A small murder of hopping-and-clucking crows crossed my path today while I was walking. One old bird took to the air, flew right over me, and lit on a telephone wire, glared down at me and gave me an earful. Caw! Caw! she seemed be saying in that sassy way that crows have, We’re back! You can kiss your sweet summer goodbye! Caw! Caw! The leaves of the trees, too, were starting to show the wear of our hot, dry California summer. It will be a while before they change color, those that do, but on close inspection, I could see they were curling at the edges. A light breeze blew, carrying with it the imminent death of summer.
The intention of the walk was to help me come up with something to blog about, because, make no mistake, Jove Belle and Andi Marquette’s request of me to blog the third Wednesday of the every month had wrenched me from the skin-sucking, thick mud of grief. Apparently, when my father died five weeks back, my desire to write died along with him. Or that’s what it feels like. I carried with me a small pad and a pen to write down any flashes of inspiration I might have, something the old me, the pre-grief me, did fairly regularly. The new me could barely imagine doing such a thing; she is too caught up with the wonder of the living, the intractableness of its finiteness. But I made her. It was time to jump back in the literary saddle.
The problem is, while I am drawn to write about the particulars of my father’s death, I’m not ready to do so yet. If feels too soon—may always feel too soon. I’ve been taking notes, recording some of the twists and turns of a tale that had many, but they’re nothing I want to share in a blog. Which leaves me writing about death in general. I know, I know, generalities are never a writer’s friend. But bear with me; I’ve got to hover outside of this life-changing event for a while—at least publicly.
I recently read Margaret Drabble’s book The Dark Flood Rises. In it, one of her characters feels sorry for the young who fixate too soon on death, says something along the lines of: Why should they waste their time on this? There will be plenty of time to worry about dying as they age. The line made me laugh out loud. See, I’m one of those people who’s been thinking about death since, well, since I knew that it was going to happen to me one day.
I remember an afternoon when I was developing family photos in the basement darkroom with my dad. I was twelve, and loving the alone time with him. With three siblings competing for his attention, I didn’t get it much. Also, my dad, typical of the era, was a workaholic who left most of the child rearing to my mother, retreating to his home study every night after a day at the hospital. A nephrologist doing cutting edge research, he was, by his own admission, afraid that if he didn’t keep up with the latest journals, someone might die due to his ignorance. Such a burden to bear! And, come to think on it, likely (in part) responsible for my young fixation on death. Speculation aside, though, I asked him on that day, in that stuffy, scarily pitch-black room, if he was afraid to die. His answer: “No. But I’m not ready just yet. There are still too many things I want to do.” Did I take reassurance from this? Hell no. There were lots of things that scared me that didn’t scare him. I just added this to the list.
You can see my obsession with death in my novels. Between the lines of Spanking New, it’s pretty obvious that, though it professes to be a story about life before life, it’s really about Spanky crossing over into the great unknown. In Maye’s Request, Maye, teetering on the edge of death, inspires her family to come together. In Rest Home Runaways, Morgan, who decorates her house with Day of the Dead ornaments, chases after her father who is running from death. (Subtle? Me?) My forthcoming novel too, out in Spring of 2018, Perfect Little Worlds, gives a pretty significant nod to death too. Here is the first unedited paragraph.
As a child I had this terror of the night. It would kick in after Alice nodded off. I’d lie in bed and listen for the moment her breathing changed from the quick, light breath of her wakefulness to the long, peaceful sucking and blowing of her sleep. Next, I’d listen for my dad wearily plodding in from the garage, my mom putting up the last of the dishes, straining my ears for the click of the lights being switched off as they trundled to bed, imagining the house growing darker with each click. Kitchen. Click. Outside porch light. Click. Living Room. Click. Hallway. Click. The small standing lamp at the end of the hallway. Click. Water would run. The toilet would flush. Depending on the house and on how much they’d been drinking, I would hear my parents’ muffled conversation or argument or the soft thump-thumps of their carnal roughhousing, my father’s rhythmic grunting, my mother’s, Oh…yes… oh…oh…ohhhhh! A door might slam. A peal of laughter might ring out. Under no circumstances were Alice and I allowed to disturb them once their bedroom door was closed. My mother’s rule. “It could scar you for life, trust me,” she’d say. I didn’t trust her, but knew better than to go against her. So I’d lie there imagining the terrifying hush of the darkness wrapping itself around the throw pillows on the couch, around the ankles of our kitchen table. I’d feel as though I were the only person alive.
It’s one thing to write about death; another to experience it on such an intimate level. And it’s aftermath! Wow. Didn’t see this coming. The oddest things set me off. For instance, the other day, when I was pruning my juicy red rose bush, I inadvertently lopped off a bud on the verge of becoming a glorious bloom. It made me sob.
Come September, my partner, Dixie, and I will be taking our cool conversion van up to Oregon to collect a third of his ashes. I will keep you posted. In the meantime, thank you for listening. It helps.