What might have been a typical night at the theater ended up having enormous significance for Barb Cone, of Cambridge, for reasons she would never have predicted.
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BARB CONE: A couple of weeks after my mother had passed away, my husband Steve and I had tickets to see “King Lear.” One of our favorite actors Peter Donat was playing Lear. Toward the end of the play, he’s holding his youngest daughter Cordelia, her body, in his arms. This young innocent woman is dead.
First, he can’t believe it. He says, “Look, she’s still breathing.” And everyone around him is just hanging their heads; everyone can see that she’s gone. He finally starts realizing that there is no life there, and he recites these famous lines:
And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
With what had just happened with my mother dying, it just really hit me hard. And my husband reached over and held on to my hand.
The next morning, I drive him to the airport. And to be home in time for dinner Monday night was kind of his plan. He was late. Then I flipped the TV on. They had aerial shots of this enormous fireball just burning.
A bunch of friends came over, and we sat around my dining room table. They were acting like Steve was dead, and I knew he was gonna walk in the door.
They and I started calling the airlines, with the TV blaring. We would take turns getting up and calling and calling. It took 10 hours to get the official call from the airline saying that he had been on the plane.
Things came out in bits and pieces. A disgruntled airline employee got fired from his job, and he blamed it on his supervisor. And what they think is he shot his boss and he shot the pilots, and the plane with all 43 people went down. Nobody survived.
This was December of ‘87. We hadn’t seen a bunch of mass murders and hijackings, and 9/11 hadn’t happened and any of that.
I kept telling myself, he can’t have been killed because my mother died three weeks ago. You appear to be doing pretty well, because you’re numb. When the bricks fall, they fall on you hard.
You’re crazy. It scares people. Those mood shifts. I had to take an elevator up to my floor at work, OK? And I used to have the insane desire to just go up to one of these men and just lay my head against his back for a minute. I just needed some comfort.
King Lear, all through the play, is described as mad. I thought, “I don’t think he’s mad. I think he’s grieving.”
I came across the program for “King Lear.” That had been our last night together. I started looking at Peter’s picture, and I felt like I had something to say that only he would understand, because he’d made believe he was Lear and he was cradling his dead child, and he felt what I was feeling. I just started writing this rambling, tear-stained mess. I managed to get it in a mailbox.
I got a call one day from Marijke, Peter Donat’s wife, saying that they’d gotten the letter and that they wanted to meet me. He was opening in a new play, and they wanted me to be their guests.
Marijke was there at the box office waiting and greeted me like an old friend. Peter threw his arms around me and just hung on. Then he kind of pulled away and wiped his face with his hand and gave me a big smile and put his arm around me and said, “Come on out, there’s some people I want you to meet.”
I remember thinking partway through this party, “I’m having fun!” That might have been the first time I’d had that thought since Dec. 7.
DONAT: Hello, Barb.
CONE: It’s nice to hear your voice again.
They stayed in touch for months after that. They really wanted to know, How are you really doing? I could be honest with them. I could be really blunt. Somehow they knew what to do with someone as damaged as me, and in my experience the previous couple months, that was rare.
DONAT: I wish I could share this moment with [Peter] and that he would understand it. Because unfortunately his memory is pretty well — totally wiped out.
He’s got advanced stage Alzheimer’s. Sometimes I know when he’s reciting lines from a play. It’s garbled, but I can recognize little phrases, iambic pentameter. He’ll sometimes do that when he’s asleep, dreaming.
I’m sure you remember the scene on the heath when King Lear is going mad?
DONAT: I remember one time when he had one of these terrific tirades, and it sounded like Lear on the heath. I just suddenly said to him, “Peter, are you being King Lear on the heath?” And he said, “Yes!”
It’s just part of his way of maybe coping with what’s happening to him.
Peter is, was and still is, a very compassionate person. If his compassion in that scene helped you through a terrible period of your life, that’s a great reward for him.
CONE: I don’t think you can — I don’t know, maybe you can understand — what that meant to me. Your kindness is something I’ll never forget, and I’ll also never forget his art.
Thanks to NPR for archival sound from Dec. 7 and 8, 1987, and thanks to John Higgins for speaking Shakespeare’s words. This episode includes music by Satellite Ensemble and Chris Zabriskie.