Tag Archives: writing through grief

By George

I started blogging two years to find a way back to the joy of writing fiction. The pattern of success and rejection that writers face in their empty room had become too much, especially as life was swelling up around me with such persistence that making up stories seemed a futile dance in front of the inevitable.

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I wanted to exercise my writing muscle, clear my mind; find that joy. I found it crafting pieces I was happy enough to share with whoever cared to read them.

This year I applied for an undergrad workshop in creative non-fiction at Victoria University, using some of my blog posts as examples of my writing. They got me in, and I loved it. So much so that I applied for the short fiction workshop. I’m reading great stories; loving talking about writing with writers.

writingAfter three weeks of exercises it has become even more apparent that non-fiction and fiction are not mutually exclusive. Two of my pieces have been drawn straight from life. One has been made up. My classmates are writing a similar mix.

On Sunday I had a crack at our latest exercise, ‘Negotiating With the Dead’; an exercise reflecting on the hypothesis that writing is motivated by a fear of, and fascination with, mortality. We had to write a 1st-person piece of prose where the dead are given voice via audio technology (a phone, a computer, radio or stereo). Given my run of writing about the subject (“love your writing but less about death, please” said one comment) I wanted to make it purely fictional. And fun.

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That morning I read a wonderful story for class by George Saunders about a hapless old man trying to off himself so he doesn’t end up shitting the bed/being a bother due to Alzheimer’s. It was inspiring in its approach, and humour. It also resonated given my father’s suffering from the disease. I was party to many conversations about ‘exit-strategies’ as we waited for his undignified end.

writI decided to write a help-desk story with the voice of the operator as the only prose. As I wrote it I wasn’t sure if it was people trying to reach the dead, or the dead trying to reach the living, but once I had milked all the gags and Kafkaesque frustrations I could think of it became clear that The Helpless Desk is about a help desk for helpless ghosts.

I was very pleased with it. Even more so to have pulled it completely out of the air.

Elated, as I always am after writing, I went to bed and did something I try not to do; I checked out Facebook. An old friend had died. As I read through the tributes it became evident that it was the type of death that has begun to plague my various peer groups. I was so sad. George was a well-liked person, a true character. A lot of people were hurting across the digital ether.

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I thought back to our many conversations in our youth, when we were student-radio DJs, and live music fans; the memorable night we had to flee a massive house fire just as our private conversation was getting life-definingly interesting. WCBN_main_FM_studio,_University_of_Michigan_student_radio_stationAnd, more recently (around the time I started this blog), when in great despair about whether I would qualify to get my Haglund’s Deformity corrected, he PM-ed me regarding my bleak post-assessment status (stuck in a carpark, crying behind sunglasses… eek! Not like me to be like that, or communicate it without self-deprecating humour). It was a long message that talked about other things, conversations we had had in the past, things he had wanted to say at the time but hadn’t had the maturity or courage… it was incredibly revealing and encouraging. I was stunned and thankful; diverted from my self-absorption. Reassured that support can come from the most unexpected quarters.

Poster0015As I sat in bed on Sunday night feeling like I had failed him, I looked for that message. Was it as long and interesting as I recalled? Yes. A good 1,000+ words or more. And it was two years ago. To the day.

The co-incidence made me smile and grieve. More so having conquered an unsettled weekend wondering how I would give voice to the dead.

I wish I could be at George’s funeral tomorrow, more so at his wake. I want to be amongst my peer group from those formative years. I ache. But it is in Christchurch and I just cannot get away from Wellington. Life holds me tight as it bleeds into fiction.

In the year that surrounded the 4-month gap when my parents died 3-4 years ago, 7 people I know took their own lives. That’s a lot of pain to go around. At the time I tried hard not to look for connecting meanings and patterns, especially as they were all male and around my age. It felt like a curse I wanted shot of. How could I resolve this with having just watched both my parents struggle for life?

memory-loss-mauro-celottiI cannot be there to celebrate George’s great wit and intellect; his sensitivity, humour and life. The bouncy way he walked, the measured way he talked. But I can write this. And I can, when I feel up to it, listen to his voice on the radio shows people are sharing from Soundcloud on Facebook.

