The Rabbit Hole Letters
By Casey Gauntt
Rabbit Hole: An entrance to a rabbit’s burrow or warren; a bizarre or difficult state or situation; a portal into a different, strange world; and all of the above.
David Lindsay-Abaire wrote the Rabbit Hole play in 2006 for which he won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.
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|David Lindsay-Abaire||Rabbit Hole Paperback at Amazon||North Coast Repertory Theatre Program|
Alice: I can’t remember things before they happen!
The White Queen: It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
WHEN ALICE FOLLOWED the White Rabbit into the rabbit hole, she found a world in which the rules as we know them don’t apply. For the last year, I felt like I’d followed her. My world shrank as if I had drunk from that bottle, closing in on me after Jimmy’s death. I wondered if it would ever expand to fullness again. Everything I’d ever believed in seemed to have been rewritten in some strange language that could only be deciphered by a native inhabitant of this world of pain.
On April 26, 2009, Hilary and I went to the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach to see the Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Rabbit Hole, written by David Lindsay-Abaire. Some friends of Hilary mentioned that we might want to see it, but that maybe we weren’t ready.
As we picked up our tickets, Hilary asked how much longer the show would be running.
The cashier said, “This is the last show. You got here just in time.”
After we took our seats we looked around the small theatre. We seemed to be the youngest people in the audience.
The play is about a family that loses a four-year-old son, Danny, and how the family members deal with the tragedy. Becca, the mother, packs up Danny’s belongings, sells the house, even erases the last home video of him. Howie, her husband, retreats into depression and accuses Becca of trying to obliterate the memory of their child. Izzy, Becca’s younger sister, is pregnant, and Becca mourns the loss of her child while questioning whether Izzy is fit to raise her baby. Nat, the women’s mother, has experienced her own grief when her son, addicted to heroin, commits suicide.
The most influential and critical character in the drama is Jason Willette, the seventeen-year-old who struck Danny with his car eight months earlier and must live with the consequences. Danny had chased their dog into the street. Jason had no time to stop the car. Nobody’s fault.
During the second act our attention was riveted on Jason. We were consumed with his pain, his torment and his suffering, his desperate need to connect. After Jimmy was killed we’d had no desire to contact the driver who hit him. Ryan had found out his name was Peter. His car had rolled but Peter had escaped unhurt, except for a few minor bumps and scrapes.
A week before we decided to see the play, a friend of mine, who knew Jimmy well, was playing golf at the club where Peter was working. Peter had been on his way to his job at the course when his car struck Jimmy that early Saturday morning. My friend’s playing partner pointed out Peter and said, “That’s the kid whose car struck and killed another kid a few blocks from here. He’s having a really hard time.”
My friend stared. “He hit Jimmy Gauntt. I knew Jimmy his whole life. His folks are good friends of ours.”
Jimmy’s words from the first reading with our medium Tarra right before Christmas flooded in: ‘He’s having a hard time. Trouble sleeping. You need to contact him.’
Hilary and I were unsure. What if he didn’t want to hear from us? What if his pain was too great for him to face us? Did we want to put him—and ourselves—through even more circles of hell? We procrastinated.
As the play ended, we did our best to stanch the flow of tears and control our sobs before we left the theatre with the rest of the red-eyed crowd. As we were climbing into my car, Hilary yelled. “What happened?”
“I think a bee stung me.”
I looked at her neck and saw the stinger. I pulled it out with my fingernails. “Are you allergic?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been stung before.” She paused, a far-off look in her eyes. “I think somebody’s trying to tell us something. This was the last performance of this play. Their son is killed accidently by a car driven by a young man eight months earlier. It’s been eight months since Jimmy’s accident. We’ve got to contact that boy!”
As soon as we got home, I sat down, booted up the computer, and began a letter to Peter. I introduced myself and said I was writing on behalf of my wife, Hilary, our daughter, Brittany, and Jimmy.
“It is very important for you to know we are not mad or angry with you. We do not blame you for the accident. We do feel very sad and sorry that you and our son had to be on that road, at that particular place at that particular time. If we could turn back the clock and change something, anything, so you weren’t there or Jimmy wasn’t there, at the moment, we would do it in a heartbeat, and we know you would too. Unfortunately we don’t have that power. We are truly sorry for you, truly sorry that you were the one driving that car.
“We want you to know that Jimmy is doing okay, that he’s happy and he’s in heaven. We also know that Jimmy wants you to know this, and he wants you to be okay, as do we. Each one of us has a full life to live, and we know Jimmy does not want this accident and his death to get in the way of us living our lives and smiling.
“We can’t imagine what you have been going through. We are sorry that you’ve had to suffer from this. I don’t know if receiving and reading this letter will be of help to you. We hope it is. You are in our thoughts and prayers, and we want and choose for you to be well.”
Ryan took the letter to the golf course and asked the head pro to please deliver the letter to Peter, which he did on May 1. Ryan did a lot of the heavy lifting for us after Jimmy died. He recovered Jimmy’s car from where he’d left it that Friday night, cleaned it up and sold it. Although they only knew each other for four years Jimmy and Ryan became close, like brothers. There was a very clear but unspoken rule in our family. Whenever Britt brought a new boyfriend home, Jimmy would subtly conduct a rigorous examination of physical, intellectual, and moral attributes. He never had to verbalize the results. Britt just knew when a potential boyfriend failed or passed the Jimmy Test. If he failed, she dropped him like a stone.
