I endure hardship, folding it into life like melted butter into batter. It is an expected guest, though an unwelcome one. What unfolded in the summer of ’08 was an unexpected test. I could no longer swim in the waters of chaos, the vortex of mental illness is far too strong. The dam broke in the marriage in February of ’07, flooding me with the realities of raising two sons solo as a Realtor® in a declining market. Two soccer schedules at two different parks had me driving in circles, keeping the boys in their schools meant a ten mile daily commute; I spent many a morning burrowed in the underground parking lot, napping in the back of the Volvo before going to my office. Endurance is endearing, enduring is exhausting. Under the circumstances, this was a trade up; at least the chaos was my own. Slowly, putting one stiletto in front of another I moved forward, no longer sacrificing my life on the alter of addiction. While he took to climbing mountains, I became adept at moving them. It got better. Until the other shoe dropped…
The boys had been with their dad for the Fourth of July weekend. I was on my way to meet them half way for the kid swap when the phone rang. No one had heard from my brother since Thursday. Now if Steve hadn’t called me, his wife or his life-long friend in three days, something was seriously wrong. I promised to go by the house and check in, I called the boys to say I’d need more time, and I got dressed slowly and methodically, thinking ‘are these the glasses you want to wear when you talk to the coroner? Should I take a sweater in case it’s cold in the morgue?’ Driving across town I wished I had some dry cleaning to pick up, contemplated a drive through the Starbucks, anything to delay what I knew was inevitable. I ran through my mental Rolodex, looking for someone who might meet me there, cursing and asking, ‘Why do I have to do this alone?’ Tears were welling but not falling, waiting in the traffic jam of my numbness. The ten minute drive felt like an hour. I pulled up to the house; his car was catty-wampus in the driveway, the keys lying on the threshold of the front door. My deepest fear confirmed in that moment. I walked around the back of the house to check the back, stood at the sliding glass door looking in. A clear voice spoke to me, very strong, “No baby, don’t do this. Don’t come in, you don’t have to do this.” I knocked as a matter of protocol and called the police. “My brother is dead.” “Are you with him?” came the first of many questions from the 911 operator. “No, he is dead at the bottom of the stairway.” I said, having no evidence save the premonition I’d had months earlier as I followed Steve down the stairs. I waited for the cops to come, alone. My real estate partner, Lea, called with a question about condo rules. I answered in a trance and told her where I was. She landed there in minutes, like an angel; staying the five hours it took for detectives and coroners to process the scene. I didn’t break until the photographer arrived. Steve had been a professional photographer and in our LA days I’d been his model, rep and muse. I was crushed under the weight of irony. The family gathered for the “Shaffer Shiva”, a ritual that requires more vodka than prayers. And time passed.

