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”

“He was calling to tell me…”

Dad and me (age 4) in Moissac, France, 1988
Dad and me (age 4) in Moissac, France, 1988

I’ve written before about the grief of losing a parent. It’s a thing I carry with me everywhere, in ways I never anticipated. But I lucked out with both my parents: my dad is a really, really good guy. He’s a good dad, and over the last several years I’ve learned a lot about him.

When JUF News sent out a call for articles about relationships, I knew I had to write about him, and to write about this. This personal essay, which is very meaningful to me, is now in the February print issue of JUF News and online. You can read it here: My dad, the mensch.

Hug the ones you love. Tell them you love them early and often. Not just in case of tragedy, but, I hope, because it’s true.

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”