‘Modern Love Podcast’: Liza Colón-Zayas, of ‘The Bear,’ on Loving Someone Who’s in the Fight of Their Life

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archived recording 1

Love now and always.

archived recording 2

Did you fall in love?

archived recording 3

Just tell her I love her.

archived recording 4

Love is stronger than anything you can feel.

archived recording 5

[SIGHS]: For the love.

archived recording 6

Love.

archived recording 7

And I love you more than anything.

archived recording 8

(SINGING) What is love?

archived recording 9

Here’s to love.

archived recording 10

Love.

anna martin

From “The New York Times,” I’m Anna Martin. This is “Modern Love.” This season, we’ve been celebrating 20 years of the “Modern Love” column. We’re inviting some of our favorite writers, musicians, thinkers, and actors to dig into the archives and read an essay that they connect to personally. If you’re a fan of the Emmy-winning FX series “The Bear,” first of all, same, and second of all, you’ll definitely know this week’s guest.

archived recording (tina marrero)

Hey, look alive, chefs. We open.

archived recording 11

[NON-ENGLISH] Let’s go.

archived recording (tina marrero)

All right, come on. Step light.

anna martin

That’s Liza Colón-Zayas. She plays Tina Marrero, a cook at the restaurant in Chicago where the show takes place. And the relationships between the characters who work at this restaurant are pretty intense.

archived recording 12

Oh, fucking loser.

archived recording 13

You want to talk to me like I’m a fucking kid?

archived recording 12

You fucking loser.

archived recording 13

Yeah, at least I’ve got a kid.

archived recording 12

Fuck you.

archived recording 13

You don’t have shit.

archived recording 12

Fuck you.

archived recording 13

You don’t have fucking shit.

archived recording 12

Where were you —

anna martin

There’s so much shouting and button pushing and name calling on this show. I have friends who couldn’t get past the first few episodes.

archived recording 14

Huh? Get the fuck back to work. Move!

archived recording 15

Holy shit.

archived recording 14

Everybody! Fucking idiots!

archived recording 15

Yo.

anna martin

Liza’s character, Tina, doesn’t have the loudest voice on the crew, but she knows how to put someone in their place.

archived recording (tina marrero)

Listen, I have been in this kitchen since before you were born, so just back the fuck off. Excuse me.

anna martin

Liza says she relates to that prickly side of her character. As a young kid, she had to learn how to stand up for herself.

liza colón-zayas

I mean, I got bullied a lot, so I had to, very early on, armor up, like a little chihuahua who acts tough because they’re little. [LAUGHS]

anna martin

She brought a lot of her own identity to the character because there wasn’t much backstory in the script, like where Tina was from.

liza colón-zayas

I didn’t see anything in the script that said I wasn’t Puerto Rican from the Bronx.

I’m a South Bronx kid from the projects. My cousins lived in the projects down the block, my grandparents in other projects slightly further away. And we had each other’s backs. It’s like family. We got each other. It’s going to be very toxic at times. Boundaries, what’s that?

But it’s how we showed our love, you know? In each other’s business.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

anna martin

Today, Liza reads an essay about two friends who’ve loved each other so long and so hard that their boundaries have also dissolved. Their relationship is gentle and full of empathy, even during the most trying time in their lives. And as you’re going to hear, Liza surprised herself with her emotional reaction to this essay because it brought her back to a similar time in her own life.

