This afternoon, while looking for a power point I need for a June presentation, I discovered this piece I wrote four years ago. Of course, I couldn’t know at the time that my grandson was not going to survive his cancer. What struck me in reading this four years later, is how the need to write still holds true for me today, and that to maintain my sanity I must find ways to work my writing around my job with the newspaper:
4-2012: In A Circle of Quiet, one of Madeleine L’Engle’s “Crosswick Journal” books, the author reveals a period of angst in her writing life.
The decade of her 30′s had been a dry spell for selling her work so she was actually looking forward to her 40th birthday, certain that a new decade would bring about writing success. It plagued her that she’d spent a great deal of time writing without pulling her own weight financially. She was working at her desk on her 40th birthday when her husband informed her she’d received yet another rejection in the mailbox. She took that as a sign that she should stop the foolishness of writing and become a good New England housewife who could make cherry pie. She covered the typewriter in a grand gesture of renunciation.
Then she paced around the room, sobbing and weeping, totally and utterly miserable. She stopped her wailing long enough to realize that all the while she’d been crying, her subconscious mind was busy devising a way to work her failure into a novel. She uncovered the typewriter and recorded that epiphany in her journal. She realized then that even if she never had another book published, she must write.
So it is with me. Somewhere in the midst of raising eight children and homeschooling, I began writing as a creative outlet and before long my sanity depended upon it. I, too, must write.
Standing in line at a wake a few months ago, I turned to make small talk with the woman behind me, wondering out loud how she knew the deceased. I watched in fascinated horror as her eyes filled with tears and her face crumpled. My writer’s eye dispassionately observed her behavior. Even as I patted her arm, murmuring something comforting, I was wondering how I could describe that complete folding into oneself as a person succumbs to powerful grief.
“Thank you,” the woman sniffed as I handed her a tissue. “That’s very kind of you.” I smiled wanly, hating myself. My thoughts were not of kindness. We writers are not very nice people; we take the pain and anguish, despair and despondency, of ourselves and others, and work it in our minds like a loose tooth, until we put pen to paper and describe it in excruciating detail.
I am not proud of the fact that within twenty-four hours of my husband David’s cancer diagnosis in 2006, I was pondering how I would go about writing about it. How else, but through writing, could I bear the possibility of losing my life’s partner? My husband did not begrudge me those moments I spent hunched over a legal pad as he lay in a hospital bed for 11 days, recovering from surgery. He appreciated having me next to his bedside and would fall asleep holding one of my hands, while I wrote with the other. I continued writing as I kept him company during his Wednesday chemotherapy sessions. Eighteen months later, I had a manuscript chronicling our shared journey through cancer and the revitalization of our marriage.
I wrote my way through my mother’s lung cancer diagnosis four years later, and four months after that, the devastating diagnosis of my five-year-old grandson. How else to endure the triple whammy of cancer without writing about it? My husband and grandson survived their cancer. My mother did not. I spent many hours alone in her empty house that winter, grieving and writing.
On a Sunday in March of 2012, I found myself sitting at my husband’s hospital bedside once again, this time as he recovered from a heart attack. Our grandson was in another hospital 80 miles away, fighting an infection from the round of chemotherapy he’d just endured for a recurrence of his cancer. As I frantically scribbled on a legal pad, my husband leaned over the side of the railing of the bed and groggily commented, “I don’t know how you do that.” Ashamed, I stopped writing mid-sentence.
“I’m sorry, I was working on my column that’s due tomorrow. I can work on it later in the waiting room while you take a nap.” I shoved the pad into the tote bag I carry with me everywhere.
“No, don’t stop. I meant that I don’t know how you can write like that; filling pages with words so effortlessly. You have such talent.”
“It’s what I do. I write,” I replied, as my eyes filled with tears at his understanding. My husband had become my biggest supporter in my writing endeavors. It spoke volumes of my non-writing spouse’s character that he could even begin to understand the pull of the pen. He’d drop me off at my workshops and meetings and go to a restaurant for coffee while I talked shop with other writers. When I was hired to do a weekly newspaper column he drove me to their photo studio for pictures and waited for two hours in a waiting room, reading newspapers. In the car on the way there, we’d chuckled at the incongruity of a small-town girl like me having a photo shoot. David roared with laughter when I told him how the photographer had playfully called out “Work it, girl,” to help me relax. He beamed with pride when I obtained several speaking engagements as a result of that column. He often remarked that I was flying and it was my time to soar.
“Just don’t fly away from me,” he’d add. Horrified that he would even consider that prospect, I took his hand in mine, reminding him he was the reason I could do all these things. I repeatedly told him he was the “wind beneath my wings.”
Less than two weeks after that hospital encounter, I was the one crumpling under the weight of my own grief. My beloved husband of almost 33 years had died in his sleep. His obituary was the most difficult piece of writing I’d ever attempted; summing up the life of a gentle, humble man in just a few paragraphs.
My heart felt so heavy, I wondered if I could ever write again, but I knew I had to try. But where to begin? Give thanks in all things, I remembered from 1 Thessalonians 5:18 “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” On the morning of David’s wake, I picked up my pen and scrawled stilted sentences in a journal, thanking God for the bonus five and a half years I’d cherished with my husband since his cancer. I thanked God that David had obviously not been in any pain in death, since he’d looked like he was sleeping when I found him. I could write little more than prayers that first day.
I wrote in the journal again the next day, this time several pages bemoaning the loss of my partner, but also jotting down notes about recent developments in our life; David had begun watching Joyce Meyer on the television the past few months and picking up all her inspirational books to read. I’d made a dozen new Christian friends at the two Christian writer’s conferences I’d attended in the previous year, friends who could now lift me in prayer and be an emotional support for me. A friend from my distant past had reconnected with me while her husband was dying of lung cancer in 2010. He’d died shortly before my mother died of the same disease. A few months later, her mother died. Now, I’d also lost my husband. Our entire family had just begun listening to an inspirational radio station. My 15-year-old daughter had joined a Christian youth group just that year.
I kept writing, with the dawning realization that I had a God who truly had cared about me and my family’s needs. Just the week before his death, David had pointed out how quickly God had opened so many doors for my burgeoning career, and we’d marveled at that blessing. David had spent more and more time across from me at the breakfast table, just gazing at me, so much so that I’d become embarrassed at the attention. “You’re so beautiful,” he’d comment, and I’d blush furiously. How could he say that when I hadn’t even applied make-up? Our 15-year-old daughter had taken to hugging him four or five times a day, so often that he’d privately asked me if there was something going on with her. Just three weeks before his death, David’s previous workplace life insurance policy had been reinstated!
A day later I began the arduous task of completing thank-you notes. For two days I wrote letters of gratitude. Blog postings soon followed. I’m writing! I’m writing! My spirit lifted with joy upon the completion of my first essay after David’s death. Before I knew it, I was getting up before the children every morning, desperate to stem the tide of grief with words.
“Does it help you to write?” A blog reader asked, and I realized I couldn’t even fathom navigating the labyrinth of grief without a pen and paper.
It’s what I do. I write.