“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.”
― Richard Adams, Watership Down
“She made herself stronger by fighting with the wind.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
It feels familiar enough: your legs crossed beneath the desk chair, the cool desktop beneath your wrists, your hands fingering the keyboard. For many months you could not imagine even walking into this room, much less sitting down in the chair. And now? Progress. You open a document and peer at it with one eye closed.
Resuming work on a manuscript after a long hiatus is like returning to a neglected garden, one overtaken by choking weeds and encroached upon by the adjoining lawn. You peer at it from a safe distance. On first look it is unrecognizable. Is this really the thing you had spent so many hours tending all that time ago? It appears gnarled and impenetrable, and the idea of trying to make sense of it, the idea of the work it would take to reclaim it, overwhelms you. You poke it with a stick and consider setting it on fire.
You remember what it was like to work on the manuscript, before everything. Like all writing, it was a bold act, an act of faith: the words planted like seeds in the dirt. There is little more hopeful than seeds planted in the dirt. Working on this manuscript was also an act of freedom: This is what I am doing right now, and not something else. When the writing life is divided into two categories—1. Writing, and 2. Everything Else—having the liberty to use a space of time to sit in a chair and put words on a page is a spectacular freedom.
But the manuscript resembles nothing like this now. For all the world it looks like what it is: something abandoned when you were snatched away, yanked fully out of the writer’s life and placed squarely into the worst kind of Everything Else.
Last year I lost my mother. I want to write “suddenly,” because despite her cancer diagnosis, two surgeries, and two rough rounds of chemotherapy, her death was sudden: following an all-clear pet scan, an unexpected and swift case of septic shock took her in the span of a two-week period. Everything that followed was also sudden. The sudden leaving of the both hallowed and despised hospital after days of vigil, the sudden horrible business of planning a funeral, the sudden need to “go on.” Fourteen years earlier my family had lost my father, who died (truly) suddenly when we weren’t looking, leaving us in blind shock. My mother died as we looked on helplessly, which is the kind of thing the eyes continue to see for a while after it is over.
I was given my mother’s estate to administer. On the one hand it was like being given the face of a cliff to scale, with paperwork and phone calls at the top. On the other, this responsibility—along with the correlating task of helping my siblings empty and sell our childhood home—was a rescue. Details trump grief, or at least defer it. If you’re too tired to think, I discovered, at least you’re too tired to think. I would spend a few hours on the phone robotically informing sympathetic creditors about the fact my mother had died, and afterwards a few hours disseminating her possessions among family members and the Salvation Army, but later the same day I would be blindsided by the arrival of, say, a “final resting place” information card from the cemetery, or by the sight of my mother’s cardigan hanging in my front hall closet. The shock would come fresh. What do you mean she’s gone?
There was anyway no room in my heart for an unfinished manuscript, no longing in my mind to resolve the invented conflicts of imagined people. I did not care that there was a writing chair I used to sit in.
2016 will be remembered by many as the Year of the Grim Reaper, wherein the world lost a host of universally beloved musicians and actors. I rode this unrelenting storm along with everyone else. But for me the storm swerved far too close. Situated over my house, its eye gave only a brief respite before the rains came again. Just months after losing my mother, I lost a friend.
Justin was the leader of the novel writer’s workshop I’d been attending for more than a decade (much more). He had come to my wedding and known my kids since before they were born. Every week for years we met to discuss writing and to share our works in progress. He came to Thanksgiving dinners and parties and both my parents’ funerals. He was brilliant and energetic (particularly for a man in his 80s). We in the writers’ workshop were his family. Mid-2016, he suffered a series of strokes. In the weeks before he slipped away, he was hospitalized for a time in the next county over from mine, in the very same hospital where my mother had died.
I suddenly found myself in a car with my workshop friends heading toward the place I had bidden good riddance to forever, answering How can I go back there? with I just must. There in the back seat I made the conscious decision to compartmentalize, mentally keeping my mother’s hospitalization discrete from Justin’s, not only because I wanted to focus on Justin, but also because I knew I could not carry them both. Reflexively I navigated our group through the halls and elevators of that hospital to Justin’s room, all the while confronted by a barrage of memories I simply refused to acknowledge.
Justin needed, but opted to refuse, a permanent feeding tube. This news was delivered to us by Justin’s doctor, who gave me an incredulous look. “You were here in April for your mother,” he said, his words making plain everything I’d been struggling to suppress, his pitying tone uncovering everything I was trying not to feel. “I hope if our paths cross a third time it’s under happier circumstances,” he said, leaving me to wonder just what circumstances those could possibly be. Excusing myself, I locked myself in the hall lavatory, gripping the sink, waiting for the trembling to subside. After a long moment I splashed my face with water, drew a long breath, and returned to my friends. This wasn't about me, after all.
Justin passed early on a Friday morning in late September. He, present for the whole of my adult writing life, was suddenly gone. I envisioned my manuscript lying dormant in a document folder on my laptop. I thought then of Justin as I had with my mother: what is the world supposed to be now, without you in it?
The weekend after Justin’s death I dreamed of my mother for the first time since she died. She was sitting perched on the arm of someone’s sofa, carrying on a conversation with unseen others in the room. Like a child I was seated on the rug at her feet. I was amazed to be with her again, amazed at how vivacious her chatter was, how effervescent her laugh. Also like a child, I didn’t understand the conversation she was having, but I knew I shouldn’t interrupt, and so I silently reached my hand toward her lap. She took my hand in hers and held it tightly as she continued talking, a silent but deliberate acknowledgment of me. This was the entirety of the dream. I woke with the feeling of her hand over mine, her grasp saying, I’m here, I’m here.
In the late 1960s, a Swiss psychiatrist defined the stages of grief. I confess I cannot name them without first Googling them. I do recall this: in the beginning grief is living eye-blink to eye-blink, the moments between blinks indistinguishably unbearable. I’m tempted to claim that another stage might be binge-watching the entire series of Dexter on Netflix. And another, possibly, is an epiphany: the realization that shattering sadness need not accompany the memory of someone you love and miss terribly. I am now at the place where sometimes it does, and sometimes it does not.
I moved my desk and my writing chair to a different room in my house. They face the trees now, and this spring fat robins and Northern Flickers, squirrels and a surprisingly spry woodchuck provide theater outside the window, offering to be my new distraction if I would only come sit at the laptop. I do sit, now and again, for longer and longer periods of time. I’ve begun the process of reacquainting myself with my manuscript, of clearing away the weeds that obfuscate, of rediscovering something underneath that, with a little attention, might thrive. There is something hopeful about doing so, and something healing in that hope.
“Now there is one thing I can tell you: you will enjoy certain pleasures you would not fathom now. When you still had your mother you often thought of the days when you would have her no longer. Now you will often think of days past when you had her. When you are used to this horrible thing that they will forever be cast into the past, then you will gently feel her revive, returning to take her place, her entire place, beside you.”
― Marcel Proust