When my mom was sick with lung cancer, I realized there was a lot I didn’t control in life. I was a child – 9 years old – and I had been taught that I had control. Praying will help good things happen, so will working hard, so will discipline, so will being a good boy. But mom’s sickness seemed to spit in the face of these teachings.
Despite the loogie, I took steps to control the situation. I prayed, I made doctor visits with mom, and to mom’s great dismay, I threw away packs of her Marlboro Red cigarettes. “You don’t need them anymore!” I yelled as she left in a huff to buy another pack.
Although I hoped I could cure mom’s sickness, I was a little boy, not a doctor. I had great dreams, but quickly found that even doctors couldn’t control cancer as well as they’d like. As I prayed, mom got progressively worse, more gaunt, less herself. The cancer spread to her brain. I stopped asking for help from God; I stopped believing there was a God. I stopped asking mom to stop smoking, watching as she weakly pulled from a cigarette days before her death.
When mom died, I was sure the entire world was entirely out of my control. Just years prior, I figured I could do anything if I worked hard enough. Now, I wasn’t sure life was worth caring about. If I could pray or have discipline or try hard to be happy and help my mom recover and, despite all my work, everything still goes wrong, why bother working?
A similar experience casts a shadow over the life of Mae (Caroline Neff), the lead character in the play You Got Older, written by Clare Barron and currently playing at Steppenwolf Theater.
Mae moves home to be with her father, a man in his early 60s who is scheduled for surgery to remove a rare kind of cancer from his neck. Mae had just been fired from her job as an attorney and dumped by her boss and boyfriend (the same guy; brutal). As hard as Mae tried, her life still got fucked up. What’s the point of applying for new jobs, Mae wonders, and why try to move forward from the old boyfriend, the same old fantasies, the same old life when you just end up back where you started, this time with mortality staring at you?
You Got Older examines this vortex of no-control that we’re thrown into when life doesn’t go as we planned. A parent gets sick, a job goes poorly, a relationship ends, all despite our best efforts to keep them going forever. The problem, one we often don’t realize until it’s too late, is that nothing lasts forever. We hide this fact from ourselves – perhaps to fool ourselves into thinking that life’s petty insults and problems at work matter – even as life moves inexorably toward its end, even as we wish that we could pause the good moments forever. Mae lives with her ennui and depression, wondering – as I did when my mom died – where she went wrong and why she should try again.
In an early scene of You Got Older, Mae’s father (Francis Guinan) sits outside with her and gazes up at the stars. He asks Mae, shouldn’t life be spent looking at these beautiful stars all the time? Or at least until we get hungry enough to stop? But then he realizes that most of life’s beautiful moments are spent anxiously wondering what’s next. Mae asks him if he wants to go inside; he does. They quickly stand up and walk inside their house.
In another scene, Mae and her father sit at the breakfast table together and spot deer chewing on grass just outside of the window. They marvel at the beauty of the animals – “Deer! Deer… deer,” they say, mouths agape – and then, in an instant, the deer run away.
Despite the play’s heaviness, You Got Older has the heart of a comedy. There are familiarly awkward moments of family bonding and embarrassing stories and reminiscent (perhaps dank) smells of loved ones that stick to blankets. There are our attempts to make up for sad feelings with awkward sex that ends up feeling just as empty as our moments alone, maybe even more so when we realize the other person only vaguely cares about us. There are the fantasies we dream up during life’s darkest moments and even THEY don’t even go as we had planned. But the play also shows the familiar moments of life where we all realize how short and frail it is, when we realize that we’re essentially living a flickering moment not meant to be alight forever, but we still can’t express how beautiful the moment is to those who matter most to us. So we move onto to something else, anxious to see what’s next, even if what’s next might be dark and sad and horrible.
Fifteen years after my mom died, my dad called me. He had cancer – a rare form, not unlike Mae’s dad in You Got Older. I had just eaten the best dinner of my life and I was feeling high from the plates of rich food. I was drunk from wine and a convivial night with friends. “Jeeze dad, couldn’t you have waited to tell me about this until tomorrow?” I heard myself blurt into the phone, immediately cringing at my own carelessness. I wanted my moment of joy to last; I had no clue how to react to heartbreak, even with years of practice.
My memory of this phone call hit me especially hard during You Got Older. The moments of joy we experience in life won’t last forever and will often be interrupted by heartbreak, as sure to come as moments of happiness are. The realization that death, sickness, and heartbreak are inevitable may make us all feel like we’re at the whim of life’s vicissitudes, but are we? To a certain extent, of course. We’ll all die, as will everyone we know. Anyone who goes after moments of joy will surely feel moments of pain. We’ll all have feelings come and go – feelings we have no choice over experiencing, like sadness and grief and anger and happiness and joy. However, I’ve found we can choose how we react to our feelings, to our hardships and heartbreak and happiness, and to life’s most beautiful moments.
Sometimes, these all converge into one beautiful moment. I have a memory of lying in bed with my mom in her last days, one that used to make me sad to think about. Mom was weak, dry-skinned, and robbed of her characteristic joy. I rubbed lotion into her back and fell asleep nestled next to her. Now, I think back on this moment fondly. I was in no rush to leave the moment, no rush to leave her side and choose to see what was next. The end of her life had showed me how important these small moments of life are. I loved her and chose to slow down, show my love, and take control in the only way I could.
It took me another 20 years to realize the importance of life’s small, beautifully benign moments.
For me, this was the great message of You Got Older. Life throws obstacles in front of us and we often stumble. We can’t control the obstacles and often can’t control our stumbling, but I no longer believe it matters how much life shits on us, how much we falter, nor does it matter how many times we’re made to weep over a death or a firing or breakup. What’s important is how we choose to react, how we find the pleasure of life in the midst of life’s inexorable pain.
Life’s sad and painful and torturous, but it’s also happy and euphoric and exceedingly beautiful. Sometimes, it’s all of these things at the same time. We can choose to stop in the beautiful moments and realize how good it can be, even if briefly, even if they come in the midst of our most painful moments.
You Got Older is playing at Steppenwolf Theater until March 11. I’d highly suggest going to see it. Clare Barron did a damn good job writing the play and the actors collectively made me forget that I was sitting in a theater.