The years that followed moved between triumph and tenuousness like the tide: constant and somewhat soothing in its constancy. The devil I knew was the one I knew well.
I am loyal by nature, a stoic by necessity, in denial as an act of mercy; traits which have kept me alive and would have been handy as a member of the Donner Party. Thankfully I’ve not been driven to eat my young… yet. But who knows when the shoe drops?
As my husband picked up the pieces, adjusted the meds and found gainful employment, I continued writing, submitting and getting response. We were now in the early single digits, Saints & Hysterics was being produced and (W)hole was being work-shopped for a staged reading at the National New Play Network Showcase. The story was still young, as uncertain of what it was as a teenage girl, but there was a continual stream of interest. Whether they found the concept intriguing or it was the morbid curiosity of watching a train wreck, there was momentum. There were some shamans along the way, each with variations on the same message: “Intriguing the characters are, clarify the plot you must”,
And so I continued, researching quantum physics and color theory, took the scenes out of order, put them back differently, added capers, alien abductions, and a musical number (Bold-faced a lie that is), and took them away, tossing them in the ‘dramatic ARC’ bag as I learned to trust and to listen.
Focusing on the story was a welcome distraction from all that was only held together by duct tape. Late nights at the computer was the place of calm in the tempest, the only place I felt fully alive. As a mother, an understudy, and the wife of a man struggling with sobriety, I was invisible, dutiful and achingly lonely. Like Carla. She sprang forth when I began working as a personal assistant to a friend. Once my student, I was now one of her ‘people’. I was intrigued and mortified by this turn, but the money was good and sorely needed. Alcoholics are not known for their financial savvy, as the disconnected phone and the car missing from the driveway would attest.
Things falling apart, picking up the pieces, shattering and sweeping up after; these were the days of our lives. Struggling to be seen and bursting at the seams, something had to give. It was the acting. The one thing in my life that I’d always held as the sacred expression of my soul no longer had a place. I could not bear the process, of needing to be “picked” in order to create, and that’s what the audition process is really. To be any good at all you have to open up, invest yourself you have to fall in love, and lay yourself bare. And then you have to deal with every manifestation longing that goes with unrequited love. After long walks, streaming tears and railing at god on the Highline Canal, I made the decision to gave it up. (Which is very different from giving up.) At that point, I had no idea who I was;I was letting go of what had defined me for decades. In this act, I learned to trust.
The play was what I had left, and no one had to give me permission to create it. It was the quilt I could stitch together from whatever pieces of myself I had left at the end of the day. It was also the only time I could finish a sentence. There is an exchange in (W)hole between Carla and Ames where Carla says, “You saved my life.” Ames “Yes, and now I’m responsible for it, how does that work? I’ve never understood how that works.” Guess I was talking to myself again. But now I was listening.

I got a call from Denver Post theatre critic, John Moore, last week about an advance piece on the upcoming production of (W)hole. I answered the call, it’s the press after all, and was surprised by his first question. “Tracy, this script has been around for a long time, hasn’t it? Why did it take so long to get produced?” I hadn’t thought about it, but he was right. “Well… this script hasn’t been around for years, other versions of it have. The story took some time to find itself” (as most stories do) I answered. Scripts don’t feel autobiographical as I write them; and though a seed of an experience or observation lives within me the characters find their own voices and take over quickly. John’s question put me in a state of reflection on the journey from inception to production, through the decade it took to write, all that transpired and the things that took me to my knees or helped me stand again. I’m looking for the string theory that ties it all together. So how did my experience affect the redemptive story?

The play deals with an artist whose life unravels before our eyes and we watch as she stitches her soul back together, all within 90 minutes of stage time. Things which shatter and transform us take longer in real life; the altering instant happens in the slow-motion speed of a car crash. In 2001 (W)hole was ‘the play I wasn’t writing’. At that time I was an actress, writer, and mother of two young sons, living in a placid central Denver neighborhood. As one of ten playwrights who comprised the Denver Center Theatre’s Playwrights Unit under the guidance of Writer in Residence, Gary Leon Hill, I was focused on another script. We’d only had a few of our bi-monthly Sunday night meetings before the planes hit the towers and their impact changed everything in the world. As America searched its wounded soul and rattled sabers, artists sat, collectively staring in stunned silence at the empty page and the stark white canvas, considering the significance of our creations. It was in this moment that (W)hole was conceived. Relationships seemed to be abruptly spinning 180°, a universal shifting of power everywhere I turned: globally, nationally, locally, internally. It was the season of the great unraveling.

Somewhere, deep within my beloved’s brain a random thread was pulled, a synaptic snag untethered him as he began a slow downward spiral. Whatever had held him together for so many years began to crack, leaking rational thought. Alternating episodes of the manic, the depressive and the paranoid wove themselves into my daily life, based on the pharmaceutical whims of his psychiatrist. I began to line up the proverbial deck chairs in perfect rows, I bailed helplessly against the chaos with a beach pail to keep us all from drowning.

