Part One: Steve Carell
Whom I met at the hospital during my husband’s last stay. Well, “met” is stretching it a little. I realize that when celebrities or public figures actually have to conduct the business of their lives, by you know, leaving the privacy of their homes and doing stuff, the interface becomes a little awkward. There isn’t any good language for the exchanges that happen. I can’t honestly say we were introduced. I didn’t bump into him. We spoke, but not really with each other.
What happened was that I lost control of my previously reliable command of the English language right in front of him.
Now let me just backtrack very quickly here to explain that me acting like a starstruck ninny should not have happened at all. I grew up in a town in West L.A. that was full of people in entertainment, who worked on both sides of the camera. I babysat for Academy Award winners. I went to school with the children of very famous and respected actors, writers, directors, art directors, and studio executives. I was somewhat clueless about what an unusual way it was to grow up because it was just part of the landscape of the town. My mother tells the story of going for a walk one day, and getting a big “hug” from this enormous English sheepdog who had jumped up on her and put his paws on her shoulders, and when the owner immediately started scolding him, she looked over because the guy sounded exactly like Walter Matthau…and it was Walter Matthau. That stuff happened on a pretty regular basis. I eventually became interested in theater, so I also got used to the famous parents of my cohorts attending our performances and festivals.
It wasn’t that we were blasé about it exactly, but at the time my town was considered a place in L.A. where celebs could live with a bit more normality. It was a shorts-and-flip-flops alternative to the black tie, big deal zip codes of Bel Air or Beverly Hills. There was a kind of Be Cool Code for Celebrities we all subscribed to: “I am gonna pretend that you, Very Famous Person A, B, or C, is just like everyone else, and you are gonna pretend that I don’t know who you are”. In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that the one time I did come close to breaking the Code was when Tom Hayden canvassed my house and I answered the door. I acted like a fifteen-year-old girl. (In my defense, I was at the time an actual fifteen-year-old girl). The point is, if Assemblyman Hayden could destroy any nonchalance on my part, then I probably already naturally leaned away from finding “the biz” truly captivating, and was instead truly harboring latent peacenik, we’re-all-the-same-underneath tendencies from very early on.
Turns out that even though I ended up studying theater in college far away from home, a bunch of people I was friends with there would also go on to be very famous. And interestingly, this pattern has repeated itself in my life and work. People distinguishable by fame or wealth or notoriety circulate through from time to time but I only experience them separately from their celebrity status. They show up in ways that emphasize they’re just people.
Plus, in my almost thirty years of doing intuitive work, I have met with folks with every representation of skin color, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, from every political persuasion or socio-economic category, from every continent on the globe. I have read for people as young as 11 and as old as 96. So over the years, I have lost the ability to see or distinguish people from one another based on their outward characteristics. Or perhaps I never had it. It’s not that worldly considerations escape me entirely. We are here, after all, to experience what is here and now. But when I’m looking at someone intuitively, I experience them independently of the way their incarnation exists in the physical world. I see their soul as the reality of who they are.
So. There I was, shadowing my husband’s surgeon as she did her rounds, and when I say shadowing, by that I mean I was stalking her, basically. I was keeping within two feet of her when she wasn’t in a patient room, because there was an urgent issue I needed to discuss with her face-to-face. If you have ever had to experience the Sisyphean task of keeping lines of communication open between 3–5 doctors, several PA’s, nurses, social workers, etc., you know why I was verging on invading her personal space. I was there because shit needed to get done. Fast.
I had been trying to wait patiently and was probably checking my email on my phone while she finished up, so it wouldn’t look like I was as foot-tappingly antsy as I really was….when a couple of people walked up to her, and started a conversation with her. No, no no no no no! My head started to explode. Come on! I looked up, frustrated beyond belief and saw…..Steve Carell talking to my husband’s surgeon.
I was so sleep deprived that I thought, “Susan you are going home early today and you are going to walk into the house, put your keys down, and put yourself to bed. Because that guy looks just like Steve Carell”.
But then the Steve Carell impostor opened his mouth and started talking and that voice, that wonderful, amazing voice, came flying into my ears and I thought, “Holy Crap. That is Steve Carell.”
And because I was stalking my husband’s surgeon, I was standing so close to them that pretending he wasn’t, you know, himself, would not work. We made up a sort of group standing there-the surgeon, her PA, me, Steve Carell, and a man who I would meet later and who was in fact, his dad. Steve Carell, like many in that hospital that day including all the other non-Be Cool Code-violating, non-gaping, well functioning human beings, was evidently aware enough of unspoken social norms to acknowledge his interjection had been a little like cutting in line a bit, so he made eye contact with me, nodded and smiled. And I took that opportunity to acknowledge him, by nodding back and saying this gem of an opener:
“And I think I’m gonna faint”.
Stunning, I know.
I still tear up a little when I remember it.
My brain, that had been preparing for an entirely different, very serious conversation, not only had failed to turn on a dime, but had done the mental equivalent of tripping and falling on its butt.
Oh, how it might have gone! I could have offered up brilliance, kindness, and refinement all wrapped up in a witty quip! Or a casual yet honest acknowledgment of the converging worlds he lives in! Even a smile and “I’m a huge fan,” would probably have worked okay. Maybe I could have just kept it simple and gone with the warm smile/shut up option. But no.
“IT DIDN’T EVEN MAKE GRAMMATICAL SENSE”, I YELLED AT MYSELF LATER, AS I DROVE HOME AND TRIED TO STOP THINKING IN CAPITAL LETTERS.
Even without traffic it was a long drive and I was completely and totally sick of myself by the time I got home. I tried to nap. Then I tried to meditate. Then I tried distracting myself by playing bubble popping games on my iPad and binge-watching Ken Burn’s The Civil War.