Liza Colón-Zayas, welcome to “Modern Love.”

liza colón-zayas

Thank you. It’s a pleasure and very exciting for me. Thank you.

anna martin

Liza, before we get into your essay reading, we got to talk about “The Bear,” just for a second. I am obsessed with the show. I can’t wait for Season 3 next month. But also, I get so stressed out watching it.

liza colón-zayas

Yeah, “The Bear” does stress really well. [LAUGHS]

anna martin

Is it as stressful to act in those scenes, as it is to watch them?

liza colón-zayas

It doesn’t feel that way in the moment. That’s not my experience. I grew up with older brothers. I find the way these boys goof and fight to be hilarious and hysterical because I grew up with that. Like when I was shooting the pilot, it was like, we were having so much fun. So then [LAUGHS]: they would yell, cut! We’d start laughing.

anna martin

That’s so good to know because the vibe, when you watch it, is like, oh, my gosh. F-words are flying everywhere. Everyone’s hot as hell.

liza colón-zayas

Yes. Yeah. So that’s what it’s like. So when I finally saw the rough cut of the pilot, my husband and I, I wasn’t expecting it to be like [LAUGHS]: that intense. And my husband, he was like, yo, Liza, this is a really good show, but it’s stressing me out. So. [LAUGHS]

anna martin

Me and your husband are on the same page.

liza colón-zayas

Yes, and a lot of people. And a lot of people. But I think if they’re telling the truth about what that life is like and according to a lot of kitchen workers, we can’t candy coat that. They’re struggling to survive and keeping a restaurant alive.

anna martin

Yeah, yeah. Well, now we’re going to shift gears pretty dramatically to the essay you chose to read for today. We’re going to leave the kitchen behind for a very different setting — a hospital room, where the author’s friend has been very literally fighting for her life. Is there anything you want to share about why you chose this essay?

liza colón-zayas

Well, there were other essays, but this story felt fresh and, though heartbreaking, felt healing. And I’ll just say that I got to see something in the worst possible circumstances be so healthy.

anna martin

Yeah, yeah. This is a really beautiful story about friendship that you’re going to read for us, Liza. Whenever you’re ready, take it away.

liza colón-zayas

Sure.

“A Web Between Her Body and Mine,” by Karen Paul.

“The nurse had to unwrap the bandages that were holding the skin grafts in place in order for Miriam to use the bathroom. I had just arrived at the hospital, the first non-family visitor since the accident, and my timing was such that I got to see my best friend naked for the first time in our many years together.

Miriam laughed, holding her tummy while trying to stand. ‘It’s OK for her to see me this way,’ she said to the nurse, ‘because we have no secrets anyway.’ The nurse chuckled, steadying Miriam as she shuffled to the toilet. The door closed and I stood there, glued to the floor, not certain yet as to my role.

Since the accident, I had been working with Miriam’s husband to set up a visitor calendar. When you’re in the burn unit, you’re allowed one visitor a day other than your family member. And when you’ve suffered third degree burns all over the top of your body and the side of your face, it takes a while before even that is permitted.

This was, indeed, a day to celebrate. The first two grafting surgeries had been a success, and we believed that things were looking up. Once we got Miriam back to the bed, the nurse began the process of rewrapping the bandages and helping Miriam get settled again. The side table was covered with sugary treats from friends. They probably didn’t know about her diabetes diagnosis a couple of years earlier.

Miriam picked up one of those boxes, and with a conspiratorial smile, offered me a chocolate. Knowing that I wouldn’t say no, she took one, too, and we bit into the gooey truffles, sighing with guilty pleasure, knowing that the sugar was bad for her, but not nearly as bad as why she was here.

‘Kate is the best of all nurses,’ Miriam said. ‘She knows how to wrap me up without hurting me. I know I shouldn’t have too many of these sweets, but today is a day to celebrate. I can finally have visitors.’ While it was hard for her to move her head since the burn had snaked its way around her neck, she leaned over to Kate and said, ‘I’m so lucky because my best friend was the first to arrive.’

We had been friends since meeting at work 23 years earlier, both hugely pregnant with our daughters. She and her husband were preparing to move to Washington, DC, and she was trying to figure out what she’d do after the baby was born. The early days of our friendship were conducted through long, gossipy phone calls. Our daughters arrived about a month apart, looking a bit like cousins, both with big, brown eyes.

