The fall my father died, I was playing Emily in Our Town. I was seventeen and death was happening slowly, four years after his colon cancer diagnosis. He was 44 when he died. After operations and chemo and radiation and everything that goes with that, he’d decided it was time to stop treatments and be home. He wanted to die at home with his family and that is what he did. He also wanted to go to the Grand Canyon, so he did that first.
He was 6’4”, always tall and thin, but now stooped and drawn. He wore suits to work as a VP of construction at a large firm, with cowboy boots and occasionally a hard hat, but now velcro tennis shoes and sweat pants were gentler choices. That fall, a morphine drip was installed next to the bed so he would have relief from the pain when it got too bad. The idea was to have a normal life as long as possible. He would slip away from us quietly, not disrupting school or sports or activities. I think this was the idea. We didn’t talk about it, but this is what we did.
It was my senior year of high school and while my peers were applying to schools and planning for beach week I was sleepwalking through my days. No one talked to me about anything. No one asked. Once my English teacher called home to express his concern about my lack of focus. My mom told him what was happening and he never mentioned it again.
A very nice girl, possibly involved in some kind of peer counselor program, offered, “if you ever need to talk, I can listen.” I probably smiled and said, ‘Thank you, I’m fine.” Nothing to see here. Nothing to say. I didn’t need to talk. I needed something else.
The fall play was Our Town. I was cast as Emily, my friend was George. The stage manager was played by a former student who was now acting professionally. We rehearsed after school every day till 5.
Every day the bell would ring and I wouldn’t have to go home. Every day I could avoid the crush of teenagers in the locker room. I could avoid the parking lot negotiations of rides and dates and giddy freedom. Every day I could wander through the halls after they’d emptied out. I could meander to the theater and, once there, I could step into another world before going home for dinner.
Each line of the play was a portal, each scene permitted access to a predictable sequence of events. My task was to imagine the smell of heliotrope wafting across the night sky. To climb my ladder and look across to George, to say good-bye to friends and accept an invitation for a soda. To listen to his plans and accept a place in them. To witness George cry at my grave and mourn the life we didn’t live together. And when the Stage Manager finally took my hand and let me re-visit the ordinary days of a girl growing up in a small town, and I’d whirl around and say, “Does anyone realize life as they live it? Every every minute?” over the weeks of rehearsals it would become a mantra, a prayer, keeping me present through days I didn’t want to feel.
In dress rehearsal I was transported, lost in the play. I made my exit just as the girl playing my mother was admonishing the Grover’s Corner choir in a fierce stage whisper, ‘Don’t you know her dad is dying! Don’t you know what this means?! Quit messing around and do it right!” And I froze. They knew? How did they know? I thought they didn’t, that I was alone with it. But they knew and the girl who played my mom, who had threatened to beat me up over a boy last summer, knew more. And suddenly I felt less alone, they were with me. There was a play to do.
My dad’s sisters and his mom came out for the weekend. There had been some other trips, but this was the one. The come-out-and-spend-time-before-it-gets-too bad trip. The last visit before the next one. It was October, getting cooler, a touch of fall in the air, leaves just turning to color. The performances were that weekend. George came down with mono and soldiered on with a sore throat and pale face. The Stage Manager got caught in traffic traveling from DC so another student stepped in, script in hand. And we did the play.
The play that remains one of the most performed plays in High Schools everywhere. The play that’s fallen into cliche, deconstructed, reconstructed, butchered, stumbled and mumbled through in every school auditorium and probably a number of cafe-toriums. We did Our Town. And in the fourth row sat my aunts, mother, grandma and my father. And I lost myself in the heliotrope, in the soda fountain, and at the altar wearing a thrift store wedding gown. I watched the residents of Grover’s Corner mourn my passing. I re-visited my life. I took my seat amongst the dead and I tilted my head back to the stars and I imagined disappearing into eternity. I did the play.
And they wept.
And my father saw me in a wedding dress and there were tears. And they stood by the grave and mourned a soul taken too young. And they held onto each other and to my father and they wept and they thanked my drama teacher who saved my life that year. And they accosted my friends playing George and the Stage Manager and held them and thanked them and they wept. And they held me and cried and shook their heads and laughed and laughed cause they were all such wrecks and they said my dad was falling asleep the whole time, cause he probably was, and he had to get home to bed. And they piled into cars and left.
At that time, seventeen, watching cancer chisel away at my father’s body until he couldn’t stay with us another moment, there was nothing to say. I needed something beyond words and for me, that was the play. And the play answered my need.