the miracle of art

“The Weight of a Ring,” by Terry Liu.

Ars longa, vita brevis: art is long, life is short. Even the briefest radio story can live well beyond its 11-minute running time, as I learned on receiving this startling work at left: an illustration inspired by “The Weight of a Ring,” my story for “The Moth” chronicling husband’s suicide in September of 2011 and my decision, four months later, to remove my wedding and engagement rings.

The artist is Terry Liu, an MFA student at Cal State University in Long Beach who’s preparing 20 such illustrations for a graduate show. “The theme for my show is about how radio stories can connect people around the world,” Liu writes, “and make people feel less lonely.”

Telling that story made me feel less lonely. Hearing from strangers who’ve heard it or read it or watched it on YouTube and reached out to me, firing off little electronic missives filled with love and kinship, makes me feel less lonely. Reading Liu’s email made me feel less lonely. Opening the attached jpeg and finding this extraordinary portrait of my life, my grief, myself made me feel less lonely — and profoundly grateful for both Liu’s creative gift the gift of creation.

A fellow artist in another medium had comprehended and channeled the smallest details I’d shared and dwelt on them, found some truth or beauty in them, transformed them into art.

There I am. Me, weeping, whorls of my hair draping around me. Me, curled up in a ball. Chris. A hammer and saw, allusions to Chris’s years in carpentry and construction. The front door I opened to hear the news of his death. A cop. A TV, a nod to the “Battlestar Galactica” my kids and I watched from the living room floor that long and sleepless and terrible first night. The calendar days, just peeling and floating away. A writer’s quill. My ring, with its ruby stone. My gold chain. My hand. Chris’s hand. Ours.

This is the miracle of art: it renews and extends the life that it touches.

Six years ago, something happened to me. Somehow I turned it into narrative. Someone else heard it, found in its intimacy some arcing universal element, then took it apart, studied its pieces and turned them into something else. Something beautiful. Something that isn’t my story but evokes it with insight and compassion, shaping it gently and splashing it with color. And I can see it in a new way, now. I can see myself from a distance, my own eyes filled with tears, my own complicated story filtered through the mind and heart and hands of another. Someone made art of my life, and both endure.

 

turns on the slide

This past Wednesday, I celebrated the day I was born 54 years ago in Booth Memorial Hospital, Queens. That actually happened. Then, this coming Tuesday, I’ll mark the sixth anniversary of my husband’s death (more accurately, it will mark me).  That happened, too. What also happened: I grew up in a singular family, married a singular man, buried my parents, buried my sister, had three babies, bought a house, kissed my children on their first days of school, watched them grow up and up and up and up, wrote books, wrote for newspapers, loved my husband, grieved my husband, wrote another book and kept on living.

And it’s all a blur. I never expected it to be a blur, but who does? Long, long ago, while chatting with an older, wiser colleague in the hallway, she shot me a comprehending glance and said: “You’re at such happy stage in your life. You have a wonderful husband, and your kids are small. Enjoy this.” I thanked her, assured her, then walked away thinking: ‘Stage’? You mean, this moment in my life won’t go on forever? 

Of course I knew it wasn’t permanent. Of course I knew my kids would grow, and I knew that either my husband or I would weep at the other’s grave. But now that I’ve wept at his, I can’t help but look back with shock at the abruptness of the change from then to now, the lickety-splitness of it all, the belated comprehension that even a marathon will feel like a sprint in hindsight.

But still. It was real. It is real. Every inch of it. The fact that something or someone’s behind me doesn’t diminish its presence or lessen its impact; it doesn’t make anything any less treasured or miraculous or true. My husband is real. Our wedding is real. Those nights at home when he wrestled on the floor with our kids: real. The love we felt and made: real. Those trips to Cape Cod, freezing our bodily bits and pieces in the ocean at Coast Guard Beach: real.

Everyone I’ve ever loved, whether they’re alive or dead, in my life or not: real. My best friend from college, her insight, her humor, her calm, all gifts to the world until it lost her: real. Every laugh I’ve shared with a friend: real. Every late-night conversation that bled into dawn: real. Every kiss I’ve kissed, every blush I’ve blushed: real. Every embrace that felt like eternity: real.

