An Interview With Lila Lipscomb by Jennifer Jonassen
An Interview With Lila Lipscomb by Jennifer Jonassen
As an actor, every now and again a project comes along that is something special. The experience I have had thus far in Bury The Dead has been nothing less than transformative for me. It has become the work that I am most proud of. But it didn’t start out that way. In the beginning and well up to the opening night performance I was struggling to surrender myself to the emotions that the script demanded of me. I was trying every actor trick in the book but to no avail. I was frustrated and to an extent creatively blocked. I was crying offstage at my inability to cry onstage! The role I have been playing is a mother of a soldier who dies while fighting in Iraq in a play called: Bury The Dead by Irwin Shaw.
Feeling the enormity of what I was being asked to portray, I revisited the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 for insight. In the film there is a mother featured named Lila Lipscomb who is so inspiring I was compelled to write her. To my surprise she wrote me right back! She has been astonishingly generous and deep-hearted with me, sharing intimate details of what she went through… including, “The very day the army knocked on my door.”
Incredibly, and true to her self-less nature, Lila went out of her way to over-night to me an angel pin she wore on her lapel after Michael was killed so I could wear it onstage on opening night. Moreover, she has continued to nurture and support me through this challenging production. It is my very great honor to share her with you. The fact that this is the December issue seems an almost divine irony, as Christmas 2002 was the last time she saw her son Michael F. Pedersen alive…
JJ Lila, what did you think when you first read my email?
LL I thought, my goodness, this is a woman on a mission. To know that you had taken the time to do the research to find me and that you thought I might be able to help was a blessing. I automatically felt a connection to you and your dedication.
JJ As a mother who has lost your child in the Iraq War how do you want to be represented onstage?
LL As a loving, caring mother who would do anything for her child. A woman who would, even through the greatest pain in her life of having her child ripped out of her heart, would convince her child that passing onto the next life with our Lord is the best thing for him. (Lila is referring to the script for Bury The Dead which calls for the loved ones of the dead soldiers to convince them to pass over)
JJ Lila, It was such a blessing for me to get to know you and then through you I got to know Michael. Can you share a little bit of him with us?
LL My Michael could be quite a prankster. He loved life; he loved to fulfill it to the hilt! He loved scaring his brother and sisters. He loved snowball fights; he loved playing snow football with plastic garbage bags tied to his feet inside of his boots to prevent them from getting too wet too fast. He loved playing the Super Mario Nintendo games with me all day when I let them stay home from school for no other reason but that we wanted to all be together for the day and play Nintendo! He loved being the protector of his little brother and sister. He was always the protector and the peacemaker. That is how he died. He was not originally scheduled for the flight. (His was the first helicopter to be downed in Karbala Iraq on April 2, 2003.) However, one of the soldiers that was scheduled was exhausted and so, my son being who I and his step dad raised him to be, volunteered. Still today, even though I hate him not being here in the physical, I would not have expected anything different. He loved what he did; it made him the man he was when he died.
JJ Because you shared so much of Michael with me, the war is very real to me now in a way it wasn’t before
LL The war became real to me during my son’s last visit home. It became real when he stopped me in the hall in our home and shared with me the news of his orders of de-throning Sadam and his army….(Lila is crying.) Then after he left for Iraq came the sitting for hours and hours glued to the television watching the news wanting a glimpse of him, and at the same time being scared to death that I would see my son hurt. Before, I would know of the wars but not have it touch me personally.
JJ I really try now to remember that the numbers we hear about are standing for the actual lives of young men and women who are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers like the rest of us. But I have to admit, it is sometimes challenging to humanize our soldiers because they are presented to us primarily as numbers and statistics. And sadly, their deaths are brought up almost as an afterthought on the news. But now when the news reports on the death of a soldier I stop and pay attention. I think about their names, and try to remember them. I listen to what their loved ones say about them. I think of what it would mean to lose one of my sisters or my nephew like that.
LL Over the last five years I have seen how war does not mean anything to anyone who does not have a personal attachment — the way it did not mean the same to me. When and only when a loved one has to be called does one really pay attention. Yes, there are some out there who are trying to change things, but unless they are faced with the loss or possible loss of a dear one they can’t imagine how it is. Getting the news of my son being killed is the most difficult thing I will ever face. There is no place to put the pain that engulfs me. The flesh aches so much, my spirit cries with the pain that is so deep, tears just fall from an unlimited supply.
JJ Lila, I cannot even begin to imagine what it is like to lose someone so tragically… And I am very ashamed to say that in the past I have been numb to what is going on, ill-informed, and even dangerously close to becoming apathetic.
LL One thing I have seen more and more of over the last few years is individuals who “go along to get along”. We have individuals who don’t take the time to learn things for themselves really. They don’t want to make trouble and do not like to be confronted so they just go along to get along. Individuals vote for the same people because the names are familiar to them, not for what they have or have not done. To me this is so dangerous not just for them as individuals, but also for a nation. I believe that if we did not have individuals in the decision making process that went along to get along, instead of standing for their own beliefs, then I would not have had to bury my son.
JJ I promise you I will never again vote ignorant of the facts Lila. I will learn as much as I can before casting my vote in any election…What else can we do? What can we do to support the soldiers and their families?
LL Smile with them, acknowledge them with a handshake a hug or a standing ovation, I have not found one yet that has refused my thank yous. And as a nation we need to pay attention to how we take care of these precious gifts once they come home. Start looking at how may Iraq Veterans are now homeless, look at how many come home and their jobs are not held for them as promised. Look at the high rate of medical needs they have. Make sure that when you see someone in uniform you give him or her the utmost RESPECT! You never know what their eyes have had to see or will have to see. Pray for them always.
JJ How do we support our troops who are still overseas?
LL Remember that it only takes a moment to identify a military unit or web site to visit and send a card or care package. When Michael got there they did not have anything. No toilets, showers, tent’s with no air. We had to send a lot of eye drops and baby wipes or clean wipes. Now they have a lot of what they need so sending things like books is always a great gift. Michael loved to read, he kept his Bible close but also loved Stephen King. Reading helps to keep the soldiers minds busy and away from the war.
JJ What is the best way to support the families who have lost a loved one?
LL This is the fourth year without him for Christmas. The last time I saw him alive was Christmas of 2002. So this season gets very difficult for me. If it were not for my faith, my friends, and lots of prayers from a lot of people I would be one of the Mothers who literally cannot get out of bed each day. But by the grace of my God… If you know someone who has lost someone please make sure they do not withdraw and become too isolated. Ask them what they need – without overpowering them. Be sincere. Just be real about your concern, don’t ask just because you think it is the right thing to do. It really helped me when my friend would say: “Lila, What is it you need?”
JJ What is it you need, Lila?
LL Sometimes just having an ear to listen is enough – to be allowed to talk-to share and be able to cry and know others want to hear. The release of being able to share is like a boiling pot on a stove, if you don’t open the steam valve it blows off the top. Ask, be real and take the time to listen to us. I hope and pray that others can find it in themselves to be as real as you in your love and concern Jennifer.
JJ Lila, thank you so much for being so generous to me. Thank you for sharing Michael with me and everyone else in this country. The sacrifice you and Michael and the rest of your beautiful family have made for each and every American will never be forgotten. I admire your courage and your loving heart and marvel at your resilience. I am profoundly changed for having known you. Out of all of the roles I have played this one is the most special to me. I cannot say that what I did onstage could ever replicate or come near the pain you go through continually as a mother who lost her baby. But as much as I could, with my whole heart, and to my very best ability I tried to honor you and all of our 3, 866 American mothers as well as all the hundreds of thousands of mothers overseas who have lost a child in this war.