I wish he was still around. The world is a poorer place without him.

To What End

Stupid Death, stupid Death,

Hope it doesn’t find you

I started blogging a year ago to clear my head of recurring themes in my life. I wanted to use it like a journal, making sketches of things that take my fancy, to salve recurring fears, to beat a pathway out of the clusterhump of grief that has surrounded my existence in the last few years and stroll back into the arms of fiction.

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I’m loathe to list it all that has happened, it’s all been referred to in various blogs over the year, and I have always intended to (and managed to) write about other things.

But it’s been a funny 10 days or so and some things can’t be avoided.

On Sunday morning, as I lay in the darkness, scrolling through news sites I saw an article about a woman I briefly met about 8 years ago. She’s a very distinctive ex-pat Brazilian model who has just attained a degree in psychology (something she was doing part-time when I met her at a party of Brazilian ex-pats in Auckland, all those years ago).

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Grace on the job

When I met her, I was working in television, doing a programme on Brazilian food. It’s was a great week and I ate many things I had never tried before. But that is not this story, and she wasn’t on Stuff because she had finished a degree. The point was she was familiar to people, and was dedicating her degree to her husband, who died 2 years ago.

Reading that, many parts of my life converged and I immediately wanted to leap out of bed and start writing it out of my head. I knew I would not be able to rest until I did it. But it was 6am on a cold winter morning and my 6 year-old would soon be clambering in to join me.

So I waited and she joined me within minutes, complaining of a nightmare where giants wanted to eat her. I cuddled, listened, diverted by saying it was just a bad dream and could she remember any good dreams? She smiled and said, yeah, she had one where her princess castle had turned into a rocket ship. With a TV! It was AWESOME!!!

But my self-congratulation at diversion was short-lived as she immediately changed back to her sad tone and said her snuggles had bad dreams, too. Gorilla Lilli had dreamed she/he was a baby and …and…a hyena was trying to eat him/her (Gorilla Lilli is a boy AND a girl). While Bucky (a giraffe/something hybrid) had dreamed of being chased by tigers. I kept quiet, a little shocked, letting the story continue, while she danced the two soft toys on the bed singing the song at the top of this blog.

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Bucky and Gorilla Lilli

Stunned, I said I had to get up to go to the toilet and wrote down the musical refrain.

The thing is, 10 days before that I had one of those dreams that affects your whole day. Someone I didn’t recognize had come to me, claiming to be someone I knew who had died in the Christchurch earthquake. She was so sincere, I didn’t want to contradict her. But, even in the dream, I was unsettled.

That day, I worked in a venue that was, likewise, unsettling. The weekend before an adventurous university student had stepped onto a skylight, falling through onto the hard floor 10m below. While he had not died immediately there was still a pall over the place from the stupid, accidental death. The skylight he went through had not yet been replaced, with only a bit of loose plastic keeping the rain and hail from our heads.

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The skylights

Throughout the day, workmates and members of the public quietly looked up to the flapping plastic and down to the floor at a gaffer tape X.

I so wanted to pull it off.

The next day I was working at a different venue, one where the roof, co-incidentally, had just been fixed to remedy persistent leaks. There is no other connection to the previous day. But something happened, linking the narrative in my head.

I had just put the needle in a donor’s arm and gone to the next donor (it was a busy day and we were short-staffed due to illness). When I turned to look at the donor I had just left I saw he had fainted, eyes rolled back, tongue pushed forward, looking like death. I called for help and as soon as I got to him he stared to fit, arms flapping; body flexing. I threw myself on his arm to prevent the needle from doing damage. As my colleagues put themselves on his other limbs I pulled out the needle, doing everything not to be stabbed (or stab him). He has big and there weren’t enough of us, so his arm became loose, spraying blood all around.

