He was a big man, my father, larger than life it seemed to me. He crawled into my blanket forts, built me a tree house and let me sleep in it, and always smiled at my silly jokes.
I think of him chasing me around the house, roaring like a bear or maybe a tiger. I’d scream in fake fear and run until he caught me. Then he’d throw me in the air and swing me around until I was dizzy, the world spinning past in a bright, breathless whirl of colours. I laughed until I could hardly breathe.
They were good days. But in the end nobody is larger than life.
I slide off the bar stool still wearing my black suit and my head spins. I can hardly breathe and I’m dizzy. But it’s not the same.
Every year it comes again, this subtle sense of loss — a missing piano note. I’ve erased and rewritten our story so many times over that the memory now is ragged and blurred. Too much clings to the fabric. There’s no space to start afresh.
Sharp edged criticism and disappointments have mellowed, tumbled over and over in an ocean of days and tears and never minds. What was once harsh and bitter turns soft and hazy. Perhaps one day even these will disappear, all the corners worn away until nothing remains.
I wonder if she ever heard me cry, holding jagged shards to my heart instead of comfort.
I cannot bear to wait for an echo that remains silent, so I do not sing the missing note. It sits inside my chest, bound and shackled.
Each early summer season it tries to escape. My throat is barricaded and I will not.
The past is veiled for my protection, bubble-wrapped in half-truths and semi-plausible explanations. We do our best and it is not enough. One always wants more than the other can give.
A never ending game played out across generations. Rules are unclear and the dice are loaded.
One day, my daughter too will cast the wishes I unknowingly broke into her private sea, hoping fragments will wash ashore smooth enough to hold.
Filled with too much or too little
(a little too much pain, I thought then.)
I thought I knew how life worked.
You were sunlight, floating carelessly
bright summer without end.
I thought I knew how seasons turned.
A flock of black umbrellas for a good man
steady drizzling grey, a leaden weight
that stops my breath, crushes my throat.
Earth rains from cold fingers
pattering on the lid
a fleeting thought of following it down.
I thought I knew how hearts worked
but there’s no fixing this
(too short, too little)
you couldn’t teach me how to smile today.
So I turn my face heavenward, swallow the sky
let its tears drown my despair.
I thought I knew –
It’s not mothers’ day that gets to me, not now. The days of buying cards for my small children to give to grandmas are long behind me. There is only an old scar now at the place where I used to wonder where my card was coming from. Like running my tongue over the edge of a broken tooth that’s unexpectedly sharp, it’s best to avoid such things.
Eventually children are grown enough that they too are sucked into the consumerism that rewards a lifetime’s toil with over sweet chocolates and limp tulips from the supermarket. It’s a little late of course, but still welcome for what it is.
No, it’s the birthday card I don’t need to buy, the expectation I don’t have to meet that pricks at my chest today. The mother-daughter dynamic is a complicated, beautiful, terrible thing to negotiate. It feels impossible to make it completely right from either side, try as we might. But from this distance jagged edges are smoothed by time, and murky waters settle and clear.
She was not perfect. Yet with each passing year I see her somehow more clearly; younger, brighter, dancing in a striped sundress of lemon-yellow. It may exist only in my mind’s eye, but that is what my brain wants to remember.
No matter how stamped upon and twisted her roots might have been, no matter what secrets she held close like a gambler’s winning hand, she blooms in my memory on a still summer day. Birds sing and she pushes through the mud and dirt to flower, brilliant and defiant under a cloudless blue sky.
I never said goodbye to my mother. By the time we realised she was leaving, we found that her body remained but her soul was already on the train. Her eyes were fixed on an unknowable, distant destination. We waved when the whistle blew, but she never looked back. Worrying away at that loose thread, I believed that goodbyes are important. So when I heard that he was going into the hospice that day, I went.
It was one of many such days. Endless activity, calls to action, demands to be met. But this call was my own, and not to be deferred. He smiled when I told him that I had to come before he left. In between pauses to catch his breath, he told me how much he valued our friendship.
In turn, I thanked him for his advice, freely given and always useful. We reminisced about past times, while afternoon sun bathed the room in a warm glow and a ticking clock provided a constant rhythm in the background.
He said he didn’t want to burden his wife any more, and shushed her murmured protests. This was the right thing for both of them, he said.
