Kage Baker was maybe the most modest person I have ever known. Despite 30-odd years spent in live theatre, she never, ever got used to changing clothes in public. To most of the rest of us raving exhibitionists, any area that does not actually have audience members in it is private – not so to blushing Kage, who preferred real walls around her. And when you are a redhead, blushing is a serious affair …
She did not, to her credit, make the rest of us comply with her own modesty – no screaming, pointing, laughing or otherwise objecting when some absent-minded compatriot started shedding clothes in the Parlour after Closing. (Though she might be startled if you walked in on her – sorry, Buffalo, she was embarrassed to the end of her days that she shrieked at you.) But she would wait to be the last person to change if it meant she had privacy. She also became inhumanly fast at getting out of one set of clothes and into another – a quick change artist who only worked backstage.
This modesty was one of the hardest things for her to relinquish as her illness grew worse. Everyone knows hospital gowns are inadequate as clothes. Not to mention ugly – why do all the adult ones have designs that resemble cheap watermarks from copier paper? What most people don’t know (until it is their turn), is that the sicker you are, the less you are allowed even those largely symbolic shreds of modesty. Medical personnel who are genuinely concerned with your living to the end of their shift would actually prefer it if you were just naked, so all the tubes and ports and incisions and implants are easily accessed.
You won’t find this mentioned in all those cheery books about facing serious illness with a brave smile – no one tells you that the smile is likely to be all you are wearing. Chicken Soup for the Seriously Ill and Unexpectedly Nude needs to be written. Unless you are a serious plastic and latex enthusiast, this is pretty inadequate. Kage was amused at the B&D nature of most of her hospital outfits, but she didn’t really like them, you know? I remember her mourning the fact that the great and glorious Stormy Leather in San Francisco does not have a purely medical line – really stylish blood pressure cuffs and trusses would be such a boon to patient moral!
One of my biggest jobs this time last year was helping Kage keep her clothes on and fastened. Nurses and doctors treat the fastenings like barn doors – you open it, you perform your admittedly vital job, you leave: but the damned door is still open! I closed them. I got to the point where I could also unfasten them when needed, fast as lightning, so no one complained – like a Noh stagehand, I just made things appear and disappear. I swear, some people never even knew I was there …
Kage never consented to dress down, either. As long as she was active in public, she wore real clothes – carefully selected for good colours and some style. Even when she had to resort to slip-on shoes, they were gleaming white boating loafers, thank you very much. Real nightgowns. A robe. Shawls and lap robes.
I knitted colourful cotton covers for the chemotherapy port in her arm. She wore her golden earrings, her ivory pendents, her hair in a braid as long as she could keep it – and when her hair was cropped for her brain surgery, she had our niece Katie come and trim it into a decent cut.
This has been on my mind since my unexpected sojourn in the CICU. Cardiac Care is definitely one of those places where the personnel want to be able to get at you, fast. Do not be fooled when they offer you two gowns to wear back-to-front: this courtesy is just to lull you into compliance before you get to learn your own Fan Dance with a dozen colour-coded monitor leads. And no one makes those horrid sticky leads patches large enough to do anyone any good. Also, they do not come in interesting colours.
So today, while I went slowly and creakily about on my way to doctors’ offices and pharmacists, I was grateful for the ability to wear jeans and T-shirt. Whole garments! That don’t have break-away fastenings!
Kage had standards. I feel I have to keep them up. Because even for an old trouper like me – who thinks nothing of wandering about the Parlour in my corset – those horrid wretched flapping gowns are too much. Or too little. You know what I mean.
Tomorrow: in London, they are going crazy …