Read What falls away : a memoir Online

Authors: 1945- Mia Farrow

Tags: #Farrow, Mia, 1945-, #Motion picture actors and actresses

What falls away : a memoir

BOOK: What falls away : a memoir
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For my mother

and my children

who have stood hy me,

and to those grandchildren and

great-grandchildren -whom I may never meet

For their encouragement, company and faith along the way, I am grateful to my children, Mike Nichols, William Goldman, Maria Roach-Carpenter, Casey Pascal, Leonard Gershe, Barbara Daitch, Tom Stoppard, Stephen Sondheim, Rose and Bill Styron, Peter Wooster, Garson Kanin, Prudence Farrow, Maureen O'Sullivan, James Gushing, Patrick Farrow, Johnny Farrow, John Tavener, Tisa Farrow, Felice Farrow, Sheila Mooney, Liza Minnelli, Carly Simon, William Beslow, Mavis Smith, Judy Hollister, Judy Hofflund, Nancy Sinatra, Quincy Jones, S. and J. Herman, Tracey Seaward, Nan Talese, Lynn Nesbit, Susan Kmsolving, Maureen Orth, and Rock Brynner.

I would also like to express my gratitude to Eileen Taylor, Yul Brynner, Marcel Hunter, Ruth Gordon, George Cukor, Salvador Dali, Mary O'Sullivan, John Farrow, and Michael Farrow.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow, I feel my fate in what I cannot fear, I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know? I hear my being dance from ear to ear. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you? God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there, And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree, but who can tell us how? The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair; I wake to sleep, and take my wakmg slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do To you and me; so take the lively air. And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know. What falls away is always. And is near. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go.

— Theodore Roethke, The Waking

Ghapt e r One

I was nine when my childhood ended. We had celebrated my birthday the day before, which was a Saturday, and it hadn't gone well. Healthy, noisy kids were all over my backyard, and I had a feelmg that had become familiar to me during those last weeks: that I was watchmg everything from a great distance. My mother had taken me to a number of doctors, but they could find no reason for the fatigue or the insomnia that now plagued me.

So on this day of my ninth birthday party I was used to being tired. That it hurt to move wasn't unusual either, and I was sitting on a low wall watching my friends playing ball down the driveway. When the ball smacked the bricks under my feet, everybody yelled. Come on kick it back, hurry up, and even though I clearly remember thinking, Don't, I pushed myself off the wall and a surprise pain, a bad one, shot through my legs, back, and neck as I dropped straight down onto the pavement. As my friends crowded around, I tried to laugh. I was morti-

fied. It was my birthday and I couldn't even get up. Then Eileen, our Irish cook, and Barbara or Lucille, I forget which nanny, carried me to bed, where I lay flat and quiet, listening to the party outside my window.

The next morning was Sunday, and missing Mass was a mortal sin in the fifties, but again I fell to the floor. Everything hurt. It was a bad sign when Dr. Shirley, our pediatrician, came into the nursery and didn't even smile. His daughter Becky went to school with me every day on the bus, but now he was showing me a big long needle, saying he was going to put it into my spine so he could get fluid and find out what's wrong with me, it's called a spinal tap. I never knew there was fluid in my spine. I felt like throwing

I had to curl into a ball so he could get inside my actual spine. My mother said she had to do something like this too, every time she went to have a baby—that's seven times. But I was nine, and I didn't want babies. I didn't want any of this. I considered Dr. Shirley among the most handsome of my parents' friends, so it was embarrassing being curled up in front of him with a needle in my spine. I didn't even like him seeing me in my undershirt, and I certainly didn't like to hear him breathing so loud and close. I shut my eyes tight; he was takmg forever and it really hurt. I went through the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins, all my times tables, and the planets, starting with Mercury. But the main thing I kept thinking was, I just hope I dont die.