Finally, I just laid in bed and let the feelings come.
I felt desperately alone. I felt sad. I felt vulnerable. My husband was dying, but no one would use those words with him. And it was picking up speed while he was stuck in the hospital as procedure after procedure after procedure was being done to him, but he still couldn’t eat, he still couldn’t drink, he was in a horribly uncomfortable bed that was too short, (while every day they promised they’d find an extension, and didn’t). There was no defined goal for the procedures except to create the slim possibility that he would be able to swallow for a brief period of time before the cancer shut that down again. He was withering away before my eyes, and since each procedure required fasting before anesthesia, he was getting no nutrition at all, and they refused to start a feeding tube. I kept trying to get him some face time with the palliative care doctors, or transferred to a local hospital where he could see our kids more, and my suggestions were basically treated as uninformed.
Yet in fact, I was getting intuition after intuition after intuition daily, although up against the world-class medical team I still struggled with feeling like they needed to be vetted. I spent a lot of time and energy arguing with myself. And the doctors weren’t exactly trained to welcome my input. So I kept quiet. I tried to share them, very delicately, with my husband, but he was buffered from the horror of what was happening to him by heavy denial and would get very upset with me.
Then as I laid there in bed obsessing about all of this, I had a moment of grace. It was a sudden lightbulb! moment (emphasis intended, use Russian accent). In the middle of my fussing and thrashing about how silly I had acted, a break in those deep dark clouds of thought appeared and I realized that I actually did not care.
Which was very interesting. I had never ever questioned my loyalty to passionate caring. I passionately cared about a lot — that’s what I did, who I was! While the light whisper of an alternative blew across the high volume of my very dramatic tantrum, I equally lightly and for the first time questioned my deep attachment to what Steve Carell thought of me. Or even to what I thought of me. And then the house of cards my distress had built came crashing down. I suddenly knew, with complete conviction, that even if, by the remotest chance, the secret bullshit my ego had whispered to me on the way home was true, that the Universe is so not kind, and I was unexceptionally bland and a dolt, even if that meant in some future cosmic convergence of events I’d be totally screwed out of some missed opportunity to be suave, even if the ten-second long encounter with Steve Carell had been a failed audition for worthiness, prosperity, creative expression, and charm…..I simply just did not give two shits.
I took a deep breath and sighed. “Oh well,” I said out loud, and giggled a little.
And then I spent a long, long time thinking about all the happy hours I’d spentlaughing because of Steve Carell. I thought about how, when my husband had gotten laid off, someone had lent us the dvd’s of the British version of The Office, and how it had literally restored him to himself. And how we’d been a little snotty and skeptical about the American version, but once we started watching we loved it just as much, maybe more. I thought about watching The Daily Show when he was a correspondent. The 40-year old Virgin. Crazy Stupid Love. Date Night. Horton. Little Miss Sunshine. Get Smart. Despicable Me with my kids.
God that man could make me laugh.
I also realized that the reason I loved Steve Carell as a comic actor, the reason he made me laugh so damn hard, was because of the exact thing that I myself had done right in front of him. His characters were vulnerable and awkward and struggling, typically saying the exact wrong thing at the wrong time. Trying too hard. Trying to impress and totally failing.
Yet he exposed the silliness of trying to be cool. He gave us permission to laugh at the ridiculousness of caring about something as useless as polish.
Oh well, indeed.
The next morning I knew what I had to do. I spoke to one of the nurses caring for my husband. “HEPA rules aside, what if you had met a certain famous person yesterday in the hallway, right?” She nodded. “And what if you had made a complete and total idiot of yourself in front of that person….and wanted to apologize in the form of a note? Could you provide any help with regard to that?” She smiled at me and said, “Well, without naming any names, I think I can get it to where it needs to go”.
A half-hour later, a version of this letter was safely on its way:
Dear Mr. Carell,
I wanted to apologize for blurting out, “And I think I’m going to faint,” when I was in the hallway yesterday. It was just so completely unexpected for me to look up and see you. Nevertheless, you clearly have important things of your own to attend to here, and you didn’t need to deal with my clumsy reaction. Totally uncool, and I’m sorry.
My husband is here after having found out that his stomach cancer has spread pretty much everywhere and is incurable — they are trying to stabilize him in advance of whatever treatment may come next.
As I reflected on seeing you, it brought back so many good memories of the literally thousands of belly laughs my family and I have had watching your work. It also reminded me that my intention to teach my kids (11, 13) that it’s okay to be happy even though this horrible thing has happened, and that it’s okay to laugh and cry in the same day, is a worthy one. And to keep at it.
Sincerely, A Big Ol’ Geek, And a Big Fan,
And that was that. Very satisfying. Come to find out, what I actually passionately cared about was sharing my gratitude with him. I appreciated all the risks he’d taken to become an actor, and a good one at that, plus all the risks he’d taken to make each performance honest, and I wanted him to know that it had created some good in the world. For us specifically. There was some good in our lives because of him.
The next day, I was taking some time to catch up on paperwork in the cramped little waiting room at the end of the ward when a nice gentleman wandered in with a paperback book and sat down to read. A few minutes passed and we struck up a conversation, like the kind you’d have with the person you’re sitting next to on an airplane. When all of a sudden I realized that omg this is his dad.
I had to know. Did he get the letter?? I dropped some hints and Mr. Carell did not disappoint. “You’re the person who wrote that letter?” he asked me. I nodded. “Well I gave it to Steven yesterday. He read it right away and looked up at me, and said, ‘What a really lovely letter.’ He was really touched by it.”
A day after that, Steve Carell knocked on my husband’s door, but he was in too much pain to visit with him. Later however, two huge bouquets of flowers were delivered to his room specifically for me.
And that time I really did think I was going to faint.Back to all posts