The days I shared with my parents and sister: real. The Scrabble we played by the fireplace, the fireflies we chased by the lake: real. The Chopin my sister played at the piano: real. The Bach my mother played on the violin: real. The Franck they performed together, with little bumbling Amy turning pages: real.

That fat Maine coon I had as a kid: real. The purple banana bike: real. That time I went sledding on ice and crashed and flipped and landed on my head and didn’t die and didn’t tell my parents, oh good God, no: real. The boy I had a crush on whose paintbox I smeared: real. The other boy I had a crush on whose stomach I punched: real. The best friend from grade school with the big barn and the big heart and the big hands: real.

That long, steel slide I rode on the playground in first grade, then stood in line and rode again, then again, then again, because I never wanted it to end, not even in January, not even when the air pinched my chest and the metal bit my butt: real.

Every turn on the slide is real. Every moment now past. Every job I held. Ever book I wrote and re-wrote and re-re-re-wrote. This moment right now, as I bang out a fresh sentence in a blog post? A turn on the slide, and look, it’s over now. Every blip and burp in life, whether a brief interlude or a lengthy stage, is a turn on the slide. My two-decade marriage was a turn on the slide. Our years as a young family of five were a turn on the slide. The phase I’m in right now, a late middle age filled friends and family and music and beautiful, striving, impossibly spirited older children, is yet another turn on the slide. Every tune I scratch out on my fiddle with pals is a turn on the slide, each one a little swinging morsel of forever.

Everything is. Every breath, every laugh, every moment spent learning at work or at home. If I’m lucky, and all my bodily bits and pieces continue to function properly, I’ll take many more turns on the slide before the cosmic kitchen timer rings for me. I have no idea how many, or what sort, or where they’ll take me. My only plan is to savor them.

 

 

the love that lucy taught me

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow night, on April 5, 1992, I lost my sister Lucy to suicide.  She was 31, I was 28, and I vowed forever after that I would live my life for two.

Twenty-five years ago on Thursday morning, I rose and learned the news. I never knew at what hour, exactly, she’d swallowed a mess of useless psych meds and curled up on her bed with a stuffed bear to wait. Probably it happened before midnight. I had returned late from a few days away, and I was feeling exhausted and nauseated and achy. But the answering machine was blinking that night, so I pressed “play.”

Two messages, both from Lucy. I hadn’t told her I’d be away. Those were the days before cell phones. She had no way of reaching me. No way of even knowing I was out of town.

In the first message, left around 8 p.m., she was desperate. Sobbing. Pleading with me to pick up. Ame Ame Ame Ame. Please. Please be there. Please. Ame Ame Ame.

Oh, my God, I said. Oh my God, oh my God.

And then the second message played. She left it, I think, around 10 p.m., and she sounded perfectly normal. Am fine now, Ame! Don’t worry about me. Everything’s okay. Sorry about the earlier call. No need to phone. Feeling much better. I love you!

So I went to bed. I didn’t try calling her back. Because she was okay, right?

The next morning, the phone rang early. I lay in bed and let the caller leave a message. A few minutes later, I listened to it: an old family friend asking me to call him as soon as I woke. It was important, he said. It had to do with Lucy, he said. Please call, he said.

I knew immediately that she was dead. I called my friend and got his son. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I asked him if Lucy had killed herself. “Yes,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” I told him I was sorry he had to bear the news. I said this because no one should ever have to bear that news. I thanked him, and hung up.

I thought of Lucy’s second message. She’d left it, I was sure, after resolving to die. She’d left it because she didn’t want me to try calling her back and then worry through the night. She wanted me to get a good night’s rest before learning my sister was dead. It was so caring of her. So typical. So Lucy.

I held my husband and called my mother. She told me Lucy had OD’d. And I said, Mama. Mama. Mama.

“Oh, honey,” Mama said. “The poor thing. She’s not suffering any longer.”

No. No, you’re right, Mama. She’s not. That’s true. She’s not.

“Poor, sweet Lucy.”

Poor, sweet Lucy.

She was the sweetest person. The bravest person. The smartest person. The wisest, the goofiest, the most credulous and curious and radiant — a small, beautiful, interesting, interested, fiercely true human being who played Chopin as though she knew him and greeted the world with wonder despite her pain.