Then Dr. Shirley took my fluid away and we had to wait. In the next room I could hear the drone of the Rosary. Beside my bed was a pretty miniature wooden chest with flowers and birds painted all over it. I kept my best stuff in the drawers: my First Communion prayer book with the pearl cover, some dolls' eyes, a piece of blue eggshell, almost all the parts from my first watch including the changeable colored bands that you could wear as bracelets, a parrot feather from Mexico, a real silver bullet, my dead turtle's

dried-up shell, a pen-and-pencil set that was too good to use, the thumbtack my brother Johnny had stuck m my foot when I was asleep, three Irish coins, a painted fan, a desiccated beetle, our collie Billy's tooth. I can't remember everything, but I picked out what I thought each of my brothers and sisters would want, dividing everythmg fair and square into six neat piles, eldest at the left . . . Then an ambulance's siren drowned out the prayers of my family.

Dr. Shirley walked in, not looking me in the eye, picked me up, and carried me out of the bedroom past my mother, who was cheerfully saying how she got to ride m ambulances whenever she had to go to the hospital to have babies. I heard him tell her, "Better burn all that," referring to the six piles, each with a note. There were no good-byes. Perhaps my brothers and sisters waved from the window, but I didn't look back.

My father, my mother, and I were headed to the public wards for contagious diseases at Los Angeles General Hospital. Inside the ambulance I squeezed my mother's hand while, through a rear window, tall, drab buildings skimmed past. I had never seen downtown Los Angeles before. It was nothing at all like Beverly Hills.

After entering the hospital, I was abruptly taken away from my parents, without explanation, and wheeled into an elevator. That was when I came apart. I screamed all the way upstairs to a big room where there were curtained cubicles and lots of children, all on gurneys, all screaming, just like me. A nurse wearing a mask over her nose and mouth hissed. Be quiet, you're only making things worse for everybody, but I was beyond terror. I threw up. Everything hurt —my back, neck, legs, arms, and chest; it even hurt to breathe.

Somewhere downstairs my parents were eventually informed that the second spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis of polio. I didn't see them for two days, until visiting time, which was twenty minutes, three times a week, behind the

glass window at the end of my room. By then, I was a different person.

The nurses and doctors dressed protectively and kept contact to a minimum. They always seemed busy, which of course they were, and some of them seemed frightened of their patients. Who could blame them? It was 1954, and polio was sweeping the country. Nobody knew how it was spread, so you didn't go to movies or swim in public pools because of germs. But we lived in Beverly Hills, and we had our own screening rooms, our own swimming pools. I used to worry about leprosy. I never thought I'd get polio.

It was supposed to be a children's ward, but the iron lungs that lined the halls must have contained some adults too. I could hear men's voices wheezing and shouting in the night. When my turn came to be in the iron lung, I kept calling out, I'm okay, I feel fine now, please. But nobody came, and you can't even scratch your own nose.

There were four beds in my ward, and a crib in which lay a little girl about two years old with brown curls, a quiet little thing who never made a sound, except for an occasional soft whimper, but I don't remember seeing her move. One night the lights went on and the curtains were puUed around her crib, and doctors and nurses all crowded into that corner in a hurry, talking loudly. I pulled the covers over my head and tried to pretend I was somewhere else, but that's not so easy when terrible voices fill the room. The next morning the crib was empty, and then I had to put that quiet little girl right out of my mind.

The nights were hardest. I started sleeping with my head under the covers all the time. Cathy's bed was across the room from mine. She was ten, and unlike me she never cried, even if it hurt, except for once when nobody came at visiting time. Cathy was lionhearted brave, and I tried my best to be like her.

Life in the hospital settled into a routine. As I improved, there were daily hot-pack treatments—loathsome—and


later water therapy, which was almost fun. When I was accidentally given a pair of boy's pajamas with fire engines on them, instead of those humiliating gowns that open at the back, I wore them for a week, and hid each day's clean nightgown under my mattress. This small thing gave me some sense of control and was a boost to my morale.

The days passed without much variance until one afternoon, with cold mashed potatoes still on my dinner tray, I hung on to the doctor's hands and, staring hard into his bored face, I stood trembling on my own two feet.

