Friday, October 31, 2014

A Written Ofrenda, A Newish Start

In one of the last memories I have of my father, he is sitting at my kitchen table. Most of my family is there—it’s Sunday morning and I’m making breakfast for them. The night before, we all gathered to celebrate my 40th birthday. And amid the chaos of people shuffling around my too tiny house with its oversized secondhand furniture, of the dog circling the table, looking for scraps from the weakest links (my mom and brother in law), of dishes clinking, knives scraping, the coffeepot percolating, I turned to see him, quite in the din, flipping through a copy of a literary journal—one that had just published a story mine a few months prior. He was reading that story. Re-reading it, I should say. I knew for a fact he’d read it before. At least once or twice. I knew he’d sent links to friends, at least a few relatives, too. In fact, at his viewing—less than a week later—as people came through the line to offer their condolences to the family (a line, I might mention here, that stretched down the street of his hometown, Steelton, PA. A line of people, standing in the dark, in the cold, icy January rain for him), I had this information confirmed. Mostly by his co-workers—the ones I hadn’t met before—upon learning which daughter I was, always had the same reaction. “You’re the writer!” or, “You’re the one who wrote that story!”

That was nearly three years ago. Ironically, just a few months before (at about this same time of year), I’d made up my mind that I was going to spend my 40th year finishing the novel I’d been writing for what seemed like decades. I was ready. I was energetic and hopeful about it and looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and finally, finally getting it done. And then…whammo. Fate sucker punched me, two weeks after my birthday.  My father’s death knocked me off my feet. I couldn’t write. I didn’t want to write. In the days that followed, the occasional days that I felt normal, the days that I didn’t feel like crawling into bed at 5pm and staying there until oh, I don’t know, June, I didn’t dare disturb the fragile peace. I turned away from writing. I found no comfort it in.

But eventually, the normal days started outnumbering the sad ones, which is a good thing. And I started to not be so afraid of writing again. But by then, I’d started to realize something—I’d gotten out of the habit of writing. I’d spent the past few years working rather hard to discipline myself to write regularly. At that point it wasn’t anymore a question of wanting or not wanting to write, of being brave or scared or fragile or strong or any of that. I’d simply gotten out of the habit. And not just of writing, but of thinking about writing. Of spending all that time in my head with a piece of writing. I’d gotten so far away from it that I could barely figure out how to start pedaling again. It was weird. And frustrating. And so I stumbled. Many times. I stopped writing, I got blocked. It was ugly. It’s been ugly.

The irony of all of this isn’t lost on me, either. I understand how lucky I am that I knew how proud my father was of me, of my admittedly meager writing accomplishments. I never had to guess how he felt (and not just about my writing, either). Even if I hadn’t known before that moment I glimpsed him at the kitchen table, silently reading that story again, I would have figured it out then. And yet it was his sudden death that pushed me away from the very thing he bragged to his colleagues about. Or perhaps it was the excuse of his death, to be honest. The excuse of it.

Today is October 31, Halloween here in the US. On Sunday, Mexico will celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. A day to honor those who have passed. And so to honor him, I’ve decided to give it one more try. I think he would be proud.