Ablutophobia and America: On the Brink; Or My Life as Edna; Or The Anger Thing

hilary williams as edna in livewire's the mistakes madeline made

by Hilary Williams

“Humor is tragedy plus time.”-Mark Twain

I remember we’re sitting in the living room. I don’t remember speaking but I remember sitting in the living room; maybe I’m at the counter that looks into the kitchen, maybe I’m on the couch, the details get less important…the paint on the walls was grey, though.  I think.

I remember my mom, Lucia. A thin, short, olive-toned Sicilian woman with a muffin in her right hand, and that muffin flying across the kitchen and into the opposite wall.

And then she yells.  Just YELLS, this sort of chest centered “AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHGGGGGGGGG.”

She leans on the counter by the stove and looks up at the ceiling and looks down speaking into the stove burners, “Today, we can do whatever the hell we want.  As long as you’re not hurting someone else, you can do whatever you want.  You wanna throw a fucking muffin, THROW A FUCKING MUFFIN.  I would like to throw some fucking muffins.”

And so…she does, she takes a 6 pack of general grocery store brand muffins in a plastic container, probably blueberry ones, and she walks out the front door, and she throws all of these muffins, one by one, down the street, as hard as she possibly can.  It was a muffin battlefield; eventually a lot of us were just throwing muffins.  I am not throwing muffins, I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.  Or maybe I was crying so hard I was laughing.  The details get fuzzy.

In the face of tragedy, people tend to bring over a lot of food.  Like blueberry store-bought-made-of-mostly-sugar-and-maybe-some-Crisco muffins.

They also tend to deny talking about what’s happening and they focus on how Aunt Mary took Dad’s VCR, and just because Mom’s dead doesn’t mean he won’t use that VCR, and she’s always been selfish, and I never liked her, so let’s write her off and quit speaking because she took that VCR, so who knows what else of dad’s she’s been taking out form under our nose…

The ANGER thing.

It’s this crucial part of the five step grieving process no one wants to address, and yet most of us sink into it like it’s the titanic.  Because it’s easier sometimes to be angry with everyone around you than it is to address the hovering detail: he is dead, and we will never be “He and I,” or together, or near, or face to face, or anything, other than apart, ever again.

Being stuck in the anger phase of grief is a real thing.  An actual psychological disorder that not many people know exists; it’s called “distorted grief.”  As defined by The Sibling Connection, a group dedicated to aid in coping with the loss of a sister or brother,

“Distorted grief is more unusual than the other forms of complicated grief. Often associated with great anger or guilt, this grief takes unexpected forms, such as the development of a symptom that the deceased had prior to death. Other signs of distorted grief are…hostility towards a specific person, and the taking of actions that are self-destructive.”

So let’s rewind a second and look at Edna.  I’ve been looking at Edna for a couple months now, and more than looking at her, I’ve been her for 90 minutes at a time, 4 days a week.  I know her.  And there is something fundamental in how she and I agree on grief that vibrates my rib cage: How is it possible to define hurt like the loss of a sibling in a three-sentence structure?  IT ISN’T.  But this definition above does a remarkable job in giving us a piece of it, and isn’t that MADDENING?  It’s heartbreaking that our heartbreak can be found on google when you simply type “define heartbreak” into your search engine.  How can google POSSIBLY define us?

That’s enough to make anyone volatile; it lessens the pain and individual experience of our loss.  While some might find this comforting, Edna and I agree.  We don’t want our pain to be understood.  That’s the last thing we want.  I am not an angry person; I do not fall into rage to cover my emotions.  I instead seep into sadness and guilt.  Edna, however, can’t help but hide in the outlandish fury.  She wants to be loved in-spite of her hurt, not through it.  And can you blame her?  The surviving sibling is often asked, “How are your parents?”  Not, “How are you?”  Suddenly the hurt becomes a stigma, and it’s not okay to feel the loss as your own, and Edna has not only lost her brother, but has no idea who she is without him.  Edna, my dear, beloved friend…  I don’t either.  And I wouldn’t WANT to know.

Without my siblings and cousins, I would have no idea who I’m supposed to grow up to be, or what to know, or what to read, or how to file my taxes, or eat baby corn, because they are always there to do it first.

Edna challenges everyone she meets to love her.  My mom has a fabulous saying, “it’s never okay to be an asshole.”  I’m not excusing Edna’s behavior by explaining it’s an action for want of love.  I take full responsibility for my actions on stage as Edna, I AM AN ASSHOLE.  There is no “but.”  There is only forgiveness for the hurt.  And it’s true what Beth says in the final moments of the play, “We forgive ourselves…I don’t know if we should, but we do.”

When one of mine died, a few days later my mom was throwing muffins.  What did I do? I went out and bought a huge bag of salt for the sidewalks with my cousin because they were slippery and got my eyebrows waxed and picked up my older brother from the airport.  On the anniversary of Tony’s death, I still get my eyebrows waxed.  There are days when I’m not sure how we exactly coped, how we keep coping, how holidays still happen and babies are still born.  How is it possible that I can grow older and someday I might have children, and they will never have known Tony?  How can I explain again and again and again who this person was, who’s death made me put into question who I am?

And that’s okay.  And so is being angry, as long as we remember how to laugh.  This play is dark for a reason.  It’s dark matter.  And its humor is harsh, it isn’t actually “funny” and therefore it’s hilarious.  It gives us an out, it gives us a way to relax and let go of the hurt in the sheer absurdity of it all.  I love that.  I love the ablutophobia, the beat-boxing “poet,” hand-sanitizer, copy-machine, and the inconsiderate mention of date-rape.  I thrive on that.  I thrive on throwing muffins in the face of adversity and sadness.

For me, The Mistakes Madeline Made is about grief and allowing it to live through the absurdity and laughter.

Edna wishes to be defined by her pain, because who does she become without it?  In this play, she gets to find out.  It’s invigorating, like a cold shower.  Or a handi-wipe bath…

As Hilary, I refuse to be defined by my pain.  I am defined by those I love, and even more so, by those who love me.  Edna will be that.  I trust her to find that in the world after the play.  She will be okay.

And Thank you, LiveWire, for telling her story.