But that didn't mean I could go home. Every day they made me trv to do two more things. You stand and put your palms flat on top of the doctor's, and then you try to get up on your tiptoes without putting any weight on the doctor's hands. Well, one day I could do that—I did it, even though it still hurt. And I could touch my chin to my chest too, which was the other thing you had to do before you could go home, and which I couldn't even come close to doing at first. The doctor's expression never changed—but two days later my father came to take me home.

He carried me out to the car and there were a couple of photographers outside the hospital, who asked me to wave. I still have the clipping. It shows a thin, happy little girl in a bathrobe being carried by her relieved-looking father. My mother is not in the photograph. She didn't visit the hospital that last week, nor was she there when I came home. I was told she was in another hospital resting, and I didn't know what that meant. Why couldn't she rest at home? What special kind of rest did she need? My deepest, unutterable fear was that I had given her polio and contaminated my entire family and all my friends too. P When I returned home the house was being repainted, with workmen on ladders everywhere. Carpets had been torn up, the swimming pool drained, the lawn reseeded, furniture re-covered. Our dog, Billy (grandson of the real

Lassie but bringer of flies and germs), had been given away, and my brothers and sisters had moved to our beach house in Malibu. I wasn't allowed to see them or any other children for months, but against the orders of both sets of parents, Maria Roach, my fearless little friend and next-door neighbor, appeared at the window to chat and cheer me up. Maria and I have been close friends since earliest childhood; the bonus for me was that she lived next door.

While I was in bed I read Jane Eyre, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Black Beauty, Great Expectations, The Little Lame Prince, three volumes of Six O'clock Saints (biographies of the saints), and all the comic books my parents would buy.

In September I returned to school, but only for half days until after Christmas because I tired so quickly. Because of me, every guest at my ninth birthday party had to endure the first, experimental Salk vaccine, a series of three painful' injections. There had probably been frightened talk in homes throughout the fifth grade, because many of my classmates steered clear of me at first.

I cannot with any accuracy describe myself then. I was much as I am now: a pair of eyes on a stalk, a soul no different from most souls, forever trying to understand, needing to give and to love, not daring to hope for much (and hoping far too much), fiiU of uncertainties, and unable to protect myself from pain. If polio marked the end of my childhood, it also left me with embryonic survival skiUs. I discovered that whatever your losses, you can stiU for the most part choose your attitude. If you have your health, a little courage, and imagination, then you have the internal resources to build a new life, and maybe even a better one. I saw how fragile our life structure is and how easily you can be plucked from it, and thrown into the land of uncertainty, fear, pain, and death. I learned that you can't truly own anything, that true ownership comes only in the mo-

ment of giving. And I learned a little about friendship and how it can light the darkest abyss.

From a distant fragment somewhere in the mind of God I was shown a different earth, a giant orb howling out its long symphony of pain—all the sounds of mortal anguish, in the silence and indifference of the stars. So my childhood was extinguished, innocence and oblivion were replaced by a powerful and unforgettable knowing. And with knowledge comes responsibility . . .

These awarenesses have governed my life.

The gray mansion of my mother's childhood overlooks undulating land where the rivers meet. This was my earliest extended memory. I was three. It was summer m the west of Ireland.

But this is the remembrance of a storm. A storm that stopped my heart and split the night skies over Roscommon, spewing a fiiry of rain that pounded the old house where I sat upright in a strange bed.

Looking out the window beyond the walled gardens, jagged glimpses of the black peat bogs and churning rivers trembled in coruscating light. Trees bent low under wild winds that rushed down the chimneys and through the dark hallways. The old house groaned and sighed.

Through these sounds a man's voice startled me.

"What are you crying for—great big girl like you?" He stood in the doorway holding a candle. Warm light leaped crazily all over the white walls of the little room. He had a mustache—it was my first.

The hand not holding the candle was tucked into a black sling. And his face, beautiful in candlelight, was the saddest I had ever looked into.

"I want Mummy. I'm scared."

"Let her sleep," he said sorrowfully. "She's tired."


"Are you Jesus?" I wondered.

BOOK: What falls away : a memoir
2.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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