Fiction: The Hunter, Part 3

lion tracks.pdf

Slowly, heart pounding, she looks up. The stillness that characterized the previous moment evaporates into a swirl of movement and confusion as she searches for the cat, now her enemy, among the layers of maple branches overhead. The sun is low making it hard to see in the raking orange light. She hears her own breathing, quick and nervous, and tries to slow it down. Keep calm, keep calm. The fact that she hasn’t got a gun seems supremely stupid as she stops herself from reflexively reaching for it. Her eyes search the massive boughs overhead and catch on something, the flick of a tail and then she sees her. Her massive body is largely hidden by the thick bunches of summer leaves but she can see the head, the shape of it surprisingly blunt and wider than she expected, and the eyes. Deep saucers of black.

It would be easy for the cougar to jump down on her. It could be a game for this full-grown youngster. But in the eyes she sees a calm that doesn’t include excitement. She sees adolescent boredom more than anything else. As though the cat were thinking, “you’ve been sitting there for hours. Aren’t you going to do something?”

She calms her breathing down, convincing herself the cat is not going to attack her but knowing a sudden move could change her fate. She keeps her eyes on the cat’s eyes and takes a slow step backward.

With eyes locked she finds herself in standoff game she has played with her tabby, Felix, at home. All cats do this. They lock eyes and move slowly. I am speaking cat right now. I must maintain this position of presumed dominance or I may die.

As she moves slowly backward she has to release the lock. The angle doesn’t allow her to see the eyes. But she keeps them glued to where the cougar is lying in the branches. The last thing she wants is to lose sight of her. Or to give into the fear that would have her run as fast as she can.

A sound startles her, she gasps and automatically turns her head to see a large hare, ears erect and eyes glaring. He’s nearly hidden in a patch of goldenrod but his eyes are sharp ovals of black that cut through the yellow. She snaps hers back to position and finds the cat has moved. A large branch shudders. She is now ten feet out from under the tree’s canopy but that doesn’t make her safe. She continues her slow movement backwards, into the open pasture trying to formulate a plan. Her car is the only thing that would provide real safety and it is over a mile away, but there is a road about a half mile east that she could reach by cutting through the woods. The cat won’t follow her to the road. They avoid humans at all costs. So why is she so afraid now? This cat, the one she believes has never been identified, is probably only two or three years old and she is sure it is afraid of her. Her senses are coming back as she searches the tree for a glimpse of tan fur. Her opponent is masterful at hiding, knows her visual trajectory and is avoiding being seen. This part of the cougar’s skill set as a hunter is quite obviously far superior to her own. To keep prey in the dark as to her location is pure instinct. But at least she knows the cat is in the tree. She just doesn’t know where. It wouldn’t take her long to jump down and reach me, she thinks. I could never outrun her. I’m such an idiot not to have armed myself, at least with a dart that would knock her out. She realizes how arrogant she’s been all this time. Tracking a deadly predator without any protection. I’m like the grizzly man, she thinks, believing that I’m somehow protected just because I’m trying to do something good.

The hare takes a few leisurely hops through the grass and suddenly the cat is flying down to the ground, a long blur of yellow and brown she pounces on the hare who manages to slip through the massive paws. The cat chases the hare around the base of the tree and then lifts up into a hunched but tall position as she bats the hare, and pins it under her paw. She sees the cat nestle her head into the grass and knows she is biting into the hare’s neck. There is blood all over the cougar’s face as she looks up and they lock eyes again. The cougar’s look is warning her to keep her distance. Don’t worry, she thinks. From now on, I will.

 

 

In Support of Writing on Paper

I_heart_writing

This week I was cleaning out my studio and I found a box containing a few stacks of old personal letters and a notebook. I wondered if I could discard some of the contents so I decided to go through it quickly, having no idea what I was getting myself into. There were dozens of letters from family members addressed to me at camp, college, graduate school and traveling in Europe. I was stunned.

