The Dead

You know as well as I do that the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long. Gradually, gradually, they lose hold of the earth … and the ambitions they had … and the pleasures they had … and the things they suffered .. and the people they loved.

Of all the themes explored in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, this is the one that always kills me, in every production I’ve seen and in every re-reading I’ve given it.

“..the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long.”

It flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught, particularly if we were raised Catholic. What are saints after all but the dead, whose very purpose is to take a keen interest in the living, delivering our petitions to God himself and interceding on our behalf? And have not most of us, at some time, believed that our loved ones are “smiling down on us,” or somehow present in our times of despair?

I grew up with ghosts. One in particular lived in my Nana’s house. He had followed her and Pa from Ireland, to take up residency in a third floor bedroom. We lived in terror of Monaghan (although for later generations of cousins, he was the friendly spirit who inhabited lamps that suddenly grew brighter). My sister and I have seen “ghosts” for as long as we can remember…but what exactly have we seen, really? Psychic imprints that we’re more in tune with than are others, perhaps. Residual energy from lambent happiness, or abject despair. Certainly these things don’t come when called, or we’d have gone into the paranormal connectivity business long ago.

“..the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long.”

It’s a series of lines that shake me every time I hear them or read them, even though I am no longer affiliated with any formal religion or religious practice.

This is, I think, because I want to be more important than I am. It’s standard formula in tragedy: one loves, and the other is loved. When loved ones depart, I want them to miss me, be as involved with and interested in me as they were when they were here…more so, since the shedding of one’s mortal coil would imply an immediate grant of omnipresence. You can be with me all the time now. I can sit here sobbing on my bathroom floor and I will somehow be comforted by you, because you cannot bear to see me grieve.

I suppose it makes sense that Wilder’s line is still something I cannot quite wrap my brain around, after all these years. When you have been hurt by living people long enough (and we all have; I don’t pretend or presume that I’ve been hurt more than anyone else), sometimes you want to believe that the dead will intercede, drifting in as haze and enveloping us in some misty and mystical comfort.

“..the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long.”

The living don’t stay interested in the living for very long, either. At the absolute nadir of what was the biggest heartbreak of my young “adult” life, I wanted to believe I could send my pain in a telepathic package, to the other side of the country where my erstwhile beloved had gone. (Oddly enough, I had enough good sense to not rack up horrific phone bills by calling him, to vocally plead my case and beg him to come back. Even at drunk o’clock in the morning, an odd sense of self-preservation would kick in and keep me from making an ass of myself, at least in that regard.) I wanted to believe that we were so connected that he would feel my sorrow from 3,000 miles away. Comebackcomebackcomeback. He did, but with his new girlfriend in tow.

The living move on. We lose, and we lose, and we lose again, and yet most of us eventually will laugh at a joke again. Most of us will find new loves, new things to be fascinated by. We are scarred, certainly, but we move on. We do this in part because we are programmed for survival.

And this is, perhaps, what Wilder had in mind when he wrote those lines. The living move on because they must. And so it stands to reason that the dead do the same.

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