How My Daughter Made Sure I Would Go On Living

Before her death from cancer, she gave me the gift of purpose

You might say our styles differed, but we loved each other fiercely. She wrote fiction and poetry; I write prose and sometimes poetry tumbles out on the backside of the grocery list. She slaved over and perfected everything. In my haste, I make mistakes.

When my daughter, poet/writer Laura Morefield, was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer in 2008, all I wanted was to die so I wouldn’t have to live through her illness. By the time of her death three years later, she had written the most extraordinary body of new work — funny, celebratory and grateful poems.

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Two weeks before she died at age 50, Laura charged me to cull, collect, edit and publish her post-diagnosis work. “It’s my best,” she said, and I agreed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that assignment was Laura’s ultimate act of love: She knew the project would keep me from falling into the abyss without her physical presence. Life since that first year, spent putting together Laura’s poetry chapbook (a collection of poetry often centered on a similar theme), The Warrior’s Stance, has been filled with additional assignments. Let me tell you how that came about.

Just as I finished the chapbook and thought that was all, Laura, whom I’d been looking for in dreams, came to me dressed as Groucho Marx (so like her to play dress up) and asked, out of the corner of Groucho’s mouth: “What next, Miss Mommy?”

Creating A Conversation With My Daughter

The “what next” being unspecified, I chose to write a dialogue that gave me a voice, too. The Laura in this piece, represented in recalled conversations and by her poems, was like having a ferocious and fearless tiger by the tail. This assignment was titled The Warriors’ Duet and related the shock of Laura’s diagnosis, our stunned disbelief that someone so healthy and vital could be so afflicted and her indefatigable battle against terrible odds.

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The initial readers, Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza of Ion Theatre, said, “My God, Charlene, it’s a play! Let’s read it.” Then Katherine Harroff, young founder of Circle Circle dot dot theatre, produced and directed the work in the inaugural 2013 San Diego Fringe Festival, where it played to stunned and inspired audiences. The entire run sold out, so Katherine remounted the show at Liberty Station’s White Box Theatre. Encouraged, I entered The Warriors’ Duet in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Festival, where it was a semi-finalist in 2014.

My next task was totally self-assigned, a joint memoir titled Warriors: The Books We Never Wrote. People who saw Laura and me together on our yearly pre-diagnosis trips were amazed that two stubborn women, similarly gifted, had achieved such camaraderie and closeness. When we said, “It was not always so,” they wanted us to write a book recounting how we healed the breach. We laughed. We were too busy, and besides, we didn’t know how we did it other than travel, music and theater and through deep, sometimes painful, and always honest dialogue. Included in the memoir is a reconstruction of the book Laura hoped to write but never completed, Golf on Monday, Chemo on Tuesday. My section is titled What Next, Miss Mommy?

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Conquering Grief Through Purpose

I am an 80-year-old grieving mother, but I have much to do. Getting the play produced again, selling Laura’s books (the entire purchase price benefits Colon Cancer Alliance) and finding an agent for the memoir ought to keep me busy the rest of my life.

But there is more: Two months prior to her death, Laura, who never sent out her poems because she hated rejection, mailed her “10 favorite poems” to composer Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick). Heggie had set my poems for a decade. Laura knew and loved him, and moreover, she knew that he would do right by her new works.

I’ll be there at New York’s Zankel Recital Hall (part of Carnegie Hall) Feb. 17 and again at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall May 15-17 for the world premiere of Heggie’s THE WORK AT HAND: Symphonic Songs, based on poetry of Laura Morefield. The work, to be performed at Zankel Hall by mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and cellist Anne Martindale-Williams, and in May joined by the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Michael Francis, is co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

I might say “Rats!” but I’m the proudest mother in the world to announce that my competitive daughter beat me to Carnegie Hall.

“What next?” indeed, Miss Laura.

Charlene Baldridge is a freelance arts writer and an emerita member of San Diego Theatre Critics’ Circle. She writes for regional and national publications and has three blogs, including one for her project, The Warriors’ Duet, on the ongoing relationship between warriors, mother and daughter.

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