Burdened with unyielding psychiatric problems, she had spent too many years of her life bouncing from psych hospital to psych hospital and useless meds to useless meds and wrong diagnosis to wrong diagnosis, settling finally on temporal lobe epilepsy with a complex array of psychological issues on the side. The upshot: She was suicidal. Pretty much all the time, she was suicidal. Even when she put on a sunny face for friends, she was suicidal. Even when she was busy talking me through my latest silly man-woe, she was suicidal. She was almost never not suicidal.

She had tried once before, swallowing earlier fistfuls of those useless meds and awaking from a coma with a renewed appetite for living. I’ve written about that before. I’ve written sundry other blog posts describing our sisterly adventures, like that time I damn-near died hiking with her on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and then that time we both damn-near died in a car crash. I also wrote about her in my first memoir, House of Holy Fools; it’s a safe bet I’ll be writing about her again. How can I not?

Even after 25 years, I miss her. I’m spilling a few tears as I write this, proof that you never really “get over” the death of a loved one, you just make your path through life around it. You take all that you learned from your absent treasure —  all that they showed you, all that they shared with you, all of the life and love between you — and you wrap it around your shoulders and chest like a blanket against the cold. That’s my Lucy. She warms me still. She shows me how to live and love and always will.

She lived the way we all should live: without fear, restraint, self-consciousness, selfishness, small-mindedness, duplicity, cruelty or guile. She loved the way we all should love: with her whole being. She faced this world the way we all should face it: squarely. She embraced it in its fullness despite her own mysterious torment, and she lived life as though she meant it, as though it mattered, as though it harbored miracles. It was never easy for her, but she stuck it out as long as she could with as much joy as she could. And when she couldn’t, just before dying, just because she couldn’t take a breath on this earth without loving, she made one last phone call so her kid sister could get some sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

we’re not dead yet

sunset-taconic-pic

Last night, stricken and and sickened by the election results, I stayed up into the wee hours texting and emailing people I love. I just wanted to tell them that they matter to me, that I’m grateful for them, that I’m glad they’re in my life and I love them, I love them, I love them. I blasted off of a few more of these little missives in the morning. Probably I missed a few people, as I was groggy and hurried. If so, I’m sorry. I’m glad you’re in my life. And I love you, I love you, I love you.

Saying this was all that mattered last night and this morning. It’s all that matters any night or morning. But it matters especially in the aftermath of loss, and the events of yesterday surely mark a big one for those of us longing and planning for a different outcome. When I snapped open my eyes today and remembered, I felt cuffed hard by the unreality of it, the injury to the universe and upheaval to the laws that govern it. Oh, shit, I thought. How did this happen? How will we move on?  And as I did, I recalled a similar cosmic bafflement — a sense of a world suddenly re-ordered — each time I woke after the death of a loved one.

Grief isn’t about the distant past. It’s about the absent future, the timeline disrupted, the dreams unrealized and memories not made. To bury a loved one is to bury your hopes and plans and visions. Your relationship. Your own sense of self. Your idea of life, its possibilities, its narrative. And this what 60,000,000 Americans are mourning today: our idea of a country that renounces fear and hatred in one fell swoop on one swell night, then moves boldly on.

That never happened. That future is gone. But we will move on, after a fashion. Another future will take its place, and we can’t stop trying to make it better and bend each sunset into sunrise. Life is hope and hope is work and work means getting up out of bed in the morning, not curling up under the covers and reliving our pain.

As my dad told me the day my husband died, “You’re life isn’t over.” He was right. It wasn’t. But my life had changed irrevocably, and I had to change along with it: I’m not dead yet, I told myself, quoting Monty Python. Neither is this beautiful, resilient, powerfully misguided and deeply divided country of ours. We’re not dead yet. Our life isn’t over. We’ll figure this out. But in the meantime, let’s hold other close and say I love you, I love you, I love you.

 

five

This past Monday marked five years since two cops appeared at my door to say that my beautiful, brilliant husband had leapt to his death from a roof near our home. Every year, I try not to dwell on the anniversary of Chris’s suicide. Every year, I fail. chris-in-fedora

At work I hit my deadlines, chit-chatting with colleagues and making my plans for the week, all while carrying the weight of the day inside me. I didn’t want to feel it. Don’t go there, I told myself. I wanted Monday to be normal, the week to be normal, my whole life to be normal.

It isn’t, of course. But whose is? And who doesn’t carry around a pocketful of dates that throb with consequence and pain?

