Sorry But Everyone You Love Is Going to Die
Watching my father in “Our Town” and grappling with inevitable loss
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I was lying in my bunk bed at sleepaway camp when I realized I was going to die.
It was the summer of 2002, and my third summer at a girls’ camp on Lake Champlain. I was twelve years old, staring out at the starry sky outside my screen window, through the gauze of mosquito netting that somehow still let long-legged spiders inside, unable to fall asleep, trying to wrap my mind around the impossible idea of forever — when it struck me: forever was a really, really long time. And life, it occurred to me, was comparatively very short. And once you were dead, you were dead…forever.
The rest of my cabinmates were asleep, so there was no one to allay my fears. Beginning the very next day, everything from the prayer we sang before each meal to the few lines I sang in that summer’s production of Into the Woods as Cinderella’s Mother (who, by the way, is dead as of the time of her singing) took on a morbid tone.
I spent the rest of my time that summer grappling with the notion of inevitable, never-ending death and, in light of that, the limited plausibility of an afterlife. Even with what little I knew about science and the body and the history of the universe, heaven just didn’t hold water.
When I got home, I threw my fear and questions at my mom. “What happens when we die?” I asked. “What’s heaven like?” “How many sins can you do before you burn in hell?”
My mother’s answers varied, and none were satisfactory. Her idea of heaven: “I picture a sandy beach, with waves lapping at the shore, and everything is calm, and there’s soft music,” she said, which sounded horrifying, if for no other reason than for its dullness.
“But what kind of music?” “What if not everyone likes beaches?” “We’re just supposed to enjoy that forever?” The summer continued in this fashion, every night, and on through fall, into winter.
Last summer, I saw my father perform in a play in the small town where he and my mother have lived since 2008. He didn’t intend to get involved, but the play’s producer cornered him at the post office. “We’re short an undertaker,” she said. My dad, neither one to turn down a cry for help nor disappoint enthusiastic egging-on from my mom, accepted, which is how he came to play Joe Stoddard in the August 2017 production of Our Town in Tyringham, Massachusetts.
I’d read Our Town just once before, in a hurried, obligatory way. It’s one of those things you wind up reading at some point or another, I knew; one of those things collectively considered worth reading. When I told friends that my dad was going to perform in it, I heard story after story about friends’ first encounters with Our Town: how one woman returns to it every year, when she’s feeling sentimental about her son’s — and her own — aging. How one man got to act in it at several different points of time through his life, playing older and older characters each time. How another can’t read it at all anymore. “It’s too sad,” he said to me.
“Because everyone in the play dies?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Because everyone dies.”
In that first winter of my crisis of faith, my family took a road trip and we listened, on the way, to Les Misérables. In a song aptly named “Fantine’s Death,” Fantine, the unwed single mother who meets misfortune at every turn (though, much to its credit, the musical version of the book graciously omits the part where she sells her teeth), finally dies. In a weak delirium, she sings to her absent daughter:
Come to me, Cosette, the light is fading
Don’t you see the evening star appearing?
Come to me, and rest against my shoulder
How fast the minutes fly away, and every minute colder
Something about Fantine’s willfully blithe words to her daughter in plain sight of her death made me anxious and afraid in the same way that contemplating forever did. How could Fantine face her death so calmly? How could she make promises to her daughter that she knew she couldn’t keep?
My parents were alarmed when I started to cry — a generous reaction, given that the occurrence of my crying wasn’t exactly rare. In their attempts to reassure me, they insisted on the existence, if not of God, then of something after death, of not-nothingness. I’d heard this from my parents before, but that night, I turned to my sister beside me in the backseat.
“Do you believe that?” I asked her. She said yes. She had faith in God, and that’s what faith was: she chose to believe. That answer scared me more than the song had.
