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Rabbit Hole

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole, my son Frank was the recorded voice of Danny, a four-year-old boy killed by a car when he chased his dog Taz into the street. The Fredric March Theater at UW Oshkosh is not the Winter Garden on Broadway, but if your 13-year-old daughter weeps through opening night, it might as well be.

In David Lindsay-Abaire’s script, Becca and Howie are grieving the loss of their son. One of Howie’s coping strategies is to watch a video of Danny goofing around, a ritual that momentarily beckons him back to life. Although we don’t see the home movie, Frank as Danny’s voice-over emerges from the T.V. on stage – youthful, exuberant, invincible.

“Geronimo,” he whoops.

“Did you see me, Daddy?”

“I did,” Howie says.

“No, you didn’t. I’m invisible.”

And so he is, invisible but palpable. His robot-themed room remains untouched since his funeral many months earlier. The Runaway Bunny materializes twice, and a stuffed dinosaur takes up residence on the bottom bunk of an end table. Perhaps most seeable is the laundry basket of clothing Becca folds in the opening scene. Those soft limbs and torsos once tumbled in my home drier. Boys’ pants hardly endure one childhood, never mind three, but we donated two full bags of shirts for this grieving mother to fold. Baby Gap bears are pinned to the hearts of those old striped turtlenecks.

Originally Gus planned to audition for Danny: four-year-old debuts as four-year-old. We pointed to the marquee on Algoma Blvd. where the Rabbit Hole playbill portrays two adult silhouettes hoisting a child into the air between them. One-two-three-lift the “ghost boy.”

“Look, that’s you, Gussie!” But upon meeting his pretend father, with whom he’d need to exchange lines, Gus twisted into the folds of my tunic. Fearless Frank stepped on stage to the rescue.

A week later, recording Frank’s lines was an epic family adventure. We began at the Experimental Theater, traversed underground tunnels, and shuttled in a rickety elevator to the WRST studio. Irie and Fern coached Frank to perform the best “Pffffhhh” he could muster. Use your lips, Frank!

“Is that it? Am I invisible?” Howie asks.

“Yeah. I made you invisible.” Danny, like all four-year-old boys, excels at magic.

Our children are well acquainted with the stage. Three years ago, in 2015, Leo played the young Emil Bergson in O’ Pioneers. Through he delivered no lines, he plodded across stage, a ghost boy himself, Emil having been shot to death after intermission by his childhood sweetheart Marie’s jealous husband.

Unlike O’ Pioneers, though, Rabbit Hole opened in the wake of the deadly Valentine’s Day shooting in Florida. Names of victims had not yet been released as we settled into Row H of the supposedly haunted theater. Though Ryan and I shelter our kids from very little, we had instinctively and quickly switched from Good Day Wisconsin to SpongeBob upon the rat-a-tat of little feet at 6 AM that morning. There’s nothing a Krabby Patty fry cook can’t fix.

But on my second cup of coffee, I burrowed back into the rabbit hole of inevitable violence. “Don’t Get Murdered At School Today” from McSweeney’s unfurled down the point-blank target of my Facebook feed.

Later that evening, walking to the Fredrick March Theater, as Irie, and I argued over whether 44 degrees – in February – warranted a sundress, Fern piped in, “I’m glad it was warm because we had a fire drill today.”

“You didn’t seriously have a fire drill today, did you?”

“Yeah, why, is that a big deal or something?”

Well, yes, it was a big deal. According to reports by surviving students, Nikolas Cruz had pulled the fire alarm at Stoneman Douglas High School as part of his premeditated mass murder fewer than 24 hours before the fire drill at Oakwood School would have blasted kids from their chairs. What if Fern and Frank had known this detail heading into school on Thursday? When the alarm split their eardrums, would they have lined up single-file, or crouched for a second, contemplating whether a hard-topped desk might serve as body armor?

By Saturday, Frank had learned of Parkland, Florida tragedy. “I’m never going there,” he said, matter-of-factly, as if geography were its own protection, but later, he said, “I can predict the future, and I’m going to be hit by a car.”

“That won’t happen,” I said. “Danny is only four years old. You’re almost eight, and you’d never chase Archie into the street without looking both ways.” He seemed satisfied by the reassurances of his wits.

In one of the final scenes in Rabbit Hole, Becca finds comfort in serving lemon squares and milk to Jason Willette, the teenager who accidentally killed Danny by careening into him on their quiet suburban street. In a short story Jason wrote and dedicated to Danny, he explores so-called rabbit or worm holes. Through these portals, according to the laws of infinite time and space, we can travel to find alternative endings to tragedies. Neither Becca nor Jason explicitly say so, but Becca likely imagines a world where Danny survives the collision and grief is not the stone she carries in her pocket.

The whole way home from Rabbit Hole, Irie, Fern, and I prepared ourselves not to over-love Francis when we arrived. “Get off me,” he’d grumble. “Stop it.” No little boy wants to be smothered, of course.

So, I told myself that after hugging him fiercely, I would switch to loving him actively inside my head. Six syllables formed a refrain: I love Francis breathing. I love Francis breathing. Some days, it seems that “still living” is the only thing we’ve got.

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