This is Leslie, and both my sister and I are dreading the end of our frustrating, exhilarating and ultimately emotionally binding stint as quasi-members of talky-talky fictional Bay area family the Bravermans, of NBC’s “Parenthood” (or as my husband calls it, ‘I just hate those people.’)
I don’t hate the Bravermans, a multi-generational, sometimes too-close band of brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, nieces, uncles, aunts, nephews, aunt’s boyfriends, niece’s rage-happy boyfriends and whatnot. I love them. And I include all of those relationships to point out the complicated and very realistic way in which the scripted family is connected, and how the actions and affections of someone you didn’t even consider yourself all that close to can impact your life, particularly if, like the Bravermans, you’re all up under each other all the time and don’t seem to have enough friends you aren’t related to.
Those sometimes painful but unbreakable ties, as in life, sometimes exhibit themselves in times of stress, as in last Thursday’s episode, when the Bravermans are gathered in what Lynne and I can tell you is the unhappiest place on earth – a hospital waiting room at some Godforsaken hour waiting to hear if your father’s going to live or not. And in that moment of overwhelming fear and dread – their father Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) has probably just had a heart attack – any other emotion that manages to edge its way into the room is welcome, at least for a couple of seconds before the clouds come crashing down when the doors swing open.
So as they’re sitting there, trying not to cry, sister Julia (Erika Christiansen) walks in obviously dressed in the outfit she was wearing the night before (She’s…reacquainting herself with her ex-husband. Without her pants.) Her sisters and niece rib her about it, which to me seemed not only completely natural – these people are all up in each other’s business, after all, so of course they’d comment – but healthy, because it’s normal to not want to talk about your father possibly dying several hundred feet away.
So normal did it seem that the moment sort of went over my head, until I read the recap on EW.com, which I read faithfully. The writer, Michelle Newman, liked the episode but was bothered by the mid-tragedy jocularity – ” I get that it’s a natural instinct in times like this to try to deflect the enormity of the situation, but the gossipy nature of their conversation seemed inappropriate, no matter how much I wanted to know all the deets,” she writes.
I read that passage over three or four times, and then called my sister and paraphrased it for her. And as good a writer as Newman is, this made us wonder if she’s ever been in that waiting room, if she’s ever lost someone. If she has, and she grieves differently, no judgement. I hope that her method got her through, and that she is doing well. But we wholeheartedly disagree, like, a lot, that appropriateness has anything whatsoever to do with that moment. Not in the thick of things.
Look: An unscheduled walk of shame to focus on is a gift in this situation. Lynne and I are part of the sad Parental Loss club, but since childhood have been going to funerals, sitting vigil in waiting rooms and at bedsides, and, as of the death of my mother-in-law almost five years ago, sitting shiva.
And while I believe that it’s inappropriate to start stuff with your family in a moment of weakness, like, unrelated stuff that could wait, life continues even as Death prepares to ring the doorbell (Lord, I wish you could yell “We aren’t here!” and turn the porch light off until it goes dejectedly back to its car and goes away.) Babies will pee in the pew at the funeral. The florist will mistakenly but beautifully decorate the wreath from your cousin Chick and family “Chicken Family,” and everyone you are related to will laugh so hard that it’s painful, even as the rest of the mourners look at you like you crazy. Your father will miss Gladys Knight’s performance on “Dancing With The Stars” because he’s on his way to dialysis, and even though he needs the dialysis to live, he will grumble about it, because he was only watching this stupid show for Gladys.
Every single one of those things has happened in the past 30 years to us and I can tell you this – You do not stop loving, eating, peeing, laughing or being human in the middle of tragedy. Humanity is a gift in these cases, in those rooms. Humanity keeps you sane, or as sane as you can be kept, because you’re trying to scratch your brain out of your skull trying to keep it from chanting “He’s gonna die. He’s gonna die. Hey, Hoda’s hair looks nice! He’s gonna die.”
The Bravermans are not perfect. I do not understand some of their romantic or parenting choices, or entirely where their money comes from, or how moving from a giant rambling house with land in the expensive Bay area to an expensive big Victorian in a nice neighborhood in San Francisco is considered downsizing. I think, again, that they’d all benefit from having friends they aren’t sleeping with whose last names are not and have never been “Braverman.”
But I understand their passionate devotion, how they have never loved anyone more than each other while considering each the burr under their collective saddles. I understand how hard it is to extricate yourself from your family, even if you wanted to, and how sometimes you get all tossed together like an artisanal cranberry and feta salad, bumping against each other, and don’t even realize how good you go together until the spinning stops.
And I know that in those moments, I would not dare tell someone not to crack on their sister’s presumed previous activities, or their hair, or Hoda’s hair, or what’s on the front of the paper, or whatever worms its way into the room. Because I have been in that room, and know this: The pain that might be coming? THAT IS WHAT IS INAPPROPRIATE. It’s evil. It’s the Devil. It’s inevitable, maybe, but it sucks and it just feels wrong. Pain is interrupting your walk of shame, and Gladys Knight, and life, not the other way around. So if being a little tacky gets you through? You get a pass.