The Show Must Go On - The Death of a Teacher, Director, and Mentor
Don Cox was in the hospital. If the images in your mind have been influenced by ER and The Good Doctor, you would be right. He was surrounded by machines, hoses, and wires of all colors and types.
You gotta get better Don, they’re helping you out, but you gotta get better, Patti gently said to a man so burdened with sedatives he could barely build the strength to squeeze my hand. Patti stood beside Don’s bed with me. We donned gloves, masks, and gowns courtesy of the critical care unit policies and procedures. Putting on even more barriers between the man in that behemoth of a bed and me was difficult to deal with.
The show went wonderfully Don. J.T. did a great job with the kids. She became distracted by the beeping and whirring of the respirator attached to Don via the uncomfortable-looking tube down his throat. His chest rose and fell with each “whirr” of the ventilator. It is a mechanical movement, making something that is such a necessity for life, an action replaceable with a trivial piece of plastic.
Don Cox, 62, lay there helpless in the bed. A man as animated as any character you would hope to see in a Disney movie could barely shake his head to answer us. We tried to keep anything that required the laborious nonverbal responses to a minimum.
It was September 4, 2009 when I revisited my old friend. It was a personal visit, but I also carried the role of journalist. I had known him long before as a former high school student and actor under his direction. This time he was to carry the lead role in my journalism project, but my role as journalist rapidly became much more than that.
As I walked into his classroom in September, at the start of my reporting profile story on Don, I was hit with a sensory overload. This is something that Don prides himself on. There were posters everywhere from previous productions, each signed by members of cast and crew. Loud music blared from his stereo speakers. It was after school and Don was in a mood for music. This time it was the Best of Barbara Streisand. His classroom is much like his personality: bohemian, boisterous, and big.
There sat Don in his black computer chair with a permanent ass-cheek imprint left in the center. There’s a piece of me that thinks he was proud of that imprint. He’s a man with salt n’ pepper hair and round glasses that frame his face from one temple to the other. He’s best described as round, resembling a pear just ripe enough to fall off the tree. The old Christmas poem’s classic description of Santa Claus comes to mind and his slightly unshaven face reminds me of his classroom, strewn with the stubble of past, present, and future PC Player’s theater performances.
I came just in time for the first rehearsal of the new show Don was directing at his school of choice, Peninsula Catholic High School: home of the Knights, a dress code, and a “cafetorium.” If your imagination fails, it is just as the name suggests. In this case, a hybrid cafeteria and auditorium. It’s as if Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor was working on this “architectural wonder.” It’s cold and white with linoleum floors, there are round tables with chairs around them, and high ceilings with the obnoxious square tiles. The surfaces are cold, flat, boring, like the floors and the walls. Doors line the right wall of the room. Following the linear linoleum to the opposite side of the room there lay the only warm and calm place in the room: a planked, wooden stage. A closer look at the wood tells an infinite number of stories. Paint from prior productions and scratches from dragging scenery and props tell the stage’s story. It’s as if Don was slowly leaving his mark. The stage is not big enough for Don, the students, and the shows they would like to produce. Noises, primitive and barely understandable, break my concentration and echo throughout the room. The reverberating sounds in here remain haunting even after my graduation three years prior.
The students were coming in to start rehearsal. They sauntered up to the stage, with some skipping, slowly walking, and running. Don walked in pushing his version of a teacher’s cart, an amalgam wheelchair, seat, and walker. He waddled in, hunched over to utilize the chair to its full potential. It’s not that he can’t walk, he’s still regaining some strength from his trip to the hospital made this summer, and the last. The trips were a result of obstructed arteries in his leg and an ulcer that created a small hole in his stomach. Needless to say, he had a hard time walking. Don is no stranger to the hospital though, in 2001 he had a stroke. This made it hard for him to move around as his right side lost its fine motor skills. These were slow to return and were never the same.
Don was talking to his student actors. He had on his light blue polo shirt and dark pants, his usual outfit for a day at work: comfortable enough to get through the long school day, but formal enough to teach at a private high school. To his right, on the table, were Halls’ throat lozenges and a bottle of water complete with straw. This is his usual tradition before starting rehearsal. Don likes to talk to the students and not only forms a director-actor relationship but a friendship as well. For some of us, a second father-son/daughter relationship as well, making us feel as if we are the only person in his world at that moment in time.
