Redefining north.

Writers on Writing #93: by Lori Tucker-Sullivan

Writing my Way Through

Writing has always been a part of my life, but the degrees to which I’ve nurtured it have ebbed and flowed over time, like tides rolling in and out. Though I studied journalism in college, the fact that I also met my future husband and became engaged during this time meant that my love of writing had to morph into something marketable, a skill that would help us buy a home and purchase all the wonderful necessities on display at Williams-Sonoma. I gave up writing angst-filled poetry and Austen-inspired short stories and turned to writing snappy ad copy, eventually doing so for a newspaper—my office just down the hall from the newsroom where the serious writers labored.

The home Kevin and I purchased was an abandoned farmhouse and it became our never-ending project. Children followed soon after and I filled my life with every possible creative interest, from embroidery and knitting, to cooking and gardening. Plastic bins overflowed with the various implements of my new hobbies: knitting needles, cooking gadgets, garden tools, scrapbook paper, stenciling paints. I decorated rooms and cakes. I cooked intricate meals, often for large groups. I firmly established myself in a suburban-Martha-Stewart-landscape, convinced that it was the right place to be, and almost believed that a hundred creative pursuits could equal the one I really wished to do. It would take eighteen years for me to realize what I had given up and go in search of it by enrolling in an MFA program.

Arriving at that point wasn’t easy. This is not a simple discovery or admission for someone who has a wonderful husband, two beautiful, healthy children, many friends, a great job, and a charming home. How could I need something more? It took months of talking, threatening, and counseling for my husband and me to realize the importance of writing in my life and for both of us to work at staking out a place for it. And we did: we re-divided chores, I declined volunteer requests; while I packed up and headed to the library every Sunday, Kevin planned meals and grocery shopped.

And then he was diagnosed with cancer.

The MFA, along many other things, was put on hold as we worked together to save his life. Months of good diagnoses were followed by bad until a Stage IV prognosis in November, 2009. Treatment stalled the inevitable but couldn’t cure it. In the early summer of 2010, we opted for surgery to lessen the size of tumors that had vined their way up his spine. As Kevin’s health declined over those months, I often discovered myself in a very unusual place in my head. The window in Kevin’s hospital room on the sixth floor overlooked a city park and I stood at it for long minutes while he slept, watching kids run up the slide and slip, carefree and ecstatic, into the pool. Parents lounged on blankets or chaises, arms folded behind their heads, in their own contentment of summer. So many hours spent at that window with the impossible questions of why, and what was going to happen when this was no longer; not wanting it to go on, but not being able to bear the thought of it being over.

Frequently, my mind wandered to a place in our yard with me seated in a wicker chair, overlooking our garden. Bright red heaps of floribunda roses climbed the picket fence, and bean plants and Brussels sprout stalks were fecund with color and fruit. In this vision, I sat with my laptop and wrote at a furious, prolific pace, words spilling out of me in some fit of creative fertility as though in competition with the plant life around me. Coming back to reality, I knew what had to happen between the now and the time when I would sit alone and write. It frightened me that I would sometimes think about “after” in this way, with a wordless and dreamlike (but very vivid) vision. I told a friend about this once and she felt strongly that it was my mind’s (or possibly God’s) way of getting me through this otherwise unbearable time, of removing me, for just a few minutes, from the hell we were in. Other widows have told me they often found themselves lost in thoughts of what they would do later; both practical things like bank accounts and home sales, but also life changing things like dating and relocating. I never let my mind go to those places. Until the very end we spoke only of fighting on and finding a cure.

So rather than thoughts borne of acceptance, I had this one and only daydream, an almost perfect juxtaposition of past life and future life, of all those hobbies that filled our home with fresh flowers and canning jars, and the one thing I desired, but which now felt selfish and meaningless. Was it wrong of me to make these demands on our life, I wondered. What I wouldn’t give, I had to admit, to just go back to the way it used to be. This was a time for making bargains with the universe and writing was quickly and easily put on the table.

But Kevin didn’t want that. In notes I found after his death, he wrote about his favorite places to go in his own head, when he too, was unable to leave the hospital room or the recliner in our study. One place he went was imagining my MFA graduation. He pictured himself in the audience, with me walking across the stage receiving my diploma. Then he pictured me at a book signing, with all our family and friends gathered around as I read. He wanted this too. Giving me time to write wasn’t a matter of capitulation or of simply trying to avoid an argument. It was something he truly and deeply wished for me. As was often the case, he was more generous with me than I had been with myself.

There have been a good many books, mostly memoir, written recently about grief and mourning. One that I particularly love is A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates. In a February 2011 New York Times story titled “Why We Write About Grief,” Oates writes of how keeping a journal during her husband’s illness was something she did to help her at times of anxiety and sleeplessness. Eventually those entries became the book. But she, too, had some ambivalence about writing through this time. She says, “The act of writing — of even trying to write — of imagining to write — seemed meaningless, vain and silly.”

She talks of the year after her husband’s death as a time when she was “haunted by memories of a very visual nature…” Attempting to explain the odd relationship that the grieving journal writer has with her craft and subject matter during this period, she says, “The diarist doesn’t know how a scene will end, when it begins; she doesn’t know what the next hour will bring, let alone the next day or the next week; she is wholly unprepared for the most profound experience of her life — that her husband will die.”

With the exception of a poem, later anthologized in The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol II, I did not write during the time of my husband’s illness. I struggled even more to attempt writing in the two years following his death. After experiencing my own periods of anxiety, along with various physical ailments, I knew that I had to face the empty page and type out the words I had been unable to consider. I rented a small cottage near Lake Michigan and spent days alone at the computer typing words like “death” and “dying.” I wrote about Kevin’s time in the hospital, about the first days of his diagnosis, and about my experiences in the days and months after his death. Not necessarily looking for any meaning, nor to make sense of something I still don’t understand, but rather to put some small bit of order to a situation that had left me feeling completely broken and out of control.

In a few days I will recognize the fourth anniversary of Kevin’s passing. It is no longer as difficult to write about him or about us. I write fairly frequently of life as a widow and hope someday soon to write more about our life together as a young married couple renovating an old, crumbling-down farmhouse. In the four years that have passed, writing that once felt burdensome now offers a thread of connection. I have gone from being unable to consider putting memories onto paper, to having a great desire—almost a palpable need—to do so. It isn’t always a pleasant experience. Indeed most times I write about Kevin or that time in our lives, I become quiet and pensive, sometimes for the remainder of the day. Eventually though, I feel renewed and comforted by the experience. My previous avoidance has been pushed away by the new need to collect, record, and preserve the memories in the best way I know how—by writing about them.

Lori Tucker-Sullivan is a freelance writer and editor who also teaches part-time and works with a group of independent booksellers to better their businesses. Her essays and poems have appeared in The Sun, Now & Then: The Magazine of Appalachia, About the Girl, and The Cancer Poetry Project. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University. Her blog can be found here:

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