He’d been working on a business venture with a friend, a young Pakistani man whose family had taken exile in Oslo during the 1979 Revolution. In the post 9/11 daze, the man I’d married developed a firm belief that because of this association the FBI was following him, tracking his car and bugging our home as we sat on the couch watching CNN. I would come home from the theatre to find bits of insulation on the floor under the attic access panel where he’d been crawling around searching for cameras and microphones. Maybe it was his way of dealing with our national horror, by disconnecting completely from reality as I was doing with the rigor I applied to my vegetable garden. And I wrote to keep myself sane.

To be continued…


There are a million real estate stories in the Mile High City; this is one of them. The story you are about to read is true, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. This is a story of one girl’s nightmare. Me. I’m a REALTOR®. But I’ll try not to let that get in my way.

It was a hot summer in cool real estate market. The rolling boil of winter’s tax incentives had simmered into springtime and left the pot dry. Houses sat for weeks without a showing. Sweaty listing agents tied balloons to open house signs as potential buyers rolled by on fat-tired bicycles. My phone rang. It was the clients I’d put into a downtown duplex some years before; cute couple, new baby, good debt-to-income ratio and a spanking clean credit score. They were smart enough to see it was time for a move up, down to the bucolic suburbs. Interest rates hadn’t been this low since… well, ever.

We set out shopping, searching for nothing less than the dream home: that elusive slice of Americana where you know your neighbors, raise a family. And we found it, love at first sight, a bit like Bedford Falls but in Technicolor. The drawback? It was a FSBO. *bum-bum-bum-bummm*.

Now I’m a kind of do-it-yourself type dame, within reason. I don’t mind doing my nails or washing the dog but I have to draw the line at what I don’t know, like removing a kidney or my taxes. It’s not that I couldn’t do it if I had to, but it wouldn’t be in my best interest. Some folks get all DIY when it comes to selling a house, I mean, how hard could it be, ey? Stick a sign in the yard, a couple snapshots on the Internet, throw some poor schmuck a few clams for an MLS input, then sit back and watch that baby sell.

As my old pal, Joe Friday, once said, “Ah, sure, but just like every other foaming, rabid psycho in this city with a foolproof plan, you’ve forgotten you’re facing the single finest fighting force ever assembled.” REALTORS®

The problem here stemmed from a lack of access to accurate data. Zillow, Trulia and the CMA done by the affable agent who sent the Broncos schedule doesn’t give a true representation of home value. My hunch is that they took the range provided by the neighborhood expert, added 20 to it for ‘negotiation’ and called it a day. They missed the mark in this game of real estate pricing horseshoes. By 35k . When our offer came in at market value and the appraisal backed it up, they went into a tailspin. See, they lacked the two most important things in the real estate process: accurate information and an advocate. Without those two things you’re left vulnerable. Very vulnerable. Just like performing that kidney transplant with a Swiss Army knife and a yard of dental floss, it seems like a good idea at the time, but then you get in there and realize how much you don’t know.

Statistics show that 81% of FSBOs sign with an agent within 30 days, at least the smart ones. Because not only do you reduce your headache and legal liability with a REALTOR®, you actually make more money. Have I made my point? So if you’re considering a move in this hairy market, do yourself a favor and call a Realtor®, hopefully me, and ask a few questions. Just stay away from ones like “Ma’am, what is the approximate dry weight of the average Madagascan fruit tree bat” … ah that Joe Friday.

