February 24, 2012 began like any other Friday: Up at 5 am to walk and feed the dogs, make breakfast, see my husband off to work. Then to my second floor office to work on the novel I’d begun writing two weeks earlier. At around two that afternoon, the phone rang and the call changed everything. My mother, her voice thick with tears, told me my younger brother–computer whiz,, scuba diver, husband, father, and grandfather— had cancer. My first words were “How bad is it?”
Mom handed the phone to my sister. “It’s terminal,” Kate said. “Lungs, kidneys, and liver all in stage four. He has two months, maybe three.”
She went on talking but I was too numb to hear much else before I went to pieces. That weekend, my family, scattered over Texas and Tennessee went into survival mode. Every day brought tearful phone calls, anxious progress reports, tentative discussions about where Dean should be laid to rest. In March, he told his wife he wanted to make one last trip home to see Mom. When he got there he was too weak to talk much, but he called me and we had a brief chat before he lapsed into confusion. That was to be our last conversation. I got so sick I required medical care and several tests to rule out serious problems of my own. And my work ground to a halt. I couldn’t think, couldn’t force myself to the computer every morning. Mostly I cried and slept and railed at God. Why take my brother now, just weeks after he had sold his business and retired to a home near his grandchildren? Why take such a gentle man who loved his family and music and wacky comedies? It wasn’t fair.
April 10, 2012: 5:30 am: I was literally on my way out the door headed for the airport, scheduled to have dinner with my publisher’s publicity director, speak and sign books at a five day convention in Chicago when Mom called. Dean had slipped away just an hour earlier. For him, the grief and pain were over. For us, it was just beginning. The long sad drive home to east Texas where he would be laid to rest next to Daddy, the visitation at the funeral home, the service itself all passed in a blur. On the way home, I kept thinking Now. Now I must get back to writing.
It didn’t happen. By the end of April, I panicked. An 85,000 word novel demanded to be written and I could think of nothing but what we had lost. At about that time, my editor sent a copy of a new book. Grieving God’s Way by my friend Margaret Brownley gave me permission to grieve. To be gentle with myself. To be angry at God. All of those behaviors that I thought were a sign of weakness and self indulgence in fact were the beginnings of healing. Another book that helped me: I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye by Brook Noel and Pamela Blair. The authors reminded me that grief can’t be denied, nor can it be hurried.
One of the things that helped me resume writing was doing things to honor my brother. I have a bracelet filled with charms that commemorate important milestones in my life. So I bought my brother’s birthstone and added it to the bracelet. I posted photos of him on Facebook. And when this new novel is published next year, it will be dedicated to him–my first friend, my first playmate.
Writing through grief has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I know that I’m not unique.Many others have faced this same situation. Here are strategies that got me through it:
I wrote something every day, often only a few sentences. I gave myself permission to stop when I needed to.
On days when even the thought of opening the file seemed too difficult, I focused on my research. Reading about yellow fever epidemics or rice milling in the 19th century allowed me a momentary escape from grief.
I kept a journal.
I tried to do small acts of kindness for others. Thinking about others kept me from focusing so intently on my own loss.
In another week or two the majority of the writing on the novel tentatively titled ALL THAT IS GOLD will be finished. I know my brother would be proud of me.