By Ken Trainor
Last week, the focus was life after death [That moment which comes too soon, Viewpoints, Aug. 14]. But far more pressing, most would agree, is life before death.
What if the afterlife, presuming there is one, included the option of a return visit — one final day on Earth, one day of your choosing, as part of your intensive life review? You could choose: the present or a day from your past.
That was the choice facing Emily Gibbs, the young wife who dies in Thornton Wilder's classic American drama, Our Town. In spite of stern warnings from the other members of Grover's Corners Cemetery, she chooses to go back for a day. Would you?
What would it be like? Would everything seem too precious to bear? Would "the world" be revealed as Eden reborn, as the kingdom of heaven, which we — and every other person alive at this moment — cannot grasp because we're too busy living? Relieved of all our "tasks," our responsibilities, the details and worries and minor dramas, how would life look to us?
Would we stand astonished by the beauty of sunlight basting a brick building in the morning? Would we spend all afternoon mesmerized by clouds and song birds and the smell of cut grass or the natural cinnamon from a stand of black-eyed Susans?
What would you notice? People bustling toward the train to go to work? The leaves of a graceful old elm swaying in the breeze? The kid chowing on a breakfast burrito as he winds his way down the sidewalk toward school? The plain elegance of a young woman reading in the park? The remarkable peace of the world when you're not in a hurry?
Seeing the world you thought you knew anew. Would you see more than you ever thought possible? Would it all be too extraordinarily beautiful for one person to appreciate in a lifetime, much less a day?
Would you savor the personal interactions around you, the laughter, the older woman on a bike singing happily aloud? Would you see people more clearly and understand them better without the burden of judgment? Would you experience a profound sense of compassion that makes you wonder if this is what the great religious figures were talking about?
Would you visit loved ones? Would unresolved relationships put you through the greatest sorrow you've ever known? Would you suffer deep regrets about missed opportunities? Would you let the full force of love break your heart wide open? Would you summon, from God knows where, the grace to forgive yourself your imperfections and all your loved ones theirs?
Would it become clear that our inability to comprehend all this during life is not some unconscionable tragedy but simply the melancholy of our fate?
Would we understand at last what it means to be fully human?
In Our Town, Emily soon realizes why she was warned against a return visit. Her mother-in-law, who has died some years before, tells her, "At least choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough."
Emily chooses her 12th birthday. It is all too wonderful at first, but quickly becomes too much. As the Stage Manager (the play's stand-in, perhaps, for God) points out, she will not only relive the day but watch herself relive it.
"I can't bear it," she says finally, looking at her parents. "They're so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old? Mama, I'm here. I'm grown up. I love you all, everything — I can't look at everything hard enough."
Later she says, "I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another." Then she weeps.
"I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by Grover's Corners … Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking … and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths … and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."
She asks the Stage Manager, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute!
"No," he replies, then pauses. "The saints and poets, maybe — they do some."
By the end of Our Town, it is clear why playwright Edward Albee, author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? fame, no sentimental slouch by any stretch of the imagination, said, "It is not a Christmas card. It is not a cute play. It's one of the toughest, saddest, most brutal plays I've ever come across. And it is so beautiful. There are scenes in Our Town that it's hard for me to think about without wanting to cry. It's that beautiful a play."
And it's that beautiful a life. Given the chance, would you return for just one day?