We used to write letters. My God, we used to communicate that way. It was as if I’d forgotten how much more practical it once was. We were concerned about the expense of calling. Hard to imagine that email, texting and facebook did not exist. We actually wrote on pieces of paper and mailed them, and that this allowed me to unearth their contents thirty odd years later was an incredible gift. I learned things I had forgotten about my own history and the history that came before me. There was a stack of love letters from my uncle to my aunt, written in the 1920s. He courted her from abroad and the letters continue into their married life when, as a young senator, he frequently traveled. His handwriting is pure art, and the language he uses is from another world. But they lived not so long ago, and their story, their love, infused my childhood. What overwhelmed me as I read was how much love all those letters, including the ones addressed to me, still exuded.

Then I opened the notebook and read, “This Diary is intended for Grace Muller.” I had no recollection of it, but it was clearly my hand. There was the sinking feeling of good intentions never met as I expected to find the pages empty, but they were filled, spanning over three years. I didn’t remember writing any of it until I found a vase full of tulips, carefully outlined in ballpoint pen, and another drawing of Dave holding the sleeping infant that is now my gangly twelve-year-old. Somehow, I remembered doing those.

For me, the false promise of “paperless” means forgotten, and forever lost as old computer files are rarely retrieved. I was grateful to have had the foresight to record Grace’s first years in words, and on paper, for me to find and give to her, so she can discover it later. Of course there was one small problem with it. There was no matching notebook for my second child, so I pulled a blank notebook from the shelf.

April 14, 2015

One thing I have learned in a long life is that time moves quickly, speeding up every year and there truly is none to waste. My dear Frances, tonight I found a diary I kept when Grace was a baby, and gave it to her. It is full of the reflections of a new mother, a few drawings, and many sweet anecdotes of Grace’s early life that would surely have been lost if I had not recorded them. Upon discovering it, I immediately thought, “Oh! But I don’t have anything like that for Frances!” The last thing any mother wants is for her child to feel less important or loved than their sibling. So, in the spirit of “it’s never too late,” (your childhood isn’t over yet!) I am going to attempt a similar project in your name. I can’t promise I will keep it up for three years, but you never know. I can promise that like all my efforts as your mother, I will do my best.

-Mom

Going through that box changed the course of my life to some degree. I have written several pages in Frances’ notebook already, enjoying every moment of remembering what makes her a unique little being, and I have spoken to my family, letting them know how much I appreciate their unending support. I especially thanked my stepmother, whose hand had written the bulk of the family letters and whose love has never waivered. Sometimes I forget how much she means to me, and I am so glad those fragile pieces of paper came back to remind me.

My New Best Friend

GBFairies copy.sm

It all happened so fast. One day I was single and happy and thinking it would be nice to have kids pretty soon as I pressed up against the far end of my breedable years, and the next day I was shacked up and making babies. By late 2008 I was weaning my youngest and looking over my shoulder at my reproductive years. I was done. I had made it through three pregnancies, two live births, one still, and a couple thousand sleep deprived days. I realized I had been either pregnant or nursing for six years when I finally weaned my youngest. As my boobs slowly deflated I realized my job producing people was done and I was now graduating into a managerial position. I went from being “Mommie,” gurgled out of drooling lips and gazed at with wonder to “MOM!!!” yelled from a car window. “I forgot my______! Can you get it for me?”

Unfairly, as they push up against adolescence and face the prospect of a menstrual cycle mine is on the way out and I suddenly have this mini tire around my abdomen. I don’t want to exaggerate the situation. It’s not that bad. But it is definitely there, hanging out over the top of my jeans, and it’s not going anywhere. That much I know. Though I don’t share genes with my step-mother, I watched her lament her own abdominal bulge when I was a teen. She complained that no amount of sit ups put a dent in it, was embarassed by it, tried to hide it and though she ultimately made peace with it, she still curses it given the chance. She is eighty-three. Like me, she is tall and slender, and the little paunch sticks out like bad hair on a beauty queen. It just looks wrong. Not bad, really, just out of place.

I do not wish to hate any part of myself. I’ve worked too hard. So I came up with the affectionate term ‘menopaunch,’ and it has helped me make friends with the litte handful of softness that now rides around my middle.

Dream Work

Dear MeI feel very lucky that I have a teacher. He is not much older than I am, but he leads the writing group I am in, and that group has saved me many times, in many ways. Without it, I would surely have abandoned writing by now.

We meet every Monday at six pm for about ninety minutes and those evenings have become sacred to me. I only skip my group if one of my children is sick or if they are performing. It has become as important to me as meditation and running, and like those other two, it is a crucial moment of grounding in an otherwise hectic week.

