Writers on Writing #113: L. L. Wohlwend
On Writing through Grief
A flash of thunder belts the city as I lie on my loveseat, reading, my feet hanging off the edge, my head cocooned in a pillow. It’s a rainy Friday afternoon in Albuquerque. The spring weather is cool for a change, and my skin feels like skin, not the dried up carcass of a whiptail lizard I sometimes see along the sidewalks and dusty roadside gardens. I sang on my way to campus earlier this morning, listening to my iPod. No one was around as I walked down the street. So I figured, Why not? The tide is high, but I’m holding on. Relief. For no reason I can gather, I am calmer these last couple of days.
November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide by George Howe Colt arrived in the mail today. I couldn’t wait to start reading once I unwrapped it from the cheap plastic envelope. These days, I’m writing a memoir about my own enigma—my elderly father’s suicide nearly four months ago. Dad shot himself in the heart on his northern Wisconsin farm during a deep January freeze. He was distraught over his impending divorce from his third wife and in poor health. He decided he didn’t want to exist anymore. When I ordered the book, I told myself I was working to develop what one of my professors calls “a personal canon.” The idea is to know where your own book falls within the genres, how it “speaks” to other works created before it. But if I’m being honest with myself, I simply wanted the book because I find the topic of suicide fascinating now. Morbid but true. I ordered Night Falls Fast, a book about the suicidal state of mind, and this tome. November of the Soul is 536 pages without the notes and bibliography, but it feels surprisingly light in my hands.
When I returned to my graduate program shortly after my father’s funeral in January, I hoped to quickly move on from what had happened. From what my father did. I didn’t want to think about his choices and the impact he’d had on my life. But it didn’t take long to realize moving on quickly wasn’t an option. In life, Dad had been a difficult person. At 79, when he died, he was still often angry and had a terrifying need to be in control. On many occasions, he treated his daughters as superfluous, his sons as his to mold. But, in death, I was soon to discover, Dad would be no less of a challenge.
I underline a quote in the book’s preface: “We must meet the patients in the howling desert where the unfinished business of early childhood has left them.” That sounds right to me. My father’s childhood could certainly be described as a howling desert. His alcoholic father beat him in his early years, and, after his suicide, I learned a Boy Scout troop leader had molested him as a child. I don’t think he ever truly recovered from the abuse, though people who didn’t know him well would be surprised by that idea. He was a science teacher for decades, a vice principal at a large public high school when he retired. People respected him. Thought well of him. But his public persona was only one of many.
I skip ahead in the book and read stories about depressed teens who killed themselves and the anguished parents trying to cope with their deaths, and then turn to a section on suicide’s cultural history. In ancient Egypt, my father’s death would not have worried anyone. “Suicide,” Holt writes of the Egyptian man, “was not only an acceptable escape from an intolerable life, but a path to blessed immortality.” During the Roman Empire, my father’s death would have been a “glorious demonstration of his wisdom.” In feudal Japan, he would have been a man of principle had he only used a knife instead of a gun, and cut open his stomach. It was in Christian times that my father’s method of death became disreputable. Disgraceful. A sin against God. In seventeenth century England, my father’s estate would have been forfeited to the crown. To add greater shame, his body would have been buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. In France around the same time, his corpse would have been dragged through town, hung upside down and then thrown into a garbage pile.
What I like about these pre-modern views on suicide, even the grimmest ones, is that my father’s choice to die would have been acknowledged by a community. When he first killed himself, I had a hard time telling people what he had done. In those early weeks, I wasn’t aware that I was feeling shame—I was still too shocked. The word “suicide” is still considered impolite to mention among strangers. We don’t put the word in obituaries. We don’t post it on Facebook. We don’t speak the truth.
I turn to another section in the book, and the rain falls harder. The thunder shakes my apartment, reading from its own powerful script. After a while, hail begins to fall, forming piles, and slinking around the edges of the complex. I squint and the piles look like snow. Dad is snow. The thunder is a deep paternal voice warning me. But of what? I underline another quote in the book and get up to look out the window. The hail falls more quickly. The pile grows. Is Dad trying to bring winter back to me?
I sit down again. I don’t mind this reminder of Dad. It’s another ghost, but it feels friendlier than the ones I’ve encountered thus far. After I returned to Albuquerque from the funeral, I started seeing my father in all sorts of places. At the Flying Star Café a few weeks ago, he was two tables over. The month before, he was walking a dog in the park behind my apartment. For 10 minutes, I watched, fascinated, as my dad’s face faded in and out with another man’s features. A few days ago, I went to the grocery store, stressed out, and in a hurry. I stepped over a dropped plastic bag in the parking lot and when I looked up, I saw my Dad. He was ahead of me. He’d just left the grocery store and was walking fast. Looks like he’s on his way to the next-door hardware store, I thought. That would make sense. I almost laughed.
