The WIP That I Put Away: Grief, Shakespeare and telling stories

I set out to put fiction out in the world here, but there hasn’t been as much fiction on M&W as I’d like. Even though I still hope to finish it someday, Innogen and the Hungry Half stalled out when my mother received her terminal diagnosis, and I haven’t been accomplishing original short stories like I’ve wanted either. This doesn’t mean I’ve haven’t been writing, but sometimes you start a project and realize that it’s just too painful to pursue, even if you go in with open eyes.

What follows is the beginning of a novel whose working title was Kate and Harry Fight the Devil. Some of it has been cannibalized into Coldspur, which I also promise you all should see someday, but that one is more of an adventure story. This WIP is about grief and cancer and spouses. I started it on a visit home the month my mom died, in August 2012. Ever since she got sick in early 2008, I’ve been writing these reverse Eurydice stories. Take one dead Shakespeare protagonist, give him an indomitable wife and shake vigorously. What wouldn’t we do to bring our loved ones back? It’s a kind of war story too — what will we brave for each other? What do we have when we come through to the other side?

This story probably comes closest to expressing what I was feeling in that last month. I was trying to anticipate what it would be like once we lost her for good. Reading it again puts me in a very vulnerable place, but I also have the distance to know that the work is good. I’d like to put it out there. Someone else might need it too, but I also need for people to see it. Sometimes you just need witnesses. If you get that, I’m sorry we’re both in this club.

The plan here was that there would be no single victory, no crowning triumph and reunion: Kate Percy would get back her cored-out husband, and fight tooth and nail to recover him, piece by painstaking, incomplete piece. It would be ugly, and hard, and slow. But it would be about things gained rather than things stolen away: the hideous battle could, in the end, be won by people and not tumors.

I got down 7,000 words before admitting that I couldn’t do this to myself, that it was too painful, no matter how much I liked the idea of my villain, and of Kate Percy, witches’ champion, and of the weirdness of Macbeth stealing into a history play. No one will want to read that kind of resurrection, I told myself. And I’m not comfortable with that kind of body horror, to write about cancer the way it really looks. That’s still too close and private.

We’ll see. Thank you for reading.

If you don’t know Henry IV Part 1, all you need is that Harry Percy rebelled against the king and lost, far away from home.


In a cold bed, she still hears him, drunk on her name, good Kate, gentle Kate, my loving Kate, my wife. His shamefaced father has left them alone with the echoing castle, fled to Scotland, where all his allies are captured or killed. She huddles on her side of the blankets, watching the door, waiting for the shadows to flicker, for her Harry and his raging and his flights of imagination to approach. His voice comes back to her in the dark: Will this content you? She has wept herself still and dry without him.

The king’s guard will come. They will ride hard from the battlefield to seek out the rebels and revenge themselves on them. His mother Northumberland is mobilizing the household, dispatching family treasures, sending friends into the wild. King Henry’s men must find nothing at Warkworth Castle, no trace of her Harry, and Kate knows it cannot be done, when he is in every stone and worn path in the marches.

She does not care that the king is still Bolingbroke, she does not care that the Prince of Wales did the slaying. Her Harry’s pillow has not lost its dent; the sheets still smell of him, the goblets he left on the table are where he set them, and she must leave. Would that someone had saved his jacket, a lock of hair, a letter from the front! She would beat him bloody herself if he only would come home. Continue reading “The WIP That I Put Away: Grief, Shakespeare and telling stories”

Vonnegut has a good quote about this.

I can’t talk about Philip Seymour Hoffman. Some famous deaths hit you harder than others, and you can’t always tell why, and this one — not to mention the conversation going on around it — is hitting me hard. This morning I also read ‘In God We Trust—but We Have Put Our Faith in Our Guns,’ an interview with a Florida mother who, like Trayvon Martin’s parents, lost her son to a Stand Your Ground-defensible (supposedly) incident. From God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Some links:

This Is Not a Conspiracy Theory comes from Kirby Ferguson, the guy behind the brilliant Everything Is a Remix. This new venture is going to be subscription-supported, but right now you can buy one for $12US, which will later go up to $15, but which is good for the whole length of the project. Apparently you can also pay in Bitcoin too, which I find fascinating.

The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age, by Clay Shirky, is simply and dispassionately written, but it’s seething with frustration. Its thesis, which seems eminently reasonable? We live in institutions perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists.

Art of the Title is a whole blog that breaks down and analyzes title cards and opening sequences from films and TV shows, which is a thing I love like I love blogs about designing book covers.

The Biggest Misconception About Birds is, it turns out, about where they sleep. Let me just say, the thing about unihemispheric slow-wave sleep makes me wonder why we don’t have fantasy creatures or aliens that work like that.

Work out at home like a superhero! Like, an actual superhero of your choice: there are moves for that. You may have seen these charts floating around on Tumblr, but did you know you can do all kinds of fancy sorting on the artist’s website to find the one you need?

Are people more open about life when running? Two British filmmakers sets out to do some interviews, and the result is — well. Alluring and engrossing.