That weekend, I had no choice but to pack my fears away. But I watched everyone closely the whole time, wondering whether they were pretending to not be worried about all this, or whether they genuinely weren’t. Neither prospect relieved my discomfort. All I knew was that there was no way everyone else was going through their whole lives feeling the way I was feeling. No way. Or, if they were, then how come all they were doing was going about the mundane business of living?
I continued to pray at night, the way I’d been taught: first a short rhyming prayer (“Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”) and then what I liked to think of as the improv set: asking God to please bless my friends and family, especially Grammy and Granddaddy and Grams, and thank you for x, y, z… But I prayed suspiciously, which was probably worse than not praying at all.
I bring a good friend — one of my oldest, from high school — with me to Massachusetts the weekend my dad is in Our Town. I’d hardly finished pitching the idea to her before she said, “Are you kidding? Of course I’m coming to see Mr. Bradley act. Let’s go.”
I forget, when I’m not in Tyringham, how much time my parents have been here now, and how well people know them. I’m reminded today by the fact that when I set up my folding chair on the lawn of the town church, the people near me look at me and smile, not just with Tyringham’s characteristic small-town friendliness but with a look of recognition. I look like my mother, I remind myself. I can’t always see it, but everyone tells me so.
When I’m here in Tyringham, I always fall back into the same easy rhythm. I come inside, drop my bags near the door, take off my shoes, and greet my parents. Unless it’s very late, there is always a pot of coffee on, and even before the current pot runs out, one of us is already making another one.
I say “one of us,” but it’s almost always my dad. My mom will offload the duty onto me, and I’ll offload it on my dad. “I don’t make it as well as you do,” I say, which is part of it. “I always make it too weak or too strong and I ruin it.” “Bullshit,” he says. But he’ll make it for me anyway.
I’ve known how both my parents take their coffee since I was six or seven because growing up, every Christmas, my sister and I would spring out of bed at the crack of dawn and try to get our parents up. At first Dad would get up, put on the coffee, and make Mom’s for us to take to her — just a splash of milk, no sugar. But once we were tall enough to reach the cabinet where Dad kept his Sweet’n’Low, we got up and made the coffee ourselves and took it to both of them. That was the deal: they’d wake up at whatever insane hour we designated to open gifts and get the day going, as long as we brought them their coffee.
It still works now. If my mom is sleeping in later than we know she’d want to, my dad or I will try to wake her up. “Okay,” she’ll say, “five minutes.” Twenty minutes later, when she still hasn’t made an appearance, one of us will bring up a mug and place it on her bedside table. The smell alone is enough to open her eyes, and just like that, she’s up.
The play begins. The stage manager, who is essentially a narrator — played in this production by two older women and a man, who alternate scenes — speaks directly to the audience.
This play is called “Our Town.” It was written by Thornton Wilder; produced and directed by A…. In it you will see Miss C….; Miss D….; Miss E….; and Mr. F….; Mr. G….; Mr. H….; and many others.
The Stage Manager takes questions at one point, and members of the audience pipe up: they’re actors planted among us, asking just the right questions to unlock rich and quirky answers about the town.
Let me see…Grover’s Corners lies on the old Pleistocene granite of the Appalachian range. I may say it’s some of the oldest land in the world. We’re very proud of that. A shelf of Devonian basalt crosses it with vestiges of Mesozoic shale, and some sandstone outcroppings; but that’s all more recent: two hundred, three hundred million years old….
At the intermission after the first act, I say to my friend, “The guy playing Howie Newsome looks like a cross between John Goodman and the guy who plays Walter in The Big Lebowski.”
“That’s also John Goodman,” she says. We watch Howie help a young member of the cast make a costume change, affixing his bow-tie to his collared shirt. The young actors in the play keep grinning and squirming, full of nerves. The adults are unflappable. They all know every single person in the audience — have grown up with most of them, been neighbors for decades, see each other every day, in their same routines.
For the final act of the play, we take our chairs and trundle up the hill behind the church to the graveyard. The place is a beautiful kind of mismatched, all large grey stones of differently pleasing shapes, each with plenty of space around it, some with small American flags planted in their soil.
