One of the most memorable of many memorable moments in our current production of WIT occurs when the dying Vivian Bearing is visited in the hospital by her former professor, who sits and talks and then offers to read her something. Something by John Donne, she suggests, the seventeenth century poet who had been their mutual object of fixed attention for both their professional careers. "No, not Donne!" Vivian cries. She's done with Donne, and with all his brilliant, witty, agitated metaphysical dithering. So instead her former mentor reads The Runaway Bunny, a classic children's book she has just bought for her grandson. The Runaway Bunny is the very last story Vivian will ever hear. In it, the little bunny talks about how he is going to run away, and his mother replies how no matter how far he runs, or whatever form the bunny takes, she will follow him, she will be with him. If he's a fish, she will be a fisherman; if he's a bird, she will be the tree he flies back to. The bunny finally realizes he might just as well stay home, and his mother says, "have a carrot." It's a lovely story, and it is also--asthe professorpoints out--a little allegory of the soul. . It is the perfect story at just the right moment: simple, witty and full of love.
Though Vivian Bearing suffers an agonizing and painful descent into death, here at the very last moment she is very lucky. You could even say she's blessed. She gets just the right story at just the right time. It's not always like this. Ten years ago I spent some time with my mother as she lay dying in the hospital I was born in. I was hoping very much she would not die, but I certainly knew events had taken a serious turn, and I wanted to give her has much comfort as I could while she lay on her back with a mask and a breathing tube. "That must be rather boring," I said to her, in my best British manner (my mother was English). "Yes," she said, "very boring." And I knew then it was dreadful.
I had an idea about the music she might like to hear---Mitsuko Uchida playing Mozart, a recording I see one Amazon reviewer calls "music for the beleagured soul." That was a good choice, and as the piano sprinked the sonata into the room, I could see my mother's face relax and soften. I thought she might like me to read her something; she said she would like that. What? She said she was thinking of a novel she had read and enjoyed as a young woman, The Echoing Grove, by Rosamund Lehman. I said I would get it, and rushed out to the big box store where I learned it was long out of print. I finally found a used bookstore in Pasadena, and asked the nice man if he had any Rosamund Lehman. "Rosamund Lehman," he said, "no one reads her anymore. But she's good!" And he led me straight to a very decent copy of The Echoing Grove, which I took in triumph that evening to my mother's hospital room. "Would you like to hear this story, mom?" "Yes." And so I opened the book, and began to read. I would have read all night long.
I like to think I am a good reader. Reading aloud was one of the very few things I could do for my mother at this moment, almost the only thing I could do. But The Echoing Grove completely defeated me. It begins abstractly, in fragments of dialogue, which I couldn't begin to accurately transmit. After a minute or two, my mother asked me to stop, and I did. "It doesn't read well aloud," she said. "No," I said, and put the book down. A few minutes later she was ready for sleep, and I said goodbye. She died very early the next morning.
It has always been a matter of particular sorrow for me that I was not able to produce exactly the right book for my mother at this moment. It always seemed to me a profound failure-- a chance for a last gift, frustrated by the complexities of the wrong book. So I deeply appreciate how Vivian Bearing is blessed in hearing the perfect words at the penultimate moment of her life. It is a moment of profound and gentle grace, and when I see this scene on our stage I am one of the many in tears.
In retrospect, The Runaway Bunny would have been a much better choice on my last night with my mother, had I only thought of it. But on the other hand, I am rather proud of mom for not wanting something so simple at the last. She too went back to her youth, but asked for a rather difficult book by a Bloomsbury sort of writer. Two nights before she'd asked for watercolors, and sat up during the night painting a vase of flowers sent by a well wisher. And, at her end, she wasn't looking for a children's book, she hearkened after Rosamund Lehman's rich love triangle. Wrong book as it turns out. No one reads Rosamund Lehman anymore. But she's good!