Irene’s Touch

I have felt the touch of Maria Irene Fornés in my life for nearly three decades. The force of her plays, her students, her writing exercises, and her legend has stealthily shaped my critical and creative sensibility in fundamental and sometimes astonishing ways. Even though I never studied or worked with her. Even though I neither directed nor acted in any of her plays. Even though I never met Maria Irene Fornés.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday, I visited Maria Irene Fornés in the long-term care facility where she now lives. For the last handful of years, I had been vaguely aware that Fornés was suffering Alzheimer’s but, over the last few months, I became more acutely conscious of her journey within the disease due to concerns articulated by her longtime friends, students and collaborators regarding the circumstances of her care. I joined the Facebook group they organized and began checking it, somewhat obsessively, for updates. I plotted how long the drive would be from New Jersey (where I now live) to the small town in upstate New York (where she then resided). I knew I would find the time to make the trip somehow.

Because I knew I would visit her. I could. And I would. I just was not sure when or how.

Then, a week or three ago, I happened to be on a conference panel with Migdalia Cruz, the award-winning playwright long mentored by Irene. Migdalia and I have enjoyed a glancing, off-and-on acquaintance since the early 1990s and, as I was making a hurried exit from the conference, Migdalia and I shared a brisk goodbye.

“Now that you’re in New Jersey, we’ll have to get together,” she said.

“Will you introduce me to Irene?”

I was startled by my own forthrightness. Migdalia’s direct reply shocked me not at all.

“Let’s do it.”

So a kind of contract was made, between Migdalia and me, in that moment, fortifying the commitment I made to myself months earlier.

I was going to visit Irene.

And, yesterday, I made my pilgrimage. Migdalia and I agreed to meet at the facility in New York City where Irene now lives. I told few of my plans. Mostly, because I did not know how to answer the question that did inevitably follow: why would I visit someone I didn’t know in an Alzheimer’s ward? I didn’t have an answer why. I just knew I needed to go. So I went.

Migdalia and I arrived separately but simultaneously to the facility’s security desk. We chatted lightly as she guided me up to the floor where Irene lives. As we stepped from the elevator, Migdalia spied her immediately.

“There she is!”

It took me a moment to find Irene amidst the huddle of admirers gathered in the center of the facility’s dining room. Claudia, Tatiana, Brenda and Robb had come to visit Irene as part of Claudia’s birthday celebration. The other residents scattered throughout the dining room had long-stemmed pink roses, either in their hands or in front of them — each rose taken from the bouquet Claudia brought as a gift for Irene. A gift for which Irene showed little enthusiasm. Until Claudia and her crew began redistributing the roses to everyone in the room. That seemed to please Irene, Tatiana said. Irene held no rose, but petted the plush lavender bear nestled on her lap with an intense, tactile curiosity.

Irene’s admirers had become a crowd, so the staff invited us to reconvene in the television room down the hall. There, we reassembled — Irene in her high-backed wheelchair enthroned at the center, two winged chairs on each side, and one directly in front.

Migdalia nudged me, “You wanna say hi?”

I did. Yet I didn’t. My shyness felt peculiar. I didn’t want or need to say “Hi-I’m-Brian.” I did want to express my fondness and admiration with a greeting of some sort. I just didn’t know how. Yet.

So I hovered. Observing Irene as she received the attention lavished on her. As she listened to Argentinian songs. As she plucked at the strings on the mandolin that Migdalia’s husband Jim brought. As she rubbed her fingers on the bear, on her hair, on her face. As she spoke and sang occasionally in something like Spanish. As she barked commands in what was clearly a version of English (“No standing! I don’t [k]no[w] standing!”). As she transformed (with just a twist and a tear) the plastic bib placed around her neck into a couture collar

My hovering brought me somehow to stand behind the the winged chair, just above Irene’s left shoulder. The papercup of Ensure was offered again and I was in the position to help. My one hand rested at the nape of her neck and my other guided the cup to her lips for a series of happy sips.

My hand stayed as the nearly empty cup was taken away. My palm rested in hers. The tips of my fingers tickled the base of her forearm. I felt her long delicate fingers push on my wrist. I glided my palm across hers, letting my fingers linger a little in her palm. My fingertips touched the fleshy folds of her slender hands, tracing shapes without form inside her slightly cupped hand. Our palms flirted a little, bouncing into and away from each other, pausing for a restful nuzzle from time to time. Her fingers fiddled inside my palm before going still and seeming to beckon my fingers to tickle back. She even lifted my hand to her face and rubbed it to her cheek. The depth of our touch was electrifying — that surging, pungent openness of anonymous yet intimate touch.

Even as Irene and I palmed these tiny caresses, she received other offerings. Marilyn bestowed besos. Claudia and Tatiana massaged Irene’s lovely legs. Jim led everyone in a rousing chorus of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Irene sang songs that may have been old or brand new. Ours was a circle of adoration in constant, quiet, exuberant motion.

Before long, though, the circle slowed to release the conjurers to their next destinations and, in what felt like an instant, Marilyn — the actress who helped to create some of the most iconic Fornés roles — and I were left alone with Irene. Marilyn expressed her surprise that I had never met Irene before.

“Seeing you together — I thought sure you had known her for years.”

“Migdalia says she knows none of us, so she can know us all.”

Marilyn and I nodded at the mystery of all this. I held Irene’s gaze as I tried to explain to Marilyn the ways I had felt Irene’s touch in my life for a long long time. As I spoke, I could feel Irene’s eyes on me. Absorbing something. I have no inkling what. Irene’s expression was enigmatic but vivid. Perplexed interest? Bemused distraction? It seemed almost as if she might be thinking, “How peculiar it is that you are…”

I felt Irene’s gaze as palpably as I felt her palm. I also felt it was time to go. Irene was tired. Together, Marilyn and I returned the chairs, including Irene’s, to the dining room. There, I said goodbye with a tiny beso to Irene’s glowing forehead.

Gracias, maestra.”

As I landed on the sidewalk outside, and saw the crisp spring sky, my hovering shy tears finally pressed to the surface.

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La maestra continues to guide me. Even from within dementia’s thrall, she’s still nudging me — to discern the poetry inside the shape of a sensation — to feel the depth of emotions that have no explanation — and to open myself to experience the blessing of Irene’s touch.

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For the recent history of the community effort to sustain Maria Irene Fornés, see especially this story from Chicago Public Media.

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