It's been a long time since I've read a book that brought me to tears. It takes a mighty powerful book to have that impact on any reader. Though it didn't make me cry, Louise Erdrich's The Roundhouse stunned me so much so that I literally felt a buzzing in my whole body when I finished the last page.
I didn't want to let go of the book. Something exquisite had happened on those pages. Some relationship had begun that I didn't want to end. Erdrich had spun gold out of a combination of 26 letters. Magic? The resonance was palpable. I could feel it. I would have liked to measure it, to assign it some number and place on a Richter Scale of Literary Quaking. I had had an experience that riveted me.
I wanted it again. I was going through a divorce. I needed something each night that wasn't wine to unwind. I need a book to transport me to another place, where peoples' problems were being solved. Safe inside the pages, I could connect the dots to my own future. I wanted to know everything would be okay.
Books can be medicine
I tried to find other books that would match the experience I had with The Roundhouse. I wanted to tear through the pages of another book just as engrossing, gorgeous in language with characters of depth and a compelling storyline.
As a novelist, I know this is a big order. As a reader, it's the ROI I want for the 7-10 hours I'm going to invest in reading a book. I want to trust the author will deliver on a big promise I'm asking him or her to make: take me somewhere away from my life, let me learn something I need to learn, surprise and startle me with beauty, let me know myself more, make me feel less afraid, let me trust life, let me choose life. It was 2013. The darkest of dark years for me.
What I found in The Roundhouse was a story of justice and resilience, a testament to how the human condition has the capacity to prevail when all hell breaks loose in our lives. I needed that data to survive my own. No therapist could have told me anything then that would change my perspective. No prescription would have helped. The medicine I needed was inside a book. I could hold it in my hands and feel its effect in my entire body. I trusted its wisdom and paid only $27. Free refills. No better RX.
I turned to books again in 2015, the year of the unexpected. The year of the emotional tsunami. I needed to find a way to deal with the worst gross loss of life I'd ever personally experienced. In the span of six months, I lost three people I loved dearly. I needed to know I'd survive this spell of grief. I needed to rise above it, and I needed that combination of 26 letters to take me, temporarily, out of my hell.
April 11 my best friend's daughter (and only child) was diagnosed with a stage four brain tumor. She was two and a half years old. After 29 days in the ICU at Rady Childrens Hospital in San Diego, Avery emerged another child -- with a shunt in her skull and a very uncertain future. Thirty percent survival rate with aggressive chemo, perhaps a St. Jude trial. The doctors talked. She might live to be 5 years old.
Might. Live. To be. Five.
My own daughter is 5. Avery and my daughter were supposed to swim in Lake Tahoe in July. My best friend and I had planned to raise them like family.
May 28, after the second MRI, that plan ended. The tumor, deeply embedded into Avery's cerebellum, had spread everywhere and was swimming in her spinal fluid. There was no treatment.
Doctors said Avery would die "any day."
I tried my best to explain death to my daughter.
"Mama?" she asked in the midst of my philosophical ramblings. "Can I have a popsicle?"
I could answer that question. I sprang to the frig and flung upon the freezer door. Ask me for a popsicle, a lollipop or a puppy--go ahead! Just don't ever ask me why Avery had to die so young.
I would never have the answer.
The right book?
Was there a book that had the answer? Was there some story that could give me a raft? Was there a narrator that could map out the life my best friend and her husband were about to start living? I was barely holding on to my own world, or what was left of it after Avery's death sentence.
In the midst of this, my daughter and I maintained our summer ritual going to the Mill Valley public library to renew our stack of books and read in the grove of redwood trees. The library offered sustenance and a way to break up the stagnant energy of my grief.
Every book we borrowed buoyed me. The fact that I could hold my daughter on my lap and read to her filled me with joy. And grief. My best friend could no longer do this with her daughter. And so the pendulum swung inside my head with almost every interaction I had with my daughter. What I could do, my best friend could not. What was still happening for me, had ended for her. How would I ever be able to communicate completely and share the details of my life without unintentionally causing her harm?
There's not much written about how to be a friend to someone with cancer. There's even less written about how to be a friend to a friend who has lost or is losing a child. These are the kill joy conversations. People turn away. They don't know what to say. It's too awful to address.
I desperately needed that book--the one with the answers.
A miracle in reading
During a library visit, I paused by the new releases shelf when a green cover with mountains caught my eye. The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings. I pulled it out and read the summary: a story about a mother losing her only child.
I stood there shaking. I wanted to put the book back.
How could I stomach a story about the very nightmare to which I was bearing witness?
I read it in three sittings. The book was meant to find me. I was meant to find the book. I love Kaui Hart Hemmings. Her style is crisp, candid. She's a straight shooter. I was hooked immediately and settled in, and by the time I finished the book--on a hot Sunday afternoon in August, I wept and I wept.
I pressed The Possibilities against my chest, closed my eyes and thanked Kaui Hart Hemmings for writing with such authenticity about the loss of a child and showing me that somehow, my best friend would find her way in the world without her child. That my friend and I would have a new friendship and new plans and that my daughter's life would continue to matter to her. That we could and would endure a kind of grief that would last indefinitely, but together, we would find our way back to joy.
I didn't expect The Possibilities to take on such personal meaning. If I had heard about the book last year, I would have never read it. The story would have meant nothing to me, but timing really is everything. A single book had the power to lift me out of the depths of despair. It felt like Kaui Hart Hemmings had written this book just for me and my best friend. Who knows? What I had found in reading the right book at the right time was indeed possibilities, a promise, and even a prayer.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.