Death Did Me a Favor

Last weekend a couple of longtime friends stayed with my husband and me at Bassborough. My friend lost her first husband to a heart attack when she was in her late twenties and her current husband, 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 who recently lost her mother is working through her grief with much grace and courage. She wrote the following post on her Facebook recently, 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

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.

This post jerked me away from my novel revision to consider how death has shaped my personality and informed my writing.

Death takes us on a whitewater rafting trip on the river grief. As with any arduous undertaking, we emerge from grief stronger. Perhaps this is why death appears so frequently in my writing. My younger sister's death when I was 32 years old ripped the plush carpet from beneath my feet. My father had died only the year before, but he and I had not been significantly close in the last 20 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 with which I shared a bed 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 our childhood home. 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. My life ripped into the "before" and "after" on August 2, 1990 when Angela passed from this world.

My grief was constant. It ran down my face at the most unexpected times. A headline on a magazine announcing ways to tame curly hair brought a deluge. I stalked the scent trail of women wearing Charlie, Angie's signature fragrance. 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 hovers 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 to California with 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 returning to her body. My unpublished novel, The Sword Swallower's Daughter, is sliced so full of death the pages have slits. Prowling about my work in progress are the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine, along with the death of a newborn baby in a derelict manor set on the moors of Yorkshire.

Death is more than a plot device in these works. It's a character who lives in between the lines. It's grinning over Mabel in "Experienced Only," suggesting that if she reveals everything to her husband she might be spared. We don't see the result in this short story, but Mabel's confession to Fred satisfied a need in me to look Death directly in the eye and dare it to strike. Fiction writers have victory over death in their stories. In "Sketches," Death compels Kris to sketch Billie's face over and over until I placed someone into his life who has escaped Billie's same fate. In "Still Life" those who know the life story of Vincent Van Gogh will recognize Death hovering over the tortured artist, yet he hardly casts a shadow as Benoit's consumption consumes him. This story contrasted my concerns over death as expected, observed, against a long, tedious and painful death by disease.

Following my sister's death, I also noticed my reading choices, while I had always been a classics and literary reader, shifting to novels prominently featuring Death. In John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen catches a glimpse of Death early in his young life and uses it as a window to escape his stunted life and become a hero. This novel captures with brilliant strokes how the specter of Death can transform or inspire a life. Appreciation for fiction featuring death drills down to the relational aspects of story. In these novels I found characters with whom I could share this journey called grief---this journey one gets through, but never over.

While my mother was in the emergency room for the hospital stay from which she would never be discharged, my aunt passed me a copy of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. I read the book cover to cover twice during the tense days that followed. Patchett's portrayal of love and forgiveness against the backdrop of death and terror delivered the lenses I needed to help make decisions that were necessary in her case. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling's portrayal of death as slipping behind a veil was of great comfort as I watched my mother slowly pass away.

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. This grief was different than how I'd felt after my sister's death. Once I realized this was a completely new river, requiring alternate tactics, my growth strokes became steady and I leveled out. Soon the two rivers merged and I was rowing smoothly upon a single stream.

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 rowing the river of grief, dare I suggest that death did me a favor.