We — my husband and I — have been waiting for season 4, the final season, of Catastrophe for a long time. So has everyone else. Because in the interim between season 3 and 4, Rob Delaney, American comedian expat (in the show and in real life), lost a child.
I have been terrified of having kids. Quietly so, it’s not like I advertised it, but terrified all the same. Because for years and years, every other book I picked up made it abundantly clear that if that child dies, your life is over. You stop caring, about your job and your partner and your other kids and yourself. You stop everything. And I wasn’t sitting here reading these narratives of loss thinking “jeez you crank, stop crying on the couch and get back to being a mom!” Maybe people who are already parents and who feel the push, the need of those other kids to still be loved can be so harsh, but I can’t. When the books I’ve read whose parental loss moments come to mind they aren’t Pulitzer prize winners, but the thing is they don’t have to be: loss doesn’t have to be written beautifully for you to know it scoops you out like a melon and pours in nothing, nothing to replace the guts it removes. The Knitting Circle: if you built the crib by hand, in a burst of old-school woodcraft you haven’t used since working with your own father, it now sits a ghost in your basement, a whole corner you don’t touch (like you don’t touch each other either). Interpreter of Maladies: everything is awful; your relationship is a fog you only move through because exiting it would require too much work, as does pretty much everything else. We Need To Talk About Kevin: the emotional loss of your child will presage the physical loss for years, and if only one of you sees the darkness there you will be mistrusted and vilified by your spouse until the end, when the darkness consumes them, too, in graphic detail. The Deep End of the Ocean: even if your child could still be alive somewhere, you will unhinge and never re-hinge, even if years later that child is found. That emotional melon-scooper never puts anything back.
These are not all award-winning books, but that is part of my point. They don’t need to be. Anyone with a keyboard and a half-observant brain can communicate that the loss of a child is bad fucking news. For everyone. For, it seems, ever.
I’ve seen a lot of comedy. For six years my husband tended bar at a comedy club, which meant I got in free. Conveniently, for my tastes, it was stand-up, not improv (blech), so I used that free entry more or less every other week. Long enough that I saw the same bits come back around on the comic’s road grind, worked-on and (hopefully) improved. I enjoyed hearing even the bits I’d heard before, not because I’d forgotten them (I was in grad school at the time; sopping up words thrown at me from a microphone was pretty much my job) but because I could see their evolution. I had and have no interest in taking the mic myself, but watching someone learn to read a crowd, to deal with unexpected memory pitfalls or localized political or social malaise they didn’t quite judge correctly before getting up there, is a delight. It’s very much a craft and I enjoy watching people hone it, like I enjoy watching anyone at their craft, be it glassblowing or rehabilitating a dilapidated old house or conducting an orchestra. The fact that frequently, as the confessional model of stand-up was in high vogue at the time, you got at least the appearance of earnestness from these strangers was an added, delicious bonus. People who at the bar afterwards might be closed up as clams, their real selves safely burrowed away where you couldn’t reach, would unearth those tender bits as — and I’m sure the sacrificial nature of this goes to many of their heads, it’s true — the cost of being funny. And whether or not that cost was worth paying didn’t much matter to me, since what I wanted was people being earnest, and that is terribly difficult to find, in your twenties. Maybe, at this point in our culture, at any age.
That was over a decade ago, though. Since then, a lot of stand-up has fallen out of favor, and rightly so: its practitioners, largely male (like everything in comedy) turn out to be wretched people. People whose wretchedness, once made public and noticed for maybe six months or a year, go back to being the same slimeballs they were before, once a period of time some people deem socially adequate for contrition has passed. As though if you take a sabbatical, all the careers you’ve ended and the bodies you’ve pawed, disparaged or soiled just melt away, like last year’s leaves.
Trusting, then, in the honesty of comedians — again, like everyone else — has become a huge risk. Not publicly, I mean, but personally. And that trust is something I need to do, because for good or ill, people making money off their honesty are frequently the only people who are willing to be honest with you at the level you need. Writers, speakers: they aren’t doing it out of altruism, I know. I know, That Guy From College who gleefully wants to point out the flaws in capitalism. I know. But you show me someone who is willing to say “if you do this, this glorious thing that is, yes, magical and wonderful and maybe the best, hardest most rewarding thing you can do in life — if you do this, and then it goes awry, you may and in all likelihood will regret every choice you’ve ever made since deciding to put one foot in front of the other.” Show me someone who’s willing to be honest for free.
