Melissa L. White Screenwriter, Filmmaker, Author
Melissa L. White Screenwriter, Filmmaker, Author

The Balcony

 

All she wants right now is to escape this blinding anxiety, this crushing panic attack. But Annalynne Mason never stops to consider what she will experience on the way down, from the moment she leaps off her apartment’s balcony, and her life flashes instantly before her eyes while she falls six stories to the pavement below—she spends her final seconds reliving these interconnected and pivotal fragments of her life— until at last the welcomed darkness will finally greet her upon impact. Ah, she longs for this beautiful silence. Emptiness. Peace.

            And from there? It’s almost too incredible to be believed. But everyone will experience this passage, someday. It is inescapable. Inevitable. The one sure thing all humans experience. It is their common path—their shared destiny….

…Death.

            But to understand Annalynne’s leap to her death, one must first accompany her on her journey as sobbing hysterically, she throws the phone down, slams open the balcony door, rushes outside, and leans over the rail— gazing down at the alley below— between her apartment building and the back wall of the Hollywood Wax Museum next door to the Stella Adler Academy of Acting & Theatre. The mural of John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe greets her from the rear wall of the Wax Museum—benign, unsympathetic to Annalynne’s most recent trauma, as she stares at it for the last time then wipes her tears and climbs slowly, deliberately, up onto the white wicker patio chair on her balcony. She stands there a moment, taking a deep breath, then steps up onto the stucco balcony wall, balancing herself on the four-inch-wide steel rail on top. Looking down, she sighs her last, hopeless breath, closes her eyes, and leaps.

            As she falls to earth, she relives the phone call she just received from her bank, notifying her of insufficient funds in her account to cover a $25 co-payment she made at her doctor’s office earlier that day, where she learned the results of her recent biopsy, PET scans and MRIs— stage-4 metastatic melanoma. Instantly she is back in the examination room, where her doctor shows her the scans. She sees the spots on her lungs, her spleen, her brain, her thyroid. But it doesn’t register. All the air is sucked out of the room when he says the words, “The prognosis is not good. You need intensive, aggressive immunotherapy treatment.” Annalynne stops listening at that point. God knows how long she has. When her case worker mentions that with Kaiser’s setup, unless you have Medicare, each infusion has a $1,500 co-pay— this registers. Completely. How the hell will she pay for this? Her attention snaps back to that final straw, where she becomes enraged after learning on the phone call from her banker that the IRS just seized her entire checking and savings accounts due to her husband’s back taxes—which he owed from before they had even met ten years ago. “That’s so unfair! Is this even legal?” she protests, but her banker explains that even though Annalynne’s husband passed earlier this year, their joint accounts still have his name on them, so technically, she is liable for her husband’s taxes since they have filed their taxes jointly for the past six years. This rage all but consumes her now, until she remembers being blind-sided with the news the month before, that her employer is downsizing and eliminating her entire team, terminating the two dozen staff members besides her in this “expendable” department, effective immediately.

She relives the shock of learning a few days later that her former company has filed for bankruptcy, liquidating all the 401K retirement savings of its employees. Then the sheer panic hits Annalynne once again, of being jobless and penniless at age 59, desperately looking for work—virtually starting over when she should be getting read for her retirement. She instantly relives the indignation and humiliation at her most recent job interview with a recruiter for a large company who was clearly at least three decades younger than Annalynne, and who asks her unabashedly— so arrogant— “Why in the world have you chosen to start looking for a new job so late in life?” …like it was her “choice” to become unemployed, this close to retirement age.

The rage. The resentment. The humiliation all coming back to her until she sees the roses her neighbor of fifteen years brings to her that evening after her horrific job interview. She smiles, smelling the sweet fragrance of the petals, nurturing the unbridled joy of a true and lasting friendship. Thank God for her, Annalynne sighs. She is a real treasure.

 “You will find another job,” her neighbor assures her. “You are strong. Intelligent. Resourceful. And most of all you are resilient.” Annalynne hugs her friend, grateful for her optimism, but nonetheless she remains fully aware of the cold hard truth that no one hires seniors in today’s job market. She has ten dollars in her purse. Rent is due in two days. In less than a month, she will be evicted. She cannot fathom being homeless while dying from cancer. But she doesn’t tell her neighbor any of this. Instead, Annalynne thanks her for the roses, hugs her, and invites her in for a cup of chamomile, then her neighbor shares photos of her newest grandchild.