When I spent summers here working, I used to walk around taking pictures of things in town: the tiny post office, the fire station, this graveyard. Cemetery is the less morbid term, I guess, but it never occurred to me that a graveyard was so bleak. Counterintuitively, the notion of dead bodies has never bothered me — the thing that scares me has already passed through them.
The third act is a funeral scene: that of Emily Webb, one of the characters we’ve followed throughout the play. She has died in childbirth, bearing a son to her husband, George Gibbs, whom we saw her marry in the second act. We see George and her family mourn, and then we watch Emily pass into a ghostly afterlife, interacting with people she knew from Grover’s Corners who died before her.
We watch her fight back against death, then accept the death-gift, in a sense, of being able to relive a lovely, mundane day from her life, an early birthday in her childhood home: her mother comes downstairs to make breakfast, and her father arrives back home from a trip out of state. She watches the neighbors talk in the street in their same routines, feels the familiarity of all she’s ever known rush past her, go by too fast for her to bear.
And then we see her take up the white umbrella that symbolizes her death, sit down, and fall silent, like all the other dead souls.
I knew this part was coming, but still I felt a sort of numb shock. Emily not only dies young, but is compelled — even after she sings the praises of everything in life that has been ripped from her — to come to peace with it? It fucking sucks. And it sucks most of all because we see a terrifying version of an afterlife where all there is to do is sit in silence and wait for…what? The second coming? Judgment day?
Wilder leaves the question unanswered, and ends his play.
I never realized before how troubled and how…how in the dark live persons are. …From morning till night, that’s all they are—troubled.
It does no good for you to reason with me that once I’m dead, I won’t even know it. That’s the part that terrifies me most of all — terrifies the living me, right now, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the only me that matters.
Live people don’t understand, do they?
No, dear—not very much.
They’re sort of shut up in little boxes, aren’t they? I feel as though I knew them last a thousand years ago…
At some point, long after that first sleepless night at camp, but a long time ago from where I am now, I stopped praying. And I stopped thinking actively and obsessively about death, to the point where I was fairly certain I came across as someone who was not deeply distressed by it all the time.
But sometimes at night, before I fall asleep, or on planes, or when I’m especially worried about something, I find myself still going through the motions: hands together, fingers interlaced, the voice of my mind preparing to beseech someone: Dear someone, please this, please that — please, please, please…
Yes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know—that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.
After the play, when I come home to Brooklyn from home in Massachusetts, I log back online to find the president making wild and thoughtless threats to every country with the power to bite back, and I can’t log off.
I try to parse how dire people think the situation is. On Twitter, gallows humor has been supplanted by nuclear humor, and it’s tough to discern whether beneath the wit there is real worry, or just increasing boredom with the escalating antics.
I leave my computer and crawl into bed with my boyfriend.
“How serious is this, really?” I ask. “I don’t know what to do when people are joking about it. Like, when are we packing our bags to go spend the end times with our loved ones?
In response, on his iPad he pulls up maps, articles, irrefutable information that helps quell my alarm. This is something he’s very good at: countering my wild, flailing fear with facts and critical analysis. As I lie in the crook of his shoulder, I realize that in every prior instance in my life where I’ve sought reassurance about the life and/or death of myself and/or my loved ones and/or the world, I’ve sought it from my parents.
It’s strange, for the source of my existential comfort to have shifted so quietly, almost overnight. It’s a testament to the fact that I trust my partner, but more saliently, that I have found a new anchor on this earth, to love me and keep me, whom I’ll have even when I — when we both — lose the other people we love.. Maybe that’s the point: you find enough people and things to love while you’re living, so that no matter what you lose, you’re never quite alone.
I’m giving away my daughter, George. Do you think you can take care of her?
Mr. Webb, I want to…I want to try, Emily, I’m going to do my best. I love you, Emily. I need you.
Well, if you love me, help me. All I want is someone to love me.
