This post by George Steger, Mary Jo's husband of more than fifty years, was originally published on September 12, 2010 shortly after Mary Jo died. It appeared on a blog created for her friends and family as she was dying to keep them informed and connected as part of her support community. We republish it here to provide a glimpse into the relationship that the film, Stage Four: A Love Story, further illuminates. With the Stage Four: A Love Story Indiegogo campaign to raise finishing funds for the film ending in just 10 days, we hope the story will inspire new readers to contribute, share the story and widen the circle of supporters for this life-affirming film.
By George Steger
In the last few weeks of her life, Mary Jo became quite interested, even agitated, about seeing and enjoying her good friends once more. As time began to run out and she became increasingly more feeble with the disease, her desire to “play” at least a few times more became more urgent. So we put together a few meaningful events. We had, for example, a “High Tea” for some of her girlfriends and spiritual confidantes, and "A Night of Favorite Things" with our prison ministry group where, by the light of the tiki lamps, each of us shared his or her favorite poem, song, or joke.
For our “favorite thing” Mary Jo chose an old song which we had learned in college. It was first sung to us by a friend named Art Warren, who eventually became a priest down in the bayou country of south Louisiana. The song was “The Rose of Tralee.” Art liked both of us and he was dead set on us getting married, so he played the Cyrano de Bergerac role and taught me how to sing the song to Mary Jo. By the way, the last line of the song is “That’s why I love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.” Well, I learned it and I sang it to Mary Jo on occasion over the next 53 years – never as good as Art, though, who was an Irish tenor.
That night I sang it to her for the last time, and in front of all those people. I had no trouble getting through the song because I could feel how much Mary Jo wanted everybody to share this significant little symbol of our love and life together with some of our closest friends. Mary Jo was just beaming the whole night long and was mightily pleased with the way the evening turned out.
Then, just a couple of weeks before she died, Mary Jo got this whimsical notion about “the Frog Prince.” It started when she was looking down on me from the deck as I worked to put some water lilies in our beautiful, newly constructed fishpond which our son, Ben, had labored so hard to build for us. I was stripped down to my shorts and waist deep in the water grappling with the plants when she called down “You look like the Frog Prince there among all those lily pads.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said, bristling a bit at the unflattering imagery, “This ain’t easy, you know, and you can’t do it from the bank.” Little did I know that this would be the beginning of Mary Jo’s crowning tribute to “play.”
Our friends, Dan and Ruth Dakotas, live in a world of art and ideas. All Mary Jo had to do was call them, and in no time the Frog Prince Project was launched. I don’t know how or why such a fantastic idea got stuck in Mary Jo’s head as it did, but she was determined to create a tableau of me standing nearly naked in the pool among the lilies impersonating the fabled frog who gets kissed by the beautiful maiden and becomes a prince. And she herself would be “The Fairie Queene” from Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with gown, jewels and wand, bestowing upon the hapless frog the kiss that would transform him.
Dan and Ruth are game for anything, and they set out immediately to create the scene. Dan is a skilled photographer, as well as an “Artist Laureate” for the state of Kansas, and Ruth is a wonderful calligrapher and artist in her own right. Along with another prison fellowship friend and former student of mine, Margaret Richards, and my niece, Lindsay Kersker, who was visiting at the time, they sat out to stage the scene, with an eye to photographing it for posterity.
All the while, I kept protesting that this whole thing was going to seriously damage my personal sense of gravitas. But Mary Jo would brook no whining. “Full steam ahead,” she said, “and damn your gravitas – which you never had much of anyway.”
The end result was that I got ignominiously back into the pool with a paper crown Ruth had made for me, a pair of swimming goggles to make me look sufficiently ‘frog-like,’ the green shower curtain from the downstairs bathroom as a cape, and no remaining dignity at all. And Mary Jo sat on the bank above the pool in her fine long purple dress, some golden Mardi Gras beads around her head and neck, a pair of beautifully colored paper “fairie” wings on her back and a feather wand in her hand. And Dan took a picture.
I am only now beginning to get an idea of why this last little lark of Mary Jo’s was so important and fun to her. Perhaps, first of all, it was indicative of her desire to end the days of our life together with a gesture of play, maybe to express her satisfaction with the long, full life we had enjoyed together. Or maybe she just wanted to go out with a symbolic giggle. After all, this business of dying is not really such a big deal. It’s just a doorway to a new, and even happier, life.
Whatever it was, Mary Jo had a great time imagining and staging the show. And I went along with it like a good frog, determined to humor my lady, whatever it took. Since then, however, I have begun to look on the whole thing in a different light. The parable of the frog prince, it strikes me, might be a metaphor for our life together. When we first married I started off as a true frog, full of imperfections, ugly habits, and vulgar manifestations. Mary Jo accepted the truly daunting, life-long job of trying to turn me into a prince. I would like to say that occasionally I have managed to be the prince she wanted, especially when it came to helping her raise our children. Alas, though, I still have a long way to go to complete the transformation. But I can say this much for sure, I would never have made any progress at all or have had any hope whatever without her magical “kiss.”