[On occasion, Faith & Family Fridays will include a bit of my newspaper work, published mainly Saturdays in The Forum, reprinted here with permission.]
‘Les Miserables’ not so miserable after all
I spent the summer of my senior year of college in Princeton, N.J., as a live-in nanny for three young girls.
My work days largely were made up of grocery runs, playing board games and teaching the kiddos my wide repertoire of camp songs.
Days off frequently turned into grand adventures exploring the East Coast – either in a convertible Jeep Wrangler or by train.
One afternoon, while on one of those explorations, I sat on a bench at an outdoor train station in Trenton, N.J. While waiting, I spotted a mural across the way; on it, a cartoon of a child with large, forlorn eyes, disheveled hair and the words, “Les Miserables.” I had no idea what it meant.
My summer bucket-list included at least one Broadway musical, and by the time my fellow nanny friend and I investigated the options, our Top 5 choices were sold out. Begrudgingly, we purchased tickets to attend the depressing-sounding musical based on the French Revolution that everyone was calling “Les Mis.”
How happy I am that my assumptions had been wrong and that I’ve had the mesmerizing story and songs of “Les Mis” to accompany me throughout my after-nanny life, leaving me transformed time and again.
When I learned a film version was coming, I couldn’t wait to go. The plan was to see it with friends the second weekend of January, but I was called away instead to be with my dying father.
After his death, mired in grief, I questioned whether I could handle the power of “Les Mis.” The story is far from what most would consider light.
And yet I felt compelled. I posed the possibility to my husband our next date night.
“Are you sure that would be a good choice right now?” he wondered, reasonably.
“Well, I’ll probably saturate my popcorn with tears, but I really want to see it on the big screen,” I replied.
Rather than feeling depressed, as I watched one of my favorite stories come alive in new form, I was captivated. Yes, it is a story of death, but more so one of faith, love and life.
To my surprise, my tear ducts stayed dry until a scene toward the end when – spoiler alert – Cosette’s father is approaching death.
I wasn’t prepared for this scene and suddenly, whether I wanted to be or not, I was back at St. Alexius Hospital, where I’d stood just weeks before watching my father breathe his last.
As Jean Valjean bid his daughter farewell, peace illuminating his face at knowing she was in good hands, I experienced my father’s death all over again. Only this time, rather than gazing upon a father who couldn’t talk, I sensed mine saying to me, “Rock, that’s me up there. I’ve done all I can here and for you. You’re safe, and I’m ready to go home.”
I sobbed hard then, there in the back row of the theater, and allowed sweet consolation to take hold; both in what I heard my father saying and in my husband reaching out to comfort me, just like Marius had Cosette.
By the next day, I’d noticed the heavy cloak of grief had turned thin. And though I’ve been warned it comes in waves and is sure to return, I’ve also been assured of something amazing: Art can heal.
For me, this healing came in an unexpected place, by the most unlikely of stories and art forms: Hollywood’s version of “Les Mis.”
Perhaps even more profoundly, I’ve come to see that my viewing of my last-pick musical back in 1990 had been no accident after all, but part of an amazing plan set in motion then to prepare me for an evening in January 2013 in a theater in Fargo.
Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.