Thursday, June 10, 2010

Being a survivor . . .

When you've lost someone you love, there's not much to say. People hug you. They listen. They tell you, "I'm sorry." And they mean it all. Much to appreciate there, much to recommend because there's a need I find, to talk about what's happened, what one feels, a desire to express your sadness. There's also a competing desire to just stop, stop talking, stop thinking, stop feeling. It's familiar, mourning. I've done it before. It's part of what one does when one survives.

I began this novel almost four years ago. At the time my mother was incredibly unhappy. She constantly complained about how hard it was to be a "survivor." Her friends were mostly gone, she was recently widowed, she was losing her memory and the world she knew had transformed itself too many times. She could no longer even pretend to keep up. It was hard to witness because she had been such a force, always current with political and cultural events.

I put a lot of who she was into Muriel. I suppose when I began to write the character was a mixture of my own mother and the Muriel I found in her self published book about her sister Amelia. But thankfully all of that changed and the character deepened, now Muriel is both invented and totally realistic, a woman all her own. She turned out to be feisty and opinionated; for her surviving meant she had license to do and say whatever she wanted. And that's what took hold. My mother always said what she thought, though I wonder if she actually said what she wanted to say. Odd, that. She was opinionated and expressed those opinions with no compunction, but in other ways she was certainly a product of the era she was born into. Although she was a pioneering woman her focus in life was actually quite traditional. It was my father, he was in many ways her raison d'etre.

Today as I ponder my future as a new orphan well into the cusp of middle age, I think of where this novel began. It began with many things, but crucially it began with Muriel, with the idea of how one lives with so much loss. In that sense it began with my mother, I wanted to understand her and honor her.

So mom, this one's for you.


  1. Now I think I understand why my 94-year-old mother keeps hinting that she wishes death would hurry up and come get her, even though she's in pretty good health. As you point out, the losses of loved ones, memory and physical capabilities, the world changing too fast to keep up. Thank you. I don't know why I hadn't quite put that all together before. Doh!

  2. I admire people like your mother who speak their mind frankly. I find it easy to veer into cowardice, people-pleasing, and inauthenticity, where I keep my thoughts to myself if I think they may evoke displeasure in others.

    Writing this book is a remarkable way to honor your mother. It's obvious it was a deep soul-searching process as you researched, imagined, and wrote this book. I am looking forward to reading it. I hope you are journaling as you go through the grieving process since the recent death of your mother. At least, I find journaling is a key to sanity and reflective living for me. I am moved by your first paragraph where you say there is a desire to express and also a competing desire to just stop, stop talking, stop thinking. I've always been fascinated by this stopping of the mind, when something deeper seems to open up...Thank you for this post.

  3. And thank you both for responding. I have to say, old age does seem like a mixed blessing. Everyone used to say how great it was that my mother was 96. But it didn't seem that great to her and I fully understood her point of view. Still, I have a feeling a more optimistic person might have made more of it. But it so depends on your physical deterioration. As for journals, I suppose this is is my attempt at writing a journal. I've found myself oddly unable to write much else, but then again, waiting for a response on a book does always put me at a disadvantage writing wise. Grief just adds to that. So much to do, and so much to try to not think about.

  4. Reading your post just now was so startling...your description of your mother, beginning with "My mother always said what she thought, though I wonder if she actually said what she wanted to say...." put me in mind of MY mother! I would have described her the same way, although neither of us (and you knew her) would have said our mothers were at all similar, right?

    So, I would have hugged you, said I'm so sorry (I think I did say that), and listened. I still will, even though I know it's both not enough and too much. I didn't attend last week partly because it seemed like it might be on the 'too much' end of the spectrum.

    Hope to see you before I go out to Seattle to accompany my 92 1/2-year-old father to the Shakespeare festival...he's run out of friends with the health or patience for 8 plays in 4 days...except me. That's a form of survival, too. But fathers are different.