The End of October

Ida Cuttler, 2016

Tif Harrison’s Prime-Time show, Saturn Returns, closes this week. After seeing the show, Ensemble Member Ida Cuttler wrote a response toward the show’s themes of agency, chance, and how the grieving process is approached at the personal level. Those of you who have seen the show experienced how Tif and the rest of the ensemble generate a space where those themes are spun together through storytelling and conflict. And for those that still need to come out, please do. We look forward to sharing this work with you.

A few days before Halloween, a few weeks before the 2016 presidential election, a few hours before his friends in a different city went out to eat dinner: a young man named James Conklin died. He had a routine heart surgery, a no big deal surgery that he and his whole family knew from a young age he was supposed to have. Everything in the surgery went well, he was released from the hospital, took a nap and then just never woke up.

I didn’t know James well at all. We would both run into eachother at a comedy hour run by my old roommate, Joe, in what used to be my living room. I would get up and even though I was only mildly funny at best, I remember that James would always laugh. James’ laugh was not only the loudest laugh in the room, but the most distinct.

I found out about James two nights after his tragic and sudden death. I ran into a friend of his, this girl with very long hair, on Clark street. I barely recognized her, because it was dark and because I was tired and because it was only my second time meeting this long hair girl. The first time I met her was a month before at a friends Jewish New Years Party. Once she was done telling me the news, I hugged her. The smell of her shampoo stayed in my nostrils as I walked home and the scent made me feel less alone with my thoughts.

The first time I considered death I was seven, a girl who I didn’t know by name but was a few grades below me, was hit by a car on her way to school. She was walking with her mother and her sister, about to cross over a particularly dangerous intersection when someone made a left turn, spun out, somehow missed the mother and the sister, and pinned the girl up against the side of a pizza restaurant on the corner. The paramedics told the girl’s surviving family, who told the principal, who told the PTA, who told my parents’ friends, who told my parents, who told me that the little girl died swiftly, and painlessly. I think the grownups told me this in the hopes that it would comfort a small me, but I remember finding the fact to be disturbing. Almost as disturbing as my Dad’s obsession over traffic reform for that neighborhood which he developed as a result of this accident and lasted for the rest of the year. It was disturbing: everyone was taking the time to talk logistics, or to get to planning. Everyone around me was saying that her death was sad. But no one around me was acting the way I knew a sad person acts.

On the schoolbus, when we passed the corner where the accident occurred, the other schoolchildren craned their necks, and pressed their noses against window panes in order to see the memorial but I stayed facing forward in my seat, finding this whole display of grief something grotesque, these cute symbols of beads and flowers and bears glossing over something very sinister that no one had yet processed. Amidst the plush hearts and photographs was the giant yellow caution ribbon blocking off the sidewalk where city workers were still sweeping up the glass left over from the accident.

Both James and the girl’s deaths remind me of one another. I think because they happened so quickly. I think because they both happened to people I didn’t know very well, and maybe another reason is because both happened before Halloween.

As a kid, Halloween was my favorite holiday: I loved picking out my own costume. I would plan what I was going to dress up as sometimes months and months before October even hit. It was Halloween that day, on the bus, and all of the rubbernecking kids were wearing costumes. That is when I thought: Death is sad because now she will never get to be what she was planning to be for Halloween. With this thought, I was able to cut away some of the bullshit of my peers, the PTA, and my own pops. I could see my two feet on the ground: the white and pink Adidas sneakers did not match my black wicked witch of the west costume, but they were comfortable footwear for that night’s later trick-or-treating activities, and once I was grounded, I could be sad.

I am closer to some friends of James than I was to him, and these friends were closer to James then they are to me. They are the same friends who hosted the Jewish New Year’s party. The Tuesday after I heard the news about James, I biked over to their house for lunch. It felt like we were “Sitting Shiva,” which is a Jewish tradition after someone dies. “Sitting Shiva” is a weeklong period of mourning following a loved one’s death. During this time, family members gather in one home to receive visitors. On my way there, I wondered if I would bring this up with my friends. Maybe we’d share a small moment of recognition on how this would be our second Jewish tradition performed together at the same house in two months. I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some plums and some snap peas. Even though I’m pretty sure that in actual shiva sitting contexts one brings bundt cakes and sweet kugels, and other treats loaded with butter. But I figured that it had been a week of my friends drinking their feelings and this fiber and these vitamins would be a much welcome change. I also wanted to show my friends that even though we weren’t that close, I could still be there for them. They could count on me.

Their front door was unlocked, so I let myself in. I stopped in the foyer and happened to look at the collection mailboxes to my right. Underneath the names of my other friends was his name — James Conklin. James hadn’t been at the Jewish New Year’s party. If he had, maybe I would have remembered that James lived in this house where I would mourn his death.

There is a collective comforting and a co-creation in mourning, but for me, true sadness has more to do with my individual relationship to the space and the people. The process of mourning begins as soon as I turn away from a window, and from everyone else. It happens on a bus in an over-planned costume. It wasn’t the shampoo hug, or the health consciously altered Jewish traditions, or the conversation we had that afternoon in the sunlight of his old home. It was the chance circumstance of seeing a name on the mailbox, finally making their passing real.

I am not going to describe James’ laugh. Not only because I do not have the right adjectives to do it justice, but because I am keeping the laugh with me, for fear that if I share it with you, I’ll float back into space.

find out more about Saturn Returns, closing this Saturday, 11/18