Phyllis Yes has taken the real-life challenge of caring for her aging parents and turned it into a screenplay that examines the issues facing adult children as caregivers.
“Good Morning, Miss America” ran in March at Coho Theatre in NW Portland. With candor, humor and pathos, Yes’s play delves into serious health issues, conflicted family dynamics and memory decline — all issues Yes had to deal with.
Family caregivers are faced with emotional baggage, as well as decisions about finances, safety, legal documents, housing and the healthcare system.
“The play is based on my personal experience,” she says. “For over 14 years, my mother’s health steadily declined. And my stepfather’s wasn’t far behind, with increasingly poor judgment, progressive memory loss and growing distrust of others.”
Over the years, Yes found her role transitioned from a frequent visitor and overseer, to the singlehanded navigator of a most challenging time.
Adding to the challenge was that her mother and stepfather lived in the Midwest.
She knows it’s an experience millions of adult children face as their parents age. Unfortunately, she says, “we sometimes act surprised, like we didn’t see it coming.”
The play doesn’t provide answers to all the questions these situations present, but Yes hopes it provokes conversation and communication within families that didn’t happen in hers because no one wanted to talk about death.
Yes admits to a bit of sibling rivalry with her younger sister, whom she believes was favored by their mother because she was “a cute little blonde who got to stay out late and do whatever she wanted, and who made me always realize that I wasn’t perfect.”
After Yes’s biological father died of a brain tumor, her mother began taking classes at a junior college, where she met her second husband, a professor whose own wife had died of cancer. They dated 13 years and finally married when Yes was 50 years old.
As the years went by, and her mother’s health declined, Yes and her sister did not agree on their mother’s care.
“Let them alone, they’re adults,” Yes says her sister would comment about their mother and stepfather. “But she didn’t see the lapse of judgment, forgetting to take pills, the falls and my stepfather unable to pick her up. Nor did she know of his forgetting which bank he was using or not remembering he owned the home they lived in for 50 years. She did not see the severity of what was going on.”
Her mother wanted to live to be 100 years old. When they talked, she would say “if” I die, rather when “when” I die. Now, Yes wishes she and her mother had taken more time alone to discuss her later years.
“But she deferred to whatever my stepfather said,” Yes says. Thus, the screenplay emphasizes the need for early planning. “People need power of attorney and to know the wishes of their parents.”
She admired the role her stepfather took as his wife’s health declined.
“I never thought my stepdad would want to take care of my mom when she went downhill, but that was a great surprise,” Yes says. “He loved her so much. He would greet her in the morning with ‘Good morning, Miss America’ and she loved to hear him say that. He would get her cleaned and dressed, and get her in her chair. Both were interested in appearance and he encouraged her to keep coloring her hair and using lipstick. She always kept a mirror beside her to check how she looked.”
In fact, Yes’s mother never revealed her age until she turned 90, “and she then enjoyed people telling her she didn’t look it,” Yes says. “My mother told me she wanted to marry a man with hair and who looked good in a bathing suit. She looked good in one when she was 75.”
Yes was at the hospice when her mother was dying.
“I wished I’d missed it, but I know she was glad to know I was holding her hand,” Yes says. “I would have preferred not seeing her suffer. I’ll never know if my feelings were obligation or love, or her feeling for me an obligation or love, because it was a conflicted family. I have come to the belief that she loved me … I think.”
It took Yes, a retired art professor at Lewis and Clark College, and internationally-known artist, four years and more than 30 rewrites to complete the play.
She notes that women write only 17 percent of plays that make it to production, despite the predominance of women in the audience.
“It’s wonderful to have a woman’s story,” Yes says. “I am so grateful to the theater community who took me under their wings.”
When she first realized her circumstances could be turned into a play, she began taking notes, rather than relying on memory.
“I taught myself,” she says. “I went on the internet to learn the format. Theater was not new to me because I acted in plays in junior college and, at Lewis and Clark, I took 12 to 13 students with me to New York every fall term. I hired a theater professor and an architecture professor and every week we went to Broadway and off-Broadway plays. It was part of an off-campus program.”
She also spent a year writing a blog for a bank website — critiquing theater, music and visual arts.
The hardest part of writing was getting the right dialogue, she says. The easiest part was understanding the situation.
“I kept the screenplay close to what really happened,” says Yes, who also networked with members of local theater groups. They offered ideas and connected her with others who could provide the knowledge she needed to write and produce a play. They held readings in living rooms, and the Lewis and Clark, and Coho, theaters.
“I was having coffee all over town, getting to know these interesting people,” she says. “It felt like it was synchronicity, that it was meant to be.”
Remembering her mother’s final days as a “sad, sad thing,” Yes calls her play premiere a “recent dream come true. I’ve since talked to so many people who have had such different experiences tending to aging parents. Some found it terrible, and others considered it a blessing, a gift.”
She believes the topic of aging parents is important and her sponsors agreed. She has secured funding from Legacy Health, Providence Health, Ronni Lacroute, McCoy Millworks, VanderVeer Center, The Johnson Family and Leading Age.
“When OHSU came on, it gave me confidence that they would think the topic was important,” Yes says.