I believe in many forms of medicine: plant, Western, ayervedic. But the best medicine is art. It takes me right down inside the deepest parts of myself. It allows my subconscious to surface.
After I battled breast cancer in my thirties, I created a musical play about the subject, “club termina.” I had lost a girlfriend to breast cancer, and I needed to speak for my friend who could no longer speak for herself. Sigrid watched as my cancer got “cured.” As I was given a better prognosis, Sigrid’s got more dire. I was caught between relief and a terrible, deep sorrow. I had no place to go that I wasn’t surrounded by grief and confusion after Sigrid died.
That’s when I made this piece of theatre. I needed this medicine—because we had both expected to survive, and that’s not what happened. “club termina” would give me the chance to bring my lost friend back onstage for two hours a night.
I wrote and produced the play, which takes place in a nightclub in the clouds where all the characters—each of whom struggled with breast cancer—are in transition from a life they just ended, and the existence they will move on to. Putting a show together is always difficult, and always filled with excitement and nerves. But this experience was magnified because of how close the material was to my heart.
We started the piece in semi-darkness, with ambient sounds of an operating room as my character—the one woman who would survive—was going under anaesthesia for surgery. The audience suddenly heard heart monitors, surgery machines, and somebody counting down: 100, 99, 98, 97. Then the lights started shining, and we were in our nightclub.
There was a bar and four women, all dead but very alive. The bar kept everybody lubed for the hard stuff in the stories. More important than the booze, a lot of the most difficult parts got told through ribald musical numbers. The music was a big part of why this nightclub, filled with women who had died of breast cancer, was a healing experience. I’m not a composer, but writing the songs in this play allowed me to tell the very sad stories I wanted to bring to life without becoming lost in my own grief one more time.
You can say a lot about breast cancer in song that would otherwise be strange as dialogue. I wrote songs about begging for more time to live, seeing a dead body on the floor and realizing it was your own. These were rock ‘n’ roll, nothing operatic or morbid. Writing them, and then hearing them sung to music during rehearsal, lifted some of my own grief by helping me to explore what I’d been through and seek out light to mark the end of that tunnel.
The “Itty Bitty Titty Blues” described a young woman’s desire to develop breasts, so she can feel like a woman. In the chorus I wrote lyrics to say something I had felt myself: My breasts have betrayed me / Yeah, they’ve broken my heart. All cancer is crazy and scary, of course—but for me, cancer in my breast felt like incredible cosmic betrayal. I liked my breasts! We had enjoyed things together!
The play ended with the character who had been in surgery coming back from her subconscious mind. She’s me, remember. And she is alone in the nightclub. The other women have moved on.
She is, as she says in the closing song, “One Last Time,” condemned to live all by myself.
When I wrote “club termina,” I felt like the world was full of strangers. I felt like nobody could understand what it felt like to be so young and have a doctor talk to you about survival. I felt like no one could possibly fathom the depth of what I had lost when Sigrid died and I survived.
In my last phone call with Sigrid, when she was tired of fighting for her life and losing, I asked how her cats were. She told me they didn’t matter anymore.
We closed the show with that song because that was what I wanted from my friend: One last time.