“The act of writing is its own reward. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.”
I hadn’t read the Introduction the first time I read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD. This little gem on page xxvi took my breath away because it is so accurate. “The act of writing is its own reward. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.”
My mother died in February of 1998 and while we were caring for her during her last weeks on earth, I jotted down little details about those weeks. This thing that was happening as we watched her shell diminish, this thing of care-giving for the dying, was at the same time, vast and tedious, energizing and exhausting. It left no solitude or space for writing or even processing what was happening.
She was diagnosed before Christmas and was gone the day after Valentine’s. It took all five kids and our Dad to manage all the details of pain medicine, comfort measures, meal prep, insurance fights, doctor appointments, visitors, mail call, and let’s not forget, cleaning closets. We all scurried around our mother 24 hours a day trying to fight off this intruder who had invaded her body and our family, this cancer, that in the end, was completely undaunted by our scurrying and tender care.
It wasn’t until well after the funeral that I pulled out all those little scraps of paper and began to put them in order. And then, very late at night, when the family was asleep and the house was quiet, I began to craft the story of my mother’s last weeks on earth. Night after night I would relive each scribble and recall the tiniest details of those weeks that had raced by in a blur. The tone in the doctor’s voice when he gave us the news, the countless meals magically appearing at dinner time, the sound of the doorbell announcing the arrival of one more visitor, the rattle of pills bottles (they each had their own sound), the daily mail-call, the smell of the bedside commode in the morning, the whirr of the oxygen condenser, the crunch of a bag of frozen peas applied to wherever the pain was that day (a never-ending game of hide and seek; what worked yesterday doesn’t necessarily work today), the sight of the school bus stopped in front of her house picking up kids the morning after she died (the very audacity, didn’t they know my mother had died?!! What could possibly be so important at school?!!)
I found myself bringing those scribbles to life as I crafted each sentence, every paragraph, the entire piece. I cried. I laughed. I added. And I deleted so as to not hurt feelings. And then I made copies for my siblings who made copies for their children who made copies for their friends. And each year on my mother’s birthday or death-iversary, one of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren, now all grown up, discovers it for the first time. And then their spouses, who never met Grandma, get a glimpse into our family in our darkest and closest hour. A teacher friend in Minneapolis reads the essay aloud in class and uses it as a springboard for discussing death and dying with her inner-city middle school students. Death and dying and the pain that comes with it is completely universal it turns out.
Those many nights sitting in the dark with only the clickity-clack of the keyboard in the soft glow of the monitor with all those little scraps of paper, gifted me with something life-changing. At first, I thought this gift was from my mother, or from losing her, or from ever having her in the first place. But it turns out the gift came from writing it down. Toiling over each phrase, each comma, each ellipse (it’s full of ellipses used in all the wrong ways) resulted in more than a nice family essay. Writing it down laid my soul bare and spoke healing and comfort into my spirit. I could physically hear her voice, “Yes, you are sad. Yes, you are going to miss me. More than you know!! But I’ve lived a good life with God as my compass. I raised five good kids and I have lots of friends and I have a husband of 54 years. Go ahead and cry. Trust me, I know your despair is real. Go ahead and cry. And then, cherish each day we had together, the good days and the tough ones. And cherish each day ahead of you. And don’t forget to hug those babies!”
What sweet words to live by. And so true. And “so Darlene” as my sisters would say. Completely authentic and exactly the way she thought about things.
But try as I might, I could not tie it up in that pretty little bow. I still find there are so many questions I want to ask her, so many experiences I want to share with her. I was 43 when she left us, barely old enough to know what questions to ask. I had the world by the tail, but in reality, I didn’t even know what I didn’t even know. I am perpetually amazed at how many times I catch myself picking up the phone to share some little things with her or ask for some life-altering advice. Even now. Decades later.
But death puts a period where you want to keep writing. And death puts a period where you want to keep reading. My mother may have given this life all she had, she may have left it all on the field, but there was so much more I wanted to hear from her.
Famous Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, once said, “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it. That! That right there is “so Darlene”! She told us in her last days, “I taught you kids how to live, now I get to show you how to die. People raised on the farm understand the cycle of life. As your dad likes to say, “Ain’t many of us gonna get out of here alive.”
Murakami also said, “There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.” There I was in the deepest messiest despair of my life and writing it down was the thing that helped me make sense of it and to navigate the grieving. “The act of writing is its own reward. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises!”