She was a strong woman, and she did not cry. She watched him with love and she smiled, because he needed to see it and she had to give him whatever he needed, now that all prayers were useless. Pain would be borne later, in private. She offered tea, but I could not delay my commitments further.
He coughed and wheezed. Joked that he sounded as if he had been on twenty a day, and I responded that life just wasn’t fair sometimes. It’s never been fair, and we shook hands.
We had spoken the truth, but we ended with a lie.
“See you again,” I said.
And he replied with a smile, “I hope so.”
We parted with a final, double-handed handshake, after which I held back my sudden impulse to hug him. It would have felt like surrendering to the inevitable. When all seems lost, the tiniest shred of hope is the only thing left to us, and we cling to it lest we drown.
He was tired of fighting, and he faced his future calmly. Intangible and yet absolutely present, the word we would not say hung in the air like smoke.
There are two kinds of people. Some wake to a pristine world of white and rejoice, while others groan. Some love the look of untouched snow in all its cool perfection. They smile as they view it from the warmth of the house, hot chocolate in hand. Some wrap up and race outside to catch snowflakes on their tongues, press prints into fresh snow with boots and sleds and make their mark on that blank canvas.
Two kinds of people. Those who observe and think, and those who engage and feel. I don’t know if one group understands the other, really.
Lumi is my little angel. After years of painful disappointment, unanswered prayers, procedures and doctors and emptiness, along she came. Making a new life is a mundane miracle that is also somehow transcendent. Lumi brought light to our lives, turned me from a have-not to a have overnight.
She had pneumonia that first winter. She was not yet a year old and so small. David and I sat either side of her bed, trying to breathe for her, hardly daring to breathe for ourselves, so afraid. Snow was something to scrape off the car and trudge through on our way to and from our darling girl. We hardly noticed it. She pulled through, and we gathered her close.
She’s tugging on my sleeve, turning her face up to scrunch her nose at me. Brown eyes sparkle and she points outside, through the glass doors.
“Look, mama, snow! Can I get wellies? An’ stomp the snow? Please mama.”
I look down at her dark curls flying as she bounces with excitement. The snow is perfect, and I picture cold air stealing its frozen tendrils into her lungs, wrapping her veins with ice. I don’t know if it’s safe.
She coughed all through her second winter, though no snow fell. I wrapped her up and kept her inside. I didn’t want her to fall ill again.
She’s still pulling at me, asking, good-humoured and adorably enthusiastic. Outside the sky is arctic blue, and low sun reflects off snow-covered branches. A robin hops by, leaving tiny tracks behind. She laughs and points at the birdie, asks me what sound it makes. I’m not sure I ever knew. Still I hesitate.
A fresh page, a clean slate holds limitless potential. Before you make a mark all the options are there, branching off in infinite directions. Anything could happen. After the decision is made, it’s spoiled. Infinite possibilities discarded in favour of just one.
There are two kinds of people, the confidently proactive and the anxious, paralysed by fear of making the wrong choice.
I think I did everything right. Perhaps I was too careful but a mother only wants the best for her child. I thought fate wanted the same.
“It’s very cold out there, sweetheart. You’ll have to wrap up and you don’t like wearing a scarf.”
“I will wear my scarf an’ my boots though. I get them now.”
And she’s off, giggling, to dig through the cloakroom for her knitted hat with the white pompom, and pink gloves with sequins on the back. I hear her singing a Disney song.
Once we’re wrapped up against the frigid weather, we will build a snowman. I picture my ski gloves and snow boots, relics of a different life, pushed to the back of the shoe rack. All at once we’re outside, laughing, kicking up white flurries.
She lies down to make a snow angel and I wish I had my phone to snap a picture of her joyful face, with her glittery wings spread wide. Twisted through the lens of grief, I can’t rely on memory these days.
I can’t tell which is dream, which is nightmare, which is real life. I should have let her play outside, and played along with her. Now I stand here looking out of my window at the silent snow that blankets everything. Maybe there is life beneath, but I’m too numb to dig myself out.
Lumi skips along and the robin hops behind her, orange breast vibrant against all that white. They’re singing but I can’t hear them, and they leave no tracks on the snow.
There are two kinds of people. The ones who think they have more time, and the ones with regrets.
I should have let her make her mark on the world while she could, before snow made me cry.
(first published in Creative Cafe on Medium, 16 December 2017)
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
Into every life some rain must fall. Whether actual or metaphorical rain, it’s soon joined by tears from someone. Maybe that someone is you. It’s a fact that bad things happen to all of us. Then we must choose how to respond.
