In the pages column of my professional site I’ve posted a small selection of recently published freelance work.
Check it out here:
In the pages column of my professional site I’ve posted a small selection of recently published freelance work.
Check it out here:
I’m in the process of building a professional Web site. Check it out at the link below. If you need any freelance writing or editing work, contact me.
So I acknowledge death, accept the possibility that I could end at any time with little to show for as a writer. But I’m not sure my confrontation with death, or grief, can be awarded the status of Hemingway-esque heroism. I hurt. I went to the hospital. I had surgery.
Nothing could have delighted me more when I came out of surgery than through the scrim of morphine and anesthesia seeing the blur of pink shirt that was my wife. A craving had settled. She knew I was well — and alive. We had only known each other four full months before we were married the last week of December and surgery wasn’t going to leave our relationship behind. I had never expected to meet the woman I would marry in Waco, Texas. When I moved to Waco it was with a sense that I was leaving much of my old life behind. I wanted something new — I even threw out my high school annuals; they were part of something old, worn, stripped of life; they meant nothing to me, as high school meant nothing to me. As much as I was willing to purge of my old single life in Temple, Texas, I wasn’t prepared for a similar cathartic experience by leaving behind the new life, the new beginning I had with with my wife and stepdaughters.
“Life itself involves a continual leaving behind — of stages, of parts of self,” McMurtry writes.
We step across Heraclitus’ river, look back and see fresh water, our footsteps washed away, only the present before us.
Surgery had altered my life, I just hadn’t realized it. A whole new aspect, and sense of self. It is a common post-op alteration, the sense of detachment, McMurtry writes. In November 2007, I stopped reading a blog that had been a favorite and regular read, the novelist Patry Francis’ Simply Wait. She hadn’t offended me; I just couldn’t read what she was telling me — the story of the triumph of having her first novel published suddenly dimished by revelations that she had cancer. I wasn’t ready to read about cancer because the disease — my father succumbing to leukemia — still haunted me, and here cancer was serving out its democratic injustice at a moment of success. But, a few days ago surfing my blogroll, I decided to check her site again. There were new posts. She had been in the hospital, several times, a long series of stays, and she was writing about her most recent stay after a surgery. Her surgery had altered her sense of self, too. “I’m not the same person I was when I entered the hospital for the first time on November 28th,” she writes, “and I don’t think I will be her again. Her preoccupations are not mine. Her sense of time and priorities are different, too.”
A writer’s life had altered.
My life has been altered by surgery. But no more than it has been altered by marriage. I shed part of my life Dec. 29 — I am now a husband, a stepfather. This alteration, though, has not diminished me. With my wife and her children I feel new. I never stop craving her. I had not stopped craving her when I was in the hospital. And, I suspect I had not stopped desiring to write then either, or I had come to desire to write again while there. Helixing up through the solar plexus of every writer is desire, or desire should be almost genetic, part of our DNA, according to novelist and writing teacher Dan Barden in the recent issue of Poets & Writers. “[De]sire is what makes a poet like Yeats,” he writes. “What’s important is the struggle — the struggle that desire creates in both writers and writing . . . . Desire is important to creative writing because it’s the only thing that causes conflict. Conflict is important to writers because it’s the only evidence of desire.”
In the hospital, once my mind was less fuzzy, I read. Only for about a week post-op, the week when it seem as if I were completely dimished, had the desire to read vanished. Reading, McMurtry realized, was a “form of looking outward, beyond the self, and that, for a long time, I couldn’t do — the protest from inside was too powerful.” My experience was different. I had no trouble looking outward, connecting with someone else’s words. Why is writing so intimate with desire? It’s as much part of personality as it is some teachable skill, and most of personality, of the self, seems motivated by desires, simple and complex. It’s why style is so individual. We can only imitate another writer’s style so long in the process of learning to write before we have to develop our own. The other writer’s desires and struggles and conflicts are not ours.
And yet the difficulty to expose ourselves, must lead to our difficulties when writing. Surgery had altered me, or I was afraid it had altered me. I was afraid that not only had my body been changed, but that somehow the surgery had unvealed all my fears, particularly that I was just fooling myself. I wasn’t a writer. I was just a failure — that’s why it was so easy for me to leave a full time writing job — for weeks, days, months, a year or more before the surgery, I didn’t want to expose myself in such an intimate way. Even when I wrote in third person, as I did as a journalist, as I most often did with fiction — my unpublished novel is in third person — I revealed my self to me first, and then to readers, real and imagined, and that, in itself can be terrifying.
