Don Phillipson is a writer who lives in Thousand Oaks. He was a HOPE Group member until October, 2018. 

I sit in a darkened theater, beautiful blue velvet curtains, having just
descended, guard the stage.

The curtain has just come down after the third act, and I sit stunned, dazed.

The first act was slow to develop. Flashbacks to the main character’s
childhood. Thoroughly predictable. Call it the foundation for the main
story line, necessary but a bit tedious.

The second and third acts were a delight. Decent character development,
a bit of drama, little plot twists, some cliché dialogue, but slowly, almost
imperceptibly, a true love story emerged. In its own way, it was endearing.

I actually formed a bond with these characters. In the truest sense of
successful drama, I cared about them.

Then, a moment before the end of the third act, one of the leading
characters died. With almost no notice, no foreshadowing, no logic to
the story line, she died.

And so I sit stunned. I had invested my heart in this play — I had grown to
love everything about the main characters. I am so shocked I can’t move.
I can’t explain the emotions that seem to erupt from my soul, literally the
spiritual shock of seeing the leading lady die.

For a few moments, I want to leave the theater. I’ve had enough, I think, no
more. I want to leave.

But that moment of despair passes, and I sit and look at the beautiful drawn
curtains, and almost in a daze, look around at the audience, slowly exiting
for intermission. I touch the soft velvety armrests of my chair, just to
reassure myself of something real.

And now I sit, still a bit shocked. The fourth act is before me.

All of the things I have heard about the author of this play quickly come to
mind. He jumps from genre to genre, the critics complain. He writes some
comedies, but mostly tragedies. And he has a reputation for some works,
from early in his career, that can only be generously described as theater
of the absurd.

Many people say the author is insane, and from what I’ve just seen, I’m
inclined to agree. He has sucked the audience in with wonderful dialogue,
and beautiful staging, and character development that is real and at the
same time heart warming.

For this particular play, rumors abound about a surprise ending. Some
people have whispered that the fourth act is just a few minutes long. Others
say it carries on interminably, long beyond the time it should have ended.

And so I wait. I am still dazed by the end of the third act. I feel tears flow
down my cheeks as I relive the sudden death. But maybe there will be a new
character introduced, someone whom I adore, who will keep my interest in the story.

So I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I commit myself to seeing this
out to the end. I open myself to at least try to understand the author’s
message. He has a reputation for deep and profound messages. I don’t see it,
but I’ll keep an open mind.

As the curtain rises on the fourth act, it is unveiling something I never
imagined. Life comes on the stage, and she’s beautiful, a lithe young woman
in skin-tight, subtle blue-gray leotards. She strikes a dancer’s pose, high on
her toes, and reaches out one arm with fingers extended.

Then death comes on stage, a tall, thin man, not in black as I might
expect, but in a mottled blue tunic that complements life perfectly. They
begin to sway, listening to some subtle tune only they can hear, and death
reaches out his arm, touching life’s hands briefly, then they both begin
gently pirouetting gracefully only to reach out again and again, touching
hands, then reaching their arms to the heavens in striking symmetry.

Life and death dance together on the stage, and I do not hear so much as
feel their siren call, beckoning me to live in each precious moment, make
peace with the past and embrace a future that mixes memory with desire.

© 2019 Don Phillipson

A Note On The Text

I originally shared this poem in a group meeting, and then read it to the entire HOPE community as my goodbye to them in October of last year. I didn’t think much about publishing it. But then I read a passage in a book that has given me great comfort. The book is Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations For Working Through Grief, by Martha Whitmore Hickman.

Hickman structures her meditations simply: she opens each day’s passage with a quote, then comments on the quote and finishes with a thought for the day.

The meditation that struck me began with a quote from Elie Wiesel: “Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story. That is his duty.”

I take what Wiesel says seriously, because I respect his work immensely. If you haven’t read Night, it recounts his recovery following his time in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Hickman comments on Wiesel’s quote by saying:

“Surviving the loss of a loved one is its own kind of test. What does it mean, that it’s our duty to tell our story?

“To tell our story is a way of affirming the life of the one we have lost — the experiences we had together, the favorite family stories. To tell the story is also a way of moving our grief along, and so contributes to our own healing.

“But it is also a gift to others — to tell not only the shared story of a life that has passed, but our own story in relation to this event — how we got through it…”

Hickman ends with her thought of the day: “In the telling of my story, I share what is most precious to me.”

So, I will briefly tell you the story of this poem. In the last line of the poem I imagine a future that mixes memory with desire. This phrase is an homage to T.S. Eliot. One of his most famous poems, The Waste Land, begins with the line, “April is the cruellest month…”

Fewer people, I imagine, know the lines that follow:

“Breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”

Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1922, following the horrors of the first world war, and it is not filled with hope.

I chose his phrase to end The Fourth Act as a bit of irony. My intention was simply to say that, though it may take time and be difficult, healing can follow heartbreak — especially if you give the grieving process its proper due. April can herald true rebirth.

The story of this poem, however, is intertwined with my story of how I “got through it.” Basically, I got through it in part by experiencing a process where I, a man, found myself grieving mostly with women. In the two-year HOPE program, I was usually one of two and sometimes three men in a group, with 10 to 12 or 14 women. Occasionally I was the only man.

Why is that? I’m no expert on the subject, but I imagine it’s partly a male’s innate reluctance to express his feelings, especially in a group setting, and strong cultural encouragement to just suck it up. Regardless of why, I only hope that a man reading this — who may be grieving, or who may know a man who is grieving — might consider joining a grief support group. It is, in my experience, the best way to give grief its due, heal and meet the future with a bit of joy in your heart.

There is no timeline that people follow as they grieve, but in a group you quickly realize people are experiencing different stages of grief in roughly the same order. In Group One (for those whose partner has died within roughly one to five months), there is pretty much just raw emotion. In Group Two (five-eight months) several people start to glimpse a future beyond their grief. In Group Three the possibility of that future begins to be internalized — it starts to be recognized as a potential reality.

I mention this because I wrote The Fourth Act while I was in Group Three. (As an aside, I could not have written it in the early months of grief, nor could I write it now, more than two years since my wife died. This, I believe, is why it is imperative to express thoughts and feelings of the moment — they will not come again in the same form.) For about seven months I had listened to the group therapists and tried to act on the advice they gave about ways to heal. I exercised. Meditated. Had conversations with photos of my wife. Kept a journal. Sat quietly without expectations. On and on. I so desperately wanted to just get through it all.

Still, I didn’t really feel like I was making much progress. That’s when I went back to my roots as a writer, and began to invite the images to form in my mind, and from those images emerged the words that to me were healing. Now, thankfully, images of death do not haunt me. This may work for others, and maybe not. The important point is that if you work at it, you will find your own personal path that leads to true healing.

I would only encourage anyone grieving, and especially men, to reach out. You can ignore grief for a long time, but not forever. Grieving in community — especially with the guidance of trained therapists, who are angels (thank you) — gave me the foundation to heal in my own way, in my own timeframe. It can do the same for you. Grieving in community allows you to heal, perhaps more quickly, but certainly more thoroughly. If you are grieving, God bless you on your journey.