The energy of anger and grief
These powerful emotions can wreak havoc when suppressed. Instead, try directing them outwards. When I’m angry, I clean my house. I release the anger, and I get a tidy living space; two birds with one stone. I might dig in the garden if the weather permits. You might prefer to walk, or run, or do some boxing. All are good, allowing the body to let go of the tension, and maybe producing something positive too.
For a writer, all emotions are fuel.
To make our characters three dimensional, to give them life on the page and in the reader’s mind, means giving them real emotions. The characters need motivations and reactions that feel believable. As writers, we decide what to include, what to imply, and what to leave out. And we need empathy, that is the ability to feel what another person is feeling. It is the shared experience that defines empathy.
empathy I understand your feeling, because I have felt the same sympathy This feeling is unpleasant, and I am sorry you have to experience it
Put simply, empathy is personal; you walk a mile in someone’s shoes. While sympathy is impersonal; you acknowledge the stone in the shoe without putting it on.
Write what you know?
We are often told to write what we know. If we took this literally, there would be very little literature beyond first person narrative. Stories need characters, and characters need fleshing out. When I think of a character who is not like me, I must inhabit their skin.
I need to draw on my own experiences, in order to know what my male humanoid in a distant galaxy might do in the middle of a pulse laser battle. I have not been in that situation, but I know what anxiety, fear, pain, and courage feel like.
For myself, I rarely bother with detailed check sheets for my characters, except when it comes to personality traits. I am much less interested in a character’s favourite colour, than in how they react to each situation. When I understand how each character thinks and feels, dialogue and action come naturally. And characters gain a life of their own, doing and saying surprising things. I just have to follow them, typing as fast as I can.
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. Robert Frost
Resources for character personality traits
One of the most popular schemes for assigning personality traits is the Alignment system, developed from the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. There are nine alignments, drawn from combinations of good-neutral-evil and lawful-neutral-chaotic. They deal with ethical and moral standpoints such as ‘rules are rules’ as opposed to ‘rules are meant to be broken sometimes’ as opposed to ‘what rules?’
Like all classification systems, it is not perfect, but it’s very helpful in making your characters both internally consistent and more diverse overall. Each cast member needs to be authentic, but different from the others.
If you want to make a relatable villain, she must have some trait or behaviour your readers can share or empathise with. Otherwise all villains are chaotic evil, and that is not enough to sustain interest. (A possible exception might be Heath Ledger’s Joker, but one is enough.)
Another fabulous resource is the writers’ thesaurus series by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The Emotion Thesaurus details emotions along with their possible causes and effects on a person. This allows a writer to create finely detailed and observed characters.
Suffering can become art
We don’t have to suffer for art; we will suffer whatever happens, because that’s life. As creators, we can use our suffering to build something that will show the world a truth, as we see it.
Write what you feel.
That’s the alchemy whereby pain becomes beauty. That’s art.
Last time, I talked about how new beginnings can come from what seems like disaster. In the space cleared by the end of one idea, another may find the space and light it needs to germinate and grow. Sometimes, an idea (or a thing, which is just an idea made concrete) has a limited life span. It flourishes for a while and then disappears when its job is done. Its beauty lies in its temporary nature. Isn’t that the glory of flowers?
Gardeners know the turn of the seasons, and that few deaths are final. We bury our plants in the compost heap, and they nourish new life. Sometimes they are born again, in unseen seeds that burst into triumphant life.
But what about grief?
Mourning what is past is both necessary and healthy, as long as it doesn’t replace the act of moving forward again. When winter grips the garden, and it is but an array of brown empty earth, dead stems, or snow-huddled mounds, it’s easy to think that this is a permanent state. But it is just a phase; it’s not permanent.
Spring is coming
Whether you know it or not, life lies below the surface, waiting for the right moment to emerge. Those first green shoots are tender yet they are the toughest, willing to push out of cold soil into chilly air or even snow. They are the most precious, because they are eagerly awaited signs that the spring is coming, and with them comes the promise of better days. But to get there, a winter must be endured.
The only way out is through.
The only way to avoid grief is to never love.
The only way to avoid endings is to never say hello.
The only way out of life is to push through its many winters.
The only way through winter is to push out again, to risk exposure, to seek the sun.