The cast sat on the “stage,” a formulaic positioning of risers built by Chuck, another teacher at Peninsula Catholic and some select students. The risers have grown in number over the years due to Don’s shows growing in size, cast, and attendance. As the rehearsal began there were random moans from the group. Don’s cough could be heard over the groans and traveled throughout the cafetorium. The show was Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, a show too deep and complicated for a high school, but Don believed that they could do it.
If there was one thing that could be stressed about Don Cox it is that he sees potential where many would see a lost cause. He sees the ability to produce something out of nothing. It’s as if he had the hands of God for each play and molds a concrete object out of nothing but ideas and dreams. Possibility is palpable, and he remains open to anything and everything, giving his actors, the students, free reign, a capability to roam the character and get a feel for what or who it is, and confidence to do so. He sees what can be unlocked and used; a hidden fire waiting to be stoked and fed. This is why students love him and why they come back over and over again. The stage is home to Don and, although he does not like to be on it, what he does with the people who are is nothing short of amazing.
Perhaps his love of the stage came from childhood. His father, John T. Cox, was a drum major at Newport News High School who wrote their alma mater. His mother, Jaqueline Cox, was a dancer whom he attributes most of his love of theater. “They didn’t push theater onto me, they simply made it available” Don said at the rehearsal. He did not stay in Newport News, Virginia for very long. He moved up to Annapolis when his father was reassigned. This is where he first came to know the stage and it was in H.M.S. Pinafore when he took the lead as the Captain at seven years old. He continued to participate in theater throughout his college career, but It was in high school that I became aware that I liked directing over acting. I simply continued to direct because I could.
Don is a product of his past. He is a combination of lessons and experiences learned over time. He’s a potpourri of the different chapters of his life, much like that classroom of his. He is extremely open to different ideas, this stemming from his experimental college days when he attended Randolph Macon. He said that there were so many outrageous nights there but detailed only one. He and his friends were dancing in the main fountain, naked, singing the Banana Splits theme song. We didn’t have a stitch of clothing on! He attended college in the 1960s where the alternative lifestyle was championed through the clothing, activities, and as Don mentioned, A lot of alcohol. Don seems to have grown up a little bit since his time in college.
Don has also traveled and experienced cultures and lifestyles in locations all over the United States. He has directed in theater’s off-off Broadway in New York City and he’s worked for UNO’s corporate office in Boston. Mainly fueled by the deaths of both his parents spanning the relatively brief time of two years, he made a big move following what could only be described as manifest destiny. I made the worst mistake of my life in 1996. I moved to California. I was trying to escape. When you lose both parents and you’re an only child, what the fuck do you do? While living just up the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theater, he discovered that he absolutely hated California. It’s a soulless creature. Value is placed on money, what you drive, and where you live.
He has never really cared about any of the material things in life. He simply gets by, living in a basement, paying rent to the family living above him. Don has filled his small “apartment” with everything that he has acquired over the past 50 years. His car, a purple Jeep with torn plastic windows covered with silver duct tape to prevent more damage, a passenger seat full of books, trash, and scripts, and an ‘I Read Banned Books’ sticker on the rear bumper does not equate to a life of luxury. He’s never had much money either. The reality of theater is that you won’t ever be able to pay the rent. Teaching has helped him financially, and he has gotten more intrinsically from teaching than directing ever gave him. He satisfies the ‘directing bug’ with the shows that he puts on at Peninsula Catholic High School.
Don has many goals for each rehearsal, but he knows that as long as he can transfer the message, the crux of the play, from script to stage and from stage to audience he has done what he set out to do. As the students rehearsed he smiled, laughed, and followed the laughter up with coughing. His hand instinctively raises to cover his mouth every time he coughs. The stroke caused his dominant right hand to be weak, leaving it semi-limp as he raised it. He does this mechanically now. Don gave direction as the students moved. They were, after all, blocking scenes. The rehearsal was staccato with students asking if they could restart the show every now and again. He chuckled and looked at his script only periodically because he has it all memorized. When he’s excited he stutters and mutters. Just as the rehearsal gets underway it ends, just as randomly as it had begun.
To a lot of people Don is a rebellious teacher with different styles and thoughts on how and what education should be. Nobody says anything to him about it because what he does works. Don is more than just a director though, he is a lot like the script that he works out of. Just as many of the characters in a script have a story, his story has led him here today. There are a multitude of reasons for every action. Passion overflows and it cannot be contained. The script over time, becomes used, tattered, and torn. No matter how used it becomes, it will always serve a purpose. Don has been through a cornucopia of life events socially, personally, mentally, and physically. Despite all of this he presses on.
