I want to talk about something serious. It’s a story that I feel like I need to tell, one I’ve glossed over with friends and kind of repressed for nearly 16 years simply because I think that’s what humans often do after traumatic experiences. But I’m getting ahead of myself. In my Theatre for Young Audiences class, we have to write a short, 10-minute original play or stage-adaptation of a children’s book. And because I’m already in Playwriting this semester as well, I have been hit with a million different play ideas. Among those ideas is a cycle of plays based on different moments of my life. I never realized how much my life would fit on the stage, but it’s working and it’s what I know. So for my original children’s play (not to be confused with the one-act I’m writing for my playwriting class), I decided to write about the hardest topic of my life. Brace yourselves for the feels:
It should be stated that children are a lot smarter and resilient than we often give them credit for. And many of the plays we’ve been reading in this class have been about as depressing as…I want to say getting an ice cream cone and dropping it immediately thereafter, but they’ve been even more depressing than that. These plays have dealt mostly with death and introducing kids to really tough, heavy subjects often considered by adults to be so taboo that we think children can’t handle them. But in reading some of these really sad plays, I’ve discovered that they resonate with me. I was that kid who needed a play that would help me to discuss those taboo subjects and not feel so alone. What do I mean?
When I was seven (or eight, I don’t even remember anymore), my father passed away.
Five or so years before, at age two, my mother passed away from breast cancer. But I’ll share a little more about that at a later date. It’s important to mention, though, because I guess, in a way, death was no stranger to me. I just didn’t know that we had met because I didn’t have strong enough memory cells to realize it. Anyway, the play I’m writing is about the death of my father. At the moment, to fit the criterion for the assignment, it’s shaping up to be an abridged version of what will, one day, be a full length children’s play. What I’m finding, though, is that for me to truthfully and passionately invest in writing the piece, I’m somewhat forced to relive the events surrounding that fateful night when everything in my world and that of my brother’s changed. The benefit, I suppose, is that enough time has passed that the wound is merely a permanent scar, but not the kind of scar that can reopen. It doesn’t really hurt, and I’m not going to be a bubbling tear streaked wreck. But it’s the kind of story that I remind myself of every once in a while because it’s the kind of thing that you have to live with for the rest of your life much like one lives with the remnants of rape or even something happier like the birth of your first child (assuming the circumstance surrounding that are pleasant). So let’s begin, shall we?
My father was a good man. I like to start there because it’s something that has to be stated. It’s an implied thing in my family, but it never hurts to state. It’s never easy being a single parent; it’s especially not easy when you’re a single father. For some reason being a single mother is a normal thing, but when you’re a dad raising two (technically three in my father’s case) on your own, the world seems more interested in your plight. My father was a hard worker. He dreamed of being an architect. He took on normal 9-5 jobs to pay the bills the best he could. He loved my brothers and I something fierce. He never let the stress of being a single parent drive him to give us up or treat us poorly or love us any less. He was a good dad, a good man. My thoughts on parenting stem from my father and his great care to balance work and family. I spent many days with him after preschool at his work at the furniture store (with all the 90s Nickelodeon I could watch), but I also spent a lot of time with him at home building air tents and reading books and playing outside. It was common in our house for my father to chase my brother and I around with a broom, threatening playfully to sweep us up then sitting down and eating a bowl of cereal with us. That’s just what we did, and we loved it. All of us.
And then there was that one night. I used to hate sleeping in my own room, never mind that for two years I actually had my own room with a door that I could actually close (that wouldn’t happen again until college). So I often slept in my brother’s room in his bed because it just felt safe. And there’s nothing more comforting than being protected by your big brother from the shadows cast by the street lamps and bushes right outside your window. I was sleeping just fine until I finally became aware of the sound of the smoke detector going off. I had ignored it in my sleepy, subconscious state thinking that my father was merely taking one of his midnight showers, but I rolled over to find my brother was not in bed and rolled over again to see the hallway and bathroom lights on. It was too bright for me to fall back asleep, so in my half-waken daze, I made my way into the living room.