Of course, we exuded calm and control, not wanting to distress the other donors, and he soon came round with a smile. However, it was one of the worst faints I have seen in my 5 years as a phlebotomist, and I was wrecked for the rest of the shift.

The following day was a day off. And despite the continually foul stormy weather, I headed to the pool to aqua-jog away the stress. As I waited for the bus, a good friend called who needed to talk. She/he was distressed, facing an awfully mortal health scare, unable to talk to anyone else. I listened to their distress, knowing there was little I could say. Awaiting results from tests, I was sworn to secrecy.

The next day I crashed hard. Exhausted, tonsils swollen, black rings under my eyes, I was certain I was coming down with one of the myriad of ailments that has taken out all my colleagues over the previous month. But with rest, and the news that my friend’s results were clear (plus a bottle of beautifully medicinal cider each day of the weekend) my body rallied and I was not taken by any lurgy.

Nevertheless, on the Monday night after work I fell asleep as soon as my daughter was in bed, waking to the noise of a strange sit-com featuring Sarah Michelle Geller and Robin Williams. It was set in an ad agency and they were trying to re-brand Australia to some densely comic Australians. It was pretty funny. I hadn’t heard of the show and was surprised to see Robin Williams doing TV.

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The Crazy Ones

The next day, as I aqua-jogged in the pool, rehabbing the ankle and Achilles I had surgery on over summer I thought about the challenging 3 days of the previous week. How each illustrated how close we are to not being here. How my friend’s scare was by far the worst. How 2 years ago, as I watched my parents struggle for life (and the release of death) over a few short months, a mix of 6 old colleagues/friends/acquaintances from various past lives had all chosen suicide. How could such a cluster happen? And why…

Though they seemed randomly connected (all male, all around my age), I know that we are built to inject meaning into seemingly-related events.

The next-to-last was the closest, a former bandmate from my formative years. The day before his funeral a colleague had picked up a guitar pick from the floor of the hall where we were working, saying to me, ‘you’re a musician, you must have a use for this.’ I took it with me to Auckland, and when my (then) 4 year-old daughter insisted on viewing Stephen in his coffin, I gave her the guitar pick to place with him.

Later, at his wake, while my daughter played and ate food, I uncovered the final stanza of this inexplicable group. A friend’s partner had lost her fashion-shoot photographer to suicide in the months before. As he said his name I knew that I would know him. What I didn’t know was that Craig had married the Brazilian model I had met at that party in Auckland. Small world. Strange life.

When I got out of the pool last Tuesday after thinking about that strange year, I checked my phone, succumbing to dumb addiction. That’s when I saw that Robin Williams had died.

I felt sad, yet unsurprised. Not because of the co-incidences. More because I had been thinking of that year of loss of those I had known. How it sat in such a strange cluster. Which thankfully ended. Why? Why?!

When I came back to bed and my daughter on Sunday morning, I asked about the Stupid Death song… had she made it up? No, she said, it’s from Horrible Histories! I was so relieved.

Craig was a wild-card, a crack-up, full of life. Stephen was clever and caring; sharing so much beauty with the world.

There’s a Chinese saying I am fond of, ‘no co-incidence, no story’.

I don’t believe that gaffer tape X was marking where the student fell. It was for something else, surely.

People chose death for different reasons. Everyone who expressed pain and loss (or anger) when the beloved Mork left us looked to different, personal explanations.

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Rocket-ship Castle (TV not included)

When, later on Sunday, my daughter went to stay with her mother for the next 2 weeks, I knew what I had to write. As soon as she went I started bashing it out but it was too bleak, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to show this face to the world, it would serve no good. But why did I feel this need, to what end?

Instead I went to the couch and dozed to the bland noise of silence. I awoke feeling awful. The only thing I could do was write or exercise, and as I still could not face this topic, I marched off to the beach to stretch-out my slowly recovering Achilles.

At the top of the path down to the sand, full of anxiety and impotent distress, I found this new piece of graffito.

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At Bay

I think I laughed.