In remembering Chris, I try to focus on the joyous markers and all their many blessings: his birthday, our wedding day, the births of our three children. I try to dwell with gratitude on his life and lingering gifts. I want to remember the light and love in his eyes, the way he laughed and kissed and cracked a grin. The fedoras he used to wear, the bike rides he used to take: I want to remember those, too.

But even when I try hard not to focus on the anniversary of his suicide, it focuses on me.  The 26th of September licks at me like the flickering tongue of a snake.  I think of Chris’s profound sadness, the changes that overtook him in the months before his death and the rupture in the universe — the outrageous, senseless, gaping violation of it –that sucked him away. I think of the long day that followed. An endless day. A day that still feels like yesterday. A day that always will.

And yet a lot has happened in the five years since he died. More life, more love, more loss. I’ve traveled to Ecuador, Edinburgh, Jamaica, Yosemite. Watched one daughter graduate high school, another graduate college. Marveled at a son who turned 16, filled with strength and kindness. Wrote a book about grief. Told a story for “The Moth.” Did a Tedx talk. Buried my second mother and my best friend. Held my baby grandniece — Chris’s baby grandniece, the most perfect creature you’ve ever seen, born to parents who wed on Chris’s birthday. Laughed.

I got laid off from one paper and hired back by another. Started this crazy blog. Took up jazz fiddle. Shoved the piano into the living room (alone). Contemplated getting a tattoo (still contemplating). Adopted two kittens. Made new friends. Turned 49, then 50, then 51, then 52, then 53.

So here I am, a little older and grayer, a little creakier, a little more arthritic in my knees and lower back, but not yet as old or gray or creaky or arthritic as I’ll be tomorrow. In another two years I’ll be 55, Chris’s age when he died. Yet more life will have passed, then more life, then more.

I believe in the eternity of the human soul. I believe in the solidity of human love. I believe that souls are love, and eternity is solid, and no one who spends his life embracing and lifting others is ever truly gone. I’ll see Chris again, of that I’m sure. But not right now. Not right here. My job is to be in this world, going about the business of living with whatever faith and relish I can muster.

So, no, I didn’t want to dwell on the anniversary of his death. But dwell indeed I did, all through Monday and the week that followed, thinking about the permanence of a moment and the transience of a life. Five years are forever. Five years are gone. How strange, that I lived five years without him.

the gifts that live

Today would have been our silver. Twenty-five years ago, Chris and I got hitched at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Washington, Conn., a pretty stone church that my mother liked to call Our Lady of Perpetual Motion.

Three priests presided. Music was provided by one violinist (my mom), one trumpet player, two organists and a gospel choir. A friend snapped photos. My brother-in-law ferried us in Chris’s old Corolla to the reception, which was held in a church basement down the road that we rented for 60 bucks. The meal was pot luck. I’m not kidding. Pot luck. For entertainment, a buddy of ours played guitar. Stout-hearted friends took control of the kitchen, and washed, and washed, and washed.

I think of that day and wonder how we did it. How we managed to fall in love so wildly, so quickly, with such conviction. Four months after our first date, we got engaged. Again I’m not kidding. Four months. Six months after that, we were married. Who does that? How did we know it would stick?

I think of that day and marvel that Chris and I were ever so young. That so many now gone were still alive: my parents, Chris’s parents, my sister Lucy, my best friend Pam. And Chris! How alive he was. How his heart rumbled inside his chest. The man stood so straight he almost fell backward. He hugged me so hard I almost cracked. He smiled with his mouth, his eyes, his whole sturdy person, rocking on his heels with the rhythm of delight.

I think of that day and swell with gratitude. Chris gave me so much. He gives me so much still, his gifts growing with love long past his death. He gave me our three beautiful children. His dear, kind sisters and brothers, their husbands and wives. My three fine nephews. My new great-niece, an angel born three weeks ago.

Chris gave me my home: Had I not married a reporter for the Times Union, I wouldn’t have moved to Albany. He gave me all of my life here. All of my friends and coworkers. All of my neighbors. He gave me the Adirondacks. Camping. Stewart’s Ice Cream. Downhill skiing, which I would never have tried without him.