And our families began to meld. Our family lived beneath hers in a duplex during the nine months our house was under construction. We were able to be together in person more, which deepened our friendship. Our husbands were also close, playing poker and sharing the experience of having lived in the same yeshiva in Israel at the same time, many years earlier.

At some point, texting became an easier method of communication for Miriam and me, and we began having long, rambling text conversations every day. We knew the players in each other’s lives. There was a shorthand for everything since we worked in the same field — non-profit fundraising. We also understood each other’s work problems and accomplishments.

We even shared the same favorite children’s book, ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ and she often quoted its last lines to me — ‘It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.’

Miriam loved to cook and to feed her friends. We spent many a Jewish holiday and Thanksgiving at her home with lavish feasts and a house filled with love and laughter. And she always made sure to make a chocolate dessert for me.

The night of the accident, she was cooking dinner for just her husband and herself. She had not yet changed from her work clothes and was wearing a billowy blouse. The sleeve brushed one of the burners and caught on fire. Instead of stop, drop, and roll, Miriam screamed and froze. Her husband came running into the kitchen to see her engulfed in flames. He doused her and called 911.

I was coming home that same evening from outpatient knee surgery. By the time I got the call that they were in the hospital, I was home with my leg up and unable to do anything to help.

The second and final visit I made to the hospital was on Miriam’s 60th birthday. Several weeks earlier, she’d been planning a party, a festive gathering to mark the end of our pandemic isolation. But instead, she was in the burn unit, continuing her trajectory of surgeries.

I arrived that morning empty-handed. The presents I’d bought hadn’t yet been shipped — two silky scarves that she could use to wrap loosely around her neck when she was out of the hospital. Miriam took her style seriously, and I wanted her to feel chic and beautiful. When I told her about the scarves, she was delighted.

After that day, there was a long line of close friends who were signed up for visits, and I demurred, going again, figuring I would have time with her after her return home. I started preparing to make room in my schedule for daily visits, during which I imagined I would help her walk, move, and dress, whatever she needed. It was going to be a long road to recovery, but the people in her life who loved her were legion, and we’d form a team of support and healing.

After the fifth surgery, Miriam was no longer laughing with the nurses. She’d given up the effort it took to be a good patient, and her spirits had darkened. Then we got the word that she was being released. The evening of her homecoming was to be the first night of Passover.

I was hosting a small seder with my partner and his son. I held up Miriam’s cup, a new seder edition, usually filled with water, representing liberation and life, and told the story of how Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Moses and Aaron, led the Jewish women as they sang and played timbrels, celebrating the crossing of the Red Sea and the freedom of the Jewish people.

Then we drank to my own Miriam’s liberation, after a month in the hospital, the same evening. What I didn’t know is that while I was retelling the story of Miriam’s cup, my Miriam arrived home, walked into her house, laid down and died, most likely of a pulmonary embolism. Her liberation was never to arrive.

In Judaism, when someone dies, the community sits shomer with the body until burial, keeping its hovering and restless soul company until the body is interred, a sacred task. I signed up to sit shomer, and when I arrived at the funeral home, I found the room in the basement. It was next to the space where the taharah is performed, the gentle washing and dressing of the body also done by community members trained in this ritual.

Instead of sitting in the nook with the tiny sliding window that allows you to be present without sitting with the body, I walked directly into the tahara room, chilled and white, and saw Miriam’s body, so still, wrapped in a plain bag on a steel table, reminiscent of the bandages that had wrapped her in the hospital.

I could feel her presence. Her soul was there with us, waiting for direction.

I sat in a chair a few feet away and tried to say something, but for the first time in our many years together, chatting, laughing, texting, words failed me. Instead, I took out the copy of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ I had brought and read the last few chapters aloud to her, weeping because I didn’t know how to tell Miriam what she meant to me. And I would never have the chance again.

