61529

Act II, Scene I: Lisa Valentine Clark on grief, laughter, and love

by | Jul. 21, 2021

Lisa Valentine Clark was in San Francisco hosting an episode of BYUtv’s Random Acts when she got a call from her husband that brought on the first panic attack she had ever experienced. She could no longer hide her grief from her coworkers. After months of testing and trying to figure out what was going on with the health of her then-43-year-old husband, Christopher Clark, the worst possible case scenario had been confirmed: Christopher had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease that ravages the body. While she was on set, Christopher called to talk with Lisa about a specialist, and the reality of the situation became overwhelming. Lisa finished the TV shoot and then went home to take on one of the most important, and challenging, roles she’s held yet: caregiver.

From 2016 to 2020, the disease would rob Christopher—a writer, director, and actor, as well as theater chair and professor at Utah Valley University—of his ability to communicate verbally and to move. Toward the end of his life, the disease confined Christopher to a wheelchair, where he used a computer to “speak.”

When he passed on June 5, 2020, people flooded social media with “Well roared, Lion,” a nod to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Christopher loved. And Lisa? She was his lioness. They were a perfect pair. While they weren’t exactly the same—she is a blue and he was a yellow on the Color Code personality test—they are both funny and charismatic, always entertaining people in some capacity or another. In fact, they met as students at Brigham Young University performing in a comedic stage play where Lisa was cast as a chicken on Noah’s ark and Chris played the role of Satan. They were married in 1995 and, over the next 25 years, there was never a competition between them over who could be the funniest. They just genuinely thought the other was hilarious. In short, they adored each other.

“She had the life,” says Richie Steadman, her radio cohost on The Lisa Show for the past two years. “She had the husband, she had the five kids, they were able to travel abroad. . . . [Their marriage was] the perfect sort of scenario where they were bonded together. He was the Ken to her Barbie, [she was] Lois Lane to Clark Kent, in every way perfectly matched. And then, for no reason except that he had a terminal disease, it was taken from her.”

As Latter-day Saints, we believe in marriage that lasts beyond the grave and that families can be together forever—we believe in happy endings. But what about the all the scenes of life before the happy ending? Lisa Valentine Clark is now a widow with five children. She is young and talented and beautiful, but, as she puts it, “the years ahead are looking pretty long.”

“There’s nothing I can say that would put a nice bow on it,” Lisa says. Instead, she says the loss of a spouse sinks down inside of you and changes the way you see the world, and your role in it. “It is an experience that is hard to share with other people . . . there just aren’t the words for it. It feels like there is a fundamental shift in the universe.”

That “fundamental shift in the universe” is the physical absence of Christopher Clark, who, even when he was confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, had a presence that was captivating. But while Lisa knows that Christopher already had his curtain call for a more heavenly production, it is not time for her to take a bow just yet.

Lipstick and Laughter

Lisa married Christopher Clark when Christopher's little sister Stephanie was just 14 years old.

“She had big blue eyes, was super funny, wore lots of lipstick, liked cool movies and music, wore Dr. Martens, and laughed at Topher all the time,” Stephanie Nielson recalls, adding that Lisa’s laugh is unmistakable and contagious.

Lisa couldn’t help but laugh—Christopher Clark was the funniest person she knew. She remembers coming home from dates and realizing that her stomach and cheeks hurt from laughing so hard.

“He made me laugh every day,” Lisa says. “Even on our worst, horrible days. And there’s something really significant about that.”

Lisa has always loved to make people laugh too. She says if you asked her siblings when they were growing up if Lisa was funny, they’d likely reply, “Well, she thinks so. She has to work for it.”

She grew up in a family of entertainers chock-full of talent. Her brother James is the lead guitarist for Maroon 5, and her sister Amanda is a fashion designer who appeared on Project Runway. But the Valentines didn’t offer up laughs just out of courtesy. Lisa had to earn it.

“I felt like I’d really accomplished something [when I made them laugh] and I just was always drawn to that stuff.”

In high school, she began doing sketches for the high school talent show. She didn’t necessarily think she was that funny, but she did like being around funny people. So, in college, she started doing improv comedy—something she continues to do as part of the BYUtv series Show Offs.

Will Rubio, an actor and comedian who has worked with Lisa on several projects, including Random Acts, says it is Lisa’s ability to “intuitively read and connect with people” that makes her so funny.

