The Gift

It was months after my Mother’s death.  There were no more flowers; no more cards; no more donations to the scholarship fund.

“How are you” meant “how are you” not “How are you?”

How was I?  Glad you asked.

I thought I was losing my mind.

No matter what I was doing; my mind would flash back to the moment I learned my Mother was dead.  Walking down a crowded Manhattan street; standing at a grocery check-out; watching a movie; without warning, I was suddenly transported back to the night of October 11.

October 11 at 9.10 PM, to be precise.

Back to the apartment; back to the den; back to the ringing phone.

Hello Hallie, this is the nursing home.

Do you have bad news?

Yes, I have bad news.

Do you have bad news?

Yes, I have bad news.

Do you have bad news?

Yes, I have bad news.

The words were like a drum beating in my brain; a rhythm that would not stop; a sound heard only by me.

Is she dead?

Yes.

Is she dead?

Yes.

Is she dead?

Yes.

I was Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, except Bill Murray was funny.

This was exhausting.

For months, the shrill ringing phone and staccato drumbeat words were my unyielding soundtrack. On the outside, I was “fine.”  On the inside, I was unraveling.

My rescue was equally sudden and unexpected. Walking in my neighborhood one cold winter day, my eyes fell on a newspaper kiosk. A flier in the window stopped me in my tracks:

Be Brave. Write.

I had heard that message before.  Within weeks of my Mom’s death, a childhood friend visited New York. She had lost both her parents. We went to museums and theater and talked and talked and she never tried to change the subject.

At the end of our visit, she gave me a gift: a small lavender-colored book with pressed flowers on its cover and blank pages inside.

Write, she said.

She explained that when she wants to talk to her parents, she writes to them instead.

Writing helps, she said.

Thank you, I might have said.

I put the book on a shelf. It was soon covered by other books. And I resumed groundhog days–my mind repeatedly thrust back to the den; back to the phone; back to the voice from the nursing home.

Is she dead?

Yes.

Be Brave. Write.

This time I listened. I found the book with the pressed flowers and empty pages. And I started to record my groundhog life.  I described every single thing that happened from the moment that phone rang on Oct 11 at 9.10 PM; every single thing I said and she said and he said and they did…

And as the words appeared on the page, the scenes stopped unfolding in my brain. My words, my own written words, were healing me.

The moment did not own me anymore.

Later I met one of my favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates, whose stunning memoir A Widow’s Story recounts in minute detail the months following her husband’s sudden death.  At a roundtable discussion, Oates nodded vigorously when I described the flashbacks of the endlessly ringing phone and the interminable conversations replaying in my brain.

She had endured the same flashbacks.

And while that might be the only thing I ever have in common with Joyce Carol Oates, it is good enough for me.

I was not alone.

Writing helps.

As this season of giving is upon us once again, I remember with gratitude the simple gift of a lavender book with pressed flowers.  I remember the blank pages and straightforward advice.
And I remember the healing words.

 A Swift Current || Letting Your Parents Go ||  Be Brave Write


Photo by Hallie Swift

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13 thoughts on “The Gift

    • Thank you for visiting A Swift Current. It is deeply moving to me that you share my feelings and (I hope) gain comfort from my words. It encourages me to continue this exploration.
      Thank you, Hallie

  1. One of your most beautiful essays! I was also stunned/moved by “A Widow’s Story” — so glad you had the opportunity to meet JCO. Thanks, as always, for sharing. Love, S

    Sent from my iPad

    • Thank you, Shelley. Your message reinforces my resolve to continue this! Yes, meeting JCO (as she refers to herself) was unforgetable; I was floating on air when she told me I was “thoughtful.” Actually, I am still floating on air from that encounter! With thanks, Hallie

  2. How fortunate to have a friend share a gift that meant so much to her and has become so important to you. Thanks for another wonderful post.

    • Thank you, J9. I was nervous about this post. Actually, I am nervous about all of them! As you can see, I am getting more comfortable with reading comments (comments mean that people are reading my writing, which terrifies me, but of course I WANT people to read my writing…how is that for a catch-22!). I almost talked about the gift of the book in an earlier post (“Sometimes You Get What You Need”) but then it seemed to stand on its own as a lovely and knowing gesture. I appreciate your generous words. Thank you again, Hallie

  3. Another beautiful post…so glad that you saw that sign! We all are benefiting from you picking up your pen. I find that I have conversations quite often, both in my head and spoken, with my Mom. I hear her clearly, and this helps me. Thank you for putting so many of my thoughts down on paper.

    • Hi Joanie, I appreciate your comments. It is gratifying to know I am reflecting your thoughts. Some people have commented that I am helping them think about these difficult things just a little differently. We are all helping each other here; at least, that is my hope. Thank you again, Hallie

  4. This is a beautiful entry. I feel your emotions and I feel your loss through your words. I do so remember your parents not so much by their faces but I remember what we talked about and those few minutes we visited with them. The strength of your father came through loud and clear and how similar he was to my father. They were very successful in the most important thing they ever did, and that was how they raised you and the strong talented woman you became.

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