“Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”
— Tennessee Williams, “The Glass Menagerie”
My niece Madison is determined — sometimes stubborn. Not her fault. My mom was the same way. Born a Strong, she was just that until cancer took her in 2007. The name wasn’t passed down, but the trait certainly was.
My sister remembers Madison as a bundle of energy, always running way ahead when they were out together. If her dad worked on a project, she was right there, handing him tools. While remodeling my sister’s candy shop, Madison held up the cabinets while her dad fastened them to the wall. At school, she loved singing, and acting and dancing.
There were things she couldn’t do, like whistle, wink, smile broadly, ride a bike. She often seemed double-, even triple-jointed.
Much of that, and other things, made more sense after she was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in her early teens. It would mean, over time, bowing to certain physical realities — for a time she stopped taking dance — but not a change in attitude. Her parents, Joe and Mel, encouraged her to be independent and to stand up for herself.
Walking became increasingly difficult. Worried for her safety, some urged her to use a wheelchair or scooter more often. She resisted. Tell her she couldn’t do something, and she pushed back. “If I can’t do it one way,” she once told her aunt, “I’ll figure out how to do it another way that’s best for me.”
Her friends, especially the core group from day-care days — Meredith, Emily and Ellen — were always there. Still are. They carried her books, walked at her pace down the halls, included her in all things.
Madison only accepted an elevator key in high school when she could no longer handle the stairs. But for graduation, she was determined to walk. That caused some concern. What if she couldn’t make it? What if she fell?
She was falling down a lot then, her legs no longer strong enough to support her.
“I remember the first time she fell with me,” my sister said. “She was going to the prom and I took her to a place to look for gowns. And right in the store she fell. I was devastated. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what do I do?’”
What did Madison do?
“She picked herself up and went on looking for gowns. She just kept going right on. That’s the thing about her. She doesn’t let anything hold her back. She’s got plans, she’s got dreams, she’s got goals and she’s heading toward them.”
One goal was college, and Muhlenberg College’s Theater and Dance Department couldn’t have been more accommodating. Theater director Charles Richter and others made Madison feel at home. She “crab walked” in “Woyzeck,” part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2011, and appeared in “Three Sisters,” “The Odd Couple: Female Version,” and “Rumors.” She was part of an all-woman sketch comedy group Damsels in Excess and danced with a campus improv troupe. As Camillo in “The Winter’s Tale,” she scooted up and down the hills of the fully accessible set. In one scene, a fellow actor helped Camillo stand, placed her feet atop his and they danced.
Another goal was travel. She’s been to Egypt, London, Ireland and Australia, the last two traveling on her own.
“She’s always been so incredibly brave,” her cousin said. “If I were in her shoes I can imagine MD really slowing me down. When I travel I know what to expect and can rely on myself. She has to be willing to ask for help and be willing to get in situations where she doesn’t know what will happen, even if there will be a bathroom she can use. She’s just totally willing to put herself out there.”
Then there was that goal of moving to New York City to pursue an acting career. Outwardly, the family was “Go, Madison.” Inwardly, as my sister said, “Everything she does you worry.”
There have been challenges. Stranded underground at a subway stop with no working elevator. (Yes, New Yorkers will carry you and your scooter up several flights of stairs if you ask them nicely.) Padlocked out of a sublet apartment, the charger for her scooter battery inside. Gunning her scooter off a sidewalk with no curb cut. Being rejected for acting jobs.
There have also been successes. She joined two dance performances choreographed by Jerome Bel, one at the Martha Graham Studio and the other at the Joyce Theater. And then this lightning bolt that struck last year: winning the role of Laura Wingfield in the Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie,” starring Sally Fields.
Outwardly, the family was, Holy moly. Inwardly … pretty much the same. Recently, Madison, her cousin, and others were near the Belasco Theater, where signs, with Madison’s name, announce the coming of “Menagerie.”
“I was giddy,” her cousin said. “I jogged ahead of her to see it because I was so excited. And when this family was passing I shouted, ‘That’s her!’”
When the family sees the play for the first time — it’s a large clan but we’ll leave some tickets for others — I imagine it will be like the night of her high school graduation. She had convinced people to let her walk, and her classmates were so incredibly supportive. Still, it was hard to watch. We were in the bleachers — breath held, a little misty, very proud — as she slowly, painstakingly, made her way to that hard-earned diploma.
She did it. There and back to her seat. There’s no stopping the determined and strong.
Kevin Ferris is The Philadelphia Inquirer’s commentary editor. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.