Hey Nerds! Very long time, no see. Some of the delays have been the good kind: opening Alcestis, workshopping my dear friend Olivia’s new play Those Whom the Gods Love, and enjoying my last few days in New York. Some of the delays were bad: preparing to leave the city and dealing with a family member’s health crisis, as well as some tragedies in my own friends’ lives.
Ideally I wanted this post to be an Alcestis post-mortem, but I think I’m going to wait for our pictures to come through and for a time when I don’t feel like I’m living in the play. (And Death is not nearly as kind and funny as our wonderful Holly Kay Roberts. Or as anthropomorphized.)
So I thought I’d give you a brief glimpse into some things I’ve realized as a result of working on this play while confronting Death in my family and friends’ lives. So this is a change of pace from my usual pop culture reference, feminist-y self. Apologies.
The first and most obvious thing I’ve begun to accept is that we do stupid things when people die, or are dying. We lose control. We rage. We freeze. We feel nothing. This is not because the deceased was nothing to us, but because it hurts too much to feel. Or maybe, we really do feel nothing for them. What is worse?
It has all happened before. There is nothing new in this. But that fact doesn’t help the pain. In fact, it makes it worse because we begin to beat ourselves up for thinking we were special. That we’d escape or that our suffering is somehow profound or meaningful. And yet it is meaningful because it is universal. Because we are joined in our ignorance, our failure to deal with mortality in some hypothetical, unattainable “healthy” way.
No one knows what to say, how to act. “My condolences.” “When I lost my…” The words begin to bleed together into a big sad late Monet painting, all reds and greens, the subject indiscernible until the words, the hugs, the cards mean nothing.
That doesn’t mean that we should stop giving them. But once you’ve lost someone, you know that those gestures are Spongebob band-aids at the doctor’s. It’s kind of you to give them out but it doesn’t make the shot hurt less. It’s being there that matters, if at all.
Maybe that’s what scares us all so much, what scares Admetus. The sign for “die” in American Sign Language is a rotation of open hands, an indication of a change in state, living to dead, being to non-being. Death makes us confront the abyss that is non-being, the possibility that eventually this will all stop.
When the first living thing existed, I was there, waiting. When the last living thing dies, my job is finished. I’ll put the chairs on tables, turn out the lights and lock the universe behind me when I leave.
—Death in Sandman #20 “Facade”
What is must become what was so that what will be can come to pass. The troubling thing about that is that by our very existence, we are what is, doomed to become what was. It’s a precarious position.
Not too long ago there was an article on io9 about how chimps mourn their dead. For a long time, human’s have believed that we are the only ones to contemplate the metaphysical, to experience mourning. How wrong we were.
Chimpanzee mothers tend to carry around the corpses of their infants for days, even months, after their deaths, training themselves to let go.
Anyone who has lost someone close to them, or witnessed a friend dealing with a similar situation recognizes this scenario. We carry the dead around with us, whether we want to or not. The optimist suggests that that means they live on, and in a twisted way they do, like dreams floating in and out of our control. But the fact is that it might be a bit easier if we could leave them by the grave. And we can’t. And knowing that doesn’t make it feel any better.
It’s why the ending of Alcestis is so bittersweet (with or without my addition of Death revealing she let Heracles win.) Alcestis and Admetus may survive this scare but as Apollo says in the first scene, “They must die in the end.”
We try so hard to forget that. Alcestis’ lines that echo Hamlet’s are what terrifies us:
For I must die. It will not be tomorrow, not the next day, or this month, the horrible thing will come, but now, at once, I shall be counted among the dead.
I buy every argument that suggests that Shakespeare reads Euripides. Or maybe they were two halves of the same person. Just look at Hamlet’s very similar conversation with Horatio:
We defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?
—Hamlet (First Folio), Act V, Scene 2
It is meaningless to predict and wait, to make judgments and prayers. We all die someday. One last quote from Death, from the same issue of Sandman:
Anyway: I’m not blessed or merciful. I’m just me. I’ve got a job to do and I do it. Listen: even as we’re talking, I’m there for old and young, innocent and guilty, those who die together and those who die alone. I’m in cars and boats and planes, in hospitals and forests and abattoirs. For some folks death is a release and for others death is an abomination, a terrible thing. But in the end, I’m there for all of them.
There is a sense of safety and danger in that. A paradox. Can one feel empowered by recognizing one’s own helplessness? I hope so. It’s all I’ve got to cling to now.