“These poems, they are the tiniest
of nets cast into the sea, and even these,
despite the summer months I have spent
with the nets’ dressings, will be eventually
forsaken, and I, finally just another
Brett Foster, “The Forerunner” (excerpt)
Two months ago, I agreed to be a part of a theater project having no idea what I was saying yes to or what was really in store. I was meeting with one of my former teachers, Andy, when he brought it up and invited me to join the work. I said yes quickly when he told me about the project. I was hungry for work to do, for any sort of art to dig my hands around in. I was hungry to hop back into the community I’d just left. I was hungry. I would have said yes to anything. Maybe that’s how many of us ended up around the table with print-outs of scores of poems spread out in front of us. However we got there, ten of us gathered, us ten plus Brett, to figure out what to do.
My encounters with Brett Foster were relatively few. I never even took a class with him in my time at Wheaton. The most significant way that our paths crossed was through his friendship with one of my dearest teachers in the theater, Mark. This friendship led Brett to spend free time in our theater, sitting, working, and reading in many of the spaces that we students inhabited incessantly. He sat in our living room, and I sat with him there sometimes. I loved it when he was there. It made me feel like we were seen in our little theater, like our places were good places to be, warm and inviting. It’s wonderful to see other people love the places you love too. The more he sat in our living room at the theater, the dearer to me he became, secretly. A dearness without much grounding in relationship. A dearness really based only on proximity, his presence in my places.
Other than that, I knew of him peripherally. I would see him in the audience at plays I was in. Professors I was close to would mention spending time with him, having Brett and Anise over for dinner. One time I was wandering the stacks in the library and I came across one of his books of poetry. Fall Run Road. I remember picking it up, paging through, maybe reading a snatch of a poem. And then I put it back on the shelf.
How could I have known?
How could any of us have known what this project would turn into? We all just showed up, out of love for each other, out of love for theater, out of love for our community, and some truly out of deep love for Brett. But for me, that desire to care for Brett Foster and the people that love him came later, after some weeks of work, after reading and rereading the poems, letting them speak to my life and infiltrate my heart. I didn’t realize what we were doing until we were already doing it. Until I was stepping into bringing his life back to life. Until I was singing the songs he had already sung.
On the day of our first performance, probably merely an hour or so before Brett passed from earth to heaven, Mark, my friend, dear teacher and fellow collaborator on this project said to us all, “You will never do theater like this again.” He was right. This project was a completely singular experience, theater instantly useful, flesh made word, reanimating, remembering, even when we didn’t mean it to. In our first few rehearsals, Brett was in the room with us, drinking a protein shake, talking quietly but confidently, laughing with us as we rifled through his life’s work, us crumpling his heart-pages with our grubby hands. He was so excited, so for us, so with us, and even deeply honored by our work, our tiny hope for making something beautiful. When devising theater, you never know what you’re going to end with. So many times half-ideas end up on the stage, movement sequences you tried on a whim become the real thing, a snatch of a song, a way of saying it. It gets pieced together quickly, and not easily. The process was not always lovely. It was rough, in fact, with all ten of us smart and loud and sad, trying to get our point across, to take care of a thing that we all wanted to take care of in different ways. But we created a play nonetheless, and carried it quietly for two months, memorizing Brett’s words, letting them rest in our mouths and hearts. I was astonished by the steep resemblance I saw in his published words about his newlywed days to my own life, the way his words illuminated my weeks, helped me see my new husband a little more clearly, cherish this time of youth and strength and such special mornings, noons, and nights. I was surprised, in fact, by how very much this project infiltrated my heart, how this man got under my skin, taught me about love and faith and anger and sorrow when I felt like my presence in the room in the first place was almost an accident. I was there though, and so was everyone else. And Brett was there too.
In many of our latter rehearsals, Brett could not join us even though he had intended to. His absence was always noted, noticed. We had things we wanted to ask him, ideas we wanted to check. Instead, we made our way on our own, hoping to honor, trying desperately to not tread harshly or wrongly on such carefully set-out words.
That Sunday, just a day before our first performance and his passing, Brett came to our rehearsal. We didn’t know if he would, if he could. No one ever told me that things had taken a steep downfall, but I knew. And when he walked into our room, my soul knew too. His body was wasted, a man no longer meant for this world. But he was still in it, and on his second to last day he wanted to be with us. To see our play, his play. To hear us speak his words with dry mouths and wet eyes. We forgot our lines. It wasn’t perfect. We weren’t even through programming the lights and sound. But he was there and we were too.
