I was thinking about what a friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie
– "After the Gold Rush," Neil Young
Last Night at the Alamo – Eagle Pennell's 1984 indie masterpiece, written by Kim Henkel and starring Sonny Carl Davis and Lou Perryman – opened the Oak Cliff Film Festival just a few weeks back. Richard Linklater, Mark Rance, Jonathan Sehring, and I had produced a restored version of the film that premiered at SXSW this past March.
Ruth Anne MarDock, wife to my friend, partner, and the co-founder of this publication, Joe Dishner, drove me back to my hotel after that screening. In her SUV as we drove and talked I realized that even though I had known Ruth Anne for almost four decades this was one of the very few times we had ever been alone together. I thought that there should be many more. I adore Ruth Anne, which is barely par for the course among all that know her; far many feel a much deeper and even more firmly rooted appreciation.
Always calm, even in the midst of chaos, she has an almost constant slight but sly smile I'm certain is because in a way that passeth understanding she always knows what is going on. Three decades a practicing psychiatrist, there is never anything clinical about this awareness.
Joe, a film unit production manger, line producer, and producer of over 30 years standing, has always run with the gifted and talented. Who were also often the obsessed, burning alive at both ends, hardly moored down at all. Which doesn't exactly mean that Ruth Anne runs with them but that she is intimate with all, the best and brightest, the lunatic fringe and the almost dangerous. She always wryly observes, with a brilliance that transcended the easy and a wit so subtle that many missed it but so sharp that those that got it never stopped being in awe.
The phone call came when I was standing on the back wooden deck of our spectacular suite at a Greek coastal resort. Looking over the private infinity pool, I was looking at the ocean stretched out all across the horizon. It was the lap of luxury, far more than we're actually used to, but still not as foreign to my lifestyle as it might have been just a few decades before when I ran wild, unwashed and street. Working all night in curtained rooms, typing with one finger, often a little too intense and always disheveled, searching for the truth or a truth or perhaps my version of the truth. Writing being life itself and more than life. All night movie marathons, our lives saved by SCTV the first year we started the Chronicle, but still a time doused in speed and alcohol, in everything lost as we searched for found.
Going back to 1981, the paper launched that September, Ed Lowry and I lived on Hollywood in East Austin, right near the Delwood Shopping Center, a different time, a different Austin, another world. Then we were ragged and smelly, ill-focused and way too loud. Writing and writing, watching movies, listening to music, endlessly talking and talking and arguing and talking through everything and all.
Then, as always, Ruth Anne was an anchored center in the midst of chaos: straight in the midst of stoned insanity, focused while too many of us indulged in an overwhelming bacchanal of ideas and words and images.
Sweethearts since high school, she and Joe were long married with a stability only a few among us knew. Forty-four years together; forty-five years knowing each other.
Standing on that porch, Sandy gone off to the spa, family and friends elsewhere engaged.
I was listening to what
A friend was saying.
I was praying it was a lie.
Because too much of the above should now be in the past tense and I don't know how to live in such a world, and I don't even really want to begin to try to figure out how. Attacked by a patient, Ruth Anne fell back, hitting her head, and Joe was telling me she probably was going to die.
Sure, damn the pusher man, the needle and the damage done. Curse the too-determined warriors who seek every kind of war while shunning any peace. And hate the inner-city killers and the rural madmen, the murder-crazed lunatics and the hate-filled politicians! But the very best of us had just died not with a bang, not with the end of the world, but with a simple fall.
It was too mundane and in every way it was so wrong. The calm, cool, and collected one in the midst of four decades of so many of our storms, many without but too many within. Always the wisest and invariably the sharpest was barely holding on to life, but the tragedy was absolute because if she pulled off yet another miracle in a life where her magic was accepted as mundanely routine by all of us because it happened so often, if she lived it would be brain damaged. Sobbing, deep gut-wrenching sobs, we all knew she wouldn't want to live that way at all.
So she didn't. I got the text message while listening to Richard Linklater talk to a roomful of international filmmakers at a shared Faliro House/Sundance workshop. Ruth Anne MarDock was all but dead being kept alive by machines so the organs she willingly donated could go to others, as her whole life had been in the service of.