I will, Emily. Emily, I’ll try.
I don’t remember exactly when I stopped being so afraid of death, but I do remember when I started sleeping through the night again after that night at summer camp. That fall, we adopted a beagle who — though she grew up to be the world’s best dog (this has been fact-checked) — shaved a number of years off our lives the first two years of hers. If she wasn’t in the room with us howling herself hoarse, she was guaranteed to be in another room destroying something expensive.
One afternoon my mother was sitting in the kitchen at the island countertop when I wandered in, almost idly at this point, to pester her with more big questions. I settled that day on some variant of, “But how do you know there’s anything after we die?”
“I don’t!” she said, and for the first time, her exasperation came through loud and clear. I blinked.
“I don’t know,” she said, “and I’ll never know, and no one else will ever know, until we die, and maybe not even then. And until then, there’s nothing we can do about it. But what I do know is that somewhere in this house, Phoebe is chewing up another one of my shoes. And that I can do something about.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. And for the first time in months, it occurred to me that maybe that was exactly the thing about knowing you’re going to die: in the meantime, you might as well live. If absolutely nothing else, it’s a wonderful distraction.
Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
At the end of the play, in the graveyard, when my friend and I went to congratulate my dad, I was surprised to find my eyes filling. I bent to fiddle with my folding chair, emotional and embarrassed. My mother dove for tissues, and, as she always does, found some.
My dad put a hand to my shoulder. “I find myself focusing on a different line every time we run through the show and getting emotional about something new,” he said. “This time, I started tearing up thinking about how, when I die, I’m really going to miss coffee.”
I can’t bear it. They’re so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old? …I love you all, everything.—I can’t look at everything hard enough.
My mom doesn’t take milk in her coffee now. She claims that she never did — that I must have been confused in insisting that we always brought her coffee with a splash of milk on Christmas morning.
It doesn’t really matter. As long as I can keep making her coffee and waking her up, I’ll do anything.
I meet a friend for coffee the week after the play, following our president’s brazen threats. For some reason, throughout the course of our conversation, I mention my parents’ age, and the fact that they’re aging, several times. I call it out self-consciously, tentatively.
“Yeah, you have mentioned that a few times,” says my friend. “Why do you think that is?”
“Probably just my crippling fear of my loved ones being hurt or dying,” I say, and even as I say it, and the darkness that that fear carries washes over me, I feel a sense of relief: relief that I’m not just afraid of dying myself, but am as afraid — if not more so — of other people dying, because what’s a world if you live in it alone?
Maybe it’s still selfish, the fear of having to live on earth without the people I love. But just as much, I feel for the people who, along with me, will be ripped from their places on this earth, from their warm beds and their cups of coffee in the morning, from their sunny streets and their snowy ones. I don’t want anyone to have to lose, any earlier than they must, their ability to learn to speak another language or swim, the chance to taste new foods and old favorites, the simple blessing of scrolling Twitter and finding, in a time of fear, jokes that make them laugh and feel a little bit less alone.
I don’t want anyone to have to stop showing the people they love their love, however they so choose: through small compromises or through lifelong commitment; through shared food or shared homes; through a rambling email or through the click and flush of a red heart on a dumb website. I don’t want any of us to stop feeling these things. I love these things and I hope that everyone else loves them enough to want to fight to keep them.
There are the stars—doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk…or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.
I drink coffee despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to work for me the way it should. I can take a nap fifteen minutes or two hours post-coffee and sleep like the dead. I drink it anyway. It’s the smell of it, and the feel of enclosing a warm mug with my hands, as though it’s something I hold incredibly dear. And I do. I love it. It’s possibly the simplest, least fraught part of life that I love. Fuck God; I want to make of every little shred of deteriorating, un-sacred life a ritual, a rite. And I want it to last forever. I want to scroll my Twitter feed forever and I want a never-ending cup of coffee in my hands.
Now, that, I could pray to.
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?