A Long Loss Post

In the past six months, I have lost one aunt and one uncle. My aunt’s death was sudden and unexpected, and my uncle’s—let’s just say he plowed for decades through almost every illness, curse, and disease under the sun, until last Sunday.

Earlier last week, on Tuesday, my mom and I flew to the East Coast to spend time with my cousins and widowed Uncle G.—whom we had traveled to in September, in a state of total shock. Everyone was doing their best to fill this springtime visit with fun and laughter and hoagies, when we got the news we’d better get to Delaware if we wanted to say “goodbye” to Uncle K.

Mom and I headed south.

Prior to last year, I had never experienced the death of a loved one. Lucky me, I know. Three of my grandparents died before I was five years old, and my mom’s mom died when I was in high school. My mom had moved us into her home so that she could take care of her. I saw my grandmother fade slowly, but was not present in the hospital. I didn’t make it cross country in time in September, for my aunt.

Last week then, was the first time I witnessed someone go from being (kept) alive, to taking his final breath. I hadn’t seen this uncle in ages, but memories of a childhood spent close to him kicked in clear and hard as I watched his chest rise and fall, called him “kid,” and kissed his forehead.

Uncle K. had owned a flower shop in South Jersey. I loved going in there as a kid, not only for the mini-cactus he would always give me to take home, but also for the hodgepodge lushness of the place. The flowers, of course, filled the air with sweetness and color… but the place smelled too of dirt and of the sea-salt shore. I loved walking into the refrigerator case full of baby’s breath and cold roses in crystal vases. I loved the carousel of little cards set next to the cash register that people could pick to jot down something quick on: for love and friendship, for graduation and gratitude, for birthdays and Mothers’ Days, and yes, for death. I’m so sorry.

One summer in high school, I delivered flowers for my uncle. What a job—everyone is happy to see the flower delivery girl! (I wasn’t sent to funerals.)

My uncle leaves behind an aunt who has dementia. Watching her at my uncle’s bedside tore a bigger hole in all of us than my uncle’s departure itself. On the drive down to Delaware, I had no idea how I was going to talk to my aunt, but of course, once I saw her, that feeling of utter cluelessness (and fear) fell away. All that came through was love. I had been missing her.

I missed her.

I was missing her, even though she was right there in front of me.

I hugged my aunt and held her hand and asked if she remembered the time my sister and I got snowed in at their place and built an igloo; the time my college boyfriend and I tried to do archaeology in their woods but got attacked, repeatedly, by ticks; the time my grandmother told me she’d take me over her knee if she ever caught me taking more than one sip of wine (Oh, Grandmom—how cute)!

At one point, when I was telling my aunt about my mother (her sister) drinking more than her usual one glass of wine at my wedding in Paris, my aunt thought I was talking about their mother: “Oh, she studied French as a girl. I bet she had the time of her life there with you.” (I had been telling her that my mom started studying French after I got married, assuming she would have a French-speaking grandchild). Did my aunt think I was my mother then? Qui sait. Mom and I realized on the drive back north that she had not called anybody by name.

Ah, memory and marriage, death and grief—qui sait?

I am collaborating right now with a woman on her memoir. She is talking to me about how becoming a widow at an earlier-than-average age changed her. Every other week, I create for her a list of questions, we spend time on the phone talking things over, and I build chapters around her words, her stories, her life. The week before I flew east, we worked through the morning she found her husband dead.

This “job” I have, of honoring her experiences, would leave me speechless probably, if I could not write.

Since January, this woman and I have been confronting grief together. We both cry—sometimes on the phone together, sometimes during writing or reading, sometimes right after a good laugh, and sometimes, for me anyway, at the most mundane moments. My aunt and I rarely cooked together, but for some reason, when I’m headed out to go food shopping, or when I’m preparing a meal, I’ll lose it.

And although this client—this friend now—has “worked through” her grief for five years and has rebuilt a wonderful life, I guess I am in the early stages of learning what many have already figured out: Grief moves eternally, in waves. It is rose petals, birdseed, or one photo out of fifty others.

It is a child saying, “I miss him/her.”

It is petting a cat you rescued together from beneath a tree, it is a model ship, it is a marble.

It is a conversation you had, or the one you never had.

It is the conversation you wish you could have right this moment–with the aunt that is gone and with the aunt that is going.

 

Talking to Grief

Denise Levertov

 

Ah, Grief, I should not treat you

like a homeless dog

who comes to the back door

for a crust, for a meatless bone.