He gave me the lingering effects of his green thumb. The apple tree at the front of my house. The gardens, front and back. The spider plants, upstairs and down.FullSizeRender

Most of all, he gave me his love and all its light. That lingers, too. He gave me faith in the long-term bond between two people. He gave me an understanding of love as a deep, enduring and sacramental fact, as a truth forged together but greater than the both of us, as something worth fighting for every minute — because the minutes, if we honored them properly, could amass into decades.

And so they did. Twenty years I had with my good, strong, loving, constant husband, a brilliant man whose giant heart roared with the joy of living. He died, but his gift goes on forever.

how suicide feels to the living

A morning-after addendum:

I want to make clear one point. I believe that that the act of suicide, carried out in a final, distended moment of incomprehensible darkness, is not a choice. In that final moment, people are altered by pain and incapable of rational decision-making. They are other than themselves. But this is exactly why an open conversation needs to happen now: Because we need to reach people before they’re other, before they’re altered, before they’re incapable of hearing a story or having an insight that might, someday, prevent them from hitting that final moment.
I often think about the things I might have said to stay my sister’s hand, as it clutched those pills that night, or to stop my husband from jumping on that sad, sunny morning. It’s too late now. Probably it would have been too late then. But perhaps I can say something today that might help someone else tomorrow — so they never reach the airless, senseless dark of their last act.

Original post:

You’ve probably read about the latest research showing a steady and alarming uptick in American suicides. I saw the headline this morning, took a deep breath and dove in, recalling a friend’s remark after my sister killed herself. “I know what it means to be shocked but not surprised,” she wrote in her condolence letter. And I thought: That’s exactly right. Only someone already familiar with suicide would describe it that way.

My sister had been far too sick for far too long, and suicide always loomed. My husband’s descent was faster, steeper and more abrupt, but suicide still loomed. In both cases, the difference between the looming and the loss was the difference between the fear of being punched and a right cross to the head; it’s a blow you want to duck, believe me. You don’t want to know how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide. And yet you should know. You need to know. If more of us knew how it felt, maybe fewer of us would wreak that terrible pain on others.sunset pic

Suicide is less rare than it was, but it’s still uncommon enough – and not discussed enough – to feel like an aberration from the norm and an outrage against life itself. So it is. But the outrage won’t abate, the epidemic won’t recede, unless and until we can discuss it in a public forum that includes not just grieving survivors, not just people struggling with suicidality themselves, but everyone. Everyone! This is a struggle that needs to be acknowledged, owned and addressed by all, even the people who are not directly affected and (God willing) never will be. Men wear pink ribbons for breast cancer research, don’t they?

So here’s what I’m going to do right now. I’m going to start by describing exactly how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide – the shock that’s not a surprise.

WHEN YOU FIRST HEAR THE NEWS:

  1. It makes no sense.
  2. It makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.

AFTER THE NEWS HAS REGISTERED:

  1. It makes no sense.
  2. It makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.
  3. It’s all you can think about, even when you’re thinking about something else.
  4. You feel guilty.
  5. You cry until your nasal cavity collapses and your eyeballs melt.
  6. You feel shredded to pieces of confetti thinness.
  7. You wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again.

AFTER YOU’VE LIVED WITH THE NEWS FOR A LITTLE WHILE:

  1. It still makes no sense.
  2. It still makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.
  3. It’s still all you can think about, even when you’re thinking about something else, and even when the outside world wishes, for your sake, that you could think about something else.
  4. You still feel guilty, even when you know you shouldn’t.
  5. You still cry until your nasal cavity collapses and your eyeballs melt, just a little less often.
  6. You still feel shredded to pieces of confetti thinness.
  7. You still wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again, even as you wear your Hello, I Am Officially Normal! face for the outside world.
  8. You wonder whether everyone else you love will leave you, too.
  9. You feel as though there must be something wrong with you.