Grief hallucinations, that’s what these sightings are called, or “ghosts” to some. They often appear after a loved one dies—you can even see ghost pets. The more I read about this phenomenon, the more common I think it is. And depending on your religious background, I could see how someone might hope these sightings actually were visits from a loved one. But I’ve never felt that way. I’ve always known it was my brain, messing with me, filling a gap, searching for something in the void. Or in the words of a Scientific American article on the subject, “We unconsciously try to mold the world into what we have lived with for so long and so badly long for.”
But do I really long for my father? I didn’t long for him prior to his death four months ago. It was only in the last years of his life that Dad started reaching out to me, asking if I wanted to head out to a local pizzeria. Calling me more often. Writing longer messages in my birthday and Christmas cards. But I was always slow to call him back, and I never took him up on the offer to head out for pizza with him. It’s too late, Dad, I said to myself more than once. I was angry at all the years he didn’t seem to care. It was only now that he was in his seventies and had so much time that he was showing an interest in me.
At the grocery store that day, I quickened my step in the parking lot. “Dad’s” back was to me. I wanted to see his face. As I followed, I suddenly realized what made him look like Dad: the same balding pattern of hair.
This man was too narrow in the chest, too tall. I stopped walking. Another shopper nearly ran into me and then brushed past.
Don’t mind me, I said to the woman quietly. I’m just letting my dead father get away.
My ghosts are happening less often now. For the first two months after Dad’s death, they were daily, hourly. Now, if I’m careful not to step outside my routine too much, the ghosts stay away. Mostly. No need to stare too long at passersby to test this out. Read your book, Lynn. Keep your focus. You can outrun your ghosts. Never think about the snow.
I put aside the Enigma of Suicide and pick up Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The book has nothing to do with the grief canon, but I love Murakami’s writing. His best works leave me feeling like the world has mystery again. I was reading Murakami the day Dad died, and I don’t want that memory to overtake my other memories of Murakami’s work. When I first read The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, I was swept away. The main character plunges deep into the well, obliterating the day, closing his eyes to reality. I felt his every breath, every sensation of the dark, and I remembered my own weird experiences with wells: the memory of Baby Jessica, hearing her story on the radio when I was 10 years old. As Dad drove us to his house that weekend, the whole world seemed to be waiting, hoping for that little girl to live. How as a child later that year, my own father sent me down a well, my small hands and feet fitting into the metal catch where a sack of potatoes had fallen open. Was I in danger of slipping into the water? My memory resounds Yes! Though I don’t know that that is true. A dark sink of night held me captive as I handed potatoes to my father. The darkness had a shape and smelled of wet potatoes and the sleek drip from the concrete walls. A slippery wire grate was under my sneakers, but I knew what was really underneath me: Death. For a long time afterward, I made a wide arc away from that well cover, thinking of the physical darkness restrained within.
But Murakami is talking about the opposite of wells in this book. He is in Boston thinking about the clouds, the silver jets of neverthesame that he watches as he runs. I’ve lived in Boston. I’ve known those clouds. Here in the Southwest, the clouds are grander. More threatening.
When I first moved to Albuquerque to start graduate school, I borrowed a housemate’s bike and explored the streets and backways. It was August and the monsoons were still hitting the Sandia Mountains with ominous clouds. I’d see one forming on the peaks and think, My God, I need to get to shelter. I’d pedal as fast as I could back to the house, but the rain would never come.
As I read, I learn about Murakami’s journey as a runner, which is the other side of the coin from his writing. This is how you become a runner might as well be this is how you become a writer.
“…writing novels is an unhealthy type of work. When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface ... Those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangerous (in some cases lethal) toxin that resides within.”
Toxin? Have toxins been building up in me since I’ve been writing about my father? Discussing his unhealthy mind? Murakami’s way of destroying the toxin is to run, something I haven’t been doing much of lately. There are times I feel nauseated after a writing session. Seasick. Is this the toxin building within?
I’ll need a way to get rid of it if I’m to continue. I don’t think the naps I’ve been taking are cutting it. I want to finish this book and move on to others. As a writer, I’m a late bloomer at best—if blooming is what anyone can be said to do. At 37 when my father died, I had completed a novel, one I still think of fondly, and hug mentally from time to time, but I know that it has pretty big flaws. I’ve written short stories, none of them published. I’ve written poems. A few published. I’ve been half-assing it. Like my father? He was always trying new things, but rarely accomplishing what he set out to do. I’ve been putting things off, worrying that I’m not a good enough writer and in the process becoming a not good enough writer. And here is Murakami again, talking about the value of hard work.
“I’m all in,” I say out loud, to myself, and to the hail that wants to be snow.
L.L. Wohlwend grew up in northern Wisconsin, but now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of New Mexico's Creative Writing program. She is at work on a memoir about her father's suicide, the epigenetics of fate, and whether we can choose to be different from our parents. Her fiction has appeared in Midwestern Gothic and Strangelet Journal.