How Deep This Grief
Wrestling with writing as therapy.
For all those months I wrote almost nothing but Facebook posts letting friends know what was happening. I managed—just barely—to finish my novel and deliver it, though by the time of its publication, my husband was failing and I canceled my book tour.
But it is not entirely accurate to say that my life as a writer ceased over the course of that nearly two-year period. I kept a notebook with me all the time, and often I’d scribble down something Jim said. (Pulling up to the house we’d bought together, just three months before his diagnosis, after a six-week hospitalization, Jim had stood outside for a moment, breathing in the jasmine and the wisteria in bloom. “This would be a good place to die,” he said, as he made his way inside.)
One of the things Jim suffered most, over the span of those months, was the knowledge that his illness had kept me from the work I love. The knowledge of this was as hard for him, I think, as the physical pain that had him on oxycodone and methadone.
“I’m doing what I want,” I told him. “Being with you.” But I was doing something else, too.
When I teach memoir, as I do on occasion, there is a lesson I never fail to share with my students. It is to remind them that writing doesn’t happen just when you place your fingers on the keyboard or pick up your pen. An essential and too often overlooked part of the process occurs in the not-writing time, the time when it looks as though nothing’s happening, but you’re actually making sense of your life. For me, that took place over those nineteen months I spent sitting in doctors’ waiting rooms with Jim, awaiting the results of his latest scan.
One day, not far from the end, we were lying side by side in his hospital bed, as we often did— springtime in San Francisco, the sun streaming through the window, infection overtaking his liver, Jim on morphine—and he looked me straight in the eye.
“One day you’ll write about all of this,” he said.
The morning of his death, I began to do just that.
JIM died in our bed, in the middle of a June night, four days after his sixty-fourth birthday, three weeks before our third anniversary. I spent the rest of that summer without him writing the first draft of a memoir, The Best of Us, and the rest of that year revising it. People hearing this often make the observation that the work “must have been so cathartic for you,” and no doubt it was. But as I always tell them, if I ask you to read a book I write, I’d better have more than my own personal catharsis to offer.
And unlike that earlier memoir of mine—the one that took twenty-five years to put down on paper—this new one demanded to be written while everything that happened was still raw. I needed no distance to tell what was, for me, not a cancer memoir but a story about two people discovering (in my case, for the first time in my life) what it meant to be married, to have a true partner, and to be one as well.
I felt grateful, over the course of that long, solitary summer I spent writing the book, that I have whatever tools one needs to take unprocessed grief and make it into whole cloth. As I neared the end of the manuscript, I realized I was reluctant to finish it. Once I did, my story with the man I loved would really be over, and I avoided that for a while, but eventually I got there.
I brought to it every lesson of my sixty-three years on earth. The events I recount in those pages may have been freshly lived, but the perspective was that of a writer who had taken a few decades getting there.
First you live through the experience. Then you find out what it meant. Then you write. The meaning just came more swiftly with this one. Maybe because it’s simple. The story is about what it means to love somebody. Till death do you part.