Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mourning Play

Five years ago this week, I had a plum role in a small English-language musical, Epidemic of Fear: The Influenzical. After six weeks of evening rehearsals, we sold out its three-night run in Bucharest. John Cecil, a teacher at the embassy high school and founder of a traveling theatrical group, The Crank Collective, cast me for the role in his living room. I was thrilled, at first, to get the part. I loved the singing and dancing, the camaraderie of the cast, the writing and jokes—everything except the actual performing, which, as it drew near, thoroughly terrified me. I did not look forward to standing onstage in front of strangers. I was certain I would forget a line, or flub my delivery, or stand rod-still in the middle of the stage, blinking awkwardly, unsure what to do with my hands. I tried to enjoy it, and when that didn’t work, I did my best to do my part well. The show was a success and I enjoyed that. I took whatever credit for my small role in it.

A friend from that cast wrote recently to say that she remembered Katie arriving to the theater during one of the last rehearsals, barefoot and smiling, having walked about a half-mile across the city. Katie had locked herself out of the apartment chasing our cat, after a long day’s work, and lacking a cell phone or wallet, she had set out by foot for the theater. I remember that time in Bucharest as a kind of slow winding down of our lives, waiting for her job to end and for us to move back to the United States, or wherever a job might next take us. Even now, I think in broad strokes, of walking out to one of the city’s lakes and eating dinner at one of the beer gardens, or making plans for a last trip through the country; the end of my teaching year and the various office people at Katie’s work let go as her project wound down. Really, all of these events happened in the last couple of weeks of Katie’s life, after the musical. Though the show organized much of my life and time then, unit the recent email, it had mostly gone missing in my memory.

Walt is engaging regularly now in what Freud calls “mourning play” (thanks to the Chicago doc for the term, here), the naming of objects so as to understand their absence and eventual return. Throughout the day, Walt will cycle through a roster of the things he loves, and Cait or I will explain where the missed thing went. Mama? Mama’s at school doing her work. Dada? I’m right here, Walt. Manon? Manon [Walt’s friend from daycare] is at home with her mama. Dabage? Oh, the garbage trucks are asleep right now; maybe we’ll see them in the morning. Recently, Walt added a second Ma to the list. He was insistent that he didn’t mean Mama. After some trial and error, Cait figured out he meant “the man in the trees,” the arborist who has been climbing all week to thin out the crowns Walt sees through the living room window. For me, this has led to some fun brainstorming of Soviet-style propaganda statements—e.g., “The man in the trees works for the good of the land”—but I have held off. How not-strange it must be, for Walt, to look out and see a man in a harness hanging from a large branch; how strange for him, that the man periodically disappears.

Last night, Cait and I used one of the online pregnancy calculators to figure out she is exactly 35 weeks and 5 days pregnant; due June 21st. Knock on wood, we will soon have two boys trying with varying levels of success to name everything in the room, and possibly possess it. Walt has yet to wrap his mind around the idea of sharing, just as he is learning now to practice the higher registers of temperament and will. He is a sweet boy, a gorgeous and affable toddler, a bright and active child. His world is soon to be rocked, and hopefully, when everything shakes out [knock on wood] he’ll be glad for the addition of a little brother. Cait feels good, but of course, we always say such things. It is convenient and polite to speak in generalities, just as whatever I tell Walt about his fa-da sequence, he must take my explanations at face value. Things go away and eventually come back. Some nights, he climbs out of his big-boy bed and shakes the door handle, screaming hysterically for the day to continue. Other nights, he conks out without much fussing. On the other side of the door, where the rest of the world continues, we are awful parents; we are good parents; we listen for him to fall asleep; we enter the room and help him resettle. We are vigilant and mindful. We try to do what is best for our son.

What is the point of “mourning play,” if not to suggest that, really, nothing is lost, everything is transformed and kept within the world, somewhere from which it will one day return to us its beautiful form and essence; that we must tune our senses to recognize and name such minor and essential restorations? Isn’t this the point of any negotiation: the complementary illusions of force and compromise. Aren’t we trying to teach Walt something about the nature of a universe that we know is not always true, that he should expect it to be orderly and kind, nurturing and compassionate, full of good feeling and fortune. We do know better. Katie liked to say that the world was beautiful because we were fragile and temporary in it, and much as I want to honor her memory with agreement, her attitude feels too much like resignation. The argument is familiar. There is something to struggle against, here, a sort of failure essential to risk. However closed and dark one room, the door to the next cannot always be certain to open into light and the people we love. What would be the point of opening the door, then?

There is a kind of Saturday Night Live skit I just love, a mock-comic Cassandra, in which a reasonable character’s frank assessments falls on deaf ears in some alternate near-reality. We, the audience, commiserate with the truth-teller, however much he is the killjoy. I have watched the clip below a dozen or so times since it aired last week. Meta-Jagger. The funny fat guy doing the funky chicken and getting the words wrong cracks me up, even though I know to anticipate the joke. In the coming weeks, Cait and I will watch a lot of television, counting down the hours and days. We will prepare the room, repair the rocking chair, fill out forms, resort Walt’s baby clothes, and restock what we need. It is our ritual to wait like this: expectant parents. We are waiting, hopeful. One life is continuing where another begins.

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