Don is a man set in his beliefs and convictions, specifically for what theater can do for and, in some cases, to an audience. While sitting down with him in his classroom he tells me about his life before teaching at Peninsula Catholic High School. Specifically, his story directing a show in Kentucky.
Have you ever heard of a play called Corpus Christi? It was by Terrance McNaley. It makes Jesus a gay high school student and Judas and the other Disciples are friends of his. NYC picketed the play, but I loved it because it was confrontational. I was the first one to produce and direct it outside of NYC. Of course, I chose to direct it in Kentucky. The Baptists, Catholics, and the KKK picketed the show. There was even a story on CNN. It was an amazing experience because every time I started my car I sincerely thought it might blow up. The KKK actually spray-painted my windshield with the backwards swastika. It was scary as shit, but WE SOLD OUT EVERY NIGHT!
Two weeks to show-time. I received a text from Don saying that We’ve lost Roger, one of the male leads in the play, his dad has taken him out of the show. I immediately start wondering about how Don was going to handle this. I arrived for the first rehearsal after the change. Don was in his class room when I arrived, looking over the costumes. I pulled Adrian, one of the student actors, aside and asked him what was going on. Adam said that Roger had been taken out of the show. I asked him why. Honor code.
These are the struggles Don must deal with every now and again. He seemed unbothered by them and found an immediate replacement in another student, David. As I watched him, excited and nervous, the emotion could only be compared to that of a puppy going on a long trip. Don didn’t seem concerned at all as he was sitting there smiling at the different costumes in front of him. After all, Don is an easy-going guy. When I asked him how he felt about Roger he said Okay. It was the best thing to happen to him. I just feel sorry for his parents. I called them earlier and said sorry that this had to happen. Despite everything, I still seemed more nervous for the students than Don did. He maintained composure. He is looking more worn out though, and his cough is certainly worse than before.
Some students have taken the loss of Robbie harder than others. Don seemed to overlook them during rehearsal. He can get so caught up in the action onstage that he forgets the impact of events on emotions offstage. Sam seemed worn down and frustrated. When I asked her about how she was feeling she opened up. Her reaction to Robbie was intense, emotional, and warranted.
He was really the only guy who’s… You see I haven’t had many positive male… He’s just stuck around. The fact that he was gone meant she not only lost a co-lead in the show, but her friend as well. She was worried about him and how he was changing. He started hanging out with those wrestlers she said with a tear in her eye. She was nervous about the show as well. This doesn’t feel like the two-week mark, this feels like the beginning.
Don has a tendency to get everything finished at the end. It is astonishing how quickly everything comes together. As I turn my attention back to Don during the rehearsal, he’s hollering for people to get their acts together (pun unintended). His face has turned crimson and his cough has been agitated, becoming more violent than ever before.
Don has had this cough since he arrived at the high school. He came in from Richmond, Virginia, right before Hurricane Katrina hit the local area. I thought it would be cool to come back because my father lived and grew up here in Newport News. This was around January 26, 2005. His cough has remained the only consistent thing during his five years here at the high school.
Three days to show-time. I walked into a classroom cattycorner to the cafetorium. There sat Billy, a religion teacher at the school. He’s a teddy bear of a man in his knit sweater and khaki pants. He sat at his desk looking over some student work that was turned into him. Billy had been my inside man for some of Don’s real health problems. He told me You have to make him go home. He couldn’t stay and direct today because he can’t get any better without rest.
I walked into rehearsal fully understanding everything that Billy had mentioned about Don. Don insisted that he was fine, and he was going to stay for the run. Don is one of the most stubborn people I’ve ever known. The students had finally reached the “full run” phase of the rehearsal process including makeup, costumes, and hair. The show has new life as if someone decided to change the light bulb above all of their heads and turn up the wattage. For the duration of the run, Don’s cough progressed to the point where he could not breathe, and he turned the deepest shade of red. I handed him his water and a cough drop, which had become somewhat of a ritual over the past few weeks. I patted and rubbed his back as a mother does her infant child. As the rehearsal ended with final notes from Don, the students’ faces started to show concern for him. Twisted, sad, with a furrowed brow, it’s as if the students were subconsciously aware of what was happening and going to happen over the next few days.
The following day I was not slated to come into rehearsal, but by the end of the evening I feel like I had been there from the beginning. Patti, mother of a student in the show and a long time “Drama Mama,” called me around six in the evening. The sun had just reached the point where a warm glow streaked across the night sky. Don’s cough got worse, she told me. He was coughing all throughout rehearsal and the students were growing frightened. This is where the story gets blurry, where the line of journalist and friend disappears.