This Is Danny Pearl’s Final Story, by Asra Nomani, is a wrenching look at the facts about the kidnapping and murder of journalist Danny Pearl, who was abducted and beheaded while chasing a story in Pakistan. It’s also a story about a colleague of his and how his death shook her and followed her in the years after, and what she did about it.

The Borderlands Project follows a trip along the borders of India and South Asia “to better understand the human dimension of political borders.” When it’s finished, the reporter will have traveled 9,000 miles.

Why News Matters works to promote news literacy for kids, which, given, I don’t know, everything about the way news is going, they’re going to need more than ever going forward.

Rain in Columbus

It’s been raining in central Ohio for most of the almost-a-day I’ve been here. I’m the first of my siblings to arrive, but soon all four of us, plus others, will be in the house with Dad. This weekend is the stone-setting at my mom’s grave in Athens. We unveil the headstone and signal an end to the year of mourning.

Six months ago, give or take, I wrote Half of the first year, trying to take stock of what it’s like, losing your mother to a hideous, protracted cancer. In some ways I’m getting better (I’m writing fiction again!), and in some ways I’m even more of a mess than I realized.

Pretty soon my family is going to start arriving, and I’ll have no quiet until I’m back in Chicago on Monday afternoon. Let’s not talk about the obscene amount of schoolwork and the outside projects I have to make progress on somehow. But at the moment Gus the basset hound is snoring by the French windows, and my dad is downstairs with classical music thundering through the floorboards, and this is pretty nice.

My advisor wrote, “I don’t know what the appropriate encomium is for a stone-setting ceremony, but I hope the proceedings go well for you and your family.” Me too.

In lieu of more thoughts, let me leave you with an article that’s been on my mind since I found it earlier this week. How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society starts off with all the information about having babies late that just doesn’t apply to me or interest me yet — all those worries about old eggs. (My parents were 41 and 43 when I was born, and people used to warn my mom about old eggs. Whenever I accomplished something noteworthy, my parents would smile and nod at me and say, “Old eggs.”) But then the article changes, and it becomes the piece I was hoping it would be: a discussion of fear, of the social and familial pressures of being new parents in your late thirties and beyond, and, at last, a frank discussion of what having children late means in terms of a parent’s lifespan.

There is a lot that I could say about this, but it’s a very raw time right now, so I’ll just leave this here for another essay.

Half of the first year

I’m waiting for the pirate to do her work.

Tori Amos came to Pittsburgh on November 6, 1998, on her “Plugged ’98” tour. I had been living and breathing her music for two years at that point. She had gotten me through the worst of middle school, she had been the reason I started reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, and she was going to be only four hours away from my hometown in Athens, Ohio.

My mom let me skip a day of school and drove us to Pittsburgh, a city we both loved anyway, and we went to that concert together. I made a huge glittery sign that the guards made me throw away before we entered. I was 14, and most of the audience was older than me and younger than my mom. When Tori came onstage, I screamed and screamed and screamed. The show was incredible, even if my mom did get disgusted and bored by Tori’s ten-minute version of “The Waitress,” with its world-filling refrain “I believe in peace, bitch.” I bought merch (my mom paid for it). I was giddy for hours after. My mom and I had a great weekend together. As far as first concerts go, it set a high bar.

A post came up on Tumblr a few weeks ago, promising bootleg downloads for the whole tour. My heart stopped. I clicked the link, but it was dead. I wrote the owner of the blog, asking whether there was a new source for that particular date. I told her why it was important to me, but when she wrote back, she only said that she’d be out of the country for the next few weeks and that she’d get to it in March.

My mother and I are in that crowd somewhere. I’m waiting for the pirate to do her work.

Continue reading “Half of the first year”

Fiction: Negative Space

A hole opened up in Holly’s torso on Monday. She showed it to her mother after she’d studied it in the mirror a while. The hole was a little right of her bellybutton, like a lopsided cube. She could hold both edges and her knuckles wouldn’t touch.

Her mother sat down on the closed lid of the toilet. “Oh sweetie.” She smiled and petted her hair. “Barney had a good life. It’s okay to be sad that he’s gone.”

Holly couldn’t look at it. “Will it be there forever?”

“Oh.” Her mother leaned forward and curled over the space in her ribs. “No,” she said. “It gets smaller and then you hardly notice it at all.” Holly stole a glance at the smooth absence in her mother’s chest, like someone had forgotten to draw it in. Her mother patted her cheek. “Come on, Holly Golly. We’ve got a busy day to get to.”

Holly pushed down her shirt and watched her mother leave. She shut the door behind her, picked up her toothbrush and turned on the faucet. The other side of the door stayed quiet and still. Holly squeezed her toothpaste onto the bristles and slipped the brush into her mouth. The hole in her torso itched.

They went to the grocery store and ran into Mrs. Thompson. Holly’s mother hugged her to her side. “We had a rough weekend, didn’t we.”

Mrs. Thompson was a friend from Holly’s mother’s office. She wore her hair piled on top of her head, and had peacock-colored glasses. Holly had never seen her without lipstick. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, looking down at Holly.

“I got a hole,” said Holly, pressing her shoulder to her mother’s waist.

