May 29th, 2023


Life is about losing everything, gracefully.

 Mia Farrow

Ms. Farrow tells the truth. If we live long enough, the losses multiply. Yet, I am less graceful about the losing that inevitably comes with age.

Since Aristotle, playwrights have used a three act structure. The first being the introduction to the central character, the second the challenges, joys, actions, and interactions, the third is how it is resolved. Will the character triumph or perish? The three act structure gives depth, lessons to the arc of the narrative. One event must lead to another and then to another — this unifies actions and meaning and creates the semblance of a story.

Modern medicine has given us the gift of longer lives. It’s given us three acts, at least. So I imagine myself, like my mother, in my early 90s. I’m not confident I’ll get there, nor, at times, am I confident that I would choose getting there. I suppose it depends on the day, the week, the month, the year. A third act might have started at 50 not too long ago.

Supposing again, that I live to 90, my third act at 60, started about 7 years ago. I have a happy marriage, a son who thrives, a daughter in law who I adore, a family who sees me with all my flaws, but all my talents, I’m financially stable, and I’m doing what I think has been the strongest work I’ve ever done. So, what the hell would I have to complain about?

This. My third act is on my phone. The contacts I scroll though, now dead. The texts and the emails show the roller coaster that has had less ups than downs since the final act of my life began. A sudden death, the pictures of a funeral I organized, coming out of a mind bending, soul crushing 6 month depression, pictures of a gaunt woman I hardly recognized with hair loss to fall from an illness that took many months to diagnose, another sudden death, my husband’s short but painful depression, a diagnosis leading to a major surgery. It’s all there in texts and calls and pictures. There were at least five more deaths of dear ones, three sudden, two long and lingering.

As of late, there is my husband’s near catastrophic fall. The ambulance, the weeks in hospital, up and down corridors, begging the overworked staff to help. I captured some of all that on that little phone in the closet of the room they put him in. The dingy room, the chapel, the bench outside the oppressive feel that hospitals have. Now the sudden change from a quiet house of sanctuary to a very active skilled care unit that was full of people and relentless construction to make it safe. The third act of my life so far is all captured in a little rose pink covered Samsung.

But, on that same phone, I saw how I survived. My husband survived. If he had fallen backwards into the concrete basement instead of up the stairs, he would possibly be dead. I have no pictures of my husband since his fall, he wouldn’t want that. He generally walks tall with long strides. That’s not the case right now But I do have pictures of all the grab bars, the new walk in shower, the expanded steps that are walker friendly.

I’ve had a preview of very old age. It took me from the beginning of the third act to the near end. My home is ready for the “dying of the light”, the frailty, the so called “Golden Years”. That’s a blessing. Or at least that’s how I see it, for now.

I have my son’s wedding pictures on the rose gold Samsung, the pictures I took when I began to see the light at the end of the long dark tunnel of clinical depression. I have joyful pictures of all my family together, celebrating my mother’s 90th. I captured a Malibu sunset, the ocean, a trip to the lake I love, the gorgeous flowers my family and friends sent when I was hospitalized, the acts of kindness to me and to my husband, my garden in May when the world goes from black and white to lush color. I have pictures of documentary posters and screenings of films I’ve Executive Produced, of which I’m proud. I’m privileged and I know it.

Three act plays usually end two ways. In triumph or tragedy. Some are meant to have no meaning. Yet, I’m drawn to the plays that tell a tale of a flawed character, like us all, and how we roll through, or get stuck and either endure or leave life itself. Hamlet was altered to be a five act play, instead of the original three acts. His tale did not end well. For all his youth, he chose to no longer navigate a cruel world. Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman suffered from a loss of identity. Romantic comedies are the simplified versions of the three act play… boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Happy and unrealistic endings please us. Yet, we are also drawn to the rougher more tragic figures as well.

A much younger friend is quite ill. I rail against that. Calamity shouldn’t reach someone at that age. A family member lost a 34 year old brother. Their third acts came too early. It shouldn’t be. But life is not that tidy. We lose young people, to accidents, to rare illnesses, to gun violence, to depression and suicide. Why is the play of their life just one act? Their fate should be ours, not theirs.

The use of flashbacks in plays, done through memory, that can go backwards and forwards, break away from the three act structure. I love flashbacks. I look for them through dreams, through memories, and now, my rose gold Samsung with Spotify, hooked up to my car, playing the music of the seventies from my 20’s, instead of the music of the 20s as I approach my own seventies, not too very far off.

If I could be assured that my son, my husband, my friends and my career were in my future, I’d go back in a second. When I listen to Hall and Oates, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, CSNY, in my car, attached to the rose gold phone, even the one hit wonders take me into my past and bring up a time, a place that I’ll never see again. It cheers me… the going back. Is the feeling close to what Richard Burton felt, on reuniting near the end of his life with Elizabeth Taylor? He said, brutally, “what a terrible thing time is”.

Or should we be grateful for one more day, one more sunrise and sunset. The character Emily, speaking after her own death, from Thornton Wilder’s magnificent play “Our Town” has a beautiful, yet heartbreaking monologue about life that’s both sad and hopeful about the sometimes, just sometimes, sheer beauty of life.

“But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another .I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. All that was going on in life, and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners. Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking. And Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths. And sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?”.

Or do we echo Fitzgerald’s Nick in his masterpiece “The Great Gatsby”

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

So I drive on, imagining my past, my first act, through the car and the music and the little rose gold phone, happy to be back there, if only for a moment. But the car is in drive, and forward is where I go.





3 Comments on “THE THIRD ACT”

  1. John Kiernan said at 5:24 am on June 30th, 2023:

    Thank you for this essay.

  2. Kit said at 8:14 am on June 30th, 2023:

    So, so beautiful and moving, Cindy. You are an angel! 💜🦋

  3. Eli said at 10:41 pm on June 30th, 2023:

    Beautiful! Xx

Leave a Reply