Domestically Disturbed: Topher Payne fears a ghost baby more than death.
Tricia Branigan’s husband builds those luxury townhome communities that pop up in unexpected locations where land is cheap, instantly gentrifying a single block of Buford Highway, and then promptly walling it off so its residents never have to interact with the neighbors.
The resulting effect is startling — you’ll drive past a neglected Texaco Station, then a hair weave place, and then there’s this big terrarium for white people, and then like a prepaid cell phone store and a Checkers.
I met the Branigans through work, when I had a job which required me to call wealthy people and ask them for money. For whatever reason, Tricia Branigan had no interest in writing a check to the organization. But she would gleefully spend thousands of dollars hosting a fundraising party in her home, a gesture as thoughtful as it was consistently ineffective.
The Branigan home is, of course, not in one of their prefab communities. They live in a sprawling Buckhead monolith featuring every single amenity their townhomes offer — garden tubs, California closets. They have six bathrooms. I submit to you that if six people in your house need to shit simultaneously, it’s time to review what you’re serving them.
There’s a tennis court out back, oddly placed right next to the house, because it used to be a saltwater pool. The pool did not have a fence, because fences are ugly, and that’s why it was tragic but not surprising when Tricia Branigan’s youngest child took a short stroll outside and drowned.
This was 11 years ago. The child would be 14 now. I know this, because they have a birthday party for the child, every year. The child still has her own room, and presumably her own bathroom. The Branigan Christmas card is a portrait of the surviving family, smiling cheerfully on the cover. You open it, and it says, “Happy Holidays from the Branigans, and our angel!” This is accompanied by a picture of the child, with wings.
My hope is that if I do have a guardian angel, it isn’t some Junior Leaguer’s ghost baby. In what situation would the ghost of a three year-old be of any assistance?
Casper the Friendly Ghost was presumably a dead child. Did he ever do anything useful? Picture “It’s a Wonderful Life,” if George Bailey was at the mercy of a 30-pound guardian angel holding a sippy cup.
Look. I get what she’s going for here. Tricia Branigan, confronted by the greatest horror a person could ever experience, wanted to celebrate her child, and the joy she brought in her brief life. But something went awry, and she is instead crafting the continuing adventures of Ghost Baby. This will be discussed at length in the surviving Branigan children’s eventual therapy sessions.
In focusing so maniacally on the joy of Ghost Baby, with the parties, and the creepy angel wings, Tricia Branigan has never dealt with the simple fact of her circumstances: Her kid drowned. And that sucks.
At some point in our lives, each of us will be confronted by an unimaginable loss. Hope collides with reality, with plenty of collateral damage. The pain associated with sorrow is the point, for the same reason physical pain exists: As an indication that something has gone wrong, and it needs to be addressed.
It is meant to inspire action — to recognize the magnitude of this event, to deal with it, and move forward. Sorrow is where the work happens, and joy is the reward. And I mean genuine joy, not the manufactured joy borne of denial, which would be dismantled in an instant if anyone pointed out that you’re playing tennis over the exact spot where your child died.
When I die, I do not want people to plaster on smiles and throw a party and find creepy ways to keep my memory alive. I want moaning, keening, wailing, gnashing of teeth. Selfflagellation should be encouraged.
I want people to grieve. And then I want them to do something else. Because life is for the living. And sorrow is the necessary pause that proves a life had meaning.
Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com