“When people are watching her onstage, they feel connected and cared for in a way which puts people at ease and much more in a place to laugh and to connect with that part of themselves,” Rubio says. “Lisa is present. She’s there with you. When she talks with you, when she’s on stage, she’s there with you, and I think that makes the funny shine through easier.”

And perhaps it is that empathy that allows Lisa to joke about things like already having a headstone with her name on it.

“I’m trying to get all my friends to get their own headstone, so I have something to talk about with people . . . so far no takers,” she says kiddingly, before becoming serious. “Listen, I feel so weird. I’ve had to go through all of these experiences before all of my friends and it’s so lonely.”

But before you know it, she’s joking again.

“Any mortuaries or funeral homes that are reading this and are looking for a spokesperson, give me a call.”

Returning to Work

Lisa remembers it very clearly: The thick of mom life.

“I had five kids in 10 years. My husband was always working full time and serving in some sort of bishopric and going to school full time during 80 percent of it,” she recalls. “It was a crazy time, and there were so many times when I was like, ‘Oh, I wish there was a camera right here because this would make for good TV.’

“You know the whole sitcom trope of me looking in the camera like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But that’s what got me through really hard times, to be like, ‘This is really hard and I’m crying on the bathroom floor right now, but . . . if I just wait a little while, this is going to make a really funny story.”

She had no idea at the time that she would have the chance to channel all of her experience as a mom into something that millions across the globe would laugh at. After college, she had done very little acting besides some voiceover work here and there for about 12 years, choosing instead to be a mom and take on all of the demands that come with it.

“I always thought, ‘I wonder if I’ve missed all the opportunities . . . like that ship has sailed,” she remembers.

But Lisa’s ship had not sailed, and when the chance came to play a “real mom” in a Chatbooks commercial, she played the part like she was made for it. She wasn’t just a young actress pretending to be a mom. She was a mom, and the commercial sent a clear message that Lisa sums up today as, “I’m one of you. We’re in this together. I get you and you get me.” At the time of this magazine’s publication, the ad has been viewed 7.8 million times on YouTube.

“To be able to hit a note and to be able to [realize], ‘Oh, no, actually my real-life experience wasn’t a liability. It was actually a benefit,’” she says. “I think anything you do creatively, you are bringing yourself to it. You’re bringing all of your life experience, the things that happen in your family life, the books you read, the movies you watch, and all of that comes in. They’re not separate.”

And perhaps it is this lack of separation between personal and professional, this blending of career and family pursuits, that made Lisa’s return to acting since Christopher’s passing both beautiful and heart-wrenching all at the same time.

“What’s The Alternative?”

Once I Was Engagedthe sequel to a 2015 film Lisa starred in, began filming in fall 2020, just six months after Christopher passed. Lisa remembers telling her friend and costar Hailey Smith, “I need to keep living, but I don’t know if I can laugh anymore. I don’t know if I can ever be funny. I don’t think I am [funny] anymore. I think I’m ruined.” Hailey replied, “I hear you, but that’s dumb and not true.”

The film’s director, Maclain Nelson, told Lisa that if it wasn’t the right time, they didn’t have to shoot the film. She told him she didn’t know if she could, but she wanted to try.

“Let’s just be together as friends. Let’s try this,” he told her.

She was concerned about crying on set and was reassured that if she did, they would all cry together and then finish shooting the scene.

So, Lisa Valentine Clark returned to work once more. She is a believer that God actually does give us more than we can handle, but with Him, we are enabled to do things we never thought possible. She saw it over and over again in the four years of caring for Christopher while also caring for their children.

“What’s the alternative?” she asks. “If God asked us to do this and it’s impossible, then he’s going to help us. I [needed] help to pick up a grown man. I need some help to wake up and go to my job. I need some help to have this hard conversation with my teenager, whatever it is. You just do it because what is the alternative?”

The film became a family affair, with one of her sons acting as a production assistant and her daughter Margaret acting in the movie. Lisa remembers her son saying, “I would’ve said this whole year that nothing good happened, but that movie—that movie made me laugh. I met some of my new best friends.”

Of her own experience, Lisa says, “Everyone on that set took care of us in a special way, and I wouldn’t have been able to do any other project with any other [group of people], but it was so healing.

“And I just thought, this is the kind of stuff that Chris told me to get out and do, and I was like, ‘You can’t tell me what to do. I’m going to be sad for the rest of my life. I’ll show you,’” she says. “I knew he would be so happy that we were doing it.”