Ryan and Jimmy both enjoyed a passion for writing, literature, poetry, music, and the theatre. No one laughed harder than Jimmy at Ryan’s jokes and impersonations. They deeply respected and admired one another. Ryan is an exceptional writer and he penned Jimmy’s obituary, of which Jimmy would have been very proud. Ryan became part of our family when he married our daughter, but he won our hearts and souls with everything he did, and continues to do, after Jimmy died. He became blood.
Three months later, on July 22, my assistant, Shelley, came into my office and dropped the mail in my inbox on the credenza in back of me. I rarely get any real mail these days. All the good stuff is sent online. So, figuring it was mostly interoffice stuff, newspapers or junk, I didn’t look at it right away.
I thumbed through the short stack and saw an envelope addressed to me in neat handwriting. As I looked at the name and return address in the top left corner, I froze. It was from Peter.
I closed my door, sat in my chair, and opened the letter. My hands were shaking. Before long, I was weeping. I put the letter down and cried hard for five minutes. It was powerful, it was sensitive, it was healing. The enormity of the moment and this connection was nearly overwhelming. I called Hilary and told her what had just happened, and scanned to her a copy of the letter.
Because of our profound respect for Peter and his privacy, I will not share here the contents of Peter’s letter to us, except for this one paragraph.
“I would like to share with you a dream I had… My dream started with my getting out of my car that was on its side. I stood up and opened the passenger door to get out just like it really happened, but when I opened the door, there stood a middle-aged woman with her arms wide open with love and care, giving me help. I then turned to see Jimmy lying in the street, calm and breathing, with a middle-aged man kneeling over him, holding his hand and comforting him. You may interpret this dream any way you wish, but I felt that the woman was God assuring me that both Jimmy and I were not alone during the accident, and that the man was Jesus Christ comforting Jimmy and accepting him in his kingdom. So when you spoke of Jimmy being in a better place, I truly believe in my heart that he is and that in time we will finally meet.”
That evening, Brittany came by the house and we gave her a copy of the letter. Her chin trembled as she went into another room to read it. Hilary and I went onto the deck, letting our daughter have her privacy with Peter’s powerful words. A few minutes later, she joined us, her face tear streaked.
“That is so beautiful!” she said.
And for the rest of the evening, we reminisced, laughed, cried, and forgave.
On July 28, I wrote a letter to the playwright, David Lindsey-Abaire. I got his address from Jimmy’s good friend, mentor and super agent, Tom Strickler, who fortuitously was friends with David’s agent. My intuition insisted that he had to know our story. I enclosed copies of our correspondence with Peter. I related how our son had died and how in Rabbit Hole he had captured exactly the feelings we experienced and were still experiencing. I thanked him for his gift of such a stunning work and explained how our son had been pursuing a career in writing, having completed several plays and screenplays.
I went on to say, “Grief, suffering and healing are complex and unique and personal to everyone who is touched by a loss. We can’t see what’s ahead of us; we do our best to control our fear and work hard to stay in the light. We commend you for being able, not having personally experienced this kind of loss (correct?), to get your arms around this subject and for your soft touch in exploring the depths of it.”
I concluded, “If someone had told us a year ago we’d be writing and receiving letters like this, well, we would of course have thought we’d stumbled upon a hookah-smoking caterpillar in a rabbit hole. Thank you for kicking us over the edge into our personal rabbit hole. We are forever grateful to you. Peter is too; we’re certain of it.”
In August I received a reply from Lindsay-Abaire. He thanked me for my letter and offered condolences. “I can’t begin to fathom the pain of your loss. The thoughts and prayers of my family are with yours.”
He went on to say, “You might be interested to know that the seed of the play first came to me while I was a student at Juilliard, and a teacher posed a challenge: If you want to write a good play, think of the thing that scares you most in the world, and write about that fear. It wasn’t until I became a father many years later, and I heard a few stories of children dying unexpectedly, that I was able to turn that challenge into what became Rabbit Hole. The mere thought of losing my son made me understand fear in a way I never had before. And so, while I had experienced death and loss, and dealt with grief to some extent, you’re correct in assuming that I hadn’t experienced the very specific loss that the family in the play, and your family in real life, had experienced. Which makes hearing from you that I got it right all the more special to me.
“As a writer, I hope to reach people, and to have my work connect with them in a significant way. I have no doubt that Jimmy hoped to do this in his work as well. I’ve been extra lucky to also receive some nice reviews, and some significant prizes. But even with all that, for as long as I’ve been doing this, I have never received something so humbling, and so gratifying, as the kind letter you’ve sent me.
“I can’t tell you how moved I am to hear that Rabbit Hole may have played a role in you and your wife finally deciding to reach out to the young man involved in your son’s accident. Thank you for including the correspondence you shared with Peter. I found it both heartbreaking and uplifting. It was clearly important and helpful for all of you to reach out to one another, and I could not be happier that you’ve all found a little more comfort in doing so…. It is my deep belief that through connection we heal…. Your story is a testament to that idea. It’s also a testament to Jimmy and the legacy he leaves behind. He was obviously a special person who touched many lives. And by your sharing your family’s story with me, I too now feel connected in some way to the light that was and continues to be Jimmy. I thank you for that. It’s something I will cherish always.
All the best to you and your family, David Lindsay-Abaire”
We received David Lindsay-Abaire’s letter on August 11, 2009, two days after the first anniversary of our son’s accident. That day was also Hilary’s and my thirty-sixth wedding anniversary.