Life is like a film career…A Tribute to Theresa Neifert

(Note: We lost a friend this last week. The following was written as I was reflecting on my conversations with her and her journey. It is offered here in hopes that it may be of help to her family and friends, and to others who are on a similar journey.)

One way of thinking about a life is like a series of films by one actress. Someone whose career has spanned decades will be known by distinctly different generations as an entirely different person. One of Theresa’s favorite movies, as you’ve heard, is Mamma Mia. She loved the song “I Have A Dream” from that film, and we can almost hear Theresa’s voice singing hope for herself and for us in its words. For now, though, think about this whole span of a lifetime, a career of different film productions with different casts in different locations. There’s the early years – a child star in all her innocence and beauty, surrounded by a big, loving, Italian family on two continents. Initially she was little more than a prop, a foil to the stories of others, but in time her own story started to take shape. We’ve heard references to some of those scenes.

Then, as a child star begins to age, she doesn’t have that ‘cute’ cache anymore and has to find a way to transition to more mature roles. Sometimes that transition is smooth, other times not. Occasionally an actor will take a role in a film that she produces herself, one that is a terrible flop at the box office and costs more to make than it brings in, but which yields some wonderful non-monetary benefits, like wonderful lifelong relationships that are formed on set. Often actors will even string together a series of these films – attempts to recreate their career and their identity. Sometimes it takes decades – Robert Downy Jr. is a good example of that, I think. He certainly seems to have found his stride with the Ironman and Sherlock Holmes characters, though he struggled with personal problems for many years that cost him and others a great deal of sorrow and pain. Kids today probably don’t know anything of that history, and don’t care – they love him for who they know him to be today, and couldn’t imagine him as the frail and troubled character in Less than Zero.

Meryl Streep‘s career spans nearly 40 years and a diversity that swings from the heavy darkness of Nazi Germany and its aftermath to the touching effervescent light of Greece as Donna in Mamma Mia. Along the way she played Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher, and Miranda Priestly. If one had seen only one of these films, they would have gotten a very narrow and particular perspective on who she was.

That’s a long setup to get to give us this notion of how to view Theresa’s life. I marvel at the diversity of worlds that this one woman seems to bring together. Over the span of her life she has had some wonderful adventures and some heartbreaking struggles. Along the way she’s picked up deeply rewarding relationships, including her parents, sisters and brother, four children, her husband Jeff, and so many of you. Some of you played major roles in the adventure films, and others in the darker stories, but all of us were rewarded by being cast alongside her.

One of the conversations that Theresa and I had recently was about some of those films in the middle period – there were some very difficult years. It’s a hard thing to reconcile, because those years also gave her beautiful and amazing children who she wouldn’t trade for anything. Part of the work she had to do in these last few weeks was come to terms with all of that, to receive the gifts of those years and forgive herself for the mistakes made and sorrow caused.

Another conversation we had revolved around this final film role. Everyone cast in a story about cancer hopes and anticipates initially that it will maybe be a dark comedy with a happy surprise ending. But Theresa’s role follows Susan Sarandon in Stepmom, or Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias – there are certainly some laughs along the way, but this is no comedy. But even in those films, there is something for us to learn, we are drawn to them because they are so raw, so real. They help prepare us for times like this – sort of like method acting in reverse – experiencing the theatrical roles vicariously helps us to think about how to live this reality.

We may wish for a final role that is bright and cheerful and uplifting, one that will have folks leaving the theatre laughing, smiling, talking. Some actors talk about wanting their later roles to not tax them so much – it should be more fun than work. That certainly hasn’t been Theresa’s experience these last two years. It’s been a very difficult production, one that cost her everything. But you know what, she gave it everything too. She held nothing back, as far as I can tell, from her family and friends, or ultimately from herself and her God. Paul talks about being poured out, and I think of Theresa when I hear those words. “Leave it all on the set,” that’s what they say. We can tell when an actor doesn’t really seem to be present in the role – they’re not believable. We had none of that from Theresa. She would sweep the awards season, from Cannes, to the Golden Globes, and then the Oscar. Along the way she’d pick up a SAG and even a Moon Man from MTV for her courageous and edgy presence in her final role.

The SAG statue is interesting; the face has no mouth, and the figure holds the comedy and tragedy masks. How often in this final role was there an experience of voicelessness – with the Drs, with family, with God? At times variously a lack of permission to speak, a lack of courage to speak, or a lack of words to speak. It is nice in moments to be able to hold up the mask as if to say, “I really can’t talk right now, so please let this tell you what I’m thinking and feeling. Thank you for caring.” Our word “personality” comes from the Greek (prosopa) or Latin (persona) for those theatrical masks. We talk about ‘putting on a brave face’ or ‘putting on a happy face.’ I know Theresa got tired of being identified as the sick person – as though that defined her person and her reality – and thus defined all her relationships and the people around her. “Let’s talk about anything but me,” she’d say, “Tell me about what’s going on with you.” That was natural for Theresa, as she loved to hear about others and was gracious with her listening ear, but I suspect she had to be far more intentional during her illness to not have the focus be on her all the time. And yet, that can be taken too far also, can’t it. It’s important to be fully present in the role, and to take our monologues and those moments when we should be the center of attention and not let others “steal our scene.” As Iris (Kate Winslet) says in the movie The Holiday, “You’re supposed to be the leading lady in your own life, for God’s sake!” And Theresa certainly was.

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