Ten days in Telluride for the Playwrights Festival; housed, focused, feted, fed. Perfect.
It also coincided with the anniversary of my brother’s “08 death. The first year on the morning of
that day, I was awakened by a dream and a phone call informing me that my play would be produced by Paragon Theatre Ensemble this season. (w)Hole was the script Steve adored, the last he’d heard read and the one he dreamed of making into a film. It’d been developed in Telluride the month before his fatal fall so this year’s return felt as if the planets were aligned.
On a recent summer’s night I was rummaging through the vintage suitcase at my bedside, the one that houses garments worn infrequently and in private, I opened the case to reveal not only stockings but the last of the remains. My mother, my father and my brother all gathered (as) dust in Ziploc bags, inside silken pouches. What had been my lingerie chest had somehow become my dead family valise. Okay, this had to change.
Our family believes in cremation, but unlike the devout who respectfully select a final resting place for their dearly departed, we divide and conquer. The larger part of our parents have become hearty olive trees, while my brother paddled out into the Pacific to catch the last wave from his favorite surfing spot. It was Steve’s idea years ago that we each keep “A lid of mom” and scatter about the globe as we saw fit, in honor of her wanderlust. The ritual was set in place and mom has made her way into the Arno, the Seine, a grotto in Cozumel and a river in Brazil. Now dad was different, or so I thought. He’d lived for a decade in Mexico and remarried; it was his bride’s wish that the ashes stay together. Having been witness, I was certain this had happened until I got an envelope marked “Bag O Bob” from my brother’s widow. Steve, with his independent nature, had overridden the Catholic tradition to preserve the Shaffer one and siphoned off his ‘lid’ before our tree planting ceremony.
Fourth of July 2010. The boys and I are packing the Volvo, loading up the cooler and ready for the drive to Telluride. Strapping the last bike on the rack I knew I had forgotten something… The family! Bolting back inside the house, I found the suitcase key, slipped what was left of three cherished people into a Victoria’s Secret shopping bag and trotted back out to the car.
On the seventh day in the San Juan Mountains my soul was calm, my lungs strong enough for the trek and I woke the boys in time to reach the falls before the pending storm. The hike is not considered difficult, but a steady climb gaining 1000 feet in 2.5 miles, and popular with tourists. With my head in the clouds, the three of us set off up the trail bearing too little water and the weight of time upon my back. As we ascend I feel the rocks, incline, altitude and attitude with their familiar challenge. It seems I’ve been on this path for years and now I must keep moving toward the water and release. My sons venture into the future, moving deftly ahead as I contemplate the path that brought me here. I ask a hiker on the downhill what the road ahead is like and how much more there was to go, as if he really knew. Could I have imagined my life as it is today from the lower elevations of my youth? This is not the path I’d dreamed of, thought it has a beauty nonetheless. The twists and turns of the past are played out on the path before me. Earth slips beneath my feet along the scrabble as Gabriel waits ahead, granting the wings of encouragement when my pace slows. “Come on Mom, you can do this. Let me help you do this.” He is eleven, this angel child, and wise beyond the moon. The road smooths out and flattens, rises up to climb again, to an open space, a glimpse of the falls, then narrowing in focused preparation for the traveler’s arrival.
Gabe runs ahead, empowered at the sight of falling water, and joins his brother in its spray while I spot a place where the water swirls gently before flowing over boulders to the sea. I face downwind remove my pack, and bring the bones of my ancestors quietly into daylight. August stands behind me like a sentry, aware of our mission and what others may think if they saw us. Gabriel negotiates the rocks and sits, curious to know who’s who, to hold the grandparents he never knew in a simultaneous hello/goodbye. He feels the differences in the texture as we transport ashes from their baggies to the currents and one by one we set them free.
It is done. I have made it up the mountain, released the final remnants of my sadness and I’m glad I made the journey. All of it.
We play along the waterfall until it’s time to go, Gabe taking my hand and holding it quietly all the way down the mountain.
That night I felt the need to fly: my new-found levity of heart. As midnight fast approached I joined my friends in a gondola car to float into the darkened heavens. Mercury Venus, Regulus and Mars were lined up diagonally in the sky above, as the town fell small behind us. Seven minutes later we reached the tipping point. Blowing kisses to my friends, I left our west-bound carriage for my solo return; an Ugh-boot Cinderella. Silent but for the sound of tears rolling down cheeks, the Milky Way and I, vast and close, were awed by all that we will never know. Then slowly… I landed.