Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Death Did Me A Favor

Kelly and me, August 2014.
Last weekend a couple of longtime friends stayed with us at Bassborough. Kelly lost her first husband to a heart attack when she was in her late twenties and her current husband, Kevin, to whom she's been married 19 years, recently underwent his second heart transplant and is now facing kidney failure. On top of that, while she was traveling, her gynecologist called her to schedule an immediate appointment with an oncologist because the painful ovarian cysts she's had for the last several months are growing rapidly and her blood work indicates a high level of the substance associated with ovarian cancer.

A friend and writing colleague recently lost her mother and I've shared in her paddling the river of grief. She wrote the following post on her Facebook today, detailing what I've often described as the "before" and "after" of death.
After Mom passed away, I wrote a collection of poems for her, about her, without her. But I didn't write any nonfiction for over 2 months, and I live for personal essays. Truth and transparency--they've always been my mantra. See, my life got divided into two parts: life before Mom and after her. And the truth that there was an "after" phase, made me cringe. The truth that she no longer existed made me angry. Then, one day something happened and I remembered Mom's words. "Never lose courage, beta. You've always been strong." I took her advice and wrote this article. This is my first piece of writing published in the "after" phase. I didn't realize that a big change in life also impacts the tone of our art in a massive way. The article is factual because that's what life is, I've learned. It doesn't mollycoddle or sugarcoat, I'm not afraid to say. It's a short piece on how to deal with rejections. ~ Sweta Vikram
This post jerked me aside from my novel revision to consider how death has shaped my character and informed my writing. I responded to Sweta with the following comment:
Death of a close person, particularly a parent, creates a divide in your life which stirs an unconscious calculation of the before and after. We change through grief; when we are supported and loved through the transition, we emerge stronger.
We emerge from grief stronger. Perhaps this is why death appears largely in my writing. My younger sister's death when I was 31 years old had a profound impact on me. My father had died only the year before, but he and I had not been significantly close in the last twenty years. I loved him and I know he loved me, but I grieved more over the relationship I wished we'd had more than the relationship I would no longer have. My sister's death was different. She was the sister I shared a bed with for the first 12 years of my life. She's the one who sang duets with me on the imaginary stage in the driveway of house. She was the one who most resembled my mother in appearance, mannerisms and character. I could not imagine life without her. And yet it happened. Life separated to the before and after on August 2, 1990 when Angela passed from this life.

My grief was constant. It dripped down my face at the most unexpected times. A headline on a magazine announcing ways to tame curly hair brought a deluge. The scent of a woman wearing the popular perfume called Charlie made me want to wrap myself around her. I saw her face everywhere. Always from a distance, her long wavy hair, her fading freckles, her wide blue eyes so open and inviting. I spent time at the piano plunking out the songs we loved to sing together and even wrote a song for her. Death took not only my sister on that August afternoon, it stole my golden youth. I no longer took for granted the waking up every morning of myself, my husband, my children. If my sister could die, so could one of them.

As I worked through grief I awoke to extraordinary moments I might have never noticed. Some of these moments were glorious. The instant I realized the bickering of my children was normal childhood development it ceased to annoy me. I found solace in the quiet of an evening after the children had gone to bed. I finally realized why the ocean drew me so; it provides a wide, empty horizon on which I subconsciously float away the clutter in my mind.

My fiction took wing and I was finally able to complete several short stories and a novel. Within each of these pieces, however, Death hovered near. In "Experienced Only Need Apply," A woman with breast cancer confesses to her husband she was not a virgin when they married. In "Sketches Past and Present" a Silicon Valley mogul is haunted by the murdered woman he came with to California in the Summer of Love.
In "Still Life With Lovers," A young Frenchwoman's infatuation with Vincent Van Gogh restores passion in her marriage just before her husband's death. In my unpublished novel, The Nexus, a 20th century woman is transported to a place in between life and death where her soul is healed before its return to her body. My unpublished novel, The Sword Swallower's Daughter, is sliced so with death it bleeds on the page. Even my work in progress, a novel called Whispering Nights,

The anchor lifted from my mother's life 13 years after my sister. I wept and railed in the river of grief, caught in a whirlpool sucking me down into anxiety and fear. Paddling with oars of anger, I nearly exhausted myself before I let go of the What Was and accepted the What Is. No longer fighting my grief, I began working within. With renewed insight, I plunged into the novel manuscript I had been revising and within months landed an agent. Glimpses of the extraordinary returned. My daughter becoming a beautiful young woman. My son's quirky sense of humor sending me into fits of laughter. My husband's unwavering devotion and encouragement of my writing. The indescribable sisterly love between me and my remaining sister, Robin, who is now fighting an aggressive form of leukemia.

Only after years of paddling the river of grief, dare I say that death did me a favor.