For the past two weeks, I’ve been driving into downtown White Plains, NY, to watch Jonah’s younger brother Aiden perform the part of Ren in the musical, Footloose. The show was produced by Play Group Theatre (PGT) which has been part of Aiden’s life since the 5th grade when Jonah introduced him to it. From the middle of 8th grade through the rest of high school, Jonah appeared in 11 shows at PGT, while Aiden has been in 11 shows, with a 12th and final production to open in June.
Theater looks for drama in order to tell a great story. Death, and its impact on the living, is often an effective avenue for tapping into some of life’s most authentically human moments. Our family, since March 2009, has not only traveled into this most difficult of realms but is now (and forever) sensitized to the nearly continuous presence of stories in our world that explore the human response to death.
While Jonah was in PGT, seven of his 11 shows involved the death of a main character. In an eighth production (Grand Hotel), he played a survivor of World War I who yearns for a final release from his empty, painful existence. And yet, despite the presence of death in these shows, we were innocent then and none affected us more than any other good story would.
Of Aiden’s 11 shows, death has also been persistently present. In the musical comedy, Urinetown, Aiden had his life beaten from him by an angry mob armed with toilet plungers. It was performed two months before Jonah died, and so we laughed. Of the six shows in which Aiden has performed since Jonah’s death, three of them have either brought Aiden close to death (as the title character in Pippin), actual death (as the title character in Bat Boy), or in relationship with someone else whose older brother had died (Footloose).
Watching the five performances of Footloose took me on quite a journey myself. Theater, when it’s good, draws us into a new universe and holds a mirror up to the more familiar reality of our own lives. As I watched the young woman speak of her brother’s death, I thought of my own daughter Katie, and what it’s been like for her to carry Jonah’s memory these past three years. I watched the girl’s mother, and thought of Ellen and what it’s been like for her to live without her son. Most startling of all, however, was watching Aiden play a character who admitted to not understanding what it feels like to lose someone you love, and knowing that he had been the one person onstage who knew exactly what that feels like.
And then there was the father of the boy who’d died. His character was a clergyperson. And a decent guy. And someone who still felt the pain everyday of his son being gone. As I watched each performance, thoughts tumbled around inside of me. Have I been a good parent to Katie and Aiden since Jonah’s death? Have I been a good husband to Ellen? Have I been a good rabbi to my congregation? How has Jonah’s death affected my relationships? And what of the future – how will his death continue to impact my heart and the way I live my life?
Footloose wasn’t supposed to be the most moving story ever. It seems as if the script first and foremost provided opportunities to sing some fun songs and to stage some great dances. PGT performed admirably in those areas; their five audiences loved being there. But for me, and for anyone else sitting in that theater who has either lost someone they loved or knows someone who has and who happened to be sitting there as well, Footloose told a second story – that of a continuing journey which I don’t think can ever be completed. I live on after someone I loved as dearly as life itself has died. That loss seems as if it will never completely go away. At best, it will be integrated into a still joyful, though now nuanced, life that understands more than I ever cared to about the best and the worst that existence sends our way.
As I watched my son Aiden act and sing and dance, Footloose carried me heavenward on wings of love and of pride. While I was up there, I think I caught a glimpse of my son Jonah who each day carries me on wings of love and pride, as well.
When Jonah was in The Laramie Project in 2005 (this time, he didn’t die; he just played the murderer), I placed an ad in the show’s program which included a quotation from 20th century author Thornton Wilder, who penned Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Wilder had written, “The theater is supremely fitted to say, ‘Behold, these things are.’” In a note to Jonah and his fellow cast members, I added that theater “shows us the tragic state of how things all-too-often are” and challenges us “to create what needs to be.” I was so proud of Jonah for being part of something that was trying to better us all. I am so proud of Aiden for doing the same.