How Deep This Grief

Wrestling with writ­ing as ther­apy.

Poets and Writers - - Departments - By ian stansel

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.