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Finding Grace in Love and Death

Two weeks ago, my husband and I went to freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. Carl and I sat in a packed house to see their extraordinary production of Our Town, a play written by Thornton Wilder in 1938 about ordinary people in a humble New England hamlet. Despite all the simplicity, Wilder touches his audience with a visionary message, which is why this play has endured, being called by many the best American play ever written. I left the playhouse deeply moved because the story resonated with my burgeoning awareness of the connection between love and death.

As we approach Valentine’s Day, love and death may seem like an odd juxtaposition of topics, but I imagine most of you have received the following instruction at some point in your lives: Live as if it were your last day on earth. If you are like me, you understood this lesson on a cognitive level, and then let it go. My thoughts always went something like, Yes, yes, it’s all acceptable in theory. But that’s for the saints and mystics—the greatest of lovers. How can any normal person accomplish such a feat?

Much to my surprise, as if this comprehension had been sneaking up on me for some time, my awareness of this tie between love and death has expanded. It might just be that I’ve heard this teaching enough and it’s sinking in, or that I’ve seen enough loss in life to have a greater capacity to comprehend. It could be because I’m heading toward sixty and my mortality is inching closer, but something about this wisdom is getting digested, broken down into nutrients I can metabolize. It’s being absorbed into my bloodstream and winding its way to my brain, creating new neuronal connections. It is as if a veil has lifted from my eyes; more frequently, I can see the world much like Emily Webb Gibbs did in the final act of Our Town.

The first two acts of the play are windows into various citizens of the town and typical life experiences, which we all take for granted. Among them, we see Emily Webb grow up, fall in love and marry her childhood sweetheart, George Gibbs. In the Third Act, she dies in childbirth, and this is when Wilder takes us deep into the very fabric of the meaning of life.

After the funeral, Emily is a spirit and communicates with the other spirits in the graveyard. She realizes she can go back to her home and is eager to do so. The spirits discourage her; they know Emily will be wounded by what she will learn. Undeterred, she returns to her twelfth birthday. Her mother is kind but typically absorbed in everything she has to do. Emily pleads with her: “Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” Mrs. Webb gives Emily a present but continues with her chores, even as Emily grasps her in a tight embrace.

When Emily hears her father calling out to his “birth-day girl,” Emily is overwhelmed with grief and begs the stage manager, who gives the impression of God, to take her back to her grave. She sobs, “I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.” She takes one final look at earth and says goodbye to the people and things that are precious to her: Her parents, clocks ticking, her mama’s sunflowers, coffee, new-ironed dresses, hot baths, and more. She finishes her farewell with a passionate declaration, “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

After Emily returns to the cemetery, she asks the stage manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” He replies, “No.” After a pause, he adds, “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”

I’m becoming aware that we all can realize life some. It takes just a moment to hold the comfort of your cup of coffee, to hear the song of a chime in the breeze, or to look into the eyes of your loved ones as if you may never have a chance to do these things again. That is the moment of grace when you will know that you are becoming a better lover in the world.

The final showing of Our Town at freeFall Theatre is on Valentine’s Day. How apropos! May you all take a moment to realize life and love on that special day.

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