As a fiction writer, sometimes, my own life directs my storytelling, but honestly, most all of what I write comes from other people’s experiences, from absorbing narrative through films, books, music, and TV, and from listening. Okay, maybe eavesdropping in restaurants and airports and in groups of people, and from conversations I’ve been a part of and some that I’ve only been an observer in. That’s all part of the discovery process–what happens before you start writing.
I try to get my discovery in before the words start flowing, but sometimes discovery and writing happen in tandem because characters will go off on their own in directions I never imagined. Those times are grand, but also rather disconcerting because it may be a path I know nothing about. So, then it’s time to google or read or talk to someone who has gone through what my character’s situation has become.
This morning, I was talking to a dear friend who is a widow. Aging means I know several widows, usually ones who are from long marriages, who lost husbands after wicked battles with cancer or heart disease or something else dreadful. I would not diminish their grief in any way, but I do believe that with maturity comes greater understanding of life’s cycles.
My heroine, Harper, lost her husband to a military vehicle accident while he was deployed in the Middle East. They’d only been married a short while and she is young–twenty eight. Harper doesn’t have years of memories to warm her. Her house is fairly new and she and Drew spent very little time there together. She’s grieving and raw and feeling like her own life is over.
My friend shared something very poignant with me. She said that the pain of grief is not just emotional, it’s physical. That sometimes even the water from her shower was so painful, she simply couldn’t do it–that her heart truly hurt. I’ve felt the pain of loss–my mom, my grandparents, my sister, two miscarriages, and the loss of my best friend. But I’ve never felt the loss of my true love. God willing, I won’t have to know that pain any time soon. I depend on others, brave souls who will share their experiences with me so I can write it into my characters and make their stories as believable as possible.
Here’s a little snippet from Harper and Cam’s story:
Both aunts up at six-thirty on a Sunday morning? The one day of the week they both claimed as their linger-in-bed day? Harper gazed suspiciously from one face to the other. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was an intervention.” She meant to give it a humorous read, but it came out a little defensive.
Aunt Dot dropped into the chair next to Aunt Mary and set a book and a box from Paula’s Bread & Butter bakery on the table. “That’s exactly what this is. I wasn’t sure what was appropriate to bring to an intervention, but since it’s the butt crack of dawn, I figured why not Danish?” She opened the box and shoved it toward Harper. “Plus, you need some meat on those bones, so we’re going to talk, then we’re going to make bacon and eggs and eat all six of these rolls.”
Harper’s heart sped up. “You two planned this?”
“We did, darlin’.” Mary put a hand on Harper’s arm. “You’ve got to get back into life. If you can’t do that on your own, you’ve got to get some help. You’re too young to be living like a cloistered nun.”
“I’m fine,” Harper lied and held up her sketch pad. “See! I’m trying something new.”
“Honey, I hear you talking to Drew at night.” Mary grabbed a napkin and reached in the box for a cheese Danish. “At first, I thought you were on the phone…but a couple of weeks ago, I realized you weren’t, because your phone was in the living room.”
“So what?” Harper’s hackles rose. As much as she loved these ladies, this was over-the-top even for them. “I talk to him. It makes me feel better.”
“I understand,” Mary said. “I do.”
Harper simply stared at her. “How could you?”
“Because I’ve been where you are.” Mary squeezed her arm. “I lost the love of my life when I was only nineteen years old. He died in Vietnam and I wanted to die, too.
“Oh, Aunt Mary. I never knew.”
“I don’t talk about it.” Mary wrapped her arms around her waist, a faraway look coming into her blue eyes. “It was Christmas ’72. The cease-fire happened January ’73. If Bill had made it another month, he’d be sitting here with us now.”
“Dear lord.” Harper’s heart ached for her aunt. “But you never remarried?”
“We were never married. I was planning our June wedding when his parents came to the door with the telegram.” Mary straightened her shoulders and picked up her Danish. “Just because I haven’t lived my life like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, don’t think that I don’t know your pain. I do.”
Dot set a roll on a napkin and placed it in front of Harper. “So many women do, Harp. Mary and I have been in the world long enough to see a lot of grieving people.” She tipped her head toward the book she’d brought. “That’s Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s book about the five stages of grief. It’s been the standard since it came out in the late sixties. The stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—don’t happen in any order. Not everyone goes through every stage, and sometimes they overlap. But, honey, Drew died almost two years ago, and you’re still behaving like you’re waiting for him to come home.”
Harper pulled off a piece of her roll and popped it in her mouth. The gorgeous pastry tasted like ashes. She swallowed. “I know he’s not coming home. I was there. I watched them put him in the g-ground.” Her voice caught, and she took a sip of coffee to wash down the lump in her throat. “I am stuck. Part of me died with him, Aunt Dot, and I have no idea how to get that part back.”
“Honey—” Dot stood and started to put an arm around Harper’s shoulders, who shrugged her away.
“Do you think I like being this way? Do you think I’m choosing this? Choosing to be so sad and exhausted that I can hardly bear to open my eyes in the morning?” The volume of her voice rose. “I hate how I feel. I hate that he’s gone, that our life, everything we planned is gone. Vanished!” She pushed away from the table and stalked to the doorway to the living room, then spun around, words pouring out of her. “I want to hit someone. Hell, I want to hit him! I want him here in front of me so I can yell at him and ask him why. I just want to know why! Why did you go over there? You didn’t have to … you had a choice. They gave you a choice! You only had another six months and you were done. You could’ve finished your degree and started teaching. Why did you get in that damn truck? Why were you driving so fast in a sandstorm? Why—” Suddenly the dull ache that had been in her chest for nearly two years arced into a sharp pain and pressure, and she crossed her arms over her middle and doubled over, unable to catch her breath “I-I can’t b-b…”
Mary and Dot rushed to her, but Harper couldn’t make out what they were saying. It was as if she was underwater—everything slowed down, the kitchen swam before her eyes, and her legs went weak. Clutching Mary’s hands, she sank to her knees, gasping.
I’m still in the midst of Harper’s journey and I’m grateful that my friends who’ve taken it are willing to talk to me. Fiction is fiction, but, this much I know–emotions, pain, are universal and always, always very real.
Gratitude for this week: Had a good report from my mammo and my eye exam and a mediocre one from my bone scan–no surprise, so strength training continues and calcium supplements and vitamin K2; Got 6 days of exercise in–yay! Building up my reps in strength training; writing is coming along; green shoots in the garden–I want to tell them to go back and wait a bit longer–it’s barely February. New toilets (the high ones!) and a new water heater–necessary, but lovely!
Stay well, stay safe (we’re in a surge, keep those masks handy), be kind, and most of all, mes amis, stay grateful!