Patti continued, He’s going to the hospital tomorrow in the morning and Billy is going to accompany him. She asked if I was going to be at rehearsal tomorrow. I was. The sun dipped below the horizon and darkness filled the space around me. I knew what had to be done despite the journalist role I was playing. I was now called upon to play the lead. Would I take over direction, Patti asked.
Don has been admitted to the hospital. That was the first thing I heard on the brisk morning of November 4, 2009, one day before the show opened. The only solace was from the kind voice of Patti who soon became my link to Don. Don got worse by morning and was admitted to Riverside Hospital. She asked me what I thought was going to happen to the show.
It can’t stop, these kids are a day away from opening. I knew I had to break character of J.T. Hosack, journalist, and do what I was born to do, theater.
I had understood that Don was in the hospital with what could be an advanced stage of pneumonia, but the doctors weren’t entirely sure yet. They knew that his blood oxygen level regularly dropped to 70%. They believed that Don may have had a mild heart attack and was still feeling effects. All I knew was that I couldn’t visit him, yet.
I approached the doors of the school with my notebook in one hand and my script in the other. I was ready for anything and Patti greeted me at the door knowing this was as difficult for me to accept as it was for her. Don’s still not doing well, it’s not looking really good.
Patti sat me down in a room separate from the students and we talked about everything that had happened with Don throughout the day. Once I was up to date on his condition, I asked her What do the kids know?
Jenny, the school’s principal, stood in front of 20 worried faces. Tall, slim, and stylish, the way she presented herself in school seemed to juxtapose the moment as she was explaining some of the details of Don’s condition to the students. The emotion left on their faces afterwards was a tribute to the effect that Don had on each one of them. After she talked, I got up. It was time to “enter, stage left.” The tables had seemingly turned. I had been with Don enough throughout the process to understand what was happening. I understood his direction and his style, and the students had come to trust me. I knew I had to say something to them:
I know we’ve hit some hard times guys. I know that this is difficult for all of us to hear. When all of the chips are down, and when everything seems like it couldn’t get any worse, this is the time when you really shine. You all have a great show, and it will be a tribute to Don. I know he’s fighting hard, but nothing is certain yet. What I need for you to do for me is to go through the show tonight with 110% energy and 110% purpose. You all know what you need to do best. Makeup, costume, hair, and be on stage and ready to block bows at 4:15.
After a few questions they hustled to get ready. Final bows were blocked and the show was underway. I knew that as the rehearsal was running Don, although a few miles away at Riverside Hospital, was thinking about us. Nothing could stop him from thinking about the show and, most importantly, the kids.
The show ran the smoothest than ever before, as if Don was the catalyst for perfection even while not present. The show was over, and I was impressed with the run time of just over two hours and with the performances of many students. But that didn’t mean that notes weren’t to be given. It was almost eerie how the notes, given by me that night, were not interrupted by coughing. We all missed it.
Thanks, Patti said to me.
It’s what I was born to do, I told her. I wondered where the line of journalist, friend, and now director could be drawn, if at all.
Don has seemed to cease being subject of the story. With a lack of information about Don, the focus turns towards the students and the show. In a way we still speak of Don as they are a branch of him; they are his vision and a piece of who he is.
It was the day of the show and there was an aura of anticipation and nervousness. Unfortunately, Don would not be there to see them shine. Don was still in the hospital fighting what the doctors still thought to be pneumonia and he wasn’t getting any better. Despite the depth and strength of my emotions, I put them aside and got up to talk to the students one last time.
Alright you all, this has been quite the experience. You all have been through more as a cast than any show I’ve ever worked on. You all are tougher than anyone I know. This show is for Don. There is no doubt in my mind that he’s thinking about you all right now. Hell, he’s probably trying to get out of the hospital. We know that he’s with us here in mind and spirit, which is stronger than he is physically. You all have taught me a lot in the past month or two, and I know this will go well for you. ARE YOU READY?
Screams and laughter erupted after that final question. They launched themselves at their dressing rooms (two classrooms) to get ready. They easily resembled the stampede depicted in Lion King.
It was call time on stage. Greg, affectionately known as “Line Guy,” tells me their usual schedule. He has gone from reading actor’s lines offstage to having his own, and to running half of the theater department as a student. He tells me they do vocal warm-ups and then end with prayer.
