Mom died this week.
It had taken awhile. And taken its toll on both her and the entire family.
Yet it also seemed to happen very suddenly, catching me looking completely the other way. I can’t explain it better than that. When someone you’ve loved all your life is dying, time makes its own rules.
I hadn’t written anything worthwhile in weeks, maybe months. And I knew it. But I kept at it, mostly, I’m sure, for the solace of escape fiction can provide. But never really fooling myself. I have never been “blocked.” As far back as grade school where Mom dropped me off every morning, I’d learned that the fastest way to beat the blank page was to get out of my own way, let myself fall into it: stop being the reality me and be another me. Now all I could think of was that Mom had stopped being the reality Mom. Permanently.
I wasn’t dealing well with “permanently.”
But I hacked away at the keys like always—“hack” being the operant word–convinced it was what she would have wanted. Isn’t that what they always say?
I had worked my way to Chapter 29 over the months, getting toward the end of the book. I was in the middle of this line: ‘The last thing she said to me was, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going
–and the phone rang beside me. And my sister-in-law said, “She just passed.”
I don’t remember what I said to Lynne, my sobbing sister-in-law; don’t remember anything but sitting there staring at that unfinished last line. This ”unfinished” sensation remained and became my general state of mind for the next few days. I moved through life like a shadow—the usual rooms, usual places—feeling always just slightly outside myself looking in. For the first time in my life I got absolutely nothing written, not a single word. I couldn’t even go near the computer. But I suppose that’s perfectly normal under the circumstances. Right?
Maybe not. I was aware of a slowly growing panic, which I thought was the realization I’d never see Mom again but which–knowing the size of my ego–was also the fear of finally experiencing that dreaded thing I’d always laughed at: writer’s block.
But give yourself some time, I thought. Time wounds all heels, or something like that…you’ll be fine.
But I wasn’t fine. Only more and more scared and depressed.
I told no one, not even my wife. Just kept convincing myself this would surely pass–that ‘Mom would have wanted it that way’—want me to go on doing the one thing that made me happiest: writing. So, why didn’t I believe it? Why did I think something had been broken that could not be put together again. Also this: why was I not grieving? Not even crying! Hadn’t shed a tear. Telling myself that would come too when it was ready—even though my heart wasn’t buying it.
I even tried staging grieving. A kind of forced sobbing that came out like a pig with hiccups. Tried my best to work up a real honest-to-God bawler.
Every few hours for the next several days I’d wander into my study and look down at my computer and stare at that unfinished line: “The last thing she said to me was, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going
–sentence incomplete. Original thought and intent lost.
Chapter lost. Maybe the whole damn book lost. I had no memory at all of what I’d been trying to write or what came next. It all seemed immensely trivial and pointless now, along with a lot of other things –like my own mortality.
After a time I couldn’t look at the computer screen anymore: the unfinished words became more than just ironic, they seemed unfair, even cruel. “But you did go, Mom! And you took the best part of me with you! And I never even got the chance to say good-bye.”
Still, I didn’t cry.
Wasn’t allowing myself the relief of letting go. Something was holding everything in. Was I punishing myself? Was there a Freudian phrase for this? What was the last thing Mom said to me? I couldn’t remember. Nor my last words to her. And it seemed terribly important that I did remember…that neither the book nor anything else would be complete until I did. The panic grew, but nothing would come. Just a blank, and Lynne’s voice on the phone, “She just passed,” and that damn unfinished sentence staring back at me every day.
If only I hadn’t stopped writing, if only my sister-in- law hadn’t called at that precise moment—maybe I could remember what I’d been thinking at the time, finish the sentence and–if not finish the book–at least get on with things again. But my mind remained on hold.
The panic eventually ebbed, replaced by a hollowness that was maybe worse. I felt lost. A stranger in my home. Everything looked exactly the same, but everything was different.
Then one morning I got up, had my coffee, stared at my handful of published books on the shelf like they were strangers, and wandered around the house again.
I ended up in my study before the computer screen. “Enough,” I thought, “enough of this!” I reached for the delete key; but I hadn’t bothered putting on my glasses and hit the wrong one– the backspace key–which only separated that unfinished last line from the rest of the paragraph, making it stand out even more.
In disgust I stuck on my glasses, sat down and put the unfinished sentence back where it belonged, at the end of the unfinished paragraph. I started to get up. That’s when Mom came to say good-bye. Or someone did. Someone reached out and completed that annoying last sentence and it didn’t feel quite like me. I typed just for letters, a single word: “anywhere” and put a period after it. “I’m not going ANYWHERE.”
I sagged with relief. Sentence complete. Chapter closed.
Then I wandered back to the bedroom, lay down beside my sleeping wife and had myself the most wonderful cry.