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A Death in the Family

Dan Rothenberg '95

There were eight freshmen on my hall in 1991. We were a pretty close bunch that year, steadying one another as high school boyfriends and girlfriends were left behind and as Professor Phil Weinstein hurt our heads. One day, a few months in, I climbed the stairs to our third-floor dorm to find a clutch of grim-faced people standing at one end of the hall. It was Kim. Her father had died, suddenly, and she had already left campus for home. Several of us hadn't even seen her between receiving the news and departure. "How was she before she left?" Pretty bad. Terrible.

It was decided that we should go to upstate New York for the funeral. Four of us went, four 18-year-olds with sleeping bags and a set of formal clothes. The trip north has become a blur-I don't even recall if we took the train or drove. I assume we took the train.

The scene at Kim's parents' house was almost too much to take in. The adults showered us with a gratitude that frightened and embarrassed us. We did not know what to expect, but these exhalations of relief at our arrival-it was as though we had made it through a great snow with the last doses of penicillin. We embraced Kimberly one by one and waited with anxious steps for her to assure us that she was all right.

She was not all right. I had never seen someone in this state, and I did not see it again until the following year, when my grandmother died, and I watched my grandfather, a 74-year-old man with emphysema, drink bottle after bottle of vodka and weep for days on end, telling the story of how she just "went to sleep" on the sofa. So this is it, I thought. This is grief. That thing from the Shakespeare plays, it isn't for effect, it isn't poetic. It is an exact description of how it happens.

A few minutes after our arrival, Kim began to hyperventilate. She went into a kind of trance. It was as though she saw something in front of her. She became ashen, and the family friend who was "taking care of everything" said to her: "Kimberly. Kimberly. Look at me. Look at my tie. OK? Just look at my tie. Focus on my tie."

And I was struck by how this could kill a person, this grief. When they say in King Lear that his heart cracked, and he died-this could indeed happen. If you were frail, and you stopped breathing in your grief, if you let sobs wrack your body, the physical force of it . . . And what consolation can we offer to someone marooned in this new world, a world suddenly empty of the person who has died?

As we removed ourselves from the cloud of disaster that hung over the family, to a corner of the house, Kimberly seemed to "come out of it." She reveled in whatever gossip we could bring from the campus. When she laughed, our shoulders, which we had not known were up by our ears, came down an inch. What she wanted, what she needed, was just this-a little bit of normal. Surely we were there to be formal and respectful? No, no! . . . Once we understood, we eagerly supplied as many details-small bits of scandal, impressions of the oddities of our peers and professors-as we could. I caught glimpses of family members peeking in, drawn by her laughter, which they had not heard in days. They shot me conspiratorial glances of palpable relief; and the tearful gratitude made a little sense. She had been catatonic, they told me. They had feared for her life.

That evening, a neighbor made her entire house available for Kim and her friends from Swarthmore. With our own space, the night became the same as any slumber party, but supercharged with the desperation and relief of the falling day. The guitar came out, we lounged on one another, gave those massages that 18-year-olds allow of one another, and we howled with laughter, a laughter that was as full as any laughter I've had before or since. I caught myself at one moment about to say, "This is the most fun I've ever had." When I thought it, my face was suddenly suffused with shame. And I swore I would never tell anyone that I had forgotten myself so completely in joy, when my formal clothes for the funeral were hanging up in the next room.

The next morning, the family had left an Entenmann's ring of coffee cake for us. We devoured it, exclaiming about how delicious it was. "This is the best coffee cake I have ever had," I said, eating my third or fourth slice.

I looked for it in supermarkets in the years since then, and, once or twice, I bought the same coffee cake. But it never tasted the same, not one bit.

I make plays and performance pieces now; I still make work with people I met in college. I don't see Kim very much any more, but writing this piece put us back in touch. I needed to show her what I had written before it went into this book.

It is important to me that my descriptions of this moment, a dozen years ago, be simple and that they not try too hard to explain things that could not, in the end, be explained. Swarthmore taught me a lot about explaining, but also about the limits of explanation.

I like to think that part of what I have taken with me from Swarthmore is a spirit of humility, a belief in the virtue of plainness, which I imagine running beneath the College, beneath all our strivings for bravura performances.

But that's probably saying too much already.

Dan Rothenberg is co-founder and co-artistic director of the Pig Iron Theatre Company, a performance ensemble based in Philadelphia