We circled up and prayed as Don lay in that hospital bed, hooked up to numerous pieces of machinery. God, thank you so much for this cast, this talented and awesome cast. I ask that you be with them in their performance tonight and make it the strongest ever. I also ask that you be with Don Cox in his time of sickness and need. We thank you for all you have given us and in your son’s name, we pray… But before the Amen could even ring out loud Greg interrupted with, And as our theater predecessors said before us, GO FORTH AND KICK ASS!
The call was five, three, and then finally one minute. The students had grown restless. Finally, it was time. The lights flashed and went out while the actors were called to the back of the theater. They walked straight up to the stage, out of character and out of costume. This was the idea of two students, Greg and Katie. Greg announced with strength and volume, Thank you all for coming to the opening show of The Skin of Our Teeth. As you know, our director and teacher Mr. Cox is in the hospital. We would like to dedicate this show to him and offer him a prayer.
The show ran like clockwork. It was as an external force drove them through act one, two, and then finally three. As the lights came up for the last time, people rose from their chairs. This show makes you think, or it makes you confused depending on how much you think. It’s a deep show, deeper than most trenches I’ve ever even though about looking into, but the kids pulled it off. I could feel Don smile. He knew that it would go well, he always knew.
The next two shows were stronger than the first. As the shows got stronger, Don got weaker, as if his life force was given to the show to help it carry on. To help the show go on. Another call in the morning had woken me up from a deep sleep. The call confirmed both hopes and fears. Don was still in poor shape, but they didn’t think it was pneumonia. The doctors believed that it could be an auto-immune deficiency (making me wish it was pneumonia). They had intubated him so he could relax. He was also heavily sedated and calm allowing the doctors time to work on solutions.
After the final night and cast party, I woke up the next day. It was Sunday, November 8, 2009, my 22nd birthday. Patti Grayson called me again as if by magic she knew that I was up. She had seen Don today and said he was less sedated. They wanted to make sure all was well, and they wanted him to write a little bit. He was fighting the machines to do things himself and was still coughing. I felt helpless utilizing somebody to get information about Don, but I could not visit him until later that evening. She continued by saying he was squeezing her hand, raising eyebrows in response, and possibly cracking a smile but that it was hard to see with all of the medical tape holding in the esophageal tube. Doctors looked at the results and determined that it wasn’t what they thought it was. Every time he coughed his blood pressure fell dangerously low making them contemplate sedating him again.
Today was my day to go and see him.
What a birthday present.
As I walked into the hospital with Patti the fear of what Don would look like hit me like a brick wall. What would happen if things go wrong while I’m in there? What if I stress him out and caused more problems? I had to talk myself past this and push on. I approached his room and saw him a lot sooner than I expected. The sterile smell and the chill of the room reminded me of the cafetorium back at the high school.
Patti and I donned masks, gloves, and gowns. As we walked in, I was overwhelmed at the sight of Don stretched out on that oversized bed. He had a tube coming out of his mouth, wires and tubes were surrounding him. There was a “whirring” and “beeping” that constantly reminded us his breathing was due to the assistance provided.
Hey big guy, Patti said. The show went wonderfully Don. J.T. did a great job with the kids.
I didn’t know what to say, so I did what I do best when talking to Don, I just opened my mouth. Don, I love you big guy. You mean the world to me. You have a lot of talent up on that stage. I was surprised at the way that they could communicate their relationships to the audience. Don nodded up and down, he understood and heard me. He was too sedated to open his eyes, so this came as quite a surprise to me. His response was the perfect birthday gift, as if that was all I wanted. His hand slid to the side of the blanket that covered him. I instinctively grabbed it, he squeezed. I knew, at that moment, that he was telling me, I told you so. Don always had told me this when things would go right despite all that had gone wrong. I told him that I loved him again and I couldn’t say much more.
The memory and thoughts of Don drove those students to put on a performance powerful enough to bring the roof down. The audience felt it and I felt it. Don empowered the students to move beyond their personal comfort zone and what they thought they could do. This speaks true to Don. In my interview with him back in September I asked him a big question. What do you want to be remembered by?
Don cracked a smile.
I want to be remembered as a teacher who respected teenagers as adults. In many cases I was the first person who DID respect them as adults. That’s why I love teaching teens. They can be a pain in the ass, but I love them.