            Annalynne instantly relives the moment she first held her grandniece, her brother’s only grandchild. Immense love radiates from inside her heart, as she gazes down at that innocent, beautiful little baby, yawning, pink and warm like a tulip opening in the morning sun—embracing Annalynne’s soul now as she holds this precious baby in her arms. She feels this tiny heart beating, the small body pulsing with energy, the way her pet parakeet, Sherman, used to feel when she was a child, with his little talons vibrating as he clutches her skin, perching on her forefinger, singing along with The Eagles on her 70’s radio station. Instantly, the Eagles’ song “Peaceful Easy Feeling” fills her mind with thoughts of sleeping in the desert with a billion stars all around. This memory calms Annalynne as she falls from the sixth floor past the fifth floor, until she hears the wail of an ambulance approaching.

She looks up and sees her husband, Terrence, his lifeless body now cold as she kneels beside him in bed, wailing, praying, sobbing hysterically while she waits for the paramedics to arrive. Once they finally load Terrence onto the gurney, she panics, seeing the splatters of dried gravy on his left foot, and she longs to wash it off before they carry him away. But she can’t. It’s too late. So, she starts to cry again, remembering how Terrence— being incredibly drained and worn down from the past two years of chemotherapy— had grown so weak that he dropped his dinner plate on the floor the night before.

After cleaning up the mess and putting Terrence to bed early since he felt so very tired and listless, she remembers that she had been too exhausted last night to wash his feet. Now today, the irony hits her that he will enter heaven, barefoot with gravy stains after dying in his sleep. She wonders morbidly if the coroner will think Terrence was neglected, after seeing his feet. Those damn splotches of food soiling his skin and somehow negating the entire two years that Annalynne cared for Terrence, feeding him, bathing him, dressing him, giving him his meds when he was too weak to do it himself. This thought makes her extremely sad, overwhelming her, causing her to panic until she hears church bells ringing, then sees herself walking down the aisle towards Terrence six years earlier. His eyes glisten and he immediately winks at her, as he watches her approach.

Time stretches as she experiences that walk down the aisle, as if in slow motion, where she feels the intense joy of being in love—the elation, the pure bliss of sailing through life without a worry or care in the world. She feels her face flush with heat, as she sees herself and Terrence in the audience at the BATS Improv Theatre in San Francisco, where after the show, the theatre company director comes onstage and announces that his dear friend Terrence has an important question to ask his girlfriend. Immediately a spotlight shines on the two of them out in the audience, as Terrence pulls his mother’s wedding ring from his pocket, gets down on one knee, and asks Annalynne to do him the honor of becoming his wife. The house lights go up and the crowd erupts with spontaneous applause as tears fill her eyes and her heart beats faster and faster.

Then falling past the fifth floor approaching the fourth floor, she relives the awfulness of her mother’s slow, painful demise, as the cancer eats her up inside over the three long years from her diagnosis to her death. Annalynne sits by her mother’s side each day, reading to her, painting her nails, and praying with her during each of her chemotherapy treatments. All the while, the crushing weight of her mother’s life ending way too soon fills her with utter despair. She relives the hopelessness of watching her mother lying in her hospital bed and opening her birthday presents. The gift from Annalynne’s father – a bottle of Nina Ricci, L’Air du Temps perfume, elicits her mother’s “oohs” and “ahs” like it is the most incredible gift she’s ever received, even though it’s been her father’s gift of choice for every Mother’s Day and birthday for the past 30 years. Her mother spritzes her wrists, rubs them together, and that familiar, comforting fragrance permeates the tension in the room, melting the sharp edges of fear like a butter knife spreading margarine on warm blueberry pancakes at their Sunday night critual of joyful and boisterous family pancake suppers that Annalynne remembers from childhood.

Annalynne watches as her mother smiles, nearing the end of her life, yet still carrying on as if she has all the time in the world to enjoy life’s small pleasures. Closing her eyes, Annalynne prays that she can emulate her mother’s quiet strength and courage, then she relives her overwhelming sorrow mixed with relief when their family gathers round her mother’s bed, as she struggles to pass on, and her breathing changes to those last puffs of breath at the end, trembling, then whispering softly, “I’m falling…”

Slowly, effortlessly, the life seeps out of her mother’s tired, weak body as her soul departs and her eyes grow wide. Then she smiles, and gasps softly as if pleasantly surprised. Her mother’s eyes wide open now, a single tear wells in the corner of her left eye, resting there without spilling down her cheek, leaving Annalynne weeping by her mother’s side, heartbroken, yet free at last from the burden of her mother’s suffering. This freedom is so long in coming and so completely despised yet welcomed at the same time.

