The Alchemy of Words

The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words. William H. Gass

I started writing after Jimmy’s brain tumor diagnosis. No diary, gratitude journal or daily pages. Just email updates on how he was feeling and what was happening with his cancer treatment that over time came to include passages on how the four of us were living and finding joy in between his 90 day scans.

When Jimmy died, I stopped writing. What was there to say? We were shattered, broken and using every bit of our energy to find a way to endure without him.

It was my friends who convinced me to begin again. Laura, who invited me to what is now “our” beloved Tuesday night writing group. Regina, who pointed out that the essays and articles she and I wanted to share with other grieving parents didn’t exist, so perhaps I’d “better start writing.” And luck, which had me spot a calendar notice in poet Ellen Bass’ newsletter about a week long retreat called “Writing as a Pathway Through Grief, Loss, Uncertainty & Change” which introduced me to Laura Davis, who thanks to COVID, became my writing teacher in March 2020 via her Thursday feedback class on Zoom.

My first pieces on Salt Water went up in June 2017. Since then, I’ve written almost two hundred more, beautiful proof of the wisdom of Louis L’Amour’s advice – “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

In the early days, I wrote to understand Jimmy’s death. Why this happened. How it could have happened. If I could have prevented it. Whether I was the only one.

I wrote to find my strength, face my weaknesses, mend the broken parts of myself. To learn how to reach. How to stay in the world on the days when every fiber of my being wanted to curl up on the bathroom floor in a fetal position and stay there.

I wrote to learn how other grieving souls make their way through the world in the face of staggering, unimaginable loss. What works for them. What doesn’t. How they know.

As time went on, I began writing to remember. The magic and beauty of my days with Jimmy. The laughter and adventures. The tears and late night confidences. The falling down and the getting back up. Why it mattered then. Why it matters still.

I write to reclaim the joy. To learn how to hold fast to it when the world feels gray and so very unfair. To allow the sweet memories to flood back in and drown out the painful ones.

I write to let go … of the worst days, the painful progression of Jimmy’s disease and everything it robbed him of, the side effects of treatment, the relentless march to ending we hoped and prayed would never come. Of the hurtful behavior of a small handful of family and friends. To find my way to forgiveness so that I could use Nadia Bolz Weber’s bolt cutters and free myself from the misery I was dragging around.

I write to make sense of the world on the days when nothing does. When life feels rigged and wrong. When the losses keep layering for those of us who have already been robbed of so much.

I write to face my mistakes, failures, stumbles. All the ways I let Jimmy down. To offer grace to myself for the actions I’m ashamed of, the words I didn’t say, the ones I wish I could take back.

I write in the hope that someone else will listen. To connect. To reach out with my words to others who are writing and thinking about life after loss in ways that are similar and ways that are entirely different. To draw close to those whose courage inspires me and to create a verbal boundary of protection against those who are bitter, self-righteous, full of rage. Not by criticizing, provoking or attacking but by making it clear that I have no space for their bluster and bile. That their way is not mine.

I write to reach back to those coming behind me, just as others did for me in the early days. To offer hope to the newly grieving that they, too, can and will find their own way forward. To provide reassurance that whatever they are feeling is natural and so very normal. To make space for their pain and bear witness to their grief. To give them permission to divorce themselves from those who treat them badly and encourage them to say what needs to be said. To ask about how their loved one lived instead of how they died. To say their beloved’s name and hear them say Jimmy’s in return.

I write to heal my wounds and bear the weight of Jimmy’s absence. To create a life in the aftermath, and on my worst days, to convince myself that I want that life. To remember my son’s fierce desire to live and the promise I made him to find a way to go on, even when I don’t want to.

I write to conjure my son back to life. To tell his story, remember his courage and kindness and honor his life. To pull the precious moments out of my brain and push aside the memories that burn and punish. To continue learning from him and keep his life woven through mine. To remind myself and the world that I will never stop being his mother. To preserve the beauty of our days together like a dragonfly in amber. To carry him with me for the rest of my days.

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