I had something difficult to write. It’s taken a bit. But some things can’t be avoided.

A Curious Thing

Last night I dreamed of my father. We were sitting together on the couch, talking. He was sharp, warm, funny: it lasted for several minutes before a part of me observed how wonderful it was to hear his voice, and that awareness triggered the realisation that I was dreaming as Dad has been dead for over two years.

Maybe I’ve been listening to Kate Bush a bit too much lately. Wiley, windy moors and a dead loved one at the window. Loved you, hated you. Bad dreams in the night.

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It’s been two weeks, every day. The mind is a curious thing.

I so looked forward to today. So much to do, so much time to do it without the distraction of work (or my wonderful child) but I am distracted beyond any possible focus: anxious/unsettled, unable to complete the simplest of tasks.

I have just joined a gym and love the exercise which is aiding the recovery from my Achilles surgery. I have a challenging musical poem to write for the online course I am doing. Also a piece of original speculative fiction that has been percolating for an age until last week, while aqua-jogging in the pool, I found the change of voice and perspective that has sent it forward to where it needs to be, waiting with great promise. And, most pressingly of all, my computer continues to splutter and freeze, threatening to give up the ghost so I really need to go and replace it ASAP.

But I can’t get the words from my dream out of my head.

dreams2To top it off I am also being plagued by an earworm, waking the last two mornings to Joan Baez’s version of the Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. I heard it the other day on the awful radio station they constantly play at work, the music so tired it reminds me of being locked in a rest home waiting for the inevitable. It’s a format beloved by decaying Baby Boomers; ‘the Breeze’, songs you’ve heard at least a million times played in a never-changing purgatory of ‘60s/’70s smaltz. Yes, there’s good stuff and ‘classics’ amongst it but every Monday they play ‘Monday, Monday’…stopped into a church, alooong the wayyyyy…sigh. There’s always Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel, Abba, Paul Simon etc et al. Resigned sigh. No escape from the tired familiarity.

Yes, all fine music but it’s the lack of surprise that saps my will.

That said, I’m obsessed with my earworm today as it’s the only way to escape the uneasiness of last night’s dream. I’ve never had any interest in the Baez version; too much syrup for a song which plays to racist sentiment (as I saw it). I have heard the Band do the original and it seemed to be more honest and nuanced/less of a celebration of a society founded on exploitation, oppression and hate.

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But like all great music, it has a surface reading and an unfathomable depth. The lines about choppin’ wood that finishes with “but they should never have taken the best” is what has won me over. I’m playing the song again and again just to revel in the poetry of the image.

About six weeks ago I met a man who could have been my father’s twin. Not as he was, confined with all the others to a secure facility waiting for the Alzheimer’s to end. Nor as he was in the ten or so years before that as he was consumed from inside, forced to avoid direct questions to conceal the growing confusion. But as he was twenty years ago when he was sharp and funny, engaged, playful. This doppelganger had my father’s eyes, face, hair, skin, manner of speaking…a distinctive mix echoed nowhere in the family or anyone I have met. We struck up a marvellous conversation as waves of (hidden) emotion surged through me. I hoped I wasn’t being creepy but grief is often an unexpected ride, and not having had a good chat with my Dad in many, many years I clung on for as long as I could.

I wouldn’t have thought too much of this encounter if not less than an hour later I had met someone whose address was on a street bearing my father’s name: Christian and surname, spelt just the same as Dad’s. At the time, it was hard not to laugh, to feel a little touched. I wished Dad had been alive to tell him there was street named after him.

Later, when work had finished, I googled the address just to make sure I wasn’t being totally wishful. Dad’s street was a cul-de-sac, around the corner from where I was working, attached to a street with, er… my name. Yip.

I was very amused: a playful joke worthy of my father.

Today we are experiencing mad, extreme winds. I can see the white horses galloping across the Bay from my salt-caked windows.

It is time to walk down to the water, listening to the ghost of Cathy and the death of Dixie, and make good my escape.

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