Passover arrives several weeks early in the Robbins household. It is a rare and precious occasion when Sandra Robbins, Arthur Robbins, their three children, their children's spouses, and their six grandchildren can all be in one place. When the holiday did not fit with everyone's work, school and travel schedules this year, they moved it up a month.
Preparing for Passover dinner, the Seder, has been particularly stressful, with Sandy still unable to move around well because of her fall and subsequent bruised ribs. Art has had lower energy than usual - sleeping for much of the day - which has been concerning.
Sandy has been relying more heavily on Marcus Turnage, one of The Shadow Box Theatre actors, and Elizabeth, who also does house work for Sandy and her daughter Laura. The two of them shop, run errands, cook, clean and walk Rosie, the family dog, as directed by Sandy. Elizabeth, who is Polish, and Marcus, who is African-American and from Ohio, are learning how to make chicken soup with matzah balls and brisket the way Sandy does.
When the Robbins family arrives, it is a loud, full apartment.
Michael, their eldest son, is a therapist, an artist and a poet. He lives in Boston with his wife Iku Oseki, an artist and art teacher, originally from Japan, who has illustrated many of the The Shadow Box Theatre's children's books. Their daughter Miwa, is the family's eldest grandchild. She graduated from Cornell University and has since taken on the project of building her own “tiny house” outside of Ithaca.
Melissa, Sandy and Art's middle daughter and the child who Sandy says looks and acts most like her, is also a psychotherapist living in Boston. She and her husband Peter, a builder, have two children, Hannah and Sam.
Laura, the Robbins' youngest child, has stayed closest to home and is most involved in supporting her parents on a weekly basis. She is a pediatrician in Manhattan. She and her husband Tom have three children: Kayla, Colin and Amelia.
Art and Sandy became grandparents in their late 50s – with six grandchildren born within nine years following. They are affectionate, generous, connected grandparents, savoring their “pitzelahs,” as Sandy calls them.
The grandchildren spent time together during holidays at Art and Sandy's “country house” in Westchester. They also gathered annually in Cape Cod, including one year when Art and Sandy took care of all six children without their parents for a week, attending a mask making workshop and marching in the Provincetown parade together. (“It was a delicious time,” says Sandy.)
The kids can all recite lines and lyrics from Shadow Box Theatre plays, having grown up going to see the shows. When Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the theater's performance schedule in 2012, and paying for the production of “The Earth and Me” later in the season seemed impossible, Miwa created a video and online fundraising campaign to support her grandmother's theater.
All of the grandchildren are now in high school, college or recently graduated. They are in a stage of decision-making and identity creating, which Sandy has reveled in watching.
Sandy says she is most proud that her children are such good parents. She most looks forward to seeing her grandchildren develop over the next several years.
“They are solid, as fulfilled as can be at the age they are, and I just want to see them fulfill themselves to the greatest magnitude that they can,” she said. “That's something I can't control. I can only hope.”
During the seder the family packs around a long dining room table set up in what Sandy calls her “healing room.” Seders in the Robbins household are guided by the traditional book for the holiday, the Haggadah. The Robbins use a version Sandy and her granddaughter Kayla modified many years ago and update over time. Everyone takes turns reading parts. There is often discussion about the relevancy of the ancient story, sometimes heated and often filled with humor. After a while there is a collective call for “Let's eat!” when the formal ritual ends and the meal begins.
At this year's Seder, early on, it is clear that something is not right with Art. He is saying things that are not in line with the conversation. His speech is unclear, and he is distant.
Sandy and her children try to manage the situation without making their grandchildren fearful, even though they themselves are more concerned. They begin to make plans for an emergency in case he rapidly gets worse, debating which doctor to go to. They have watched Art face serious health challenges, but for the first time they worry that his brain has been affected.
Art retires to the bedroom in the middle of the seder. The family finishes dinner with tempered spirits. The grown children try to convince Sandy that she needs more in-house help. They are all worried that their father is in crisis.
* * *
That weekend, the two older Robbins children, Michael and Melissa, and their families, returned to Boston and the grandchildren returned to school.
By then Sandy's rib and back pain had disappeared, as she was consumed with trying to figure out what was wrong with her husband. Each time someone tried to tell her that Art “is 85 after all” and that “this” (i.e. senility) might just be what you can expect from the mind of someone his age, Sandy became more angry.
“They say this is what happens when you get old,” she said. “Not unless I uncover every stone is this what happens. It happened too suddenly.”
Every day, Sandy left another message on the voicemail to Art's office line canceling sessions with his supervisees and patients, optimistically and vaguely stating that he will be better soon, not wanting to worry them.
Finally, Art's pulmonologist conducted a test that gave them a potential answer. Art's carbon dioxide levels were dangerously high. The consequence was in effect a CO2 poisoning that impacted his thought process. The doctor recommended ordering a special machine that would force oxygen into Art's lungs, a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). At first it seemed that Medicare would not cover the cost but after some phone calls it was accepted.