During the meeting we each check in and talk about what we have written since our last meeting and what we plan to write before the next. Sounds simple enough, but it’s not. We all have good weeks and bad. Sometimes I can’t wait for Monday to talk about all the pages I’ve written, but if I have hit a rough patch, it can be hard to show up. The group has taught me to be disciplined, not only to write every day, but to give myself credit for every scrap of scribbling I manage. My teacher has trained me to celebrate every project I finish, even if I don’t think it counts. I have learned, albeit to a modest degree, how to validate my own writing.

I love Brene Brown and how she talks about “the arena.” You don’t get to critique the person who is standing naked in the arena, exposing their darkest secrets, she says, if you’re not doing it too. I love that because it helps me quiet the voices that want to tell me I don’t deserve to call myself a writer, or dream of getting paid to do it.

The last time we had our group, my teacher asked me a question that has stayed with me: “What is it going to take for you to feel valued as a writer? How many books do you need to sell? Or is it the stamp of a publisher that you want?”

I didn’t think I was looking for a stamp of approval from anyone. I’ve already self-published my first book and I’m a steady blogger, so I think of myself as already self-validating, but he is right. I am still seeking some sort of approval from somewhere.

It’s so good to call these things out because if you don’t they just sit there and get under your slick skin and keep bugging you. I mean me. So thank you David, my favorite teacher, for reminding me that I’m right where I should be: A very happy writer who keeps on pressing the pen.

 

Fiction: The Hunter, Part 2

lion tracks.pdf

Be bold, she tells herself. It’s what her father always says. “To get anywhere in life you must be bold and patient.” He’s been drumming this into her since he first took her hunting and it has served her well. Here she is, sitting in the grass, doing what she loves. She had managed to carve out her own perfect path in life, running this center for wildlife conservation in her favorite part of the world. It would have been easier to leave town and get a job in Burlington or Portland selling hunting gear or maybe leading outdoor tour groups or even teaching biology to kids but none of those would have allowed her to do this. She shifts her seat and realizes her ankles are going numb. The easy thing to do right now would be to give up and go home. Call it a day. But she knows something is supposed to happen today. She can feel it.

She stands, and the dream flashes in her mind. The mountain lion pouncing from behind, but this time, instead of leaping over her and running away, it lands on her, and she flinches. She sees the massive claws dig into her shoulder and the weight of the cat knocking her flat. She shudders, spooked, and looks fast behind her. She has never been afraid of the cat before. She reasons that it would have no cause to attack, but the truth is cats are less predictable than deer, or bears. They can be playful, but a playful pounce from this girl could be lethal.

She stands, perfectly still and there is a surreal quiet all around. Shit, she thinks. I’m being watched. There is no mistaking that feeling. Slowly, she backs toward the maple she has been under all day, hoping to get out of sight. The tree trunk will provide some cover as she scans the woods from standing. All is eerily quiet. Not a bird chirp or squirrels rustling to break up the dead silence that is suffocating positive thoughts. She has never ever felt fear in these woods, only excitement and anticipation. This is different. She realizes, it has been different since she arrived early this morning. Through the binoculars she scans the forest floor and the field for the millionth time today. Another shudder passes through her and two ominous words knock into her head.

Look up.

Memory Loss

Sunset over Lake Parker VT

As soon as I heard it I was taken over with sadness. I had to stop running and just cry. It was the kind that shoots up, as if from a deep, dank well and overwhelms. The feeling was of losing something, and a hopeless, endless searching.

I was listening to a podcast of an interview about Alzheimer’s, about a mile into my run. <You can listen to it here> In it, a psychologist who works with Alzheimer’s patients was talking about how there are often glimpses of wisdom, even when a person has forgotten much of their lives, and lost the ability to recall the simplest words. He spoke of telling such a patient that he was going on vacation to the beach. They had spoken of their mutual love of the ocean before and when he mentioned it, she lit up. He asked her what she loved about the beach, knowing she probably wouldn’t be able to articulate much of anything but then she said, “There’s some kind of music that lives there.” That was the line that broke me.