As I read the final sentence of the book, I closed my eyes and imagined I could feel the tendrils of a gossamer web spin out between her body and mine. And I could visualize in the middle of the room, out of the complex web that represented our lives and our relationship, a word knitted into sticky threads sparkling with fresh dew — ‘friend.’”

anna martin

Liza, thank you so much. That was beautifully done. And that last scene is so powerful. What were you thinking as you read those final paragraphs?

liza colón-zayas

[SIGHS]: Well, the original attraction to this story was over memory with somebody else. But I recently lost my brother.

anna martin

I’m so sorry.

liza colón-zayas

And —

anna martin

Take your time.

liza colón-zayas

I just didn’t know on his final day what to say.

And thankfully, I had a chance to — I was able to be there for him a lot. But I don’t know. It just feels like there’s nothing I could — that it’s just hard to say. And I love that this story goes back to what two people cherished. And when you have that, that will endure.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

anna martin

We’ll be right back.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

So, Liza, after you finished reading Karen Paul’s essay about her friend’s time in the hospital and her sudden passing, you told me it made you think of your brother because you spent time with him before he died. And you said you really struggled, like Karen writes about in her essay, with knowing what to say. Why do you think it was so hard to find the right words?

liza colón-zayas

Because, for me, I didn’t want to minimize the pain and the fear.

But I didn’t want to be fake, like everything was going to be hunky dory. And grief —

[sighs]

it’s so confusing.

And, yeah, a part of me is like, oh, finally, this person will be out of pain.

But —

anna martin

But also, you don’t want to lose them.

liza colón-zayas

Yeah.

anna martin

I really appreciate you sharing that. It’s making me think about how, when you’re losing someone, even if you know them so well, you’re suddenly in this deeply painful, just totally uncharted territory. You have to figure out how to relate to them in a completely new way.

liza colón-zayas

Yeah. You know that section where she’s like, after the fifth surgery, she was no longer goofing and laughing with the nurses? And that’s hard to deal with when you’re losing someone and you love them, and they are being miserable to everyone.

anna martin

Yeah, yeah.

liza colón-zayas

I’m target practice. That’s what it feels like and being loving and available. And like on my brother’s last day, I walked in the room, and he was heavily medicated. And I walked in. I was like, hey, brother. And he said, I’ll knock you out.

[laughs]

I’m like, I’ll knock you out.

anna martin

I love that.

liza colón-zayas

And the nurse is just looking at this like, OK. [LAUGHS]

anna martin

Oh, oh!

liza colón-zayas

This nurse was trying to like, do something with his IVs and figure out what he wanted because are they actually talking about a physical discomfort, or are they hallucinating? And so he was mad, I guess, at her because he felt cold, and she couldn’t figure out why. He’d been covered up.

And I’m like, Jeff, what’s going on? I’m cold. I’m cold. God damn it, I’m cold. And I’m like, well, where are you cold? He’s like, my arm is cold. So I’m touching him, moving things around, making sure the blanket — and then I’m like, man, he’s losing it. And then as I moved his elbow, there was some ice cubes had fallen down.

anna martin

Oh, my gosh. Wait, he had ice cubes in his bed?

liza colón-zayas

Yes! It had fallen. So I’m like, oh, he’s not just making this up. He is frustrated.

anna martin

Wow.

liza colón-zayas

He is cold. And so I had to apologize. I was like, I’m sorry, bro. You’re right. Here’s the ice cubes I found.

anna martin

I mean, you’re laughing about it now, Liza, but I think what you did was really profound because you jumped in and you made him more comfortable. You did the one thing you could do for him in that moment.

I’m thinking about this moment early on in Karen Paul’s essay where she visits Miriam in the hospital. It’s one of her early visits. She still thinks Miriam is going to make a full recovery. And she writes that she stood there in the hospital room, glued to the floor, uncertain of her role. And it sounds like, in this instance, you knew what to do with Jeff. You found the ice cubes. But were there moments where you weren’t sure what to do for him?

liza colón-zayas

Oh, yeah, there was years of that. There was years of it. And it was a long battle because it wasn’t just for him, right? It’s the whole family, his wife, the kid. His kid who was still in school. And so, when I first heard about his diagnosis, I was in San Diego, working. There was that distance.