Of all the things I remember about that night, I remember the wall of orange. It is the one image that plays the most intensely in my head. I turned right, almost by instinct, to enter the kitchen, but my brother pulled me back. And that’s when I fully awoke, confused as to why I was being handled so harshly and wondering what was going on. My brother didn’t have much time to explain, but I knew he meant business as he told me to stay low to the ground. He fumbled with the lock on the front door, and soon we were outside racing across the street to the neighbors who liked us, banging on their door, begging them to call 9-1-1. The time between that and the neighborhood coming to life is a blur now. I just know that many of our neighbors were awaken by the sound of sirens and soon our street was crowded with pedestrians, firetrucks, and ambulances.
The fire that had engulfed our kitchen was put out somehow. I want to believe that it was contained solely to the kitchen because of my father. What I learned later was that my dad had been making a late night snack. Grease popped from the pan and landed on a plastic cheese wrapper laying on the counter nearby. And fire and plastic don’t mix very well and soon our kitchen was a sea of orange. My father ran back and forth between the bathroom and the kitchen with water doing the best he could to manage the growing flames hoping that they would stay right there and not spread any further. And they didn’t. No other room saw the flames. Smoke damage, sure, but no flames. I want to believe my dad was responsible for that.
The next strongest memory I have is being told that we could go inside and retrieve a pair of shoes (since we were bare foot). My aunt and uncle were on their way, and the neighbors were kind enough to stay with us until family arrived. When we walked inside the house, I remember it – clear as day – my father laying on the living room floor, defeated yet still in high spirits. I suppose that at that point, it was merely adrenaline keeping him going, ignoring the wounds and burnt skin. He was there, and he saw us, and he simply said that everything was going to be ok and that we were going to be just fine, that he would be just fine. And I think I believed him. I’m not sure if my brother did having watched most of the action with his own eyes…you know, now when I think about it, I don’t really recall ever fully discussing that night with my brother. I mean, I would learn little details here and there throughout the years, but that’s about it. But I digress.
The time immediately after that night became this weird stretched, slow motion hodgepodge of detail-confusion. What probably took place within a month’s time feels, to me, like six months. For instance, I honestly do not recall any of this happening in May, but it did. I guess I felt like I was in school for a ridiculously long period of time after, but I wasn’t, only a few weeks. And the time between the fire, the coma my father fell into, and his death seems simultaneously rushed and stretched. I guess that doesn’t matter much. I do remember visiting my dad in the hospital while in his comatose state and telling him that he looked like a dalmatian because of the 2nd and 3rd degree burns he had sustained. My oldest brother was there for that. I also remember returning to the house to see the damage. The kitchen was charred and black. There were blood stains on the carpet and the bathroom floor. To be seven years old or so and seeing that…it was a lot, but I suppose it could be worse. I don’t know where I was when my father passed. I do remember crying. To keep my mind off of things while my aunt and uncle were planning the funeral, I spent the weekend at my childhood best friends’ house. We had so much fun that I really didn’t think about everything that happened. I’m not sure when it hit me really. But I had a tough time adjusting after all was said and done.
My aunt and uncle spent what, quite possibly, felt like months but could have just been a matter of weeks fighting for custody of me and my brother. There were a whirl of counselors and social workers (which has prompted my aversion to that kind of thing; it’s usually totally helpful, but it causes me mild anxiety), trips to the big courthouse or whatever it was, but ultimately they won. And that’s how we came to be here (with, you know, a million other details of school and friends and happiness and growth in between). When I make new friends and they learn that I live with my aunt and uncle, they ask about my parents. And then I tell them the simplified version and they become extremely apologetic and worry that they’ve upset me. And I laugh and let them know that life happened and that I’m ok and don’t mind talking about it.
So what about now? Writing a play about this seems a little more than children can bear. Of course, many of the details and gore will be changed or removed all together. But in a way, it’s kind of cathartic to finally figure out a way to write about this in a child-friendly manner. Death never really seems like a child-friendly kind of thing, but I’m hoping that this 10-minute piece (and eventually the future full-length version) will be the kind of play that will help children express and learn how to cope with such strong emotions surrounding a heavy topic. And in general, the more I can help children through my own experiences, the better healed I, too, will become.