My daughter Frances, like me, often loses things. She will call out, “Mommy! Can you help me find my purple marker? I can’t find it anywhere.” Even if I’m annoyed at having to stop what I’m doing, I try to help her because I want her to learn how to look for things. I ask her: Where did you last have it? When did you use it, or see it, or loan it to someone? Usually she misremembers and we look in the wrong places until I start looking everywhere and find it under the bed sheets or by the toilet. Then she remembers, astonished, “Oh yea! I left it there!”

I learn, from the podcast, that memory is more complex than previously thought. We think of our memories as fixed, stored in a certain file within our brains. We are so sure of them we will argue with family members about what really happened decades ago. But memories are not just the stories we tell ourselves are true. Memory is what we are made of. And memories change as we age, and as information is introduced. Memories are pieced together from various elements, stored in multiple parts of the brain and even in muscle tissue, which is why they change as we change.

Yesterday the cat wandered off from the backyard and Frances was distraught. The cat has never disappeared for long, but Frances lay in her bed weeping until I persuaded her that looking for Tabitha would alleviate her anxiety. Help me find her, I implored, and calling the cat relaxed her, and Tabitha turned up.

That awful feeling of having lost something so essential as a pet, or a wallet, or a purple marker, can make one lose all perspective. It can send me into a tailspin that feels impossible to escape, until the thing is found. The idea of getting Alzheimer’s is terrifying to me, like losing something you can’t function without, but not realizing that your memories, therefor your self, is what’s missing.

Sometimes I dream I am back in art school. It’s always the same dream. I’m my age now, and should have graduated with everyone years ago, but instead I am wedded to the campus because of a mysterious missing credit. I take class after class, trying to find the one that will get me out.

It was like that dream, as I stood heaving on the trail, lost in the feeling of being lost, as if the right information will get me where I want to go. I was distraught, like Frances, that I may never find it. A lost memory of something so critical it would change me completely once found.

That over powering sense of loss and the fear of an endless searching had me trembling and I let it for several moments. Then I continued running and it dawned on me that the missing piece may be just a phantom. Maybe it’s just the memory of losing something that was crucial long ago. Or maybe, like the music at the beach, it’s something else that will always be there, even after I’m gone.

 

 

Fiction: The Hunter, Part 1

lion tracks.pdf

She sits very still, elbows propped on knees. Flies land and crawl on her arms and legs but she doesn’t move. They have been biting her for hours. The lenses of her binoculars have become wet with her sweat as she waits.

The air, heavy and hot, presses the hair on her limbs flat, striping her as perspiration runs down. She hopes the tall grass is hiding her sufficiently. Her hat is behind her, floating crooked on brittle stalks. The sun is now behind the maple making the hat unnecessary and distracting. She lowers the binoculars and listens. As the sun drops the birdsong rises. The catbird’s shrill meows from the maple overhead compete with the rising gallop of the ovenbird from the forest to her right. A small black and yellow bird flashes in front of her and up into the branches. Magnolia warbler she thinks, idly tuning her ears for its high-pitched calls. Other warblers sound in the distance and she picks them off in her mind by their complex singing. Blackburnian, chestnut-sided, and yellow-rumped are the obvious ones.

Later the sky is turning a deep cerulean and the wind dies into sudden silence. The leaves of the maple, oak and birch trees around her don’t move and the birds seem to freeze. The grass perks up and there is nothing flying overhead. No sound of distant farm equipment, which can travel for miles with the right wind. No voices. In the stillness she feels the hair on the back of her neck lift, as if one at a time standing at attention. Her ears, trained for years to discern every sound of these woods scan the empty decibels for a clue to the direction she should look. Slowly, she lifts the binoculars back to her eyes. The temperature has dropped enough for her sweat to dry into a thin crust. The eyepiece is warm, instead of hot, against her eye sockets.

Inch by inch she scans the edges of the forest and the blurred line of the grass for a sign. She hasn’t seen any deer or moose all day, which could mean the lion is near, or that lion and prey are miles away. But the hairs on her neck are up, and the dream was a clear sign that today is the day. She knows her prints, her scat, her claw marks on pine bark. She knows this cat like she knows her own fingernails. But they have yet to meet.

