“We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. as we were. as we are no longer. as we will one day not be at all.”
― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
I remember, when I was eight years old, walking home from my friend’s house across a huge frozen field. The sky was black except for the full moon and the distant street lights. The wind was bitter and my cheeks stung from the cold. I was scared so I walked quickly. To comfort myself I told myself a story. I’m not sure of all the details but I remember I was a Russian pioneer girl who’d lost her family. No doubt I gave my character a name. Something romantic and sad. All my life I’ve comforted myself with stories. This is how I survive.
I’ve told my story a lot this year. In the early months I blurted it out to a cashier at a grocery story. I was trembling and couldn’t find my Interact card. I’ve told acquaintances I’ve met on the street, parents of children I taught, old students, customers inquiring after India’s health, my sister, my daughter’s friends and thirty-eight of my fellow MFA students at King’s College. It surprised me that I could. I hate having to. But the hardest part is waiting for the reactions. Luckily for me, most of have been kind. There have been instances when I’ve felt ashamed because my daughter died. As if it was my fault. A woman who I recently met at a social gathering changed the subject immediately from my daughter by turning away and addressing someone else. Another asked me how I’ve managed to survive. I didn’t have an answer for her.
If I were asked that question today I would say it’s because I’m a writer. In the same way another person’s fervour for distance running might keep them going. When one’s life dramatically changes, a person needs a passion to hang on to. As Joan Didion says “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
In August I began turning my blog into a memoir. I never wanted to write a memoir. My dream was to write short fiction. When I began the blog I was just hoping to draw attention to India’s condition. But as her illness progressed I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on my stories. At first I soldiered on, convinced that if I stuck with it things would eventually change. I’d had my share of dry spells. They never lasted. Eventually it became evident this was different. The ongoing stress of my family’s predicament was so encompassing that it had exhausted my imagination.
For me, writing is an excavation. A slow dig through the strata of my history. In the past I’d written stories in order to revisit situations and people that confused me, attempting to find the missing pieces and put the puzzle together. Also, I suspect, to give these experiences structure. A definite beginning, middle and end. Something that life rarely offers. Like a lot of children I was raised on fairy tales and happily-ever-afters. Later, as a young adult, I wondered how Snow White really faired with the Prince Charming. If she grew bored of all that perfection or if, when they argued, he held it over her that he’d brought her back to life with his kiss.
Recently I listened to an interview with the American film director, Julie Taymor. I’m a huge admirer of her work. She’s probably best known for adapting Disney’s Lion King for the stage, but it’s her darker work I’m attracted to. In particular her film Titus, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the bloodiest of his plays. This tragedy tells the story of Titus, a general in the Roman empire and his enemy, the queen of the Goths, Tamora. The play begins as a triumphant Titus returns to Rome with his prisoners, Tamora and her family. Titus, in order to avenge the deaths of his sons in the war sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son despite her desperate pleading. Thus beginning a cycle of cruelty that ends with both families brutally ravaged.
One image haunted me for days after I watched the movie. Of Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, who is raped and disfigured by Tamora’s sons. As if this is not cruel enough, they cut off her tongue so she cannot speak of their treachery. The audience doesn’t see the attack, but the violence resonates in the picture Taymor paints of the consequences. A broken young woman, abandoned on a stump in a swamp.
What intrigues me most is the attention Taymor pays to the aftermath of trauma. The stories of my childhood had tidy endings, but not this one, and certainly not my own. I may choose to believe I can escape my traumatic past but my body will remember, despite my best efforts. Grief reverberates. Nowadays I walk slower, my breathing is shallower, my heart beats inside my chest with the inconsistency of a toddler on a toy drum.
This play speaks of the brutality of grief. The visceral. A lesson as Taymor says “on why it’s important to examine things that scare us.” It may at first glance seem like an odd choice for a bereaved mother. But I’m comfortable in the company of the damaged. I can imagine sitting on that stump with Lavinia and holding her against me. It’s not that I would know what to say to her; how could I? I don’t even know how to comfort myself. But I’m not afraid to be there anymore.
Nowadays, when I watch a character in a movie being killed it’s no longer make-believe. This is even more true when it comes to the news. A story about a murdered child is not the death of someone else’s child. It’s, once more, facing the death of my own, and knowing absolutely that there’s nothing that anyone can say to that mother that will make it better. I know what death means. I understand how the loss of a loved one shapes one’s perception, not only of the present and the past, but saddest of all, the future.
In September I started working a few shifts at my friends’ café. Frequently, two older ladies, a mother and her daughter, would be seated in my section. The daughter, who looked as if she were in her late sixties, was tall with the posture of a dancer. She wore a little blue stud in her nose. The mother, who I presumed was in her eighties, wore golf shirts and sensible pants with elastic waistbands. The daughter was always ordering for her mother. “Mother wants a small soup.” or, “Mother would like a really hot café latte.” Sometimes the mother baulked at being bossed about. No, she didn’t want a small soup. She wanted a large one. These days I accept that little girls make me cry, but I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of feeling as I watched this mother and daughter. I burned with envy. What would India have looked like at sixty? Would she have bossed me around? I think so but I will never know. I wish I could.
Fourteen months after India death—I find it incredible that I count the days since her death in months, much like recording the life of a baby—there are still instances where I forget she’s dead. Driving home from the city, I occasionally get excited thinking she’ll be at home waiting for me. I have even considered pretending that she isn’t dead. I could easily imagine that’s she gone away for a year abroad. I know it’s crazy. I would never do this. But it’s crossed my mind. My grief counsellor tells me that many parents find the second year harder because it’s now a fact. History.
In the last year I’ve been to twenty-one states and three countries. I’ve learned there’s no way to escape grief. No way to outrun it. It hangs on to a person like cigarette smoke. There’s been days when I couldn’t get out of bed. Days when I’ve wished I was dead.
When India was dying I scoured the internet for blogs about grief, read stories by bereaved parents. None prepared me for what lay ahead. What I did learn was that it’s possible to live through the catastrophic. Don’t misinterpret this and think I mean this in a misty-eyed life-lesson way. In fact, I’ve come to loath that entire philosophy. Don’t get me started on those cutesy quotes on Facebook that say things like “in order to be happy a person needs to be broken.” I don’t believe that. I was happiest in my daughter’s company.
But I do believe one can choose to use a traumatic event as a catalyst for change. This is why I keep telling my story even though there are days I’d like nothing better than to give up. As Taymor said in an interview about why she made the film, Frida, on the painter Frida Kahlo: “We always write stories of tragedies because that’s how we reach our human depth. How we get to the other side of it. We look at the cruelty, the darkness and horrific events that happened in our life whether it be a miscarriage or a husband who is not faithful. Then you find this ability to transcend.” I’m not sure if I will ever transcend or if I even believe in it. But I do know it’s my faith in the power of stories that keeps me breathing.