Because by and large, trying to get people to level with me like that does not go well. Trying to get other women to be honest like that is impossible, for starters — they, like me I’m sure, don’t want to be caught and pinned and have their flaws pointed out (again) by someone who thinks they understand them (again), so that kind of intimacy is just not on the table from my own sex. Fine. But the men* are no better. They’ll open up, but then immediately regret it and either
a.) stop talking to you forever,
b.) get massively offended that you found a kernel of something they’re not comfortable with or just don’t know about themselves, and lash out, or
c.) unravel into a sopping tangled skein of emotions that you have neither the professional training nor the affection (we’re not talking partners here!) to sort out
All of which is to say that yes: when someone writes about loss in a book or a string of tweets in a way that seems earnest, I read. When someone talks about it, be it in an interview or wrapped up in the gauze of comedy for safety, I listen. Because probably the only person who would have been so honest with me, repeatedly, without emotional backlash or exacting some huge toll in return for the unshelled truth, is my mom, and she’s dead. And continuing forward, with or without children, in a life peopled by other humans, many of whom are probably going to experience horrific loss, is just stupid without trying to understand it. You can’t close your eyes to it, you can’t avoid it, you can’t wish it away. It will affect you. So fucking try to understand.
Rob Delaney went quiet for a long time. As you’d expect. It’s not like I kept tabs on him, constantly checking in (that’s creepy and also I have a life?), but the absence of his typically brief, irreverent and generally in-no-way-something-you’d-want-your-dad-to-see-you-click-like-on tweets in my timeline was palpable. As was the absence of a new season of Catastrophe on Amazon. (We had stumbled onto Catastrophe with no foreknowledge of it; just trying to find something to watch while we ate dinner one stuffy summer Sunday, and we binged the entire series within the week, it was so good. It could’ve gone the Schlub Lands a Whipsmart Wife Who Deserves Better Than Him route, which would have been predictable and unwatchable, but it doesn’t: Delaney is warm but self-aware rather than stupid, and his on-show wife Sharon Horgan’s character is capable of being refreshingly mean, disastrously so, without all the stylized soft edges foisted upon “relatable women characters.” It’s a good show, is what I’m saying, one that avoids tiresome gender norms most of the time, and manages to poke delicious fun at them when it doesn’t.)
People obsessing over strangers’ private lives, even celebrities (especially celebrities! I never knew so many people cared about famous people to that degree until I lived in southern California, yeesh) is, again, creepy to me. So I didn’t follow news about the show, figuring that probably, given the portrayals of child loss I’d read about, Delaney wouldn’t come back. And that seemed understandable, because he was going through the worst thing you can go through, and the cost of being funny was likely now astronomical. And always would be.
But then he appeared again, tweeting. Often on political issues, especially for obvious reasons health care, sometimes responding to fans unearthing one of the older irreverent tweets. He was suddenly there. I remember saying as much to my husband, with surprise. He was back! Was he…okay?
No. Of course not. But he was willing to talk about that too. And he did, bit by bit, eventually linking to an interview where he did a great deal of it:
And, look, long story short is that I really, really hope he doesn’t have a secret non-consensual sex palace somewhere, or forces female comedians to watch him jerk off into a napkin, or diddles teenagers backstage or something, because I really, really want to trust that man. On that topic. Because there aren’t a lot of people talking about it, and because I’m pregnant, and I absolutely hate the idea of loving someone and then having them taken away from me. I lost my mom when other people didn’t and haven’t and continue to take their own for granted. I lost pretty much the only other person who’d have been so open about what shit actually feels like. Just like she was so open about how, all social niceties and cross-stitch platitudes about parenthood aside, she had never done something as challenging or rewarding in her life as have kids, and she never regretted it. Even though her death was long and wretched and everything she never wanted it to be, never wanted her kids to see. She would have wanted to undo that, but not us. She wasn’t oozing gooey affection on this; she was honest. And with her gone, and without the blind, thoughtless belief in some religious or authority figure telling me what to think and who to be, there is no one left to level with who might know a thing or two about loss, or how to survive it.
So please don’t fuck up, man. I don’t need to tweet at you, speak to you personally, read some best-selling memoir with a close-up of your face doing something funny against a green screen. I don’t even need to see your stand-up. Just survive and function and be a decent human being so the fact that you are surviving and functioning after losing a two-year-old isn’t rendered something only sleezeballs can do. Isn’t turned into something impossible to do without harming everyone around you in some sort of vindictive implosion, where society’s collective disgust and select individuals’ loss of pride and power is written off as part of the debt the world owes you for your suffering.
I don’t, obviously, want to lose my baby. I don’t want to lose anyone. But that never mattered before, and I don’t expect it to now. And I did lose the only person willing to be honest about things a lot of other people just won’t talk about. I’m not vain enough to assume I’d know what to do, or how to survive, on my own; or that maintaining some imperious silent facade would help me — whether things are going great or poorly. So I listen. I don’t want the worst to happen, and I take reasonable steps to avoid it, but again: that never mattered before. My mom, my relative murdered by a serial killer, the person I saw impaled by a sign through their windshield the day I got my driver’s license: these are things you cannot foresee. But if I can listen to someone I respect be way more honest than he in any way needs to be with total strangers who have absolutely no way of rewarding him for that honesty (other than, I guess, the indirect method of continuing to watch stuff he’s in), that’s something. Something other than just waiting and hoping, which again: doesn’t always seem to work out.
*The intersex people I know are 100% earnest all the time, for what that’s worth. But there are only two of them, and saddling them with the bulk of life’s questions seems at the very least TOO FUCKING MUCH.