Annalynne smiles to herself, remembering the family of baby squirrels playing beneath the giant oak tree next to her mother’s grave where she goes to plant roses. As she kneels by the tombstone watching the wee squirrels, this all-encompassing sense of hope and reassurance which floods into Annalynne’s being, helps her not only remember her mother’s sheer joy at being alive, but allows her to experience that joy for herself. Right now. In this exact split second as she plummets towards the pavement.

            Then falling from the fourth floor past the third, she remembers flying to New York for the first time, and standing on the observation deck at the Rainbow Room, atop Rockefeller Plaza in the heart of Manhattan. She feels the energy, the excitement, the buzz of the biggest city she’s ever visited. Experiencing the exultation and the sheer brazenness of youth, she relives that moment where she borrows $600 from a friend, so she can join her older sister in New York, to celebrate her sister landing her first designer job after working for two years in the Manhattan garment district as an assistant.

In this fraction of a second, she remembers her sister’s courage in following her childhood dream of escaping the stifling confines of their small Texas hometown where her sister was laughed at and teased by her classmates for sewing all her own clothes since junior high, then later heading off to New York to pursue her true passion of becoming a fashion designer. Annalynne feels the love radiating from her sister to herself during this moment they shared so long ago, being young, in their early 20’s, just starting out in life— perched on the precipice of making their way in the world on their own.

            Then those same tears of gladness and gratitude which Annalynne cried at her college graduation in 1984, now flow down her cheeks as she sails past the third floor to the second floor, remembering that moment when her name is called, and she walks to the podium to receive her diploma. Graduating summa cum laude after so much work and determination to succeed, she looks out at the audience, knowing that her parents are present. Feeling their love and support, it occurs to her now just how many sacrifices her parents have made for her to be here at this moment. Grateful for all the opportunities her parents have taken such great pains to bless her with, Annalynne smiles, feeling hugged by the Universe, filled with love and good will. Until she hears cymbals crash, and she finds herself on the football field at halftime, out behind the high school, in her small hometown in Texas. She is fourteen and performing a dance routine to the music of her high school marching band.

The excitement of hearing the brass section blaring out the melody of the popular theme song from the hit film “Star Wars” fills her now with a new hope. Loving the energy of this music, she remembers being young, carefree, and filled with an invincible faith in the future. She looks up at the stadium lights against the cool October night sky and she shudders, reliving the elation and exuberance of performing in front of an audience. Until all at once she is ten years old, up on stage at her first dance recital, performing a ballet routine as the Sugar Plum Fairy Queen with her rhinestone crown and her silver tutu. She pirouettes and spins across the stage, in front of the rest of the class who perform the chorus routine in a line behind her, while she dances her solo up front, center stage.

Feeling the emotion and excitement of being ten and looking out from the stage, she sees the faces of the audience members looking up at her and smiling. An intense thrill from simply being alive fills her now with the incredible surety that she is doing exactly what she was put here on Earth to do. Perform. Then a ripple of doubt seeps into her mind as she wonders to herself, somehow from outside the memory of performing ballet onstage as a ten-year-old. She is now the older soul looking back on her life, wondering how in the hell she could possibly have lost that feeling of being “one” with the Universe. How did she become so separated? So incredibly lost? So willing to leap from the balcony to end this glorious, beautiful, love-filled journey her parents gifted her with at birth?

            Then it hits her as she falls past the second story of her apartment building, that she has all but forgotten the powerful magic of standing still. She has rushed from decade to decade of her life without taking the time to bask in the peacefulness of standing still in the moment, to just appreciate the miracle of life. To appreciate nature, like the time she stood watching the blazing sunrise burst through the dramatic purple, pink, and orange clouds dotting the horizon above the east rim of the Grand Canyon. Or the time she gazed up at the billions of stars shimmering in the cool desert night sky at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico—so far from city lights. Or hearing the pre-dawn sound of woodpeckers pummeling the pine trees outside her bedroom window as a child. Or feeling soothed by the sound of rain splattering against her grandparent’s tin-roofed garage, where she watches as a little girl, enthralled as her grandfather teaches her how to rob the honeycomb from his prized beehives without getting stung by simply talking to the bees and thanking them for their golden honey.

She feels a sensation of sadness as she experiences this loss, of being unable to stand completely still in the moment, until she finds herself standing still on the Texas gulf shore at Galveston. She waits in the surf, her mother on her left side, her father on her right, as they hold her hands, lifting her six-year-old body up above the waves as they roll in. She is in the exact center of her family, her mother’s other hand holding onto her brother, while her father’s other hand holds her sister, all spaced out in a row across the gentle waves. Annalynne laughs, so happy— with such intense bliss— embraced by the love of her family; comforted by the bright Texas sunshine; lulled by the gentle sea breeze rolling in off the tepid Gulf of Mexico.

