As 2015 ended, I was working a lot. I was getting ready for two big trips (one home to Florida and the second to Bogotá, Colombia). And I was anticipating the worst day of the year.
December 16th will forever be the worst day of the year for me. On December 16th 2013 my cousin Graham died. It was the day of my last college exam. When I walked out of the hall where they administered the exam, I was supposed to feel free. I was supposed to feel the sky open up. I was supposed to see the infinite possibilities that my shiny college degree now afforded me, exploding like fireworks in my mind. But I couldn’t even look up. I looked at my feet, putting one in front of the other, making sure each step hit the ground until finally I was home where I could dissolve into almost nothing, a pile of bones and skin and lung-tearing sobs.
Graham was the funniest person I’ve ever known. I thought he would inevitably end up on SNL, a Chris Farley for my generation. I didn’t want to be a part of the “real” world if he wasn’t in it.
A year later, an interesting thing happened on December 16th. I thought that I would have a few sad thoughts, that maybe I would need to let myself have a cry at the end of the day. But I was utterly incapacitated. The whole day, I walked around like someone had put a dumbbell on my back. I felt like my soul would spill out of my eyes at any second. When I was finally able to close my eyes and say goodbye to December 16th 2014, I felt like I had crossed a desert.
So in 2015, I was not so naïve. I anticipated December 16th as the worst day ever.
Then I was invited to direct a play. And I said yes.
December 16th would be the day of the dress rehearsal.
Oddly, this did not stress me out. I thought it was perfect. I thought, I’ll tell my cast about it that day. It will feel good to share what I’ve kept to myself for so long. It will solidify our bond. We’ll dedicate the first performance to him, and we’ll all feel grateful just to be alive, and…
Now, I’ve been very lucky over the years to work with casts that keep it 100. Like, you have to invent a new phrase because GUNG HO doesn’t quite cover it. I staged an entire reading of Henry IV Part II with a VOLUNTEER UNPAID cast of 15 people and they SMASHED it. In other words, I have been completely spoiled.
But something appeared in the rehearsal room during this fateful December that I had never experienced before: Doubt. I felt it so thick in the room that by the time every rehearsal ended my heart and mind had completely disconnected (for their own safety). Suddenly, sarcastic remarks began to be thrown out, at first in a careful way, then directly to my face during post-rehearsal notes. “Call time” became a suggestion and people arrived later and later (and on two occasions, some actors did not show up for a rehearsal at all). Someone decided they didn’t need to be in a fight call even though they were in the scene. Tired of battles, I let it happen. Questions like “what is my relationship to this other character” were asked a week from opening. Someone nearly quit. I got them back with words and promises and help from my producer and even a hug that I almost regret now.
And I thought to myself, This is the job that’s supposed to heal me?
December 16th. I arrived at the theater after shedding a few tears on the train behind sunglasses. I had gotten it together before I went inside. My producer asked me if everything was okay. I said it had nothing to do with the show and that everything would be fine. And I went through that last awful rehearsal as if I did not resent the entire world for being alive when the most vibrant person I’ve ever known was not.
I didn’t tell anyone that day. I didn’t make the speech that I had been subconsciously crafting about how we’ve done all the work and now we just have to have fun, because at the end of the day we are ALIVE. And how lucky we are to be alive. I just said thank you to the good apples and pocketed a little bit of their positive energy for myself.
That night, at my other job as a house manager, I had the great pleasure of late-seating an indignant old lady. She was among 6 (yes, SIX– please for the love of God don’t be late to the theater) late-seaters, and she was insisting that she be taken to her regular seat. I told her that I had orders from stage management to seat all late-seaters in our balcony. She would not accept this. She yelled. She raved. I got help from our company manager, who took the other late-seaters to the balcony.
When I returned to the woman, she had demurred.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You didn’t deserve all that.”
She meant the scene she had made, but the phrase gave me pause. I felt like the universe had put it in the heart of this woman just so I could hear those words out loud.
Then she said, “Today is the anniversary of my mother’s death. And I’m not okay.”
I said, “I understand,” and took her to her regular seat.
I texted my boyfriend to please meet me after work. December 16th had won, and I needed help. I saw him and my eyes exploded. I’ve never cried like that– water just kept pouring out the front of my face. At a certain point I didn’t even feel it anymore, and I thought perhaps my eyes will just continue like this forever. He held me on 42nd street for twenty minutes. And when I finally picked my head up and he said, What do you need? I answered with the most certainty I’ve ever possessed: Fries and a milkshake.
A few days later, I was babysitting. The girl I was watching was playing in her room, which has a loft bed. She had a sheet over her face like a ghost. She sat down on the ground, then lifted her head at just the wrong angle– it collided with a metal bar holding up her bed. I panicked. I’m not an experienced babysitter. I went to that deeply ingrained refrain of movies and television– do you want me to kiss it?
She slid the blanket off her face, and touched her head, frowning.
“No,” she said. “I make myself feel better.”
I stared at her, watching her rub the bump on her head and wield an ancient magic that I had forgotten until that moment.
Her frown disappeared. She took her hand off her head.
“Okay,” she said. “I guess you can kiss it too!”
I make myself feel better. That’s what I’ve got for 2016. I don’t have any resolutions, I don’t have any new rules to live by. I’m just going to make myself feel better when I need to.
This is not to say that other people don’t affect us. This is not to say that the very chemicals in our bodies don’t affect us. Or that if we’re unhappy, we should shame ourselves. Sometimes making yourself feel better means allowing yourself to ask for help.
Things break. In time they grow back. It’s up to us if the bone gets reset properly or not.
And in some cases, there will always be a hole. There is no bone to reset, there’s no scar to even look at. There’s nothing at all. And the emptiness hurts. It aches. It will never get better or be okay. But we must learn how to balance at the edge and stare down into the nothingness. And make ourselves feel better.