The Broken Ornament
SAM: 29, older brother of HANNAH, is never in the same place for long, has just gotten home from being away for nine years to discover his mother has Alzheimer’s
HANNAH: 26, sister of SAM, a painter, the caretaker of the family, orderly, wants everything to appear as normal as possible
CHLOE: 61, mother of HANNAH and SAM, has moderate to advanced Alzheimer’s, believes it is Christmas in 1995.
A suburban living room in July. Though it is sunny and hot outside, the room is entirely adorned in Christmas decorations, complete with a large tree in the center of the room, almost completely filled with ornaments, tinsel, lights, etc. It is afternoon.
(Lights up on a living room. Around the room are scattered Christmas decorations: garlands, holly, etc. There’s a couch with a few presents on it, wrapping paper is tossed about, and in the center of the stage is a large, almost completely decorated tree. SAM is on a step-ladder next to the tree, dressed in shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops. He is pulling down ornaments from the tree one by one and tossing them into a box at the base of the ladder, where each shatters. HANNAH enters wearing a Santa hat, jeans, a sweater, and is clearly sweating. She is carrying presents.)
HANNAH. What—what are you doing?
SAM. (picks up an ornament, inspects it carefully) “December 25, 1986: Baby Girl’s First Christmas.” (turning to HANNAH) You were cute then, you know.
(SAM tosses the ornament into the box where it breaks. HANNAH gasps, dropping the presents.)
HANNAH. Stop! Sam!
SAM. And look, another “First Christmas.” Except this one’s mine. (He tosses the ornament into the box, it shatters.) Oops.
HANNAH. Sam, you’ve got no right to—
SAM. I remember when there were just five ornaments on this tree, Hannah. (begins ticking off his fingers) One from the year they met, the year they got married, the year they had me, the year they had you, our first family photo. Oh, and the star, always the star. That was the one that was up first.
HANNAH. I didn’t let you back in this house to start tearing it apart, Sam.
SAM. Mom got new ornaments every year, you know. Or made them. She hated the fake ones, all perfect and glittered and shiny and just like every other tree on the block. (He pulls off an obviously store-bought ornament, looking at it for a moment before tossing it into the box.) I bet she knows she didn’t buy this one.
HANNAH. She doesn’t.
SAM. When did she stop getting the ornaments, Hannah?
HANNAH. She had at least three for, what, every year since we were born? Something special about that year, the recital you were in, my junior prom.
SAM. Was it the year dad left, you think? Or the year I did? Or was it the year she started thinking that it was 2001 again? I would’ve taken you as someone to notice those types of things. Then again, you’re the one who’s putting up a Christmas tree in one of the biggest heat waves we’ve ever had.
HANNAH. Just let me explain, Sam.
(SAM stops breaking ornaments, steps down from the ladder to speak on her level.)
SAM. I read the doctor’s note on her desk. That explained enough. It says she has breakdowns. That it’s moderate to advanced, that she’s going to start losing her depth perception and her speech and her sanity. That she’s got less than three years—
HANNAH. That’s just a bunch of medical talk—
SAM. She thought I was Dad, Hannah! Our father, who couldn’t get his shit together except to escape up some chimney like a thief in the night. Yeah, I saw her. First thing when I got here, in the kitchen. And I was greeted with a kiss and “Leo, I thought you’d never get home from work.”
HANNAH is silent.
SAM. You know what she told me after that? How nice it was that we were all together for Christmas, that Sammy was home from college and Hannah was helping her cook the turkey.
HANNAH. She thinks it’s Christmas.
SAM. And you’re just letting her?
HANNAH. That’s what we’re supposed to do, Sam. Just… go along with it like everything is perfectly normal.
SAM. As if that isn’t a familiar sight to this family. How many years did we pretend we were happy at Christmas after he left?
SAM. When were you planning on telling me about this? Were you planning on saying anything?
HANNAH. I was going to, Sam. I just…
SAM. I have every right to know.
HANNAH. You’re never here! How could I have told you if you’re never here?
SAM. I do have a phone. And email. Facebook, Twitter. And everything says “contact here.”
