Friday, December 4, 2009

"We Get To Have Our Birthdays."

To anyone who will listen, these last two years, I've insisted that Friday Night Lights (FNL) is the best thing going on television, bar none. What I usually say is that I'm not a big fan, generally, of high school, football, or Texas, but the show makes me appreciate all three (as well as what are definitively the best marriage and family dynamics on TV). I blogged earlier this year about why I like this show so much, so I won't repeat myself, except to say that Friday Night Lights exists through a strange partnership between NBC and Direct TV, by which the latter underwrites some of the costs of making the show in exchange for exclusive rights to air the episodes to subscribers in advance of the regular broadcast season. The current season (#4) airs right now on Direct TV and will air on NBC in summer 2010. I am not a Direct TV subscriber, but I have found various online sites by which I've been able to watch this season. I strongly encourage you to check it out, especially if you follow this blog because you appreciate what I've written previously about living with and through grief and mourning.

I don't think I'm ruining the show if I say that one of the plot points of this season is the character Matt's experience of grieving for his dad, who has died while serving in the military in Iraq. Two scenes from this week's episode just felt right on, in their portrayal of throwaway aspects of grief. The first is Matt, after deciding to view his father's body (against the advice of the funeral home director), struggling to sit still at a dinner table. The second is Matt's grandmother (his father's mother) tending to her hairstyle before leaving home to attend the funeral. In the former, Matt winds himself tighter and tighter, refusing to eat, then feeling guilty for not eating a meal offered to him, then going back and forth between apologizing and declaring he can't eat, until he breaks down. In the latter, the grandmother needs to control the only part of the upcoming funeral that she can--a long day, no doubt, and she knows it's going to be hard, so she takes the time to get this one detail right before facing the world.

There is a heartbreaking moment during the episode where Matt tells his girlfriend that what he's going through is what people go through, have always gone through, will always go through. It's what she'll go through one day. And it plays so deftly on that feeling that grief overwhelms and consumes life, and if you thought it wasn't coming for you, man, were you kidding yourself. Except that, of course, the anxiety sets in quickly for someone who isn't grieving, at least not yet, and she starts to worry about the people around her, who are dying only in the most general and gradual sense (her parents are the shows stars, after all). The Chicago doc used to say that living and finding meaning in life requires rejecting the certainty and finality of death, and that it was especially hard for people who have experienced death and loss at an early age to embrace this denial. I liken it to what I understand the experience of being born again is: until you've experienced it, you can't really explain it to other people, but who could ever go back?

If death is something that can't be denied, then it has to be transformed into something to live with. But what transforms grief? Is it (for some) elegy? Then what makes it that part of elegy that instructs the living? Watching Coach walk with Matt back to his house, I realize that there is so much nuance to being supportive and empathetic, not least of which is finding ways to remove yourself from the center of the experience--to be the guy who knows about it, can talk about it and understand it, make sense of it and help with it, instead of just the guy who's going through it.

The project of elegy is to find in the intensely personal experience of loss those universal qualities that contribute something back to a society: to honor the dead, acknowledge the loss, and instruct the living. So, it seems lazy to insist that the experience of loss is something so exclusive and inscrutable. It is, of course, but so is traveling in outer space, and playing third base for the Yankees, and both of these experiences are regularly chronicled and translated to the uninitiated. And then I also wonder if all loss can really be captured under such a broad umbrella as "grief." Is grieving for a wife the same as grieving for a father? Is grieving for a young wife the same as grieving for an older wife? Is grieving for a child the same as grieving for a parent? Is grieving for a sibling the same as grieving for a friend? I can list all of these permutations, but you get the point. In many ways, we’re not all in the same boat. We may not even want to be in the same boat.

Matt gives a eulogy for his dad, in which he observes that he got to have so many birthdays at home because his father was working in the military, providing for his family, and that we all get to have our birthdays because the military provides the kind of security that allows for prosperity and rituals. It's simple, honest, and beautiful. It gives a sense of meaning and appreciation to the people at the service. But then there's a second part of the scene at the funeral. The honor guard steps forward and folds the flag draped across the coffin, then presents it to Matt's grandmother. They thank her for her son's service, on behalf of the country. They fire the guns into the air. Eventually, everyone leaves except for Matt and his girlfriend, who sit awhile. Then, Matt gets up, takes the shovel from a groundsperson, and starts to fill his father's grave. He takes off his coat, works at it harder, the camera moves to looking up from the grave, and is covered. Matt has been a public witness for his father, but the act of burial itself is something he undertakes with a lot of energy and determination. Soon, he'll be finished with the act of burial, and then what? What keeps us busy is entirely different from what sustains us.

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