My body is knitted together now, as evidenced by the still long red scar on the right lower quarter of my abdomen. My sense of self, as I write each day, seems mended, too. I’m no longer detached from the desire to write, any more than I was ever detached from my wife because of my surgery. I have new desires, new conflicts, and they share a space with the old desires, old conflicts, everything that made me a writer in the first place. I have come back to myself, and perhaps I have a surgery to thank for that.
I was aware of grief. This past July I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir written after her husband John Gregory Dunne died. I had not taken time to grieve, or rather, the gambling match the cosmos was running against me had left me no time to contemplate what all my losses meant. I understood Didion’s overwhelming sense of bewilderment over her loss. I shared, for instance, a similar sense of guilt toward my mother’s death as Didion did about her husband’s death; she kept thinking about how it might have been possible for her to recognize the signs of a heart attack and somehow save her husband. I have wondered if my sister and I could have saved my mother somehow. What if we had gone to see her a day early, taken a Thursday off and driven over and made sure she had been safely transported from one nursing home to another? I had the desire, as had Didion, of “trying to reverse time, run the film backward” to get at least one more chance to do something, anything different so the outcome changed, to recover the self I had before, an old life.
The third week after the surgery, one morose morning as we are getting dressed for work — a chore for me because I’ve become increasingly disappointed by the job, a sense of failure overwhelming me — the yearning to run the film backwards, to regain my old writing life surged. “I should’ve never left the paper,” I say to my wife. When I left the paper I was so put out with raging editors who didn’t follow the paper’s policies when it came to friends of the publisher that I didn’t bother making a portfolio of page designs and clips. Then I was finished with daily newspaper journalism. Now the newspaper had become an idyll, a place I loved because there I was a writer. I missed who I had been as strongly as I missed my mom, my dad, my . . . the boy who was no longer my son. (I had gains, of course, as rich as anyone could have — a loving wife and stepdaughters, an emerging sense of family. I can’t say enough about Chris without sounding like a treacly Hallmark. I love her dearly, though.) That same week I read the McMurtry post and then began to reread the essay, bit by bit, letting McMurtry’s words guide me to my own words, and nudging me — as reading often does — toward self insight.
The four of us — me, Chris and her girls — are heading to dinner one evening when I tell Chris about the McMurtry essay, about how I can relate to it, especially McMurtry’s post-op separation from himself. “Now, looking back from a distance of eight years,” McMurtry writes, “I realize that even in the first months after the operation, when I thought I was feeling fine, what I was really feeling was relief that I was alive and not in pain.”
Throughout my recovery, until a day or two after I had read the essay, I had put aside the possibility of dying from such a routine procedure as an appendectomy, from such an ordinary illness as appedicitis. I assumed all was well physically, at least. On the Web, when I look up appendicitis, I find the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (that there is such an organization is remarkable, I suppose) and I read about the illness and its complications. Appendicitis constitutes a medical emergency, the site tells me. “If the blockage is not treated,” the site tells me, “gangrene and rupture (breaking or tearing) of the appendix can result.”
My appendix had ruptured. Had gangrene set in? Gangrene left untreated kills. A ruptured appendix left untreated can kill, the site tells me. Complications of a burst appendix can lead to peritonitis, “a dangerous infection that happens when bacteria and other contents of the torn appendix leak into the abdomen,” the site tells me. “In people with appendicitis, an abscess usually takes the form of a swollen mass filled with fluid and bacteria. In a few patients, complications of appendicitis can lead to organ failure and death.”
“You’re lucky.” In various ways that’s what I hear when I return to work, as well as from my aunt on the phone.
If I were to run the film backwards to Monday, Feb. 18, and had taken more painkillers and stoically gone to work and had not gone to the doctor and had taken stronger painkillers that night and maybe one or two more that Tuesday and had waited too late, would I have died? How long would it have taken for organs to fail? My end, the end of the body and the self, of personality, of everything that goes with it was nearer than I thought. Perhaps like McMurtry I had failed to grieve the loss of self or personality, or that some portion of myself had truly vanished. That failure to grieve had interrupted the desire to write. If only I properly mourned, it would all come back.
It made sense to think that if by acknowledging death, I would somehow return to normal. Isn’t that the mode of the Hemingway hero, to confront death and either be strengthed by the confrontation or die gloriously and bravely and good? Dying would mean the end of fighting for all I wanted of life, an ultimate failure. No novel published. No more articles published. No more rants on the blog. No possibility of another book following the novel, or preceding the novel. No movie option. No essay collection. No short story collection. No interview in the Paris Review or an acceptance letter, finally, from the New Yorker for articles to rival John McPhee or Susan Orlean. No op-ed pieces in the New York Times. All the hours at a keyboard — for nothing. Nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada, eh, Papa?