HANNAH. You never check and you never answer. I never even know where you actually are.
SAM. It was Seattle this time.
HANNAH. That’s a change.
SAM. I swept the floors in the Space Needle, Hannah. It’s not something to fawn over.
HANNAH. There used to be a time where you would’ve given your left hand just to touch the Space Needle.
SAM. Well, I got to touch it a lot. Mostly the restrooms, and the kitchen floors.
HANNAH. Why’d you come back, Sam?
SAM. (shrugs) Maybe I just thought it was time.
HANNAH. You haven’t been back for more than 24 hours since you dropped out of college nine years ago. And only then to grab more money and run. It’s true and you know it. You’ve been moving, what, every two, three months since you were twenty? Never the same place twice, never the same job. Seattle was just your latest gig. So what is it now? Need more money for New York? Paris? Rome?
SAM. I don’t need money.
HANNAH. Oh, cause being a janitor pays so well?
SAM. And your paintings sell for how much exactly? Because last I checked you weren’t selling anything.
HANNAH. When did you get like this?
SAM. Around the same time I realized you can’t live on Ramen and a half-earned college degree. At least I get to be around the shit I used to love, the buildings and cathedrals. It’s good enough for me, I guess. (pause) I called last week, did you know that? Mrs. Miller from across the street answered the phone, said she was watching the house while you were out looking for mom.
HANNAH. She didn’t tell me.
SAM. It felt great to find out from the lady whose lawn I used to mow that my mother escaped from her own house and ended up downtown, not knowing who or where she was. Why didn’t you say something? I call, Hannah. Not often, but I do. And you should have been the one to tell me. I shouldn’t have to come home and find she can’t remember past my 18th birthday.
(SAM reaches out for another ornament, looking straight at her as he takes it and forcefully throws it down into the box where it shatters.)
HANNAH. Will you just stop it? I get it, you’re mad, but stop!
SAM. They’re not worth a thing to anyone anymore.
HANNAH. How can you say that? They mean something to her!
(SAM pulls off a Texas A&M themed ornament. He looks at it for a moment and tosses it into the box.)
SAM. My first year at A&M? She can’t remember that, can she? No? Didn’t happen.
(He tosses it into the box, grabs a long graduation tassle from the tree.)
SAM. She doesn’t remember you graduating from art school, your showcase.
HANNAH. You weren’t even there.
SAM. I came to the opening! I left after, caught a flight to New York, but I still came. I still remember. That’s more than I can say for Mom.
(HANNAH grabs an ornament from the tree, a miniature painting.)
HANNAH. Remember this?
SAM. From your thesis?
HANNAH. (nodding) I did miniature portraits of us. And the only one mom wanted to keep was the one of dad.
(She places it back on the tree. She grabs a miniature skateboard.)
Or this? You rode that board to school every day. Mom hated it.
SAM. Hannah, what’re you—
HANNAH. (laughing) And she said you were gonna break your leg riding that thing, and she told you not to do it, and then you ran into that car—
SAM. The car ran into me!
HANNAH. And you broke both legs. God, she was so mad. Mad at you, at the other driver, at me for laughing, at herself for letting you get on that board in the first place. And you know what? If I show her this, she remembers it. She remembers my show and the leg breaking and everything that happened before you left, and I’m trying to bring back the memories from after. (reaching forward and snatching the ornament from SAM’s hands) This, these ornaments, they help. She doesn’t get scared when the tree is up, doesn’t run screaming through the house because someone she doesn’t know is in her bedroom with her. The tree soothes her, Sam, so stop ruining it.
(SAM moves to the couch, where he sits among the wrapping paper.)
SAM. How often does she do that?
HANNAH. Every few weeks. She only got out of the house once. Most of the time she’s good. She just… I tell her Hannah’s off at art school and I’m the new housekeeper and she just goes on as normal.
SAM. Hannah, you can’t take care of her.
HANNAH. I’ve been doing it for five years, I can do it for five more.
SAM. And you’re going to, what, continue getting presents? Hoping she doesn’t look up one day, completely lucid, and understand this shit act you’ve been putting on?