Sandy put the mask on Art in bed, hoping this would be the solution.
“And in that one night, the whole world changed,” she said.
Art was back to Art again. He was back to seeing his therapy groups within a week.
Between Sandy's fall and Art's lack of lucidity, Sandy felt like she lost six weeks of her life and had been shaken in a way that she never had before. On her way to her podiatrist office walking on West End Avenue, Sandy realizes that she has not been outside on a walk in what feels like months. She has missed winter turning to spring.
Facing the prospect of having to live without Art, or at least his mind, made her realize how uncomfortable she is with their finances and their files, things Art has always managed. Sandy feels that when she has asked Art, he explains and shows her where things are, but that she will not remember in a crisis because it is still not intuitive to her.
That fear was more manageable than her greater one. Sandy also tasted what it felt like to be without Art, his mind, his companionship, his presence, and it felt shocking.
“When you are older, the inevitability that life is going to change or the way you live your life is going to change is terrifying,” she said. ““I have been married for 62 years. To have that person suddenly not there is frightening. It is more than I could have imagined.”
As far as the theater, Sandy is more resolved to not let go and continue her work. The theater was mid-show when she fell, and it survived while she was unavailable. Rehearsals are far along for “The Earth and Me,” her annual favorite.
Today Sandy brainstorms options for a succession plan. She talks about finding a college program that would take over the theater. She wonders whether bringing in someone to manage finances to complement the theater's managing director, Carol Prud'homme Davis, would make sustainability more possible. And she does not feel like a decision is urgent.
“I don't know, but I think it will come to me,” she said.
One month later, “The Earth and Me” opens with a run in four boroughs. It is being performed at Hostos Community College, JPAC (Queens), Brooklyn College and at Symphony Space in Manhattan.
This show is always hard to sell, expensive to put on, and as much for adults as children, but it is Sandy's favorite and she feels it is a moral imperative.
“The Earth and Me” is an epic tale that takes the audience from creation to contemporary times, through the story of a little girl and mother earth. And this is all in less then one hour.
In 1999, Sandy wrote the play in collaboration with Jeff Olmstead, her musical director at the time, with support from a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. The New York State Council of the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs have supported many of the performances since. Its message is consistent with pressing issues of our times: valuing the earth, humans' propensity towards violence, the power of people to create change.
On the morning of the last day of performances at Symphony Space, Sandy wakes up before sunrise to fill out individual thank you cards for the theater's staff and performers. She stops to buy flowers on her way into work. She feels especially appreciative that her staff and cast ran rehearsals without her while she and Art were ill and that they have made it to the end of another show.
Sandy introduces the show, comfortably, off-the-cuff and personally to the children, as she always does.
“This is actually our last show this season of “The Earth and Me.” “The Earth and Me” is the whole story of the earth and its relationship to you. So you can say “me!” Let's hear you all say “me” and point to yourself.”
“Me!” the children scream back.
The show opens with projections that could now be done on computers, but whose hand-cut quality and simplicity hold with time. There are hundreds of projections for this one show – from stars and a spinning universe to moving water that becomes home to fish puppets. Dancers stand behind the screen appearing as shadows and then emerge on stage dancing Martha-Graham-esque moves with three-dimensional puppets.
Similar to the biblical story of creation, the animals are introduced in categories. Each of the birds, insects, reptiles and “the four-legged creatures big and small who walked upon the land” have their own scene. The music, previously recorded, is grand and dramatic. It is often ominous and sometimes playful.
Sandy's love of poetry and talent for writing are clear throughout. An example is in the introduction of humans in the creation line-up:
“And then my child, upon the land, came woman and man…They had fine minds. They learned to speak in many tongues…But then there were some who thought they were so wonderful. They wanted to own me,” sings the voice of Mother Earth.
Shortly thereafter, a dark scene escalates to a projection of a mushroom cloud and the animals, previously introduced, dying.
But the voice of a narrator brings hope.
“And then in the stillness, the child promised a new beginning, a new beginning and a hope.”
The show ends with the whole cast dancing to the song “Hand in hand we all will stand, through love we'll bring you peace.”
At the end of the show, Sandy thanks her cast and cries in front of the audience.
“I want to say thank you, thank you to all these wonderful performers. And I want to say thank you to all the children who have come to see our show and the teachers and hopefully they take our message home with them. This show is very, very close to my heart. I wrote it a number of years ago not knowing how much at this time in our world we would need it.”
Before there was any funding, “The Earth and Me” was a long, free verse poem Sandy wrote for her grandchildren as a gift for one of the holidays.
When the show is over, the actors sit at the edge of the stage in their costumes and children eagerly wait in line to shake their hands, touch them and say hello. Sandy stands at the bottom of the stage holding her flowers and letting each child smell them as they, one by one, walk past.
This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to www.exceedingexpectations.nyc
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