Today is December 12, 2018, nine years and a day after the death of Donald Emory Cox (aka Don). As I sit back and reflect on this piece, and the life I've led since this piece was written, I hope that Don would be happy to see where I'm at. I know that to the difficulties in life he would say PAH, come on JT, get over it. I know that when things turned out okay he would say See, what did I tell you? A few years after his death I had the opportunity to write an autoethnographic piece in graduate school. I focused on the day I learned of Don's death.
As I edited this narrative journalism piece I realized that I had omitted the end of the story. So, for the first time ever, here it is.
“Dreams, if they're any good, are always a little bit crazy.” ― Ray Charles
Many people have vivid dreams. They dream of kings and queens, of riches, silver and gold. They dream of adventures so extravagant they could never happen in real life. If they did, they would ask for a pinch to see if they were in a dreamlike state. Some people dream of what they wish to be in life, envisioning the kind of future they wish to have. Some people dream of the past and the glories that it held.
Nightmares rule people’s darkness behind their closed eyelids. Swirls of darkness and despair light the passages of our memories and take our worst fears and animate them to become real. Nightmares have a way of seeming more real than reality itself. Night terrors and sweats rule many lives.
I rarely dream.
Unlike many people I talk to, there aren’t a multitude of dreams that go on at night within my mind. There is nothing extravagant or breathtaking, nothing to write home about. When I lay my head down on my pillow and slowly feel my eyes close, I see next to nothing until I wake up the next morning. Where that is the truth, it is also true that I hardly have nightmares. Perhaps my mind is too logical to believe in such thoughts. I’m able to place an impenetrable barrier to separate my emotions enough to keep them away from my sleep.
It’s so sad that I rarely dream. Sometimes I lie in bed at night and try to convince myself that I will. I can’t seem to bring myself to have the consistent dreams that many have. Sometimes I wish that I could even have a nightmare or two just to know that my mind is still alive late into the night.
What I do have are premonitions.
I don’t mean that I am a soothsayer or a fortuneteller. When I do have a vision at night while asleep that I remember, I take note of it. Because dreams and nightmares fail to happen all the time, I can recall each one that does. These occur once every few months. Some people call it déjà vu. I call it a blessing and a curse.
The following is a true story of premonitions. It’s one of the most painful experiences in my life … and I’m a better person because of it.
It is a brisk day, this November 30, 2009. I notice that leaves have fallen off the trees and that a breeze is picking up as I leave my meeting on main campus. The leaves rustle as they encircle each other in an embrace created by that chilling wind. In hues of orange and red, they seem to dance like a freshly lit fire. The cold cuts through me like a knife through butter. Not even heeding mom’s voice in my head advising me to “Always wear a coat and protect your head with a hat” could stop this. I feel the chill reach to the bones of my body, flash-freezing my structure to the core. As I cross the street to East Campus, I notice that the lights of nearly every apartment are on. It is appropriate considering the time of year. We are breaching exam week and most students at CNU value exceptional grades. It’s just what we do and how we feel.
I reach my apartment, heave a sigh of relief, and sink into my desk chair. It was a long day: classes, internship, directing at my alumni high school, and meetings in the evening. This is my average day. But, as I always tell myself, I signed up for this.
There is one thing that I didn’t sign up for. My former high school director, Donald Emory Cox, was stricken sick and in the hospital. I chose to do everything I could to help those kids finish their production, perform it, and move on to the next one. It’s energy and time-consuming, especially for a college senior about to graduate, but it’s worth every minute of being with them.
I was a second semester high school sophomore in a darker place the first time I met Don. He was sitting in his classic black computer chair: round glasses framing his face—a round man, much resembling a pear just off the tree. The old Christmas poem’s classic description of Santa Claus comes to mind.
Don saw potential in me where many saw failure. He saw the ability to produce something out of nothing. It’s as if he had the hands of God and was able to mold a concrete object out of nothing but ideas and dreams. He saw possibility and gave me free reign and the capability to roam the character and get a feel for what or who it was. He saw what could be unlocked and used, that hidden fire just waiting to be stoked and fed.
It is this outlook that brought me to care about him and befriend him, that brought me back over and over again. He truly became a friend and second father figure who I came to love and trust with everything. He lifted me from the darkness that encompassed my being.
It is time for bed. This is the earliest I have been to bed in quite some time. Perhaps I’m getting good at balancing all of the roles and work that I have. I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, it’s only Monday.