Fiction: Performance Art

SilverCurtain

When I was ushered into the eating area by the young gallery assistant in gold Fendi platform sandals and a long silver tunic, her hair a sleek black panel pressed against her back, I looked furtively at the place cards for my name. I found it, thankfully next to Charles’ at one of the outlying tables amidst lesser collectors no doubt. We were used to being the token artists invited to entertain them. Too bad I’m not very entertaining anymore. I’ve long outgrown my appetite for shocking audiences, but apparently not my reputation.

So I was surprised when I sat down later that my husband and I were sitting at the table with both the artists in the show, Raymond, who is an important curator, and the gallery owner, Jeremy. One of the artists was in town from Brooklyn, a painter whose canvases were strewn with images from current media, an epic visual barrage of the daily news. I can’t say I liked them. They were ugly and cynical. The other artist was Ash. When we were in school together she changed her name from Ashley. It was a shortening she had refused as a kid, but as a BFA candidate she was eager to trade a flowery, much too common name for an edgy reference to fire and smoke.

Ash was one of those people who would obviously be a big deal someday. She had an aura of importance and strategic planning. We were smoking pot in her studio one night and I was complaining about someone in the MFA program when she said, very seriously, “You should be nice to everyone May, because you never know who’s going to make it.”

I remember being surprised that she was thinking that far ahead when I was the older MFA candidate and all I was concerned about were the costumes for my next extravaganza. I needed a truck load of pink tulle, and a new piercing somewhere.

Ash wasn’t looking at me. She was talking to Charles, being polite. Raymond was next to her, the curator who had recently been forced to resign at the museum because the new director was an ass. Raymond was probably making twice his former salary as a consultant, and Charles said there were several galleries trying to get him on their team. Raymond was talking to the guy at the end of the table, a man I didn’t know but whose casual suit and Rolex watch gave him away. Ash was just waiting for Raymond to pay attention to her.

I tried to get her attention. I wanted to say something intelligent about her show but I couldn’t think of anything. The paintings were meditations on organic forms in delicate symmetrical patterns that were stunning but seemingly vacuous. I was either missing the important part or there wasn’t one and nobody cares. To have her first show be in such a major gallery was just more proof of her birthright to success, and I was jealous. The show was much better than the guy from Brooklyn’s, even if it wasn’t very deep. I could tell a winner when I saw one, and I guess most people can.

I had the feeling she couldn’t be bothered with me anymore. Maybe it was the fact that I married one of our professors as soon as I graduated. Charles is fifteen years older and everyone thought I was trying to get somewhere but the truth is I had no control. We were crazy in love and we resisted it for a long time until we couldn’t anymore. We did the right thing, waited until I graduated and then surrendered to married life even though it wasn’t what either of us planned. We knew it would likely damage our careers and it probably has, but we’re happy. One day we’ll have kids and be a typical family.

I watched Ash talk. Her long sinewy arms were barely visible behind the sheer white blouse she wore but I could see them twitching. Her arms were always in motion, even if it was almost imperceptible as she listened to you talk. It was as if they’d always rather be pushing paint.

I wanted to know two things: Why we had been moved to the important artists’ table, and if we were still friends. I’d given up texting her when I graduated and she started the MFA program. If we ran into each other at an opening she would apologetically say she was busy all the reading and trying to get work done in the studio.

Jeremy made a joke about how much he hates public speaking as he stood up at the end of our table clinking his glass with a spoon. I watched Ash’s face as he gushed over her paintings and glanced over at the other artist (was he called George?) who was doing a good job of pretending not to notice she was taking up more real estate in the dealer’s speech than she was in the gallery.

Ash was flushed after Jeremy sat down and Raymond finally turned to her saying he knows a young curator at the Pompidou who she should meet. It was hard to watch her. She’s only twenty-five but she was acting like some confident mid-career artist who has had millions of conversations like this before. There was no sign of excitement or eagerness. Her eyes were slightly glazed, as if she wasn’t interested at all. It was the same look I got from wealthy collectors when I used to work at the front desk in a gallery before I went back to school. They kept their eyes focused just over your head, making sure you knew your status was far below theirs. I’ve never gotten used to that look. Never been able to play that game. Those were the walls I was trying to knock down with my obnoxious performance art.

