Want to engage further with some of the play’s themes? Here are some reflective questions to consider, along with four video Postcards from the play.
Personal Reflective Questions
- How do you feel after listening to the play?
- What elements of the play resonates most with you? What moments, scenes, lines of dialogue or characters dynamics are staying with you? Why?
- What other thoughts or reflections would you like to share?
We’d love to hear from you! If you’d like to share some of your responses with us, please email Michelle or Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ghost Audrey has begun her journey into the afterlife and she’s a bit disturbed by what she’s seeing out the window. She’s starting to wonder where this train is taking her, and how it works.
Reflection on “Destinations”
“The notion of a journey after death is an ancient one. The identity of the traveller and the nature of the destination vary, but … the concept is an almost universal one. It’s a journey the destination of which depends entirely on the framework within which it is viewed, and that framework is created from a combination of culture, religion and personal belief. All we can really say is that it is a journey to Elsewhere.” – Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, The Art of Dying
Have you ever had the impression that a dying person is embarking on a journey? What are the metaphors or impressions you have experienced as the one who is left behind? Do you have any examples that you might have shared in a eulogy or in a piece of creative writing?
Audrey has been traveling back through times she spent with her daughter Pat. They always laughed together, but there were shadows between them. Ghost Audrey has come back to a day when Pat came to visit her in the senior’s residence. Things were not as sunny as they seemed.
Reflection on “Shadows”
“…we can regain our hope, if our distress signals are finally heard. If our repressed, hidden story is at last perceived with full consciousness, even our immune system can regenerate itself. But who is there to help, when all the ‘helpers’ fear their own personal history?” – Alice Miller, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence.
Audrey wants to know about what Pat’s experiencing, but she’s also afraid to know. Have you ever wanted to tell the truth to a family member or a close friend, but you’ve stopped yourself? Why? What is it that stopped you from being truthful at that moment?
At this moment in the story, Ghost Audrey is sitting on the train with the Conductor. They’re talking about her daughter, Megan. Ghost Audrey has a lot of judgments about Megan. When the Conductor invites her to look more deeply, Audrey is forced to confront her daughter’s painful estrangement.
Reflection on “Ghost”
“Some medical professionals I had met didn’t even believe in fibromyalgia. They implied it was a figment of the imagination, an excuse for not carrying groceries, going to work, doing household chores and getting in line with the rest of the population. …My suffering was invisible. I appeared to the world as Cinderella did to her stepsisters—at best, irrelevant and, at worst, shamefully passive and weak.” Michelle Tocher, The Tower Princess: A Fairy Tale Lived.
Have you ever been made to feel that your experience wasn’t valid because you don’t have any proof? Have you ever been told that your experience is all in your head? What happened? How did you feel? What are your thoughts about the effect of outward judgements on the way we see ourselves?
Where Love Takes Me
In this scene, Ghost Audrey has returned to herself as a young woman. She’s in a crisis, and she’s come to Regina to seek advice from best friend Eleanor. Eleanor reminds Audrey of something she once said that expressed her heart’s resolve.
Reflection on “Where Love Takes Me”
“… ablaze in mystery and paradox, a larger Love waits to set us free. That was the Love that helped me recognize the restricting power of my expectations, and set me in the direction of real change.” – Paula D’Arcy, Sacred Thresholds
What does it mean to you to “go where love takes me”? When in your life did you let your love take you somewhere? What did you experience? What were the challenges and what were the rewards?
INTERVIEW WITH MICHELLE TOCHER
What was missing in the world before you wrote this play?
I have felt the loss of what I would call ‘mother love’ in the world. It’s the love you get from someone who supports you unconditionally and wants you to be true to your nature. You don’t have to fight to prove that you’re worthy. If you have received mother love, your foundational sense of self is secure. A number of my books, stories and other ventures explore the nature of mother love because it’s more than the love of a physical mother. It’s also the way you mother yourself, the way you foster the people around you, the way you relate to the non-human beings of the earth.