✓Turn the TV Off
✓Put on Pajama Pants
✓Turn off Overhead Light
✓Turn on Hanging Christmas Lights
Sometimes getting into bed is a job unto itself. Perhaps I made it that way. I am one to make things more difficult than they have to be as made evident by my senior year schedule. I sink into my mattress and I look up to the hanging Christmas lights in my room. There has been so much going on in life that I haven’t even been able to sit and reflect, think.
I haven’t talked to you in quite some time. I want to thank you for everything that you have given me. I’m getting a good education, I’m working toward a Fellowship at CNU, and my family is doing quite well.
I come to you with two specific prayers.
Please give me the energy to continue on through my days. Between schools, the kids at the high school, and the emotions that are consistently running through my mind I am running on empty. Help me to fill back up again with love, joy, and energy.
My director, mentor, best friend, and second father are in the hospital right now. I know you know this stuff; it just helps me to say it out loud. He’s not doing really well. I’m not sure what’s going to happen. Give him the strength to fight this. If he can’t fight this, and if the unthinkable needs to happen, please let it happen quietly and quickly so that there is little suffering. The thought of a friend in pain is saddening.
You know my strengths and my weaknesses. You know what I can do. Help me to contribute and continue to be strong for these kids, no matter what happens.
The lights begin to glow out of focus and the room disappears as my eyes shut for the night.
I open my eyes to a sepia-toned life. The shadows are stronger and longer than before. Such a weird way to wake up. I hop out of my lofted bed and move my way to the door. I don’t even bother putting on a shirt; pajama pants will do just fine. I grab my phone and head to the kitchen to get some cereal for breakfast. As I pour the milk, my phone rings. Who could possibly be calling me this early in the morning? The sepia-tones begin to turn grey around me. As I pick up I hear weeping, uncontrollable weeping.
J.T., I have something to tell you. Don, he didn’t make it through the night. He’s gone.
I know. It’s … it’s hard. Turn around babe.
As I turn around shades of red arise. Patti, the woman from the phone and the mother of one student that I direct at the high school, is behind me with open arms. To her left is my co-director Stephanie Love. I run to them. They are right next to me. Why is it taking me forever to reach her? All I want is a hug and reassurance that everything will be okay. I can’t reach them no matter how hard I try, crumble to my knees on that cold, hard, and abrasive linoleum kitchen floor, and begin to cry. I have never sobbed like this before.
I fall into darkness as it wraps around me. I’m falling farther and farther into nothingness. I’m lost and I cannot find my way back to those outstretched arms. I need them!
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
I’m going to throw that alarm out of the window one day. Although it’s an early wake up, it’s welcome. As I turn it off I go to wipe the sleep from my eyes and there is wetness to them. I was crying. When was I crying? I turn and look to adjust my pillows and they’re soaked with tears. What is going on?!
The dream came flooding into my memory. It takes a horridly violent grasp on my mind. It won’t let go. I remember everything so vividly. I shake myself off. It’s just a dream, yeah things aren’t looking good, but Don is going to be okay. I shower off the memory of what happened throughout the night. It’s time for another day.
There are moments in which my dreams and nightmares become realities. At times it’s a welcome moment of remembrance. At times it is “really cool” to have something happen that you have seen before. It is in these instances that I can also predict what will happen in the immediate future if the dream lasted long enough.
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
It’s December 11, 2009. It’s a bit more frigid than it has been in the past couple of weeks. The holiday season is gradually approaching. I grab my alarm with precision and anger, frustrated that it woke me up from my deep slumber. It’s the only silence that I get. I hop out of my lofted bed and move my way to the door. I don’t even bother putting on a shirt; pajama pants will do just fine. I grab my phone and head to the kitchen to get some cereal for breakfast. There’s something about a bowl of Wheaties before the day. Perhaps it was my grandfather who drilled that into my psyche. “J.T., did eat your Wheaties?” General Mills should have hired him. As I pour milk into my bowl the phone rings who could possibly be calling me this early in the morning? There is a trembling in the voice.
J.T., I have something to tell you. Don, he didn’t make it through the night. He’s gone.
Don has passed away. He’s no longer in any pain. You going to be all right?
Um, yeah. I think. Uh … I’ll … I’ll see you later this afternoon at the high school.
I stand there staring at the soon-to-be-soggy bowl of cereal. Wait. What just happened? It’s gotta be a joke. This can’t be possible, this isn’t happening. My world becomes divided and black and white fall upon everything. As the world spins around me, and as I stand in my kitchen, I cling to my phone as if it’s an emotional pacifier. As if it can turn back time.
