Reluctantly Writing About Death
Struggling to Put Personal Memories on the Page
A year and a few months ago, my father died. Today, I signed a contract for a small poetry book on grief and dealing with my father’s death that is going to be translated into Italian and published in Italy. The world spins in weird ways, I guess.
Before my father died, I always looked on books about the death of a loved one in, I’ll admit, a pretty messed up and slightly dismissive way. I hated cancer memoirs, books that dived headfirst into the nitty-gritty details of death: bodies and hospitals and medicine and the grotesque humanity of grief. Also, there was a connotation with these books. When they were written by women about caring for loved ones, they often got lumped into women’s fiction, whereas a man writing about grief was somehow reinventing the wheel.
Part of the reason I don’t read these kinds of books is that hospitals freak me out. Oddly enough, my mother is a nurse and my spouse is a physical therapist, both have worked in intensive care units. This was a blessing and a curse for my mother, who got to care for my father in his final years.
But since my father died, I’ve had a hard time writing poetry. Poetry has always been a safe place for me to deal with my own personal demons. I’ve spun that out into writing speculative poems that place my life into a kind of metaphor. These poems distance the work from me through a thin veil of ghosts, monsters, and planets.
About a year ago, I wrote the first poem about my father's death after waking up from a vivid nightmare. I dreamed that my father was alive and trying to talk to me, but that I couldn’t understand him, and then he fell onto the floor, begging me. I had no words. I went to my notebook and wrote, “Words are painful/They form into stones in his mouth/So I don’t know what to say/How do you say I’m sorry to a ghost.”
A few years ago when my father was still alive, I asked a friend who had Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel on her shelf if I should read it. She said, “Only when you’re ready. It’s a tough read.” Gabriel is an epic poem that chronicles the memories and life of Hirsch’s 22-year-old son, who died after drug use. I immediately knew I wouldn’t want to read it.
I think my relationship with memoir has to do with my relationship with death.
When I was about twenty, my father had to have a quadruple heart bypass. He had diabetes and the surgery was hard. I went to the hospital with my mom. I remember I was reading The Eyre Affair in the waiting room. I couldn’t bring myself to ever read the book again.
I was mad at my father. He never took care of his diabetes like he should have. He always ate wildly, could never keep his sugars down, often had to go to the ER for high or low spells. He cut his hands working on the old beat-up Studebaker my mother hated. He went on long trips to the lake or to used car lots and forgot his kit and insulin. They called his diabetes unmanageable. My father was what was unmanageable.
I often took books with me to my father's appointments at the VA hospital in Temple, Texas, where I’d sit outside in the hot car instead of going in, often in 110-degree heat. I hated the smell of hospitals, hated the sight of the older men and who had to sit in their wheelchairs all day, waiting to see a doctor. I was twenty. I wanted to be on a beach or at a concert or with my friends. But I didn’t mind going.
Books helped me get through this time in my life because I could escape into other worlds.
Sometimes my then-boyfriend, now spouse would drive my father to Temple, when his vision got too bad to drive. He told me later that my father would talk to him, ask him questions about what he wanted to do with his life. He loved my boyfriend, who mowed our grass for free and was a good listener. My father was a loquacious man. He would talk to anyone, quite literally. If we went shopping, I’d often lose him then find him later with some poor unsuspecting soul, gabbing away in the frozen fish aisle.
He had to have cataract surgery eventually, which saved him from blindness. Before the surgery, he took lessons in ASL and tactile signing. At one point he even got a monitor for his computer for low vision. He loved computers and used to work at IBM. We were one of the first families I knew to have an Apple computer. The idea of him not being able to use a computer felt so devastating. But it would only get worse.
As he got older, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. At first, I didn’t want to believe the diagnosis. I told my mother I didn’t think the doctors were right, even though I could see my father deteriorating. The last ten years of his life were a series of hospitalizations and the struggle to deal with how to find care for him. He broke a hip and the doctors were afraid to do surgery, but they did and he managed to pull through. Then a few years later he broke it again and they wouldn’t do surgery. His leg healed and fused so that he couldn’t walk. In the end, my mother, who was a nurse, retired early and stayed home to care for him. By the time he died, he couldn’t move or speak. My mom got so angry at the poor care provided at the hospital when she had to take him to the ER. I had to talk my mom into hospice care.
When I think about this story, I think how terribly mundane and sad it feels. Nothing about his illness conveys the father I knew, fifteen- plus years ago before it all began. It’s pointless and stupid details frustrate me. How ridiculously complicated our healthcare system is. How we don’t have all the answers. How when I try to write the story down, the memories seem so common to illness.
What is uncommon is grief and how we carry it.
After the first poem about my dream of my father, I wrote another one about the act of carrying my father's gravestone to his burial plot. He wanted a natural grave. So every bit of caring for the grave fell to us. We planted bluebonnet seeds, carried a heavy bench up the hill. We had to take a shovel and rearrange the dirt after the coffin was buried, where the heavy tracks of a 4x4 remained after rain. We could have even buried the body ourselves, we were told, if that was our preference. I wrote, “You tamped down the dirt with a shovel/The grave was freshly covered and we planted seeds like a garden/Afterwards my legs were covered in a constellation of bites/We carried my father’s headstone up the hill.”
While illness felt so heart-breakingly pointless, Everything in death had meaning to me.
I didn’t start out writing these poems because I wanted to, but because I needed to. It felt right to write about the tiny details of death, the strangeness of it, instead of the things that came before. I don’t know what my father would think if he knew. He’d probably be delighted, as he was with everything I did, even if it wasn’t that extraordinary.
There are sixteen poems in this collection. As I wrote, they spun out to include poems about men made of rain, meeting a shadowy lover in the woods, Thunder personified, about a graveyard for fairy tales and a village haunted by shadow-people. They are all about death in some way. I chose to make each poem in the collection a non-rhyming pantoum. The repetition felt powerful to me in the face of the subject matter. The title of the collection is “Numinose Lapidi,” in English “Numinous Stones.” The stones in the title refer to gravestones. It will be published by Kipple Officina Libraria in 2020 in Italian.
Sometimes I think I’ll be writing about death, specifically this death, forever. It’s strange to be publishing a book about this story. I wonder. Am I qualified to tell this? Am I that familiar with death? But I don’t think you get to pick your relationship with death. He comes anyway, unheeded.
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.
Holly Lyn Walrath 2019