HANNAH. I said I can take care of her!
SAM. How about when she goes into the grocery store and after a few minutes forgets where she is? When she stops being able to bathe or move or shit by herself? She needs to go to a home, Hannah. You can’t give her what she needs.
HANNAH. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not here, you can’t know.
SAM. I know from what I’ve seen. She’s not okay, Hannah. And putting up a tree with her ornaments and presents underneath and a big fucking star on top isn’t going to make anything better.
HANNAH. The doctors say to just go with it, if it makes her happy. And Christmas makes her happy so goddamn it if I don’t try. I’ll wear the Santa hat and the sweater and wrap presents in hundred-degree weather because I’m all she’s got.
SAM. You’re gonna kill yourself.
HANNAH. I’ve managed this far. What right do you have—
SAM. It’s not like she’s getting better, Hannah. She’s got, what, two, maybe three years left? You can’t do this.
HANNAH. Since when have you given any hint that you cared, Sam? I’ve given up everything to take care of her. My painting? I haven’t painted since… God knows when. (pauses) And here’s the rub: the last portrait I sold, the one I was keeping for myself? It was the one of you, of when we were little and you still gave a damn about us, about me.
SAM. You stopped painting?
HANNAH. About five years ago. Right when they were just diagnosing her.
SAM. I—I never thought.
HANNAH. No, you never think. (sighs) Just leave, Sam. Go to Paris. Look at Notre Dame, think of the things you could’ve built. I can handle things here.
SAM. There’s used to be this home down the road. I remember hearing good things about it. She wouldn’t be far from you, just a few minutes walk. They’d take real good care of her.
HANNAH. I’m not gonna abandon her. Not like…
SAM. Not like what?
HANNAH. Not like our father, not like you. I promised I would take care of her and that’s what I’ve done. I won’t let there be another promise-breaker in this family.
SAM. I didn’t break any promises!
HANNAH. You fled in the same way as him! It broke her, Sam. It left her hollow and, God, you know what’s sick? Part of me is glad she doesn’t remember the pain of you and Dad being gone.
SAM. I couldn’t just sit in a classroom for years thinking about seeing things. I had to actually see the cathedrals and castles and towns. So what if I didn’t finish college. I got to touch the Duomo in Florence, feel the tiles and walk the spiral staircase to the dome. Mom wanted me to climb that dome.
HANNAH. She wanted you to come home! She wanted you here for Thanksgiving and Christmas, so we could spend time as a family, however broken. And you just took off with a dream of being near the greats, instead of trying to fulfill what you always used to talk about. Even if you couldn’t come home, she wanted you to do what you love.
SAM. Well, she doesn’t now. I don’t think she knows what she wants. (pause) You think your ornaments and your memories will help? Well, they won’t. She’s gonna get worse and worse and then she’ll die, and it’ll kill you, Hannah.
HANNAH. Will you just let it go? I said I’d be with her till the end. I’m not going to put her in some home.
(CHLOE enters the room, HANNAH and SAM fall silent. A large smile crosses CHLOE’s face and she holds her arms out to SAM, moving forward to embrace him.)
CHLOE. Oh, Sammy! Sammy, you came back just in time!
SAM. Hi, mom.
CHLOE. Hannah, baby, get the presents. Sammy’s home, get the presents. (She pulls SAM down to the couch with her) We don’t have to wait for Daddy to start opening. I won’t tell if you won’t.
HANNAH. (smiling) I just finished wrapping them, Mom. They’re all there, right under the tree. Which one do you want me to get?
CHLOE. Oh, honey, you know you didn’t have to wrap them for me, I would’ve done it.
HANNAH. I like wrapping presents for you.
CHLOE. The one for Sammy, the square box. Here, I’ll find it.
(CHLOE goes to get the box from under the tree, and HANNAH steps back, looking to SAM.)
HANNAH. Don’t you say anything, Sam. She’s happy; just let her be happy.
SAM. You’re icing a burnt cake.
HANNAH. Don’t you call my mother a burnt cake.
CHLOE. I can’t find it. Which one is it?
