When I was little, unable to touch type but keen to look as if I could, I’d smack wildly at the keyboard of our family computer, littering the screen with nonsense. That’s how it felt working on the first chapters of my second memoir. I wrote while only half conscious from exhaustion, my mind a gaping wound, because my older sister, Meghan, was lying in hospice and was comforted by the sound of fingers striking a laptop’s keys. It was one comfort I could offer. Also, I had promised her — pinky promised this thirty-seven-year-old woman — that I would write the story of our sisterhood. That promise consumed me; it gave me something to focus on beyond the hospice door.
In the immediate aftermath of Meghan’s death, I took a few months’ break from writing (being an executor is endless, painful work), and then I dug back into the manuscript to help process the grief. After countless attempts to continue the story, though, I knew I had to get away, outside of the home where I was grieving and executing and planning and sobbing. I needed a retreat.
That’s how I found myself in Alberta, holed up in a Leighton Artists Studio at the Banff Centre in March 2020. Light snow dropped as I pressed save on my document, shutting my computer before tears shorted out my keyboard (it had happened before). There was a startling knock at the door, and I felt caught out, halfway between shame and pride, as I wiped at my damp cheeks and blew my nose. On the porch was a young woman holding an industrial-size bottle of Purell. She took two steps back when she spotted my soggy pile of tissues.
“We’re distributing these. . . . You know, because of the news.” She shook the bottle at me, the transparent gel slopping back and forth. “This whole corona thing.” She regarded me warily, the swollen-shut eyes and the crust of snot under my nose, before placing the hand sanitizer at my feet and taking two exaggerated steps back.
“Oh!” I finally caught on. “This is just from crying so hard. Not illness,” I explained, waving my hand over my mottled face. “Memoir is tricky emotional biz.” I added that as if it might explain the jam on my shirt or the sweatpants I had worn too many days in a row. With alarm written across her face, she helped herself to a quick squirt before scuttling off to the next cabin, her plastic tub overloaded with what was then an increasingly rare commodity. “Not illness,” I’d called after her, as though I could convince a stranger I was fine.
In her own memoir on sorrow, Joan Didion lamented the medical profession’s inclination to pathologize grief, to make it something clinical rather than a matter of the metaphorical heart. I often felt, when right in the thick of bereavement, that writing about painful experiences must connote some measure of illness, because why else would someone delve into their most devastating memories like an Olympian into the deep end of gloom?
More than once, I’ve been asked why my work centres on dark subjects: sexual harassment, mental illness, abuse, grief, addiction. Won’t writing about it make your depression worse? Why mire yourself in such sadness? Why indeed. But these questions presume I am not mired anyway, as if I can escape the devastation by pretending it isn’t there. Pain doesn’t work that way, especially for someone called to storytelling. How else am I to understand the absolute horror of those few years of my sister’s illness and death if I don’t turn my sharpened focus on our complicated tale with an interrogatory light?
Meghan expertly spent her “It’s my dying wish” currency, and another book was one of her requests. But, knowing what I’m like, I would have inevitably put our story to paper with or without the promise I made her.
Meghan once joked that, of course, she didn’t want everyone to be sad forever after her death, but a few months of solid despair would be appreciated, ideally with a Sarah McLachlan ballad playing alongside some flickering tea lights. This memoir is the totality of my bereavement. But it’s also my way of continuing the conversation with my big sister, as well as with readers who have lost someone they loved deeply, even when that person has hurt them. So, when I miss Meghan most, I flip open the pages and relive our time together. In our stories, I manage to feel a little less alone.