In The Departure Train, when Audrey and her favored daughter Pat are shopping in the mall, Audrey says that she didn’t give her younger daughter Megan enough “yolk.” Pat laughs and says, “You mean egg yolk?” Audrey says, “No, stamina. I didn’t give her enough.”
Audrey is only dimly aware that she has treated Megan differently. She conceived her on a one-night-stand. From the time she discovered she was pregnant, Audrey didn’t want the child to be ‘real.’ She has never admitted that to Megan, and Megan has grown up feeling invisible, not entirely here. She struggles to feel that she matters. She’s always asking questions and getting no answers, and ultimately she is diagnosed with an untreatable chronic illness. It’s not stamina that she needs. It’s mother love.
In my memoir, The Tower Princess, I explored these themes in fairy tales and in my own life. I have struggled with the lack of value given to mother love in a patriarchal culture. Fairy tales pretty accurately reflect the takeover in the figure of the ‘evil stepmother.’ Typically, the evil stepmother story begins after the death of the natural mother. The father marries a woman who is abusive, and he turns a blind eye. The protagonist struggles with one or two destructive parental archetypes: the ‘absent father’ and the ‘evil stepmother.’
For the sake of my own health, I have had to engage this ‘evil stepmother’ figure in my psyche. I’ve had to overthrow an internal regime of scouring self-judgement. How do we come back to ourselves? That has been my question. How do we genuinely embrace our own natures with all our natural gifts and imperfections, and hold faith with them?
I know I’m not alone in this internal struggle. I see the absence of mother love playing out everywhere in the world in our obsession with fitness, performance, and winning at all costs. We need to stage an internal regime change and start putting our faith in the goodness of humanity. That’s challenging. To paraphrase something that one of my workshop participants observed, “It seems to me that we have more conviction in the powers of darkness than we have in the powers of light.”
How does this play nourish you?
This play came from a story that I wrote shortly after my mother’s death. I didn’t sit down and think about writing a story about a woman who boards a train in the afterlife. I was struck by an image of light and a heartbreaking feeling I didn’t understand. I wrote the story in a long flash. It felt like a window in a train had opened and I had been flooded in that light. The moment was brief and fleeting, so I wrote the story quickly. Six months later I found the story again, and I fleshed it out. I felt my mother’s love in that story. I felt she had given me a hugely cathartic gift.
A little while later, I read the story to my friend Nicole Arends. When she heard it, she was moved, and she asked me if I had ever considered turning it into a play. Not being a playwright, the idea had never occurred to me. But then, prompted by her dramaturgical questions, I started to unpack the story, and I realized that there was much more in my mother’s gift. It developed into three acts. Nicole played the role of story midwife, asking wonderful questions, holding the story with me. It was a long labor, and I had to really work hard because the play kept evolving. I couldn’t just write it and put it in print, bake it and put it aside. It kept on growing, from 2017 to 2022, transforming to adapt to staging challenges and then to the pandemic. It’s gone from being a deeply personal source of nourishment and catharsis to one that I hope can be shared and found universal. But I haven’t lost that deep personal connection to the story. It can still make me weep.
Before she died, my mother seemed to grow anxious about not having given me enough. She had given me many material treasures, so her concern confused me. Shortly before her death when I was visiting with her in the senior’s residence, she said, “How about this carpet? You wanted a carpet. I could give you this carpet.” I accepted that gift because it was small. A magic carpet from my mother. She left me with many things to do in the world, many practical family matters to attend to, but there was something else she wanted to give me. And it came to me through the window of a passing train.
Our relationships with our mothers are complicated, and our mothers are complicated. I had a lot of fun with my mother, but I didn’t know her as well as I wanted to. I didn’t know her stories. I didn’t know her struggles, her sexuality, her relationships with her parents. My father told me much more about himself than my mother told me about her. There were subjects she didn’t want to open up out of a wish to “not speak ill of the dead” or “dwell on the past.” And so, a whole bunch of stories … I’m tempted to say a whole lot of yolk … went with her into the afterlife.