HANNAH. It’s the square one, mom. In the blue wrapping paper.
CHLOE. I can’t find it.
HANNAH. Here, mom.
(HANNAH moves presents around and places one in front of CHLOE.)
CHLOE. Aha! (pulls out the present, gives it to SAM) Open it. I went and got it for you all the way in the city. Open it, Sammy!
(SAM hesitantly takes the present from her and begins to unwrap it. He pulls out a small model of Westminster Abbey from the box.)
SAM. (to HANNAH)I remember this. She gave this to me years ago, I left it in my room.
HANNAH. I think I left it out, once, when I was cleaning. She wanted to give it to you.
CHLOE. (oblivious to the other conversation) I remember how much you like that—that—
SAM. Westminster Abbey.
CHLOE. Westminster Abbey! You always talked about how you wanted to go see it. With the—the— Those things that hold it up?
SAM. (sympathetic) Flying buttresses?
CHLOE. Flying buttresses! You always talked about those. So I wanted to scrape together a few pennies, Sammy, and help you get there.
SAM. Mom you didn’t have to—
CHLOE. Oh, hush. You can go right after you get out of school this summer. I got it all set up. We’ll have to eat soup out of a can for a while but—
(CHLOE goes silent for a moment, looking at the box on the floor, then shoots up from her seat, interrupting him with a shriek as she rushes over to the box. )
CHLOE. Who broke my ornaments?
(SAM and HANNAH say nothing, though they eye each other above their mother’s wails. CHLOE begins to take out the shattered pieces of a few of them.)
CHLOE. (beginning to cry) Oh, they broke my favorites. The ones with the baby pictures.
SAM. Mom, be careful, the glass!
CHLOE. Oh, I spent so much time on these. Remember how you helped me paint Hannah’s, Sammy?
SAM. That was so long ago, I don’t—
CHLOE. You did! Wouldn’t let me paint the inside pink because you wanted her favorite color to be blue, like yours.
SAM. (laughing) My favorite color wasn’t blue, it was red.
CHLOE. Well, you didn’t want hers to be pink, I know that. (placing the broken ornament back in the box) Oh, Sammy was so good to her when they were little. Do you remember that?
SAM. I was just an older brother. I didn’t do anything—
CHLOE. He loved her more than anything in the world, more than every one of his toys. I swear, he thought baby Hannah was his most special toy. (to SAM, as if he were her husband) Remember the first time he held her, just a little thing himself?
SAM. I was too young to remember that, Mom.
CHLOE. He cradled her head, just like I told him to. And from that moment on, I think it was love. Never let her out of his sight. I once nearly had a heart attack because he had taken her to his room, put her on his bed because he wanted to have her sleep close to him. Remember that? Remember?
SAM. I remember.
CHLOE. I found them curled up close, her fingers wrapped around his arm. It was sweet, how much he loved her, but it scared me half to death. They were… they were so good to each other. So good.
(CHLOE pauses, as if suddenly realizing where she is. She looks around frantically, finally focusing on SAM and frowning.)
CHLOE. Who are you? (more frantically, still looking around) Why are you in my house?
HANNAH. It’s late, Sam. She gets bad when it gets late, when the sun goes down. You should just go.
SAM. You… you look tired, Hannah. What can I do?
CHLOE. (disoriented) Who broke my ornaments? Oh, I love my ornaments. Who would break them?
HANNAH. I have to get her in a quiet place, get her to bed, make her calm down before she gets worse.
(CHLOE begins to wail, and HANNAH rushes to help her up, but she swats her away before pulling the box of broken ornaments closer to her. SAM grabs CHLOE by the arm and slowly makes her rise.)
SAM. It’s me, Chloe. It’s Leo. Let’s go get you to bed, okay? It’s just me; it’s Leo.
CHLOE. (Settling, then caressing SAM’s cheek with her hand) Oh, Leo. You’re home. I knew you’d come home.
(SAM leads CHLOE offstage, leaving HANNAH looking on after them. After a moment, she sighs, then bends down to pick up the unbroken ornaments from the box and puts them on the tree. Lights fade.)