I should trust you.

 

I should coax you

into the house and give you

your own corner,

a worn mat to lie on,

your own water dish.

 

You think I don’t know you’ve been living

under my porch.

You long for your real place to be readied

before winter comes. You need

your name,

your collar and tag. You need

the right to warn off intruders,

to consider

my house your own

and me your person

and yourself

my own dog.

Worry/Way Through

“I worry when I feel good and giddy about what I’ve written that I’m delusional.”

How much longer would this great piece by Susannah Felts, “Here Are the Things You Should Worry About While Writing a Novel,” become, if passed around the online literary community for 24 hours? Hard to say, because it feels like Felts has nailed every single writer worry EVER!

The beauty in this list is that it is so damn accurate, you just have to laugh. Laugh your worries down, and write.

Or loop your way out of the worry loop, and then keep at your dream (telling myself this after a week that began with a car accident and ended with another agent kindly rejecting my novel).

 

I Am the Octopus

Sometimes, I am this ghostly creature… living deep in a sea of words, one arm in a memoir, one in a book on marketing, one in a blog post on leadership, one in the stanza of a poem I’m writing, and so on {{{plus three more so ons}}}.

image

Image courtesy of NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Hohonu Moana 2016.

Also, excuse me but– a “Pac-Man” octopus that is so cute scientists want to name it Opisthoteuthis Adorabilis?! As a former Ms. Pac-Man player of the arcade era, I say, “Yes, please!”

octopus-adoriblis-pacman-ghost-2

For the Love of Interviews

For my novel–like most (aspiring!) novelists, I suppose–I combined a tiny percentage of real life with a huge percentage of the imagined. I also did some research. I watched the entire Ken Burns’ Baseball miniseries while at a writers’ residency in Wyoming, checked out the incredible online libraries of MLB stats, read “Watching Baseball Smarter” and “The Glory of Their Times,” and played phone tag with a former MLB pitcher that a friend of a friend knew.

The player and I never made the connection–we were on different coasts at different times and something called a “landline with an answering machine” was involved. But I did call him– twice. And he called me–once.

I didn’t really need to interview this player for my novel, but thought it would be fun to meet up and listen to ball stories. At the height of his career, he had been a rebel, and I thought surely he’d say something offhand that I could tweak and work into a girls’ Little League softball game. Then, of course, the plan was to ask him to coach me some on pitching. Just for a half an hour or so…

Fiction is my baby, and though I’ve done research for stories, interviewing people isn’t usually part of the process. Interviewing is what I do when I ghostwrite or collaborate with someone on a non-fiction book or memoir. Now, four years into it–I’m suddenly realizing how much I love the interview process.

As an undergrad, long ago, I changed my major often. At one point, I told my dad that I wanted to become a “professional student.” He laughed, but I was serious. I had no idea the term “professional student” was used not to describe someone who loved learning, but someone who didn’t want to face reality, i.e. ~~GET A JOB~~

I do love school, and I do still play with the idea of earning my doctorate, but it was a client that pointed out to me last year that as a ghostwriter–as a writer–I AM a professional student. I ask experts and amazing people from all walks of life questions, and they give me very thorough answers. It’s a free education, baby!

It’s rewarding when I bake a pie with “almost flakey” crust; it’s rewarding when I feel tired after twenty minutes in the pool, but stay in for forty; it’s rewarding when someone tells me as we are about to hang up: “You pulled something out of me I didn’t even know I wanted to say.”

During an interview, whenever the person on the other end of the line says, “That’s a great question,” I get a rush.

I once photocopied the John Steinbeck interview from the Paris Review, put stickers on it, and slept with it under my pillow. I declare no abnormal fandom of John Steinbeck, but I think, I had partially fallen in love with… a wonderful interview:

In the very early dawn, I felt a fiendish desire to take my electric pencil sharpener apart. It has not been working very well and besides I have always wanted to look at the inside of it. So I did and found that certain misadjustments had been made at the factory. I corrected them, cleaned the machine, oiled it and now it works perfectly for the first time since I have [had] it. There is one reward for not sleeping.

                                                                                                      –John Steinbeck

 

Who knows–I think the MLB pitcher I never connected with is still playing in some pro-level circuit. If I find myself where he is one spring or summer, I might just show up. “Hi,” I’ll say. “I called you three years ago and I have this novel that was triggered, basically, by Harry Kalas dying. Do you want to hang out for an hour?”