I know how much my mother’s stories matter because of the loss of them. I know how much indigenous values matter because I am a white woman of mixed European descent who has sought all her life to revive her own indigenous wisdom. It’s not easy to tell the truth in an atmosphere of denial. The dark truths don’t want to be seen. As a storyteller I’m learning that if you hold the dark matter compassionately, it will unfold itself. We’re all muddling through life, having to adapt and survive piercing, shattering things. More than ever, we need stories that see us, that see how fragile we are.
As times become more difficult, as we face more challenges from our bodies, the earth, and the politics of power and profit, I feel a growing and urgent call for stories that restore our faith in humanity. When I was recovering from a major operation a decade ago, I wasn’t able to watch anything on television but the Antique Roadshow. It was comforting to see ordinary people recovering the treasures passed down to them. There are more than enough stories out there to enrage us. In this time of crisis, we need to dig deeper, tell more stories that feel like letters from home.
How does this play address our culture’s death narrative?
My mother was always pragmatic and optimistic about departures. She looked forward to the next adventure and didn’t spend a lot of energy looking back or regretting missed opportunities. Audrey is the same way. She is looking forward to the next adventure and so her death narrative isn’t one that sees death as a “dead end.” She tells her daughters, “I’m going on a trip,” and she wants her travel bag.
“Remarkable metaphors emerge in the voices of the dying,” writes Lisa Smartt in Words at the Threshold. “The metaphor of the journey is a centerpiece in the language of the dying. People speak about reaching the end of one journey and, in some cases, about heading out to another.” Smartt goes on to say that speaking of death as a journey instead of a battle “offers a way to frame the dying process that is more about exploration and discovery than it is about defeat.”
Audrey saw herself going on a train trip. Palliative doctors and nurses have heard the train metaphors before. Smartt quotes a dying man saying:
“I’ve got to get off, get off! Off of this life. I’m dying. I’m dying. The trains keep going by. The trains keep going by, but I can’t get on. I’ve got the ticket. I have the ticket.”
For other people, the transportation metaphor is a boat, a bus, or a beloved car.
I did a lot of reading while I worked with Nicole to develop the story. Fascinating books have been written over the last two decades that address stories in and around the death experience. As Patricia Pearson says in Opening Heaven’s Doors, many of these stories went untold, largely because people died in hospitals, separated from loved ones. In 1992, only 28 percent of dying Americans were departing in hospices. Today that figure has grown to over half the American population. “The hospice movement is beginning to return families to a forgotten experience of intimate death,” writes Pearson, “and those families, along with attending staff, are starting to challenge twentieth-century assumptions arising out of the machine age.”
Increasingly family members and staff are becoming familiar with the patterns of what Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley call “nearing-death awareness.” Something is happening on the threshold, and people are starting to document the experiences in books and research studies. In turn, that documentation is validating the untold stories of families and loved ones. The dying and the living communicate with one another in many different ways, often through dreams, strange coincidences, and telepathic impressions. These experiences are cathartic and transformative for the living, and they indicate that the peace attained near death can be transmitted and shared.
It is my hope that the play can help us to talk about our metaphors of death, and inspire us to share some of our intimate, untold stories. I often think about Pat and Megan at their mother’s death bed, and wonder how Audrey’s spirit might have felt if Pat had said, “What bag, Mom? You don’t have a bag of faith. You’re not going on a trip. You’re just hallucinating.” I believe it is very important to validate our experiences and to understand what that what is subjectively felt is as or more important than what is externally apparent.
RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Breaking Down the Wall of Silence by Alice Miller
Dreaming Beyond Death: A Guide to Pre-Death Dreams and Visions by Kelly Bulkeley and the Reverend Patricia Bulkley
Final Conversations by Maureen P. Keeley, and Julie M. Yingling
On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler
Opening Heaven’s Door by Patricia Pearson
Sacred Thresholds: Crossing the Inner Barrier to a Deeper Love by Paula D’Arcy
The Art of Dying by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick
The Dream and the Underworld by James Hillman
The Tower Princess: A Fairy Tale Lived by Michelle Tocher
Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms: Who and What You See Before You Die by David Kessler
With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix
Words at the Threshold: What We Say As We’re Nearing Death by Lisa Smartt