Writing Through Grief
The solitude and silence of summer yawned before me like a canyon’s rim, its edge fearsome, certain I would lose my balance and fall.
From April, when my mother died, to June, I had kept myself busy with lesson plans, grading, and student conferences. The grief overwhelmed me when I didn’t wear my teacher’s mask at school, and more than once I arrived at school with a tear-washed face and had to manage repairs in the dimly lit faculty restroom. I dabbed at my make-up, slipped on my teacher’s smile, and took the stage in my classroom. There, I was in control and could command my grief to knot itself into a small corner of my heart. I threw myself into my lessons, imbibing the energy and joy of my students and refusing from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. to appear in disarray.
During a normal spring, I awaited summer’s freedom with delight equal to that of my graduating seniors, yearning for the lazy days of reading in a chair, sunning at the beach and renewing the backyard with hard, hot labor. Ninety days without a paper to grade or a parent to call beckoned like a door opening to adventure and sanity, the softening of my routines gentled by summer sun and the expansion of my life through travel and leisure.
After my mother’s death, little seemed pleasurable or worth pursuing. My husband said he did not think I would smile again. But I wanted the world to know my mother. It became my passion. I wrote a piece for the local paper to publish on Mother’s Day. It was based on the speech I gave at Mama’s funeral, a speech in which I tried to capture the quirks that made her so beloved, her boundless energy and her love of dogs and her designer’s ability to sew. People told me that the article brought tears to their eyes. This brought a crescent of joy to my hurting heart.
And thus over the summer, I became a writer. Though I had taught expository writing for more than twenty-five years, I had little experience with writing that was not abstract or argumentative. But I knew the story I wanted to tell.
I set a schedule for those long, lonely summer days. In the mornings I wrote. Since classes would resume in late August, my brother’s August birthday became my target. I would present him with my stories, our stories, as a birthday present.
Every morning I woke from dreams of my mother. I would walk the dog and cry. Listening to an Enya CD in the car, I believed that the song “Only Time” must have been written for me. I played it until the disk became warped.
Returning from the cleansing walk, I sat at the computer. I looked through photographs albums or pictures on our family’s web site. Then, I chose a particular day to highlight, the Saturday shopping trips with a single quarter to spend at Dissenger’s little wooden cottage store on Evergreen Street or the difficult decision to go to the beach or to see the new movie on a summer’s day, for “Francis the Talking Mule” only came once or twice each summer, but foregoing a beach day seemed sacreligious . I wrote of the teachers that I had loved at Imperial Beach Elementary School, Mar Vista Junior High, and Castle Park High. I loved most of my teachers. I wrote of living in Missouri and feeling like a Hollywood celebrity because the Midwest kids thought I must know movie stars, and of falling in love with the crisp fall days in St. Louis. I detailed the day I learned to swim at the Estero Resort’s beach south of Ensenada. Most difficult, I recalled the summer day my mother met the man who would become my step-father and her life’s joy. I wrote. I cried. I wrote. I cried. For the fifty-two mornings of that summer, this ritual provided a structure for my grief.
By the beginning of August, I had finished the writing and the editing. I chose childhood pictures to input. I took my ten chapters to Kinko’s, had copies run and collated, including a blue cardstock cover. ( I can hear my mom now, saying, “Oh, Eileen. You and your blue!”) I mailed copies of my summer’s work to my aunts and uncles, my children, and my cousins.
At my brother’s birthday brunch, I gave him this gift, wrapped in paper that only covered the true wrapping, the tears and grief brought on by the joy of memory. He loved his gift though we sat in the August sun at an outdoor table overlooking the San Diego harbor and cried.
Dramatist George Henry Lewes said in The Spanish Drama, “The only cure for grief is action.” This may be so. For me, that action was writing and time. The day I retired from teaching, after thirty-four years in the classroom, I enrolled in a beginning creative writing class at UCLA’s Writer’s Program. I am moving steadily through their courses, and have embarked on a novel, a goal I could not have imagined ten years ago. I write poetry. I write blogs.
Those times when I console a friend or acquaintance who has lost someone dear, I include a note in my sympathy card to tell them what I have learned: capture memories in writing. The writing process soothes the grieving soul. The writing process preserves the loved one’s history. Each of us is a living part of history.
After seven years, the raggedness of this wound of my grief has healed. When I write a poem or an article or an anecdote about my mother, I no longer automatically begin to cry, though I choke back tears on certain calendar markers, birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. My brother finds his solace at her grave, where he talks to her and feels her spirit. I find solace in my writing, where I talk to the world, and preserve her spirit.