Things are a blur. I cannot think straight. I want to sit down but know that if I do I will never get up. I will never pull from the stupor. I suddenly realize that to balance extreme grief and everyday life is near impossible. I stumble to my bedroom, crashing into the doorframe as if drunk with sadness and choose to break my rule. I flop into my desk chair and sit staring at my closet.
In my closet I notice the bright orange Converse shoes that I wore in my very first production with Don. It was a life changing production. One that saved me from hardship and loneliness. The show that gave me a lifelong friend. I see the ties that I wore as Albert J. Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie, my very first musical. So much trust was placed in me to play the lead as a novice actor and singer.
That was Don though; he placed a world of trust in people who he had just met. He saw the good in people when no one else did. Right beside the tie I see the Technicolor Dreamcoat that I wore as Joseph in my last production as a student. Don taught me so much. My closet paid homage to the lessons that I hold close to my heart. Finally, lying against the wall, my script for The Skin of Our Teeth. The lessons Don taught me flow from my lips as I direct, mentor, and guide those students in the play I volunteered to take over and direct.
As I think of all the amazing times that we had together I fall off the chair and to my knees. Tears flow freely and loudly. The emotional dam burst and I sob uncontrollably and writhe in agony on the floor. I can’t control it. I’ve never been this weak before. My phone rings. I almost don’t check it. Who could I possibly talk to right now? It’s mom:
J.T., I heard about Don. Are you okay?
I don’t know what to do. I have no idea what to think, where to go, whom to talk to.
You can always talk to me. J.T., I know this hurts, but you need to take some time to you, wipe those tears, and take today one step at a time. You know better than I do that Don wouldn’t want you to be like this forever. I’m not saying ignore your feelings, don’t be too stoic, but once you take the time you need, continue on with your day.
Okay … I … I think I can do that.
Will the show still go on?
We’ll figure out what to do with the kids, but I’m sure the show will still go on. That’s what Don would have wanted. The show will go on.
It must be an instinct for parents to call at the right times. I needed that call. I needed that reassuring voice that has always helped and taught me since the day I was born.
As I stand there at the lectern, I feel tears come to my eyes. I was asked by the funeral directors to read the Prayers of the Faithful. It’s a time in which we, as Catholics, come directly to God with prayers for him that we announce within a certain point during Mass. What is there to pray about? Everything I have prayed for is lost. I still pull myself together and stand up there at the lectern.
As I begin I look up at that wooden black box that contains the ashes of my director, best friend, mentor, and second father. I glance over at his photo, taken for the high school yearbook. There he is with that grin and sparkle that made him such a unique person in my life. That sparkle was the glimmer of hope, creativity, love, and passion for what he did and produced. Sadness wells up in me so strongly, I burst into tears. I see the people gathered in the church. It’s easy to see all faces because it is Mass “in the round.” Teachers I’ve known for years are in attendance. The current and alumni students sit there to pay their respects. Even my classmates who vowed never to return for a high school function appear to pay respects to a man who taught them so much. Parents, parishioners, and his personal family are here as well. The church walls drip with the tears shed and each person looks at me with love and understanding. They know what it feels like. They are here with me. They know how much love I had for Donald Emory Cox, the man who turned my life around in just two years of high school.
As the tears flow from my eyes and down my cheeks I have to stop reading for a moment. I cannot see past my glasses. The tears are not of sadness, nor are they tears of joy. These tears re-baptize me right then and there. It is at that point I realize I want to push on in life with Don in my memory. I will become something better and bigger than I am at this very moment. I want to live with valor, morals, virtues, and a love for others. It is time to turn everything around.
I leave the lectern with tears still streaming. I won’t come to understand what is happening during this turning point in my life until I have another moment of reflection in my bed with those Christmas lights glowing brightly on my face. Don would have liked those.
WILLIAMSBURG - Donald Emory Cox was born to this life April 2, 1947 and entered the embrace of his Savior Dec. 11, 2009.
He was preceded in death by his parents, John Thomas Cox Jr. and Jacqueline Sanne Cox. Upon graduation from Randolph Macon College, Don taught and directed theatre in Fairfax while completing his master's degree at American University. He spent the next decade working for Busch Gardens as head of the acting program for the Live Entertainment division. He was instrumental in revolutionizing strolling entertainment. He continued his passion for directing in New York at the American Theatre of Actors, in California and Louisville, Ky., where he was involved with Actors Theatre for several years. The last five years of his life were spent building an outstanding theatre program at Peninsula Catholic High School.