Ash and I used to joke about how superficial the art world can be and how stupid certain collectors are, buying up whatever some slick dealer or art consultants tells them to buy. We went to visit a huge private collection once in Bel Air when we were still in school. One of our teachers had finagled it and we made fun of everything. There were amazing minimalist and pop art pieces all crammed in together with some of the crappiest paintings from the nineties you’ve ever see. We laughed out loud when we saw a painting by one of our professors hung sideways. But here she was, reaching across the table, practically flirting with the guy at the end, the man with the Rolex who was complimenting her paintings without saying anything about them. He lacked the vocabulary you only acquire by going to art school, or obsessively reading art magazines.

She looked amazing in her white ruffled blouse. She had on some incredibly expensive looking cream-colored slacks and white leather booties that worked perfectly with them. Her hair was lighter than it used to be, and like the young gallery assistant, she wore it long and it flowed sculpture-like, bending over one shoulder into a curl that resembled a seashell below her breast. She was like a bleached mermaid, as whitewashed as her ephemeral paintings hanging upstairs.

The servers were clearing our plates when Raymond and Jeremy got up from the table and the collector disappeared. Only the two artists, me and Charles and the other artists’ wife were still sitting at our table. I had a feeling Ash was just waiting for someone important to sit next to her and try to talk her into doing a project with them. She had worked hard to get where she was and I respected that. But I hated her confidence. I was jealous of the fact that she was born with it.

I had no idea how long the window would last but this was my chance. I stared at her until her eyes couldn’t resist mine and smiled big. “Congratulations Ash. It’s a beautiful show.” She smiled the same gracious smile she had been doling out all evening. I had to get to her. I had to know if we were still friends or if I was just a there to be stepped over. “I feel so lucky to be sitting here,” I said, trying to sound light. “I thought we were destined for the boonies.” She lifted one corner of her mouth into a half smile, half smirk as her eyes grazed the table behind me. “Ash, remember when we were driving up to your Dad’s place in the central valley and broke down on the five?” Her eyes opened up and I noticed how perfectly pruned her eyebrows had become. She used to not care how bushy they were. Had she bleached them?

“Why yes!” She answered. What was with the why yes? Was she from 1950? Her eyes were so wide it was like she had practiced opening them that big. In school, her eyes were always sleepy and soft, as if she was only half awake, and her hair was a disheveled mess. “I remember how freaked out you were,” she added laughing and really looking at me for the first time. Her eyes were intoxicating. The blue was so clear and deep they made me want to swim. Somehow they made me understand everything. There was something in her that elicited pure desire. I wanted her. I wanted to be her. I always had. I saw through our friendship as my own greed for a piece of what she had. What she saw in me I wasn’t sure. “That was right before my Dad died,” she said without a hint of sadness. “That was a crazy trip,” and her eyes were moving again, glancing around for something better. She was finished with me, and our moment of reminiscing. A good-looking man in a beautiful suit the color of the ocean was sliding into the seat next to her, and I still had no idea why I was there.

Fiction: Sleepless in Vermont

nara

Yoshitomo Nara: cosmic girl-open eyes closed eyes

2 a.m. January 15, 1997

Can’t sleep. The moon is throwing it’s annoyingly beautiful long shadows across the room, which never happened back home, but here, nature has a way of inserting itself into every moment of my life. Sometimes, I like it. I like watching the patterns the sun makes through the trees riding the bus to school. And last summer a hummingbird let me rescue it. It was caught in the shed, banging its beak against the window pane and I stood there with my finger outstretched, speaking softly to calm him as I watched his increasingly frenetic attempts to penetrate the glass and offered to carry him to the open door just on the other side of the shed which he had apparently no way to find on his own. Eventually he landed on my finger, exhausted and gripped my skin with his tight claws. When I reached the doorway and showed him the great expanse of open air, trees and light he didn’t take off. Instead, he looked at me, and waited. It wasn’t until I stepped out onto the gravel where we park the cars and wiggled my finger that he seemed to find the strength or maybe the courage to fly. He flew up and went straight to the bird feeder for a long sip. I was glad that Susan put it up and kept it filled. Then he flew right back to me, hovered in front of my face for a long moment before heading up to the maples. That moment made me very happy and I think of it often in these cold winter days that end so abruptly. The moon shadows only wash across my floor with their luminescent beauty in winter but somehow they always make me sad.