Later there was bowling. Later there was packing. Later there was driving three hours to catch a plane to Athens to catch a plane to London to catch a plane to Boston. But now was just this text. Having cried for hours, just then, there was no crying left in my soul because it was feeling as empty as it had ever felt. Feeling as I had so many years before in October 1985 when Ruth Anne's high school friend Ed Lowry had died. Then death so rare and unexpected. Now death all too common, all too often. But not Ruth Anne. Not the fire and the light. Not the majesty and the generosity. Not the heart, soul, and anchor.
CinemaScope Cinerama in 3-D with every enhancement couldn't begin to catch the extraordinary breath of life as viewed in just looking at her eyes. Always knowing, usually smiling, patiently observing – bemused and amused but loving. There are madmen I know who operate at so many levels, all at the same time, that they are populated countries unto themselves, yet seem solitary next to the wondrous humanity of Ruth Anne. Maybe it takes a village to raise a child and a world to shape a poet and a history of films watched to form a filmmaker but suddenly we were all alone.
I was all alone. Feeling empty in a way I only remember feeling that once before, those decades back, in Dallas, Texas, saying goodbye to Ed.
Ed who loved Ruth Anne as she loved him. Ed was the best of us but she was even better. Joe Dishner was and is the love of her life and she of his. Two worlds collided and merged in that couple. But good God, Eddie and her together were beyond transcendent. They lit rooms in ways we watched but only they understood. Ginger and Fred, Gene and Cyd, grace and brilliance – Stop Making Sense, Pet Sounds, and Forever Changes magic brewed into two friends so very different and so soul alike and always in love. Always, even with Eddie three decades dead. And now ... ....
Lost, I called Michael Barker, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics, another Dallas high school classmate of this almost too gifted group. Joe had called him the night before. Called me in Greece hours later. Michael sounded almost too calm, but I knew that was a front for the boiling-over molten lava of emotions underneath. There is no question as to how much he loves Ruth Anne, no second thought as to how this tragedy was eating alive one of the most generous of hearts. But as he has always done, he was concerned about others. Holding himself together to make sure everyone else was all right.
He asked how Joe sounded now, a few hours after he last spoke to him. How I thought Joe was. I said, "Well, of course, Joe is a producer, is always the producer, his job is to keep his head even in the midst of the cataclysm, even when his heart was forever broken, his life destroyed."
Later Michael called me. Almost scolding me, he told me how many expected to hear such news about me because of how I've always lived. But not Ruth Anne.
Not Ruth Anne. Not Eddie.
Not Ruth Anne.
Almost angry he told me I better live. I owed it to others to take care of myself. I knew he meant that I owed it now to Ruth Anne, especially given the extraordinary mundanity of this most tragic death.
Ahh, the sad old beat bohemians, always having to talk of ourselves to get to talking of others, to travel through autobiography to get to biography.
Because now my staying alive is not about me, not about my son or lover or friends or family. It is about a debt owed that demands to be paid, if the one who most deserved to live is gone, and gone on a damn whim, gone in a moment when the universe became utterly, incomprehensibly senseless, then the deepest way to make the greatest of meanings of this most important and cherished and sacred life is for the rest of us to go on. To live as we have long lived, doing the best we can, understanding the best of us is in a community. It is not just that we are all in this together but that the struggle forward has become the best and maybe the only way to celebrate such a life.
Right now, hug the one you are with. Call those you love to tell them how much you love them. Strip naked before life, which is to strip naked before God knowing that you are not an island, not a peninsula, but a branch on a tree. A tree in a forest, a forest in a garden, a garden in a landscape. A member of a family. Unashamed, sing your love and talk it and speak it. Whisper it and shriek it. And share it. Share it loud and annoyingly and forever and strongly. And to all those you love tell them just that, now and again and forever. Because in a moment, after something as simple as a fall, they just might not be here to listen. And right now that is an emptiness as deep and vast and unending as I have ever known.
I love you Eli. I love you Sandy. I love you Joe. I love you Michael. And again and again and again I love you Ruth Anne. And I always will. We all do and will always.
And I'll tell it and think it
and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain
so all souls can see it
Then I'll stand on the ocean
until I start sinkin'
But I'll know my song well
before I start singin'
And it's a hard, it's a hard,
it's a hard, it's a hard
– "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," Bob Dylan
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