom more than anything else in the world.
One the last last things that she said about her situation was, “You know, my whole body is breaking down, but my heart didn’t get the memo. I feel it thumping away like nothing is wrong. It’s like I have the heart of an elephant.” That heart is what gave Mariana ten years after her first diagnosis. We’re glad for the extra gift that her heart provided us.
If I told you that Mariana was fairly pain-free towards the end, then I may have fibbed a little. But she stubbornly resisted painkillers (marijuana was her very good friend, however) and didn’t want people making a fuss.
On Friday, 2/24/17, she was still breathing (slowly, but with regularity) when I drifted off to sleep in the other bed. When I woke up early Saturday morning, she was not. But her face showed peace and calm, and, I’ve got to say: a sense of wonder that was contained in an angelic Mona Lisa smile.
Thanks to all of you, especially those who traveled a distance to be here. I will miss Mariana.
Let’s all hoist a bourbon. It was her favorite. Make mine a double, please.
Here is a link to a slide show of some great Mariana photos:
I’ve always been aware of how certain words or phrases start showing up, and then they become hip and fashionable. They eventually become so mainstream that you hear them said on sitcoms, or by six year-olds, or by eighty-six year-olds, and then you realize that it’s no longer hip and fashionable to say them.
A few years ago, I started noticing this cute little exchange more and more frequently:
Person One: (Says something intended for humorous effect)
Person Two: “Ah, I see what you did there.”
I couldn’t figure out why this started to annoy me each time I heard it. It was more than mere over-usage. Maybe it was the smug subtext in which Person Two seems to be implying , “I acknowledge and understand your attempt at humor, but it’s not worthy of my responding with an actual laugh.”
Then I started thinking, “Hey, Person Two….what’s your damned problem? Is your face going to crack if you allow yourself to laugh?” If you’ve been guilty of this maneuver, I forgive you.
So now I’m going to take the plunge by attempting to say a few not-funny things about humor and laughter, despite E. B. White’s warning that “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
What I’m saying is this: Allow yourself to laugh. Try to make others laugh. Granted, the world is fraught with a huge stack of serious things, but the only chance we have of navigating it while retaining any trace of sanity is to be open to the humor in any situation. In a group, a shared laugh is an incredible bonding experience. And, in terms of self-preservation, I’m convinced that a good laugh can provide restorative and curative properties. As a matter of fact, Norman Cousins of The Saturday Review wrote an entire book about how he was rescued from Death’s Door mainly by watching things like Marx Brothers movies, convinced that the idea of a “Laughing Cure” has true merit.
There a lot of things that are important to me: family, career, etc. But, equally important is my mission to induce at least a few guffaws, chuckles or snorts out of the people that I encounter each day. That, to me, is a small but vital victory. It’s gratifying to have brought a ray of happiness into someone’s day. no matter how fleeting.
I find the sound of other people laughing to be therapeutic, too, even if I’m not directly involved in their exchange. For that reason, from time to time I listen to this recording of Mike Nichols and Elaine May cracking each other up in the recording studio:
You see, I find the sound of their laughter a wonderful thing to encounter, even if I wasn’t to think that its cause is all that funny (which I do).
So, for the good of our species, don’t pass up a chance to make someone laugh. You’ll both feel better. And, just as important, never resist rewarding yourself with a chortle when someone has made the effort to provoke it. Trust me, this is a good thing.