AFTER YOU’VE LIVED WITH THE NEWS FOR A LONG WHILE:

  1. It still makes no sense. No way around it.
  2. By now, enough joy and beauty have dropped into your life that you’re able to see the mercy of God, if God is something you believe in. You still question the laws of the universe, though.
  3. You can now think about other things, but here’s the catch: The loss lingers as white noise, humming under everything. It’s always there. It defines you.
  4. No way around the guilt, either. It’s part of the white noise.
  5. The further removed you become from the loss, the less you cry. But the loss is as huge as it ever was. And when you do cry, your nasal cavity still collapses and your eyeballs still melt.
  6. Same goes for the confetti. You’ll never feel entirely whole and healed, even as you wear your Look At Me, Peeps, I’m Good As New! face for the outside world.
  7. And you’ll never feel entirely normal again, either. You begin to realize that only a thin line separates the abnormal from the normal, the insane from the sane, those who kill themselves from those who grieve in the aftermath.
  8. Sometimes the people you love do leave you, via death or other avenues. And each successive loss digs up the stinking muck of all the others, making you even more frightened of yet more loss. Forever after, you’ll question the permanence and solidity of everything and everyone around you.
  9. You’re now absolutely convinced that there’s something wrong with you, especially when someone in the outside world implies you ought to be over it by now. But you know you’ll never be over it. There is no getting over it. There’s only going through it, again and again and again, with faith in love and a stubborn hope that life, no matter how often it’s hurt you, will lead you to joy in the end.

 

living and dying both

lake pic
Just a few days ago, I felt the old urge to call my husband. The fact that he died four and a half years ago didn’t factor in, and why should it? I wanted to talk to him, dammit! See, I had a bunch of nifty-cool ideas for book projects that I was considering, and I needed his advice. For a nanosecond I wanted to ring him up. For a nanosecond I thought I could. Then came the realization: BLOODY HELL! CHRIS IS DEAD!

This used to happen more often –a few times a week, then a few times month, then a few times a year. I don’t expect it will ever fade entirely, as I still bat off the occasional urge to call my sister Lucy, and she left us in 1992. Old habits die harder than people, apparently.

But this is how it works, right? If you know loss, and who doesn’t, you know that the dead never truly leave. I suppose this might classify as “denial” in the so-called stages of grief, which are, of course, a crock; anyone who believes that the bereaved can just cycle neatly and quietly through discrete chapters of mourning until they reach the all-powerful ACCEPTANCE has obviously never gone through the process themselves. Because it isn’t actually a process. It’s more of an H-bomb, and there is no acceptance. There’s only resignation. While I’m resigned to the fact that my husband is gone, I don’t accept it any more than I accept the deaths of the rest of my friends and family in the next world. They should be here! They should. They are. Don’t you dare tell me they aren’t.

Everyone I’ve ever lost is still here with me, and I don’t mean that in a supernatural sense. I don’t mean some woooey-boooey conference of souls is hanging out in my attic, rattling chains. I mean that the dead are no less real to me now, no less present in this world, than they were when they were systematically sucking and expelling air. I see Chris everywhere in Albany. When I go to Boston, I see Lucy emerging from the mouth of the T.

Last weekend, on a visit to Connecticut, I saw her stretched and slathered in the sun near the lake where we grew up. I saw my father chatting with neighbors. I saw my pink-faced mother with a pair of garden shears. Later, venturing into the church where I was married, I walked up the aisle and saw them all: my parents, my sister, my husband, his parents, my best friend, my second mother. All of them gone, and all of them there. They were real. I felt their realness. And as I felt it, I gasped and fell to my knees, pressed by the weight of their presence and the burden of their deaths. In that moment, they were alive and dead, and alive and dead, and alive, alive, alive.

So yesterday was Good Friday, when Jesus was placed in the tomb. Tomorrow is Easter, when he rises again. Today is Holy Saturday, the Holy Limbo, the between-time that bends from darkness into light. At Easter Vigil Mass in just a few hours, Jesus will rise. He’ll live again, and I and my fellow Christians will rejoice.

We face this paradox all the time. Jesus dies, and then he rises again, and then he dies, and then he rises again – he’s always dying, always rising, always in the grief of the tomb and the joy of resurrection. It’s all happening at once, Good Friday and Easter both.

So it is with those we love: Always dying, always living. No one is ever truly gone. The past is present, and so are they. They’re with me right now. I’m sure of it. If only we could talk.

the long arms of a story

The other day, I learned that a story I told for “The Moth Radio Hour” — “The Weight of a Ring,” describing the aftermath of my husband’s suicide — will be included a collection to be published next year by Crown. I was, of course, blown away.

But I wasn’t just blown away by the glad tidings or what they might bring in the future. What clobbered me sideways was the reminder, yet again, that good can come of ill, that a happy revelation can emerge from a horror — not negating it, not diminishing it, but reaping from it some unforeseen and startling grace that prods us gently forward.

