My son Dustin unexpectedly died in March 2018, but we didn’t know the cause of death for almost seven months. After a long history of mental illness and addiction, Dee had been in active recovery for four years and was trying to come off methadone. It might have been suicide. It might have been a relapse, an accidental overdose. When we finally received the medical examiner’s report, we learned that he died, in fact, of pneumonia.
In those excruciating months, when I was still in shock and living breath by breath, minute by minute, a friend put a journal and a pen in my hand. At first, the pen was a sword. I slashed and stabbed the page. I raged on it. I wrote in a trance. I wrote from dreams, wrote not remembering what I wrote. I wrote drunk. I wrote because I needed to climb out and over the edge of the black hellhole of despair. I wrote to regather the shattered pieces of my unravelled myself. A children’s writer of mostly joy and nonsense, I surprised myself with how often the word “fuck” appeared: I became a fucking fierce warrior woman writer, as I had been in my thirties. Years ago, when I wrote In This House Are Many Women, I wrote so I could move forward. This time, there was no moving forward. There was only moving deeper into the suffocating unknown.
There is no word like “orphan” or “widow” for a bereaved parent. But I eventually found one that seemed to fit: “undone.”
Yes, we the undone
Let’s go down by the ocean and scream
I am a heart storm
I am the tornado and the hurricane
I will roar and keen
I will dwell in the in between
Once more, I discovered that words, both profane and sacred, were my Ariadne’s thread as I travelled through my own labyrinth of grief. There was a minotaur waiting for me. But if I did not walk toward the pain, I’d spend the rest of my life running away from the monster that devours the mothers and fathers who have lost their children. The monster that feeds on the Undone.
“This above all, to refuse to be a victim,” Margaret Atwood wrote long ago, in Surfacing. “Unless I can do that I can do nothing.” I did not want to be Sorrow’s victim. So, through my writing, I refused. Because I am a mother and grandmother, and that’s what mothers and grandmothers do. At least mine did: both my mother and my grandmother lost sons. The title of my book comes directly from my mother. They were her words. Softer, she told me. The pain and the sadness will be there, yes, but the texture changes, the sadness will soften.
We built a memorial labyrinth for Dee. A simple one, of rock and grass. I walk there twice a day, with intention. Three Rs: Release, as I walk in. Receive in the centre. Return as I walk back out to the “real” world, which of course will never be the world I knew before.
Writers write. That’s what we do. But the decision to publish was another matter. Grief unleashed, laid bare, too ugly, too raw, too intense, too private. Who wants to read that? There was also the stumbling block of pride: I hated the thought of being pitied or, worse, to be seen as someone looking for sympathy.
In “Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower,” Rilke urges those in darkness to be the bell. His line “As you ring, what batters you becomes your strength” gave me hope. He also asks, “What is it like, such intensity of pain?” And that question gave me permission. So I began to edit and shape and sculpt. Release. Receive. Return.
Whitney Moran, my friend and brave editor, gently encouraged me, creating space and safety and reassurance. Like the best editors, she was midwife to this creature that became a book. I wanted something beautiful, and in the six months since its release, it has found its brave readers, the undone ones, the regathering ones. They write to me. The book is comfort to some, hope to others. This, of course, comforts me.
I write these words on Mother’s Day 2020. Like so many, I can only FaceTime this year — with Jordan, Dustin’s older brother. A screen is not even close to gathering and touching. I miss his hugs. I miss his brother’s hugs, too. Sorrow is a love story, and I am grateful for the love I know as a mother. I am even grateful for a book that I never ever wanted to write.