I tried getting back to the dream that woke me up, but couldn’t. Mom was still alive and we were talking our usual wordless way. In the dream I was in bed, visualizing her in the hospital, her body like a thinning approximation of the vibrant life it once held. The persistent beep of the heart monitor and the wary rhythm of the respirator were going and I remembered, this time, how important they had seemed back then; the only indicators the body they were attached to was a living human being. But even though she was brain dead, at least that was how Dad always put it, she and I had no problem communicating.

In the dream, it was just like it had been in real life. The conversation began with the slow reenactment of the accident. It was as if our minds were one, plugging into the scene, the complex layering of sound. Sharp crack of glass shattering; metal screeching in hollow cries; and the deadening dull thud of impact crushing her instantly, a strange cry as her body reacted, the near extinguishing of her soul until it was tied to her body by a fine filament, no stronger than a human hair. In those days I thought she needed to start there because it was her last moment as a full human being. But in the dream there was another reason, an important piece of the puzzle. But now I don’t remember what it was.

 

New Normal

WelcomeToFuture

I can think of three times in my life when I have felt I might float away. One was the day I got married. Another was giving birth to my daughter Keirnan, and the third was just the other night.

I was lucky enough to be asked to talk about my work and how I deal with grief to a group of women. Some of them had experienced childbearing losses while others were there to support their friends. I had planned to talk about my book, Dancing with the Midwives, and how writing it got me through the grieving process so miraculously. But instead, I ended up talking about the idea of normalizing grief, death and illness.

As I started to speak I noticed a few things were happening to me physically. First of all I was extremely warm. I had been sweating all evening and had already changed my shirt twice, even though everyone else felt the room was a little cool. I felt a very slight tremble throughout my body as I spoke, particularly in my jaw and hands. It was a bit bizarre, to feel that much energy swirling around, literally making me feel as if it was lifting me out of my seat, while trying to talk. In order to stay present I gripped a large piece of black tourmaline, known for its grounding properties, and kept my eyes on the floor. The sensations were not unpleasant or all that strange because I knew that for me, it’s normal to feel that way when I’m in the midst of a life-changing event. Exactly how talking about my book might change my life is unclear. But then again, I had no idea what I was in for when I got married or had Keirnan either.

I had not exactly planned what I would say and I had about fifteen minutes so I just said what came to mind. I talked about being a kid when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and how my parents tried to keep our lives “normal” by not talking too much about it. Their choice made it easier to ignore her illness, but it made the shock of her death much harder. I felt she never said goodbye to me, and that they had kept me in the dark.

The truth is, my parents did try to talk to me about what was happening, but I wouldn’t listen. They were not experts in grief and they didn’t consult a therapist the way many people today probably would. But if they had, I think a therapist would have encouraged them to gently push me to talk about my mother’s illness before she died, to be realistic about her prospects of survival and to try and talk about what might happen after she died.

The normalcy of death and illness was something my parents took for granted. They grew up in the nineteen thirties and forties, they both knew many people who died, including their own parents. So for them, death was normal but it wasn’t supposed to be talked about. You were expected to grieve for a short time in private. This model doesn’t fit our society today and it didn’t fit back in the nineteen-seventies either. I had hardly experienced death when my mother died. I thought everyone lived to be an old man like my grandfather.

Today, the task of normalizing grief can be accomplished simply by communicating openly about it. We can still grieve in private, but we need to ignore the impulse to keep our feelings a secret, or hide them from our loved ones, colleagues and children, or the idea that we must “move on” quickly, as though grief is a short-lived project. We need to create spaces and places like the one I had the opportunity to be a part of, where people come together to talk about their experiences, to share their grief, to express it and to be heard. This is the new normal. Or at least it should be.

Now that I am middle aged and cancer seems to be everywhere, many more people around me are dealing with grief and facing illnesses more frequently. But child-bearing grief still makes most people very uncomfortable. If you have not experienced that kind of loss, you might feel unable to deal with it, or support those who are going through it. We can all help, by talking and being open, not just among adults but with our children, by speaking honestly about what happened when a friend or a relative becomes ill or dies suddenly. We need to learn to talk about it as if it’s normal, because it is.