“Oh,” said Mrs. Thompson, very understanding. “Your first one?”

Holly nodded.

Mrs. Thompson patted her side. “I keep succulents in mine. A nice little garden I always carry with me. I’m thinking about putting in some ferns as well.” Holly frowned. Mrs. Thompson smiled. “You’ll be fine, dearie.”

They went to the library. Holly’s mother didn’t say anything about Mrs. Thompson. She left Holly to wander while she headed for the audiobooks. Holly meandered through the stacks, reading clusters of titles every few feet. When she turned a corner, Frank the reference librarian was scanning a shelf high above her head. He looked down at her over the tops of his glasses. “Hello, Holly.”

She slowed to a stop. “Hi.”

He turned back to the shelf. “Looking for something in particular today?”

Holly looked around her. They were in the Gardening and Horticulture section. “My dog died this weekend.”

“Oh dear. Barney?” Frank took off his glasses and let them hang from his neck. “I’m sorry.” She nodded and hugged her elbows. “Have you gotten a hole from it?”

“My first one.” She got squirmy for a moment. “Someone else said she kept plants in hers.”

Frank gave her a little smile. He patted his chest, right below his collarbone. “I keep candy there.”

“How does it get smaller, though?” Holly stared at his shoulder. “Don’t you want it to go away?”

“Well.” Frank put his glasses back on. “Sometimes it doesn’t go away. You just learn to live with it.”

Holly turned back to the shelf. “What kind of candy do you keep in there?”

He chuckled. “Not chocolate, I can tell you that.”

Holly didn’t say anything to her mother when they got back in the car. They drove to the pool with the radio on. The lady from NPR described all the horrible things happening in the world in a calm, distracted voice. Holly looked out the window as they drove past the chain stores and pulled in at the city pool.

She told her mother she wanted to change by herself today, and shut herself into the wet stall with her one-piece draped over her wrist. She stepped out of her shoes, into a puddle on the concrete floor. The whole changing room smelled like chlorine and wet towels. Outside, kids shrieked and lifeguards blew their whistles. Holly pulled off her shirt and looked down at the hole again. When she got her suit on, it clung to the edges of the hole. She tried to puff her stomach out, and picked at the fabric of the suit, but the hole wouldn’t be hidden. It stayed weird and flat. She came out of the changing room clutching her clothes to her stomach.

Holly’s mother was wearing her one-piece too. She smiled and held up the sunscreen. “Ready?” They traded off, making sure to get the places neither of them could reach on their own. Holly’s mother slipped Holly’s flamingo sunglasses onto her face. “Okay. Come on, let’s go have some fun.”

Maddy and Trudy were there with their babysitter. They waved Holly over, and she and her mother laid down their towels nearby. Trudy took one look at Holly’s stomach and pointed. “What happened to you?”

The babysitter sat up. “Trudy! Be polite.”

“My dog died,” Holly said, jutting her chin out a little.

Maddy chewed on her thumbnail, her eyes still on the hole. “My brother got one of those when he didn’t get into Emory.”

Holly crossed her arms. “What did he do with it?”

She shrugged. “He got a little shelf put in. He keeps books there now.”

“My cousin has a bird in hers,” Trudy announced. “I like it. It’s always singing. I don’t think she’ll get another one.”

“Sounds noisy,” Holly said. She twisted and looked at her mother, who was stretched out on her stomach with a paperback. Her torso looked whole from this angle. Holly turned back. “You want to go?”

Swimming was a good distraction. The cold water rushed into the new empty space, but Holly shook it off and kept going. Every time she moved, the water swirled between her skin and the swimsuit. She did her best not to feel it.

They went home. Holly helped carry the groceries in. No one tripped them up as they unloaded their bags. “Mom,” Holly said, when they were putting the last cans away, “did you do anything with yours?”

Holly’s mother stopped. She sat down the edge of a chair and looked at Holly. “It’s private, sweetie,” she said. “And you don’t have to do anything with yours. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but it will get smaller if you let it. It won’t be there forever.” Holly didn’t say anything. She looked down at the empty floor. Holly’s mother stroked her cheek. “Holly Golly,” she said softly.

Holly could feel her throat start to get thick. “Is yours getting smaller?”

Her mother rested her palms on her knees. “Bit by bit,” she said, and met Holly’s eye.

Inspired by Eulalia, and the first official bit of creative work completed for this blog. A little melancholy and a lot weird. To be honest, I almost wanted to write up a straight-up Redwall-inspired story, but in improv, they always tell you to go for the lateral inspiration, rather than the literal.

I lost Nora, the basset hound I had desperately wanted and gotten at 7, when I was 21, the night before I came home for Thanksgiving. I had never lost anyone that close to me before, and it hit me really hard. I dreamed about her for months after she was gone, to the point of seeing her at the foot of my bed some nights. Recently I saw a guest strip in The Abominable Charles Christopher that opened up some of those feelings again. I can’t imagine feeling them as a 6- or 7-year-old, which is how I see Holly.

I am a hard griever; I don’t know what I would do if we lived in a world where loss opened up actual holes in us.