But then when I returned back to New York, I was like, while I’m not working, let me just show up and see how I could be helpful. And what do you need? Oh, you need — OK. You need somebody to accompany you today to your chemo or to your dialysis? All right. And not knowing also how long I was going to be needed and if I could rise to the occasion. How long do I have it in me?

anna martin

Yeah, how did you navigate that, deciding what your capacity was to help or when to help or when to back off?

liza colón-zayas

Often it was like just taking a big gulp of air and holding my nose and going underwater. That’s how it often felt like. Just roll up. And it was a conflict because this is my brother, and our relationship was challenging. And this brought us closer. It gave a lot of time to be able to talk about things that needed to be resolved.

It was him asking in his own words that even if I wanted to say no, I couldn’t. This is a man who was strong all his life. Tough, tough construction worker. Some things, you just don’t ask too many questions about. Just leave that alone. It was like that kind of past. And so for him to ask for help, I knew was a lot. And I knew that he felt safe with me.

anna martin

Had your brother ever asked you for help like this before?

liza colón-zayas

No. No. And we all, at certain times, were desperate, and there were situations. Oh, you need to borrow money? I got you. Oh, you need — those things were hard for him.

But I felt like I’m glad he has moved on. I’m glad he’s out of pain.

I guess I felt like I wished there was some sort of confirmation that he knew I loved him.

And I guess that’s the hard part.

anna martin

Liza, I just want to say again before I ask you I think what will be my final question, I just want to thank you for sharing about your brother. I mean —

liza colón-zayas

I had no idea I was going to share that.

anna martin

I had no idea you were going to share that either!

liza colón-zayas

I was going to talk about a friend and this and in Copenhagen and visiting a friend. And then she was on her last legs, and then she got better. And then she recovers and starts a new life, and then quite suddenly, boom, dead.

anna martin

Oh, my God.

liza colón-zayas

That was the whole story I was coming in with. Yeah.

anna martin

Wow. Liza, I wonder if you have any advice for someone who’s going through anything like this at all, losing someone they love, trying to figure out how to care for them.

liza colón-zayas

Observe.

Observe what’s going on with them and what’s going on within ourselves.

My brother would sometimes get really mad if somebody was too fussy or invasive, was asking him too many questions, like, how are you, this and that. So, I learned to just observe. And if he needed something, he’ll tell me.

And it’s OK to have mixed feelings about all of it. Give ourselves permission. We’re not martyrs. We’re not saints.

It’s OK to take a break and do your own self-care.

anna martin

Mm-hmm. Liza, thank you so much for this conversation. I feel really grateful. Thank you for coming on.

liza colón-zayas

Thank you. Thank you.

anna martin

I want to give you a hug. I don’t even know if that’s professional, but also I can’t because I’m states away, but I —

liza colón-zayas

Just come. Just bust into the room like the Kool-Aid Man, and we’ll hug it out.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

anna martin

You can look for Liza in Season 3 of “The Bear.” It’s premiering on June 27th. And you can listen for her voice in the new kids movie “If,” which is in theaters now.

“Modern Love” is produced by Julia Botero, Christina Djossa, Reva Goldberg, Davis Land, and Emily Lang. It’s edited by our executive producer, Jen Poyant, Reva Goldberg, and Davis Land. The “Modern Love” theme music is by Dan Powell. Original music by Marion Lozano, Pat McCusker, Chelsea Daniel, Roman Niemisto, and Elisheba Ittoop.

This episode was mixed by Daniel Ramirez. Our show was recorded by Maddy Masiello and Nick Pittman, with help from SUM1 Studios in Chicago. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Nell Gallogly. The “Modern Love” column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of “Modern Love” projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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