We will never do theater like that again. Like what we did on Sunday. Speaking Brett’s words back to him, to his wife, to his mother, to his children. They were our only audience. We embodied the stories of their life, Brett and Anise’s early marriage, the day Brett’s mother met her first husband, fights and favorite Bollywood films. As I stood in the spaces of their life, I could hardly believe it. Mark always told us in acting class that one of the best things to try to do as an actor is to honor. To honor. I’ve never felt the impulse to honor as strongly as I did on that Sunday. After our rehearsal, I felt electric, charged, confused by the weight of what had just occurred.
We will never do theater like that again. Like what we did on Monday. A gathering of all the people that knew and loved Brett best, his dearest friends, his entire family. He wanted them to go, and they came. Everyone was there, together. We all held our breath and we all exhaled it. Together. We will never do theater like that again. On Monday night, Brett passed some time during our performance, while 130 people who loved him were in a room, together, lifting him up to God’s own face.
How could we have known?
It was thick, terrible grace. Palpable sorrow and wonder. The poems about the cancer, poems yet unpublished, were lament, the man of sorrows hanging from the pipes, shouting his anger, singing his blues, cracking indelicate jokes. The poems about the joys of his life, the things he found wonderful, beautiful, true, rang through the space like so many bells, resounding, echoing. At the end, after all the words were spoken, everyone knew, though no one said it. Everyone felt the strange transformation, the wind of change. Brett’s family had left midway through the piece. His pastor left too. We all knew. The room became a place to grieve. Professor friends and dear ones huddled together, confounded but together. I felt out of place in the theater space, as a person who loved him, yes, but barely knew him, so I found myself in the parking lot, alone, cold, amazed.
The performances on Tuesday night were different. They had to be. A celebration of a beautiful, full, bursting life, and an elegy, one we hadn’t wished to give, but gave wholeheartedly.
As I stood in that space and said Brett’s words I truly wondered how it was that I got there. Who am I to say Brett’s words, sing his sorrow, shout his joy? Why am I being trusted with things so precious? So important? Who in the world am I? Brett’s family came again to our play on Tuesday night, the night after he died, they came, they came and they thanked us over and over again, thanks so strong that I didn’t know how to receive them. Me, who had hardly known him. Me, who now loved him, secretly, in my heart and bones. I accepted the thanks and stored them in my heart. I don’t know how I got there, me in my insufficiency, to stand in a room and say Brett’s words when he could not with nine other insuffiencent people. I stood there, hugging Brett’s mom on the day after his death, confused and amazed, wanting to shout “THANK YOU!” right back. “THANK YOU!” I wanted to shout to the rafters for Brett to somehow hear. Thank you! Thank you! How can I ever thank you?
No one knew anything at all when we chose the date for our performances. But our good Father knew, and perhaps Brett knew too, or his body did, in strange holy cahoots with God and his grace. Palpable grace, strange and thick, like smoke. I could smell it. Like God making the ground like sapphires, a pillar of fire. Grace you can’t miss. Like Brett and his poems. I’m left here, we all are maybe, sort of crestfallen and grateful, shocked by sorrow, buoyed by joy, confused and certain all at once.
Brett’s poems, snatches, phrases, words of them, have been fluttering through my brain quite a bit these days. Sugar maples, thermoses, the treehouse of the body. I keep hearing this phrase in particular over and over again. “These poems, they are the tiniest/ of nets cast into the sea, and even these, / despite the summer months I have spent / with the nets’ dressings, will be eventually / forsaken, and I, finally just another / powerless scribe.” I hear his sorrow, his despair. This feeling is real, the pounding on an invisible door, the feeling of ridiculous futility, the tininess of a poem, of a man. How can we help but feel this way on our smallest, hardest days on earth?
How marvelous that I know and you know and Brett really very truly knew so much to the contrary. The things on the opposite side of despair. The significance of tiny nets, tossed all alone, no one to see you, full of flotsam, jetsam, who knows what?
Brett, your nets are full and huge-tiny. You threw them alone, and then we all threw them together, with you and for you. Not powerless. Not insignificant, but instead wildly, impossibly, and magnificently met. Seen. Heard.
Thank you. Thank you. How can I ever thank you?