I was also struck, yet again, by the long arms of a story. Not just my story. Any story. Its reach goes on and on.

A day before I learned about “The Moth” collection, I received a tweet from a man in the UK who had just heard my tale on the BBC: “Thank you,” he zapped through the ether. “Of much help to a new and puzzled widower.” I’ve received other such responses, to both my story and my book, and each time I’ve come away with a heightened sense of gratitude and awe at the power of narrative.

It’s a strange thing, sharing so much of myself and my grief with the world — my darkest self, my deepest grief. When I dreamed of becoming a writer, I didn’t dream of this. I didn’t dream of a life writing memoirs of death. I didn’t dream I’d be torn to bits by loss and loss and more loss and then knit myself together, or try to, by braiding words into story and then bringing that story to others. But the urge to tell overtook me.

Telling didn’t make me seamless. It didn’t make me whole. I am as much a wreck as I ever was, in some ways more so. But telling heals, and not just me. I’m not sure I mean me at all. I’m not sure me matters, once a story is told. The author is just the helper, the conduit, the vessel that carries the elixir of narrative to those who need it most.

So if that widower in Britain feels a little less alone, then my grief has served some purpose. It almost doesn’t matter if I heal. I’ve helped him heal — and that, to me, is the miracle of a story. It just keeps moving, just keeps telling, just keeps pulling light out of darkness and good out of ill. Somehow, it grows. Its embrace moves ever outward.

life’s rich pageant

Remember that time the temperature plunged to -1,000,000 and my pipes froze and sprang a leak and I swore and swore and swore? I remember that, too. It happened — ooooh, let’s see, now — less than two weeks ago. The leak’s been fixed. Yay Hurray! Happy ending!

BUT GUESS WHAT.  Today I’ve been dealing with a flooded toilet AND a flooded basement, and when I say “flooded basement” I mean up to my floppy soppy ankles. As I type this, The Mighty Sump Dump is doing its job while bowls and buckets and laundry baskets and other plasticky vessels and shit are floating around my cellar like abandoned dreams in a sad Scandinavian arthouse movie. plunger

But I’m not complaining. No way! I’ve only sworn once so far! I know how lucky I am to own this house o’ mine, just as I know how lucky I am to traverse a life that’s been chock full of oh-so-interesting triumphs and disasters. This is all part of the daily thrill of being alive. Just the other day I was thinking, “Wow, I’m only 52, and already I’ve done a lot of living!” It hit me: If I died tomorrow, and I so hope I don’t, I’ll have led a rich and interesting life.

And I have. I’ve loved like crazy, given birth three times, watched my children grow, traveled bunches, read books, written three, played soccer, played Dvorak, sung Bach, worked as a journalist for 34 years (holy old farts!), MET SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS, been assaulted by turkeys and assorted South American creaturesfallen hard, gotten up, felt the sublime, laughed like hell AND undergone minimally invasive cardiac surgery for a wacky heart condition that I’ll write about some other time, but don’t worry, I’m fine. Plus! I got to have a colonoscopy when I turned 50, which is something my dear late sister Lucy never got to experience. That was quite a trip. Everything was.

Even the painful stuff has been a blessing, in its way. Even the failures, the flooded basements, the floating receptacles of crap. Even the broken bits inside me, the wild furies of fear and human weakness. Even the losses — everything that cracks me open and lets in the light and warmth. I feel. I live. Can’t do one without the other.

A coworker reminded me, today, of that bit in “A Shot in the Dark” where Clouseau falls into the fountain and emerges sopping wet. The sexpot maid played by Elke Sommer tells him he should change his clothes or catch his death of pneumonia. He replies: “Yes, I probably will. But it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know?”

As I drove home to deal with the basement, I thought about this. And I realized: My life is a “Pink Panther” movie! AND I AM JACQUES CLOUSEAU! Minus the accent and the mustache. He was the embodiment of slapstick catastrophe, whether smashing a priceless Steinway (“not anymore”) or vacuuming a woman’s boobs. And he coped. He fumbled forward and figured shit out.

So here I am. My basement is flooded. My bathroom’s a mess, or it was until I mopped it with bleach. My whole damn house is a mess. My whole damn self is a mess.

But I’ll live, I guess. I have already.