I ran toward grief.
-- Mary Ellen Geist, Measure of the Heart
“Happily ever after” was the phrase. It’s how we were supposed to live, we baby boomers growing up in the anesthetic world of our traumatized parents. Happily ever after is how Cinderella and her Prince lived, how Harriet and her Ozzie lived. They taught suburban families to live that way. It was how I planned to live when I grew up and real life could begin. If I didn’t grow up to live happily ever after, there would be something wrong with me.
Ozzie and Harriet had a laugh track. We did not have to take their adventures seriously, for no one was in danger. In the world where father knew best there could be no harm. The problems of the week could neither be serious nor seem to be serious. They were not problems at all. Dad, who spent so much time around the house, would never lose his job. Mom would never down a pitcher of martinis. Junior would never drop out of school. Princess would never get pregnant and sell herself for drugs. No one would be poor, or sick, or black or gay. No one would sing the blues. No one would die, or find that he had lived a lie, or seek the meaning of life. Our parents created this artifact, not us. The laugh track was their substitute for danger. It was a secular age. There were no gods there, not even lower case ones.
It was a crude laugh track. Obsolete. For today’s producers, recorded mirth merely “sweetens” the real and timely laughter of spectators, who have become in our time a supple and expressive audience, specific and verisimilar. But for the Nelson family there was only one kind of laugh, and it was in the can, to be repeated as necessary. It lasted exactly one second. It never rolled. It never built to a climax. It never disturbed the comedy’s solemn timing. You never heard the voice of an individual: those ladies and gents laughed discreetly in their grey flannel suits, for they did not wish to be recognized, they knew their place. Spontaneous only in solemnity, America’s favorite family were eternal; they showed us how to prevent anything from happening.
But the real world is not forever. Life is not a monument but a happening. Lovers change, and then they die, and love itself must come out of the crypt each day, never original, always recreated. No finding but by losing. Hard work, this joy.
The gym teacher said “No pain no gain.” He meant it falsely, but there was something true in what he said. We must not worship pain, for pain won’t save and may corrupt us. But the road to what is worth the pain is painful. Our choices cost the things we did not choose. I read this book and thereby others are not read. I do this job and thereby others are not done. I stay here with this person and thereby others are forsaken. Our choices are, or rather must be, worth their grief. Which is to say that we must make them so.
“Those who go out weeping . . . will come back with shouts of joy” (126:6), sang the psalmist. Mary Ellen ran toward grief. She walked out of a career and went home, where her father was declining in dementia. There, with her mother, she offered up the tribute that a kind and stylish, gifted and faithful life deserved. I know this family. I have been in their home. I am proud that they share my faith. They know that there is something sacred, and they know in which dimension they must seek it. No way around but through. Why do we weep when happy? One might say that tears are the price we pay for joy, but that’s an old moralist cliché. No, it’s more positive than that. Our joy is constituted in those tears that entitle and enable us to rejoice. To rejoice in the life of a good man, and in his gift to those who love him.
These are real adventures I’m talking about. Something is really happening. It’s a matter of life and death. The father dying, the daughter and the wife living in the face of his decline. It’s not a vale of tears. There is joy. There is love. There is laughter, but no laugh track. If you’re not grieving, you’re not living.
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