John B. Lowe & Skye Brandon in PTE's production of The Secret Mask by Rick Chafe. (Bruce Monk)
In September, 2003, I got a call from a general hospital in Vancouver. My father had had a stroke. The nurse was calling from his room, they could put him on the speaker phone.
"Hi Dad. How are you doing?"
"Well, I'm experiencing a little crowning in the middle."
"What does 'crowning' mean?"
The nurse answered for him. "I have no idea."
A few days later I entered the Vancouver rehab hospital where they'd moved him. Mae, the Speech Language Pathologist, came to get me at the front desk.
He looked dazed, tired. He recognized me, but couldn't remember my name until reminded.
Mae had a set of picture cards on the table, like word cards for a two-year old.
"Do you know this one, Fred?"
"Well, that's a... that's something."
"That's a chicken."
"Really? That's a chicken?"
"That's a chicken."
"Well, if you say so."
As a result of the brain damage from the stroke, my father had aphasia, a language disorder. Dad's words came out mixed up -- often using completely wrong words, extra words, or nonsense words.
Although he couldn't remember in the beginning what he did for a living, where he lived, even whether he was married, he almost immediately had a list of unfinished business of great concern to him. That we fetch his bottle shipper type, take care of the piece of potato in his closet, and he insisted that I was the secret mask.
The literal meaning of the phrase eventually became clear, but the possible alternate and metaphorical meanings grew for me as I and my siblings slowly became the parents of our parent.
All works of fiction are autobiographical in that the writer's life is always woven into or beneath the story. I call The Secret Mask semi-autobiographical. It's based on my father's life much more than on my own; but it's also a complete fiction in the story of a father and son estranged for forty years who meet each other as strangers, divided by time, a history the son doesn't know and the father can't remember, and only broken language to help them reconnect.
The Secret Mask is the story of my father, who I grew to know better in the loss of half his mind than I'd known him in the forty years previous. Of how he lost everything and came through it with grace and humour. Through the only inadequate words over which he had so little control, we saw layers and layers of my father's pain, frustration, and humiliation. We also laughed with him (and to tell the truth, at and around him), and haven't stopped laughing since.
Bob Metcalfe at PTE has been my mentor and partner in developing this story and given it a spectacular production, tight, moving, and very very funny. The work of the design team, Brian Perchaluk, Larry Isacoff, and Don Benedictson, is extraordinary, and the performances by John B. Lowe, Skye Brandon, and Sharon Bajer are everything a playwright could ask for.
My father, meanwhile, has made a strong recovery over the last seven years. He's seen the play twice, and is so pleased with it he's been walking around like a rock star. Best of all, he says it brings back memories.
Playwright Rick Chafe (Tim Leyes)
Image in article: John B. Lowe, Sharon Bajer & Skye Brandon in PTE's production of The Secret Mask by Rick Chafe. (Bruce Monk)
This content is provided by Rick Chafe. The views expressed do not express the views of CBC.
CBC is not responsible for this content.