Looking up at the sky, she feels God’s hands holding hers, as her parents repeatedly lift her small body above the cresting waves. The refreshing water; the warmth of the sun; the laughter of children playing Frisbee on the beach behind her all soothe and calm her now. She feels so connected— so at peace with her place in the world. So incredibly happy and serene. Until she finds herself at five years old, sitting in a little red wagon along with her six-year-old sister and her toddler brother, who dozes in his car seat in front of her, while their mother lovingly pulls her three children down the sidewalk at noon.

Once they reach the park at the end of the street they pile out of the wagon, then their mother spreads their grandmother’s handstitched story quilt beside an apple tree, and they all lay down on the quilt, gazing up at the sky, finding shapes and figures in the clouds floating by overhead. They laugh and giggle, so happy and carefree; so very much loved and treasured by their mother, and by each other. This bond— this precious family ritual— cleaves them together, instilling in them all the strength of their family. Their heritage. Their belonging to something bigger than themselves.  If only her father could be there with them.

Annalynne instantly finds herself standing on the pier at the lake fishing with her father. The two of them waiting, watching for the ever-elusive fish when at last a six-pound bass strikes, and her father drops his rod and rushes to her side, helping her reel in the prize catch of the day.

Annalynne feels the spontaneous joy of spending time with her father, listening to him talk about flying a two-seater Piper Cub airplane when he was younger. Watching her dad bait her hook, it dawns on her now what he’s been trying to teach her—that fishing is all about the process— the time spent together on the lake, giving each other their undivided attention. She loves her father for teaching her this, more than she ever thought it possible to love another human being.

            Just as she relives this cherished memory, Annalynne approaches the first floor as she falls, and time drags out into an eternity— slowing to a crawl. Starting to panic all over again now, she feels hot and frightened until all at once she recognizes the faint scent of Nina Ricci perfume emanating from her own neck, and instantly she is lying beside her mom one night, breathing in her mother’s perfume. After their parents wake them up at midnight to come outside and watch the meteor shower in the balmy Texas Indian summer night sky, Annalynne and her sister lay on a blanket in the backyard as toddlers, stretched out between their mom and dad. Faint traces of Nina Ricci fragrance enfold them, comforting Annalynne like a warm bear hug, as her mother coaches them to make a wish on every shooting star they see because, as she assures them, “Each falling star is a gift from God.”  With rapt attention, Annalynne listens as her father explains how far away these stars are, and how the light they are seeing is so old, that by the time they see it, the star has already burned out. He then does his best to explain what a light year is.

She reaches for her father, and he takes her hand, squeezing it as he tells her that he adores her more than all the billions of stars in the galaxy. “All the love in the Universe cannot match the love I feel for you and your sister.” Annalynne closes her eyes and relaxes, so at peace. If only she could have remembered all this love while she was still on the balcony…then it hits her.

 In a flash of hope, she longs to share this monumental revelation with others who may be perched on their own balconies right now, that no matter how difficult life may be— and this is the crux of Annalynne’s epiphany— part of being human means seeking out, remembering, and honoring the love one has known throughout their life. Even if it’s fleeting. Even if it was decades ago, during childhood. Because that love is permanent; it’s always inside the heart. It’s what makes all life worth living, and if people can hold that love in their hearts, it will empower them to overcome the tough times. Until they can seek out, create, and experience more love. As Annalynne discovers in that final split second before impact— one is never too old for love— it’s never too late. Love is what she experiences as her last emotion, her final thought…not the regret or the loss or the pain. It is the love; only the love…

And then…

                                                …The impact…

 

Annalynne sees only blackness, with a narrow beam of light at the end of a tunnel. The beam of light splits apart, refracting into multiple rays of luminous white light, accompanied by a stream of rainbow-hued butterflies fluttering up all around her. Then the rays of dazzling bright light seem to reach out and pull her toward them. A sudden whooshing sound ensues, and she feels a gust of wind hitting her face, as if she’s being pulled through space by the hand of God.

As she flies closer and closer to that blinding white light at the end of the tunnel, she feels an all-encompassing sense of love and peace. So much serenity and calmness, as if the greatest love that one could ever imagine has just been multiplied 10,000-fold and is filling her soul with its limitless, unconditional abundance.

Elated to still be alive and conscious, Annalynne feels so incredibly grateful for that electrical impulse within her mind, still pounding out the unquenchable force of life inside her as she flies towards the light—pulsing, pulsing, pulsing…

Print | Sitemap
© Melissa White