Why I Love Rebecca Pearson (“This Is Us” spoiler alert!)

I can melt a bowl of ice cream with all the tears I cry when I watch “This Is Us.” Sad tears, happy tears, a-thousand-other-emotions tears. “This Is Us” opens cages I locked up years ago; cages I didn’t think had keys anymore.

Didn’t I move on from ______? Apparently not.

Part of why I get teary is that the show pays attention to mothers: birth mothers, chose-not-to-be mothers, mothers who raise(d) their biological children, mothers who raise(d) other mother’s children, and mothers who become grandmothers.

It also pays attention to grief, and that’s the big reason I love Rebecca Pearson. While Rebecca is a mother who raised her birth children and she is a mother of another mother’s child, she’s also a mother who lost her partner and a grandmother who is married to someone who is not the father of the mother and fathers who brought her grandbabies into the world.

I understand Rebecca in ways I wish I didn’t, but I’m so glad she was written into existence.

Two episodes best encapsulate my experiences vis a vis Rebecca, and I urge you to stop reading if you don’t like spoilers because I’m about to spoil pretty hard.

In season one, we find out Rebecca’s husband, Jack, is dead. We won’t know how or when he dies until season two (“Super Bowl Sunday,” February 4, 2018). The obvious correlation between Rebecca and me is that I was widowed once, but the side-of-fries of this episode is that I also know how a house can burn because of electrical issues. The Pearsons left a faulty crock pot plugged in, and at the Haraldson’s, there was a faulty nightlight plugged in too close to my brother’s bed. While our house didn’t burn to the ground and no one died, watching that episode brought up a lot of pretty intense feelings for that reason alone.

But on to the primary one.

In the Super Bowl episode, we all thought Jack died when he went back in the house to retrieve Kate’s dog from the burning living room. (“I really love the girl who loves the dog…” No, Jack! You’re going to die!) Only he didn’t. He walks out triumphant, dog in his arms, like he’s Will Smith in “Independence Day.” At first I thought maybe I misunderstood the teaser, that Jack doesn’t really die in a house fire. But he’s burned his arm and he’s coughing (oh no) and he and Rebecca go to the hospital after they drop the kids off at Miguel’s (whose character is elevated later in the story). Jack suffers a heart attack while Rebecca, thinking Jack will be fine, is talking on the pay phone several feet from his room. She also bought a Twix from the vending machine before the doctor comes to her to explain that Jack died, and she takes a bite, which was so…I get that. I was making pork chops and watching All My Children when they told me Bruce died. Ordinary life stuff, for sure.

Rebecca goes to Jack’s room and there, she tilts her head just slightly as she takes in the sight of his body, that we see reflected in the door window. Mandy Moore perfectly encapsulates how it takes the brain a minute to process unbelievable, incomprehensible, WTF information.

I will never not cry when I watch this.

Last Tuesday’s episode affected me in a less visceral but more cerebral way (“In the Room,” February 16, 2021). In California, Kevin’s partner is in labor, as is the birth mother of Kate and Toby’s soon-to-be adopted daughter. Rebecca is at the family cabin in Pennsylvania with her now husband, Miguel. Sketchy Wi-Fi is making her anxious, and she keeps looking over to a picture hanging on the wall. What looks like a watercolor is actually the rain-ruined painted handprints of Kevin, Kate, Randall, Jack, and Rebecca, made when the Big Three were little kids. In a flashback, Rebecca is drying out the handprints, and she says to Jack about their future, “We will never miss the little stuff, and especially not the big stuff.”

Ah, yes. Certainty. It’s what bites us in the ass, isn’t it. But without the hope of certainty, can we even move forward?

I remembered how, after Bruce died, I sat on the bathroom counter, putting on makeup, getting ready for his funeral, and I said to him, “We were supposed to be married for seventy-five years. We talked about this, remember? On the couch that Sunday when your parents were in Iowa and we had the house to ourselves. It was the same day you showed me that card in your wallet, the one with the alphabet in sign language on one side and Kama Sutra positions on the other. You would live to one hundred and then you’d die, and I’d follow after a few dawdling years as a widow, watching soap operas in a nursing home. The kids would visit every Sunday, and I’d assure them I was fine, that I was just waiting for the right time to join you, wherever you were.”

We were so sure.

After Rebecca explains the watercolor to Miguel, she says, “I know it’s silly, but I feel like I’m letting down Jack. By not being there for them (Kate and Kevin) today, like I’m not holding up my end of the promise.”

Yup. As if grief isn’t enough, guilt is right there on its tail.

Then she says, “It’s OK, you don’t have to make me feel better. We never talk about this, how you have to bear Jack’s death differently for yourself and for me (ouch) and our marriage (ouch again). Thank you. I know it’s a lot. I know I’m a lot.”

Being in relationship with someone post-loss can be complicated, and difficult, and sometimes awesome, and there will be grief and guilt feelings that seep through; they might affect your decisions and actions and words and even your concept of love. And that’s what I love so much about that scene. Rebecca understands that because she lives it every day, and so does Miguel.

“This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman once tweeted, “My mom died 10 years ago, unexpectedly. It’s the hinge upon which my life swings. Jack’s death is the Pearson hinge.”

Bruce’s death is my hinge. That event shaped who I am today. All the decisions I’ve made, all the paths I’ve taken and abandoned. I am who I am because the person I loved most in one moment in time was alive and then he died.

Grief and love are big and sticky. Relating to those feelings – even through a fictional character – is relief, it’s a free breath, it’s a lesser burden. Shared grief can get us through the most painful parts of it, especially the thinking we’re alone part. And while Rebecca is a fictional character, she is me. She might be you. Or your mom. Or your neighbor. The woman you sit next to in church.

That’s why I love Rebecca Pearson.

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