Show Business

For years, as parts of different theater groups, Lisa and Christopher were not strangers to the expression, “The show must go on.” The statement can cause a cast to rally and move forward past setbacks or unexpected obstacles in a performance. But now? Lisa knows that phrase is not as simplistic as it may have seemed when she and her husband played the chicken and the devil in the BYU English Society’s production of The Mysteries: Creation. When applied to life, this theater adage can take on more depth and meaning.

“We all have those moments of ‘I don’t like this show. This show is dumb and boring; I liked the old show,’” Lisa says. “’And I don’t want people to look at me and I don’t want to perform for people.’”

But as is the case with most things these days, Lisa’s mind goes back to Christopher. In his darkest, most difficult days, he still cracked jokes and wrote intentionally comical Google and Yelp reviews of local businesses.

“As a handicapped person, I always love going to the theater,” Christopher wrote after going to see A Christmas Carol at a local community theater“I enjoyed a Twizzler and soda at halftime. If there was a fire in there, I would be the last guy out, but worth it to feel the Christmas spirit and see some people from my ward.”

He still helped around the house, and he still calmed Lisa’s fears. Less than two weeks before he passed, his world still revolved around Lisa.

“GUYS TODAY IS LISA’S BIRTHDAY,” he wrote on Instagram. “And she’s being good and social distancing to keep me alive. If you have a sec, write her a post-it or a note and put it on our front window. . . . She can’t see this because I BLOCKED HER ON INSTAGRAM.”

It was the last post he ever shared on social media.

So what happens now? What do you do after the best person you’ve ever known passes quietly from this life to the next?

“It’s the loss of who she was with him and redefining who she will be without him,” Lisa’s cohost Steadman says. “And that, I think, is where she’s in the thick of it right now.” 

“The stage has been wiped clean; everything looks different,” Lisa says. “There’s a new set, there are new costumes, there are new players. And the only thing we have control over is how we respond. We alone are responsible for our thoughts and our actions.”

The show is, as Lisa puts it, “a little bit more sober than people might think. The show is happening. It’s going to happen regardless of whether you do anything on stage.” But Lisa is determined to continue to show up, night after night. Why?

“When I think, ‘Well, the show must go on,’ it’s because Christopher wanted it to, and I promised him that it would. I honor Christopher, and everyone who loved Christopher honors him by going forward and creating art, being happy and loving your family, being a good husband, being a good father, being a good friend and writing funny Google reviews. Acting, and not just sitting around waiting for things to happen to you.”

But the truth is, Lisa has never been one to sit around and wait for things to happen to her. Long before Christopher was diagnosed with ALS, Stephanie Nielson, who is now a well-known blogger, says she looked up to her sister-in-law as an example of resilience.

“As a young girl, I remember being so impressed by her. . . . She was one of the bravest, toughest women I knew, and these past years watching Lisa rise to all the hardships and change—still with her lipstick on—has yet again proved her strength and resiliency. And she still is the bravest, toughest woman I know,” Nielson says.

Emily Belle Freeman, who spoke at Time Out for Women with Lisa and remembers having intimate conversations with her and Christopher, says she was always impressed by their love for each other—something she says you could see just in the way they looked in each other’s eyes. She calls the love the Clarks possessed a brave love—the kind that isn’t afraid of the risk associated with loving anyone. 

That bravery allowed them to love each other fiercely as if they would have many more ordinary days, which was all Christopher really wanted in the end. And perhaps it is that brave love that will carry Lisa through until she sees Christopher again.

“[The Clarks] had things happen in their life that could’ve been showstoppers that other people would shrink from and be like, ‘This is enough,’” Freeman says. “And what you love about them is there was nothing that was going to stop their enthusiasm for life and for showing up and for being all in.

“It doesn’t matter what the story brings for Lisa; the show still goes on and it goes on with brilliance. Where someone else would’ve said, ‘Well, this is the end,’ there was an encore waiting in the wings.”

Once I Was Engaged is in theaters now. Find ticket information here.

Lead Photo by Cherie Mask and courtesy of Multiply Goodness
Photo on set of Once I Was Engaged by Main Dog Productions
Chatbooks commercial image: YouTube screenshot
All other images: Courtesy of Lisa Valentine Clark
Morgan jones 08512

Morgan Jones

Morgan Jones comes to LDS Living after writing for the Deseret News since 2014. She published more than 480 stories and served as Senior Web Producer prior to her departure from Deseret News. Jones is a passionate storyteller and loves having the opportunity to share stories that deserve to be told. She is the host of the All In podcast. 

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com