I have always considered myself a compulsive journal keeper. I’ve been writing since pre-puberty somewhere between a few times a week – to one big end of the week catch up. Months have gone by this past year as I stare at the end of my turquoise Moleskine and I just wanted to get to that last page and have it be over. But I couldn’t – it felt like my brain wasn’t working in the same way. I suddenly was scared of my past. I was scared of memories, photos, and mementos setting me off. I now think I was in a deep protective mode – I had no interest in the past because I couldn’t handle the past. I had spent the previous year flying back and forth to Chicago helping my mother take care of my father as we did a “Hail Mary” round of different hospitals searching for a doctor that could give us hope. In truth, I was unable to go back to the year previous when I watched my father grow extremely ill and die. I wasn’t unable to access that traumatic year like there was a wall…I would just, drift off…
I couldn’t write because I didn’t know how I felt. What is there to say about someone you love so much– what could possibly be poignant enough? Pretty enough? What could I write that would truly capture and do justice to my experience? Grief is different for everyone, and it left me mute. It was like trying to speak with all voices at once – me at every age and through each iteration – so much that it became nothing. My voice needed to rest, I suppose, to gain and new clarity and point of view. I was still in the middle of processing.
The year anniversary of my father’s passing was June 3, 2017, and I spent this Independence Day in Door County, WI. I was finally able to see my father’s gravesite. He is buried in Peninsula State Park in a little cemetery and my family organized to meet at the site. My husband and I walked there from our hotel swatting at mosquitoes and appreciating the lush green of the park. You basically take the main entrance road all the way to the end and turn right at the sign. Walking the last shady lane I wanted to go slower and not get there too quickly. There is something about anxiety and grief at the same time that makes you very aware of how you are moving through time and space. Am I rushing? Am I avoiding? How am I animating this body towards something I don’t want to see?
My husband and I had a few clues about where my father would be. The new part of the cemetery, where the grave markers had to be flat and no statuary is allowed. I feared I would come across his name and just collapse. The night before I had strange dreams of sleeping outside next to a grave and the eerie song from Sinead O’Connor played in my head, I Am Stretched On Your Grave with its 90s beat and Irish poetry. My brother and mother arrived and pointed me in the right direction – to the furthest side away, almost receding into the forest. There were a few small round stones my brother had left there with his daughters and a plant with little purple blossoms.
Reaching down and touching the marble I closed my eyes. I had spent a miserable year – shock with my body numb, to a deep depression that made me believe I had permanently lost my sense of humor. My grief has faded and changed to being focused on my belief that my father wants me to be happy. Not just happy, but full of joy. I’ve gone from my only gratitude being that my father didn’t suffer even worse to being grateful I made it through this last year, and appreciation for all of the people who loved and supported me.
I understand my separation from my father a little bit better. That was his life and this one is mine. As basic as it sounds, it became clear to me that my life feels even more solely mine. It is my job to nourish my creativity and be gentle with my writing this year.
Here is a list of ideas for being gentle with yourself as you go through change:
- Sad eyes are sometimes “editing eyes.” I was incredibly down and perfectionistic during this time period. It feels like crap but a deeply critical and more demanding editor emerged during this time.
- What motivates you when you are at your most beat down? Going through this process stripped away a lot of fanciful ideas I had for projects, projects, projects. Suddenly I only had energy for focused, pared down work.
- Going through such an immense change I was suddenly an “actor” in the grand play of life. I may have wondered what I would be like at a loved one’s funeral. I got up and read a long eulogy. I don’t know where that strength came from, but it is there. You can reach deep.
- There is a cycle to life, and wisdom exists in the turning of that wheel. Ovid wrote The Metamorphosis between 43 BC and AD 17. That is 2,000 years of tales of human foibles and the way that humans deal with the unknown, including death. Your story is just as valid in that pantheon.
- Just like with puberty, your voice may change. I think that in order to write well you need to have a strong sense of self, and epic transitions are not the best time to write. I am sure there are examples that will absolutely prove this idea to be false, but I mostly take notes of observation so that I can work on the greater themes later when my head is clear.