The young woman climbs the stairs from the subway and lights a cigarette.
The young man walks up to the young woman.
“Hey, if you don’t mind, do you have a cigarette to spare?”
“Thanks.” He gives her a confident grin.
“Your barn door is open?”
The grin disappears. “Excuse me?”
She holds out the cigarette like a magic wand. “Your fly is down.”
He takes the smoke. “Oh. Excellent.”
Meanwhile, I am standing less than three feet away, watching them like a television screen, holding the leash of a dog who is urinating on an empty plastic bag.
School pageants are strange affairs even if held in an auditorium. Held in a gym, with folding chairs, questionable fire exits, and crowds of adults flocking with iPhones in hand to record every moment they will only remember as a video becomes a test. Can you hear? Can you find your child in the throng? What song are they singing? Attending them at my son’s school is always a mix of fun and shoulder-shrug inducing “I know I won’t really see or hear my kid, but I’m here to be supportive.” This year, however, the shadow of Newtown hovered over the auditorium.
My ex and I met at a nearby coffee shop and made our way to the gym slash auditorium to find the seating pretty much gone. As we stood along the wall she received a message from her coworkers about support efforts for Newtown. She replied to the message and I turned to discover that part of the paper mural taped to the wall included figures with guns shooting at a bunker of some sort. I’m sure it wasn’t connected to Sandy Hook in any way. But it was, through me. Through my standing in a school just like Sandy Hook and looking at drawings by kids just like Sandy Hook students.
My son’s mom and I talked briefly between songs. The pre-K and kindergarten kids did marvelous jobs singing songs that were indistinguishable from bird flocks’ chattering in trees. Tiny voices whispering out something important. It was lovely. Then came a dance number, and then the first graders rocked a slightly modified version of The Jackson Five’s “ABC.” There were adults actually dancing. Another brief break and then the second graders filed onto the stage, my son among them. Earlier this week I asked him what song they’d been rehearsing.
“I want it to be a surprise,” he said.
When they began to sing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” I audibly gasped.
“Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Singin’: “Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.”
They weren’t even through that first verse and I was crying.
How do we carry on in the face of tragedy? What do the parents of those children do to keep themselves breathing? The air was sucked out of the room last week, and does anyone really want it to come back?
As I listened to the kids singing, as some of them did the choreographed hand movements (most were a full beat behind or simply mouthing the words and staring into the audience), I was hit by the lyrics and the questions they raised. How can we function as if things will be all right? Ever?
Last night on my ride home I had my music player on shuffle and up came the audio of a recenty released “Tig Notaro: Live,” a standup performance that confronts her recent diagnosis with cancer and the unexpected and tragic death of her mother. I listened to it on the ride home, in awe of her ability to decide that cancer and death might not be punchlines but they could be reduced to the level of a banana peel with the right tone, honesty, and a brutal love of being here. Her love carries her, it makes the performance incredible, and it fills the room with air.
So there I am in the gym slash auditorium, and Bob Marley’s long dead but his love of being here is filling the room with air, and so too is the love of every parent in the room, and the teachers, and the kids aren’t even aware in the way the parents are but they’re exhibiting the love of being here more than anyone, even as my son grabbed his face in exasperation at forgetting the words, even as another kid ran forward to grab the mike and scream the lyrics in, even as a parent wrestled the microphone away. And then it occurred to me that the music and the comedy and the art isn’t a response or an alleviation to tragedy, it’s the goal for living. Tragedy behind or ahead, you can choose to make that hope and love your compass, or you can wallow in the shallows and drown.
It’s up to us to choose how much air to let in.