(To be continued)
A machine, and later a surgeon, had looked inside my body. “All the machines can tell the surgeon or cardiologist,” McMurtry writes, “after all, is about the defects and flaws of a given body; the machines can’t read strengths, particularly not psychic strengths.”
“I’m sorry I’m defective,” I said one day at home after the surgery, joking with my wife. “Are you going to trade me in for a better model?”
My wife laughed; she loves me for my quirky sense of humor. Of course she wasn’t going to trade me in.
But, two weeks after the surgery, I still felt defective, dead, my old self excised along with my appendix. I still lacked purpose, though after two weeks the desire to read had returned — I picked up Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice about midway through, the point where I had stopped reading a week earlier — and a fresh bag of coffee made mornings lively again. Daily routines were recaptured. Except one. The desire to write seemed fragmented. Lost was the sudden inspiration I had in the hospital bed. Not even a book on building a freelance business inspired me. In that two weeks after my surgery, the longest blog post I’d written was a 92-word paragraph on Mark Bowden’s Blackhawk Down, an uninspired fragment. The breath writing had given me for more than two and a half decades seemed knocked out.
Larry McMurtry seems a guru of sorts, his essay leading me to more possibilities as to why I felt unable to write. Grief. A sense of grief for a lost self, or a grief not fully realized. I was aware of grief, however. My Aug. 1, 2006 blog post contemplates what my father might have felt as he lay dying in the hospital. Almost two years after my father died, I was still haunted by that death. I was not there in the hospital at the moment of his death. I was there several hours before, watching his kidneys fail, his blood rinsing his catheter, and at the same time me and my family — sister, aunt, uncle — gathered in a circle with my father’s pastor, forced into a prayer to a god long dead in my heart and mind. I knew then death was coming.
I didn’t know my mom would be the next to go. A year and a month to the day after my father’s death, around 7:30 in the morning, my sister calls me. “Mom passed,” she says. Mom dead in the ER, my aunt — her sister — holding her hand at her last breath, me half an hour away, my sister more than an hour. I felt bewildered then. I was still bewildered almost two years later when I wrote a simple declarative sentence in my journal: “I want my mom back.”
No one in my family died in 2006. It seemed a brief respite, a break from grief. That March after a drawn out legal battle with my dad’s new family over a trailer house, a beat up van and an old pickup, my sister and I received a small inheritance from my father’s estate. I changed jobs, able to quit the paper that August — I felt secure enough for the first time in my financial life to take a chance and accept a position as an adjunct writing instructor at McClennan Community College in Waco. A full class load — and I had wanted to teach writing since graduate school, when I never was able to pick up a graduate teaching assistantship. And then I’m blindsided.
The cop knocks on my front door the first weekend of November. That knock would surgically excise a part of my identity permanently.
When the cop knocks the boy is asleep on my bed. I let the cop in when he asks if the boy is there. My son is there, asleep since his mother brought him over that morning before she went to work. The cop checks the boy over for bruises.
At some point over the course of the next week and the next and over the next month and into the new year I get the story pieced together. My son’s mother left him home alone for hours, claiming she couldn’t find a sitter — I was at my apartment a mile or so away, had left only once that day to do laundry. I had been available — had she called. The boy is 9, but autistic and unable to take care of himself.
Nine years earlier I had not taken a DNA test. I had wanted a child, even if that child was with a woman I no longer loved, and had not questioned his parentage. The only way I could possibly claim the boy I believed to be my son was to take a DNA test. The envelope from DNA Diagnostic Center in Ohio is stamped Jan. 5, the DNA test report inside. My eyes scan the report, a single sheet — not making much sense of the list of allele sizes in the middle of the page — to the paragraph below the numerical data. “The probability of paternity is 0 percent,” the last sentence of that paragraph reads. A sentence has stripped me of an identity, of a part of myself, as much as death had stripped me of my parents.
One weekend earlier only one class had made for the spring semester. I lost my identity as a teacher, and eventually as an employed, viable person with a savings account. Chunks of me, of many selves — son, father, teacher, professional writer and editor — were floating around like chum in the shark-infested waters of a bad soap opera script. I waited to be rent into nothing.
(To be continued)