ER is a melodrama. That’s a common criticism people will launch at the show and then stand back as though they’d said something particularly devastating. But, you know, what is a melodrama, anyway?
Ok, fine, I’ll tell you. Originally, a melodrama was a new type of theater that employed music to heighten dramatic effect, but over time it has come to mean, more or less, any film, play or literary work characterized by stereotypical characters, exaggerated emotions, and simplistic conflict. I got that last bit off of Wikepedia, so you know it must be true. Anyway, ER fits the bill on both counts. Of course, so does the Oreisteia, Oedipus Rex, the Eumenides and all of Greek tragedy.
That’s why these ancient plays retain so much impact today—well, I can’t honestly speak to the music, but the second part for sure. Stereotypical characters are people we know well and understand: the prince, the villain, the nurse working her way through med school. As for their display of exaggerated emotion in the face of simplistic conflict—well, you know, I love Middlemarch as much as the next guy, but sometimes what you really need, and I mean down deep at a physiological level, is not to think about something, but to feel something.
That’s what melodrama does better than anything on the planet. It sneaks around behind your head, bypasses language, and gets right at the basic operating system. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent any time adjusting your computer, fiddling around with the preferences, assigning new values to the shortcut keys based on your assessment of the kinds of tasks you do, rearranging everything for the utmost efficiency until eventually it’s all so perfectly fucked up that you can’t figure anything out anymore—so you hit the “restore defaults” option and you breathe a big sigh of relief and start over again.
That’s what melodrama is. Sometimes you just need a dark room, a big screen and a good cry to get yourself up and running again. Granted, this is coming from the guy who broke down part way through Air Bud II because, I mean, when Bud escapes from the evil Russian circus trainers so he can make it to the football game in time to win the championship but then he takes the time to release the other animals too, even though this puts him in danger of recapture and makes him potentially late for the championship, which will not happen because the other animals he’s let out now band together and help him because that is just the way friends do for their friends, no matter what the color or texture of their fur. Good goes up against evil and good kicks some ass.
Anyway, back to ER. Here’s the scene: Abby Lockhart comes home after a tough day to find her mother, Maggie Wysinzki (bi-polar, played by Sally Field), preparing a little dinner. We’ve seen this woman go through some awful stuff—crazy mood swings, disappearing acts, a suicide attempt—so it’s hard not to sympathize with Abby’s frustration, her feeling that a relapse is inevitable, her sense that there’s no point in getting her hopes up just because Mom seems a little better this week. (As we’ve learned in previous episodes, Abby got her last name from her ex-husband, but it’s her mother gave her the experiences that helped make the name so apt.)
Maggie tries to make some small talk—about Luka, about the ER softball league—but Abby cuts her off.
“The reason I walked out of your therapy today,” Abby begins wearily, “ is because it’s just, uhm… It’s scary to hope too much.”
Maggie swallows, blinks.
“Yeah,” she says, nodding her head. No denial. No encouragement. Just a simple acknowledgement of fact. “I know, Abby. I know I might not make it. But something happened to me in that ICU room. I realized, I don’t want to die. And more than that, I don’t want my little girl to watch me die. I can’t do that to you. Not ever. That’s what I wanted to tell you today.”
Cut to Abby, looking like she wants to believe. But, c’mon, it’s so melodramatic.
“I’m gonna handle my life,” Maggie continues. “And I want you to get on with yours.”
There ensues a sharp back and forth between the mother, exhorting the daughter to get out there and live, and the daughter who has an answer for everything, and in the course of this Abby blurts out that she had gotten pregnant during her marriage but decided to have an abortion.
“Some people aren’t meant to be mothers,” she says.
“Abby,” her mother responds. “I was much younger than you when I had my first manic episode. I’ve watched you since you were a little girl. You’re not bi-polar.”
“No, but my kids could be.”
“But they might not be. They could be anything and you would just love them,” Maggie says. “That’s all.”
That’s all any parent wants. To think that your kid could be anything, could be something and to have the heart to love him.
“I just was too scared,” Abby says, shaking her head as if to deny the memory of it. “I couldn’t risk it. I didn’t want to…”
“Turn into me?” Maggie says. “Or have to take care of another me?”
She’s asking, but she already knows the answer. She watches her daughter fight back the tears, a struggle I have long since abandoned.
“Oh sweetie. That’s all there is, is risk. You just have to take a chance and leap into life. Otherwise, sweetheart, you’re going to miss out on all the great things.”
Wow. But here’s where I get confused. I know that’s Sally Field hugging Maura Tierney. They’re actresses going through a scene. Beyond that, while I can’t say what’s coming for Maggie, I happen to know, thanks to the ham-handed comments of some preternaturally obtuse co-workers, that there are some pretty good times ahead for Abby Lockhart. So wherefore all this sadness? I’m not stupid. I know it’s just a TV show. What gives?
Here’s a guess. Depending on how you measure it, the missus and me are around ten days short of her due date. That’s just exactly where we were a year ago July, when she called me and I met her at the hospital. I don’t have a bi-polar mother, I haven’t gone through what Maura is pretending Abby went through, but I can feel pretty acutely the pain of losing that child. She chose to lose it, we didn’t choose, it’s totally different and it doesn’t matter, really; that’s how melodrama works. It gets behind the ideas and into the feelings.
I have found it so much easier to write about my father than to write about my son. I knew him better, for one thing. He had all these flaws and all these chances he passed up, but I find, more and more, that my memories are kinder and kinder, as if there were some benevolent editor working through the archives and giving things their proper prominence. Things I haven’t thought of in years will suddenly come popping up—some moment with him, or a thing that got him laughing.
My son, Lincoln: no laughter, no fights, no time to teach him anything at all. Our life together was stillborn with him. I can sit here and write this dry-eyed, but I can’t watch ten minutes of ER without salting my cheeks. Go figure.
With ten days ‘til the new baby comes, I expected we’d feel terrible anxiety—after all, everything is going great, exactly as it was last time—but that’s not really the problem right now. I’m pretty certain things are going to be fine this with this pregnancy, but I feel like time is running out on Lincoln. Probably this might mean something to you if you’ve lost a child, or maybe it might mean something to you anyway, but Lincoln has been in my heart and on my mind for a while, and now there will be this new boy—eating, shitting, crying out in the night—making his demands on me, making inroads into my heart.
I fear losing the connection to my son, the exquisite pain of it that I can find at any moment, just like your tongue finds a sore tooth and works at it, the weight and warmth of him in my arms, that beautiful tired face, the nurse at my shoulder whispering, “He’s perfect,” and me, instantly, thinking, “No, he’s not. Not quite.”
Love doesn’t erase love. I know that. I know this new boy won’t come and take my memories away. He’ll make some other kind of magic I can only guess at—we’ll have to wait and see—but in the meantime, I still fight this irrational feeling that Lincoln and I are coming to an end of some sorts.
I worry that I will forget. I worry that I will get OK with it. These memories are grim and so sad, but they’re all we got of Lincoln and they’ll have to do, somehow.