In January 2018, I started writing a death memoir, a brutally honest one. The first days were so dark I didn’t think I would be able to get through them, flashbacks kept tripping me, I kept dodging them with. I woke up at 7:30 AM, but it took until 9:30 AM or 10 AM to find a way out of my nightlife. I felt like a character from Samuel Beckett, “you must go on. I can’t go on. I will go on.”
I kept on, then after months of struggle, the words started coming. In about ten days, I put out 12,000 words. I thought I would sail through the rest of the book in a few weeks. Bad thinking. Not a chance. I collapsed into yet one more flashback, taking the good part a week to recover. I couldn’t write, think, function, or talk to anyone. That passed, I went back to work. Only to be trapped by another flashback.
That’s the name of this game – much like the original journey, like a roller coaster ride. I think I’m almost on top of it, then a crash. I think to myself, I knew this was impossible. Why are you trying? Who do you think you are? After twelve months of this, my brain simply stopped. I quit. A month later, I asked myself, “do I really want to get back inside that dark time.” Yet, almost automatically, I started polishing the last two chapters. Again, lured inside the dark time.
When I moved back to DC, searching for a place to live, my made-in-heaven basement apartment turned into a disaster – I left after eight days, unshowered and in a panic, carrying three large suitcases, one heavy computer bag, two very large tote bags, and four boxes. Heavy-duty bag lady. A friend took half of the bags, and I schlepped the others to the Folger guesthouse, embarrassed but glad to be safe.
A mountain buddy sent me a text: “should I come to get you on Friday.” Since I had nowhere to go, I quickly sent back, “YES.” After a very long drive, actually 8 ½ hours of heavy traffic, three car crashes, and heavy rain, my buddy and her mother arrived to collect me and my baggage and return me to the mountains. We first went to Eastern Market for a quick dinner and to wait out the traffic. Leaving at 7 PM, the traffic was very light, by the time we reached the mountains, we had the winding roads to ourselves. The scenery was magnificent, the conversation deeply satisfying. We arrived at 11:30 PM, all three of us very tired, but glad to be home. I held the door while they carried all my bags inside, looked around the house, rested for a while, then drove off to West Virginia.
I am in awe of these women and their magnificent generosity, envious of their intimacy, of their ease, and their comfort with each other… and even with me.
Funerals are totally acceptable. As long as a widow doesn’t audibly cry, tears are allowed to come down her face. People quite easily tolerate death, but definitely not dying. The most taboo emotion is grief, especially if it’s visible. During the time of David’s dying, I stayed in the apartment as much as I could. David disappeared like a Cheshire cat, inch by inch, and I mourned every loss. My visible grief acted as a warning signal for people to stay clear. No one wanted to see evidence of what they might face. When I would get on the elevator to the 21st floor, with tears streaming down my face, someone would say, “have a good day, Nancy.” Sometimes people would pretend they didn’t see me, or walk away from me. I became invisible. Near the end, as I was walking out of the medical center, in tears, a resident said in a loud and dismissive voice, “now what is wrong with her?”
After the funeral, which many of David’s clients and partners attended, the entire entourage disappeared. Two of them carried out their promise to support me. One still calls me regularly and advises me on business matters.
I had to reenter David’s death room to finish this book. Being inside David’s death room again intensifies all the familiar wracking emotions: grief, anguish, frustration, and terror. They are always in the room like carpeting, underneath whatever else might be on my mind. I can walk on those emotions, laugh on them, jump up and down on them, have a party, dance, but they never go away, they’re always present as a filter to my conscious awareness. David’s death room is part of me, I died there too. Perhaps this memoir will end with gratitude, forgiveness, and acceptance.
A trauma memoir nearly destroys, certainly changes, the author. The best of the genre have been written with extreme anguish. Frank Conroy, for example, was drunk for weeks between writing chapters. Martin Ainslie felt suffocated. David Scheff felt he was slitting his wrist with a razor. Some authors become physically ill, many have great trouble getting up in the morning – their night lives return to the trauma.
I started writing a trauma memoir on December 26, 2017. When I started, the days were so dark I didn’t think it be able to get through them, flashbacks kept tripping me, I kept dodging them. I woke up at 7:30 AM, but it took until 9:30 AM or 10 AM to find my way out of my nightlife. I felt like a character from Samuel Beckett, “you must go on. I can’t go on. I will go on.”
Last summer I worked in our mountain home which is full of happy memories, and the words kept coming. In about ten days, I put out 12,000 words. I thought I would sail through the rest of the book in a few weeks. Bad thinking. Not a chance. I collapsed into yet one more flashback, and then took the good part a week to recover. I couldn’t write, couldn’t think, couldn’t function, couldn’t talk to anyone. That passed, I went back to work. Only be trapped by another flashback. That is the name of this game – much like the original journey, like a roller coaster ride. I think I’m almost on top of it, then a crash.
I think to myself, you knew this was impossible. Why are you trying? Writing a trauma memoir is the most difficult kind of writing. Why do you think you are able to write this book? Who are you anyway? I’m about to despair when someone reads one of my blogs and says, “I think I will make it through my first death date since I read your blog.” Or, “Wow, thank you for sharing this part of your life. Thank you, your blog is so beautiful.” Then, I have some spine put in me.
I stopped writing on December 1, 2018. My brain simply stopped. I forced myself to edit four chapters and send them to my agent. Then I quit. I’ve been on vacation now for nearly a month. I think, “do I really want to get back inside that dark time.” But, almost automatically, remembering David on Christmas Eve, I started polishing the last two chapters. Again, I am lured inside the dark time.
Every memorist insists that no one should try this kind of memoir without a support system. David Scheff says, “make sure you have the support system you need to make it through.” On December 26, memorist Casey Girard said on the News Hour, “don’t push yourself without some type of support system for dealing with traumatic memories and experiences.” Someone, somewhere, must be interested in the death of a spouse, the most profound human experience. Whoever you are out there, speak up.