Self-portrait by Mary Jo Steger. 

Stage Four: A Love Story was filmed over the course of five-plus years while Mary Jo and her family rode the emotional roller coaster of her precious last years of life. Almost four years later, the Stage Four Team, siblings Benjamin Steger (Director/Producer) and Kate Steger (Outreach and Marketing Coordinator), intend to contribute to and manage this blog as a way of generating support for and to dialog with others in similar circumstances. We are interested in thoughtful and articulate contributions that enrich our collective understanding of sickness and health, love and forgiveness, life and death, and in the role that film, and other art forms, can play in helping us reflect on and tell even our most difficult stories.

We welcome your voice in this dialog! Please feel free to leave your comments below each post. If you would like to make a longer contribution in the form of an essay, a poem, a photograph or another work of art, or if you have suggested links to other online reading material or resources, please contact us

 

Happy Birthday, Mary Jo!

A few years ago, Ben emailed me the private link to the first rough cut of Stage Four: A Love Story. I clicked on it right away, but after the first few frames, I shut it down, closed the computer and walked away. It was a weeknight and I had to go to work the next morning. I wasn't prepared to stay up all night crying.

A few weeks later, I finally screwed up my courage and went back to it. I did cry, but to my surprise, I also laughed. It wasn't the somber dirge I'd expected, but rather, it was poignant and playful. It was so Ben, I thought.

Practically tone deaf, Mary Jo was never known for her musical talents, but she always gave it her creative best.

Practically tone deaf, Mary Jo was never known for her musical talents, but she always gave it her creative best.

I couldn't have made this film. After five years of what hospice workers call "anticipatory grief," which I'd experienced while Mom was dying, I needed to STOP grieving and remembering. I needed to "walk off from it" (to quote one of my dad's heroes, Gus McCray from Lonesome Dove).

But if I had sat down with the same footage Ben used to create Stage Four, I'm sure I would've made a very different documentary. It would've been so Kate. I'm sure my other siblings and my dad would've each had a different story to tell. And perhaps most interestingly, there would be the story my mom would've had to tell.

When I was young, I always thought of my dad as the creative parent. He was a fabulous story-teller and performer, entertaining us kids on long car rides and boat trips with cowboy trail songs and adventure tales lifted without apology or acknowledgment directly from books like Huckleberry Finn and The Nibelungenlied.

Mary Jo and George as Bonnie and Clyde, 1968.

Mary Jo and George as Bonnie and Clyde, 1968.

My mom, on the other hand, shunned the spotlight and stood much more in the recesses of the family stage. Modest and self-deprecating, she was embarrassed to be in the eye of Ben's camera and would never have chosen to be the subject of a movie for her own sake. She did it for Ben and for the rest of us who were desperately trying to grasp ahold of her and keep her from slipping away. She did it because she understood our need to storify our grief experience. 

What my family gravitated towards by instinct or propensity in dealing with Mom's death has been legitimized, in the last decade or so, by the emergence of a new field of study in medicine. Narrative medicine looks at the ways patients communicate with their physicians and seeks to understand the role of storytelling in the fostering of health. Simultaneously, other artistic disciplines are also finding ways to enhance the healing process as art and music therapy programs become more available in hospital settings. Cancer support communities have started to encourage the culinary arts and gardening for patients and caregivers too.

Like my mother, many patients and caregivers don't consider themselves "artists" and may come to artistic endeavors on the advice of physicians or hospice workers awkwardly and as amateurs. But all of us are more creative than we think and while we may not have the talent or skills to edit films for theatrical release, write novels for publication or paint art that will hang in museums, creativity--the ACT of creating--is by definition life-giving. What better self-affirming gesture can we make in the face of illness and death, but to continue to create ourselves and our stories?

Today--June 19th--is my mom's birthday. She would be 77 years old if her story had continued. But in a way, it has. As a full-time homemaker, my mother's great artistic talent was creating her family and community. She threw her whole self and all of her strength and efforts into her art, and she did so with tremendous joy and love, even though it often stretched her to her limits and sometimes broke her heart. This is what artists do and their work survives them and lives on after their bodies have gone back to the earth. Mom's story continues in the lives of her children and grandchildren, in my dad's story as it thankfully continues to unfold, and in the growing community of people connected to Stage Four: A Love Story as it comes to fruition and finds a place in the world.

Mary Jo with a few of her works-in-progress, 1965.

Mary Jo with a few of her works-in-progress, 1965.

In the past few days since we launched this website and the Indiegogo fundraising campaign, I've watched the social media chatter about the film grow to include friends, and friends of friends, and increasingly people who are complete strangers from all walks of life. I can't think of a better way to celebrate my mom's birth and life. Thanks, everybody, for joining the party by taking the threads of Mom's story and weaving them together with your own.

In scientific terms—if we make sense of the world by recognizing patterns and thinking in categories—being able to narrate a coherent story is a healing experience. In psychological terms, stories keep us connected to each other; they reassure us that we are not alone.
— Miriam Divinsky, Stories for Life: Introduction to Narrative Medicine