Having just returned from a memorial service for a revered high school teacher, I thought of this column from August of 2013:
No one knows what happens after we die. Many don’t think much about it. Far more pressing than life after death, some would argue, is life before death.
But what if the afterlife, presuming there is one, included an opportunity to make a return visit — a day on Earth, one day of your choosing, as part of your intensive, post-mortem life review? Maybe in the present. Maybe a day from the past. Your past.
Which would you choose?
That was the choice facing Emily Gibbs, the young wife who has died in Act 3 of Thornton Wilder’s classic American drama, Our Town. Despite grave warnings from the other members of Grover’s Corners Cemetery — who warn her it will be too painful — she decides to go back anyway.
What would it be like if you were granted one final visit to life? 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 fully appreciate because we’re too busy living? Relieved of all tasks, responsibilities, details, worries, and minor dramas, how would life look?
Would you stand astonished by the beauty of sunlight basting a brick building in the morning? Would you spend all afternoon mesmerized by clouds shaping and reshaping overhead, or listening to songbirds or smelling cut grass and the natural cinnamon scent from a stand of black-eyed Susans?
Would you notice people bustling toward the train to go to work? The leaves of a graceful old elm swaying in the breeze? A kid chowing down on a breakfast burrito as he winds his way down the sidewalk toward school? The simple elegance of a young woman reading in the park? The remarkable peace of the world when you’re not in any 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 realize this must be what the great religious figures were talking about?
Would you (invisibly) 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 for your imperfections and all your loved ones for theirs?
Would you come to terms with the fact that our inability to comprehend all this during life is not some unconscionable tragedy but simply the melancholy of our fate?
Would you 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 died some years before, advises, “At least choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.”
Emily chooses her 12th birthday. She finds it all-too-wonderful at first, but is quickly overwhelmed. She not only relives the day but watches herself relive it.
“I can’t bear it,” she says finally, gazing 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 breaks down.
“I didn’t realize. 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.”
The ultimate definition of life: Too wonderful for anybody to realize.
She asks the Stage Manager/Narrator, “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 of Wilder’s masterpiece, “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. If you died and were given the chance, would you return for just one day more?
If you ever come across someone standing on a street corner, taking it all in, lost in their surroundings, let them be.
They might just be visiting.
And saying one last goodby.