Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Introvert's Nightmare

I just had an essay accepted for publication on the Modern Loss website (an adaptation of the seven year anniversary post below), and because I'm anticipating a slight uptick in traffic (from 1-2 visitors per day to ... 10? 20? 100? I have no idea.) I thought I would post an update and share some news that is equal parts terrifying and exciting:

 I wrote a book! (insert dancing lady emoji)

It's a memoir about losing Seamus, slogging through the first few years of grief, searching for (and sometimes finding) meaning, becoming parents again, and some other stuff. I wrote it over two years, mostly during early morning hours, with the support of my family and my employer, not to mention the feedback of a bunch of really smart and talented writers.

It comes in at 73,000ish words and 240ish pages. (Forgive me but I think those numbers are impressive—I still remember high school when a ten-page paper seemed insurmountable. Even my Master's thesis was less than 100 pages!)

I'm not going to say that the writing part came easily - but it definitely came naturally. Turns out I am very good at sitting in a chair in my pajamas typing on a computer (I'm doing it right now).  But now I need to figure out how to sell the thing. I have to pitch and query and promote and (kill me) network. If writing a book is the introvert's dream, selling a book is the introvert's nightmare.

I've just begun the search for a literary agent. As I've learned, the process is not for the faint of heart. Most agents receive hundreds of queries per week, and they might take on 3-5 new clients per year. Those are some very slim odds.

And it's not enough to have written a good book. You need to have credentials and a platform to catch most agents' eyes. Which is why I'm dusting off the blog, writing essays, and trying to get published in other places while I shop my book. It's also why I spent two hours trying to figure out how to add a "Follow me on Twitter!" button to the sidebar. (Still not sure that it worked - you can follow me here.)

I think all the time about the tension between the part of me that recoils from salesmanship and self promotion, and the part of me that really wants to share my story.  From the very beginning, though, my desire to tell people what happened has felt like a force unto itself.

I guess I really want to tell people what I've learned, because our culture is so fucked up about death. I'd like to reach other people who are suffering, and contribute to a more rational discussion about grief and loss—one that is honest and curious and free from platitudes. Because connecting with other humans on this level is what helps me find meaning in Seamus' death.

So hello to old friends and new friends. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more updates/complaining.

And please enjoy this photo of Gus with freshly-(self)-trimmed bangs and a fake mustache:

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Seven Years: Where Is Seamus?

Gus and Greta pose with the moon as stand-in for Seamus
There are no guidelines in the parenting books on how to have the “Your brother died before you were born” conversation. So we’ve kind of been winging it with Gus and Greta, who will turn five tomorrow.  

We have always talked openly with the twins about Seamus and involved them in the rituals that honor their brother. They know that the yahrzeit candle burning on our mantle right now is for Seamus. Pictures of all three children hang in our house, and we’ve been careful to help them distinguish between blue-eyed redhead Gus and his blonde-haired, green-eyed brother.

They have outgrown most of Seamus’ books, but I am a Bunny and Little Blue Truck still sit on their bookshelf, and occasionally they will pull them out and crawl into our laps at bedtime to talk about Seamus and the funny way he said butterfly (“buddy buddy”) and blue truck (“boo twuck”). Until he turned two, Gus wore Seamus’ hand-me-downs, and we’d tell him how handsome he looked in his big brother’s clothes. (The jammies were especially brutal.) Now their little cousin Ben is wearing Seamus’ clothes, and we remark on that, too. We hope that a few pieces will survive for their youngest cousin Simon, while acknowledging that any clothing that can survive three boys should probably be sent to a NASA laboratory to help them build stronger space ships.

Every year I think that it will somehow be easier, that maybe I won’t torture myself by looking at pictures and videos of Seamus, reading books and poems that bring me back to that horrible night and horribler year. But as soon as the leaves start changing, I start to feel the pull of these mementos and these words, and I realize that it’s not actually torture. It’s nourishment. I need to hear his voice say “mommy,” to remember what it felt like to wake up to that face every morning and feel his heavy head on my chest. To remind myself that my suffering is one drop in a vast and mysterious ocean— an ocean that has been a breeding ground for art, beauty, compassion, and wisdom for all of human history.

Gus and Greta love to watch Seamus videos on our computer, too. Their favorite is the one where he walks around the house with a green grocery bag over his head, eventually smacking into a wall before removing the bag to reveal a huge grin. The camera shakes from Eric’s laughter.

It wasn’t until about a year ago that Gus finally asked, “Mommy, where is Seamus?” We were having dinner, sitting underneath the collage of Seamus pictures that hangs over our kitchen table. I don’t know why the question caught me off guard - we’d had years to prepare for it.

I took a deep breath and said, “Seamus is dead.”

If you’ve spent time with three-year olds, you know that they never stop moving. Even when they eat, even when they sleep. But at that moment, Greta stopped chewing and quit her wiggly chair antics. Gus stopped tapping his foot, banging his spoon against his plate. Even Eric stopped eating. He looked at me like, “We’re doing this now?”

“What is dead?” Greta asked.

“It’s when your body stops working,” I answered.

“Like a bug?” Gus asked.

I cringed, not wanting them to think of a person being smooshed like an ant.

“Kind of,” I said.

Their bodies frozen in place, they looked between me and Eric with eyes wide as their understanding of the world and their family shifted beneath them.

“Does that make you feel sad?” I asked.

They nodded in unison. Greta’s eyes filled with tears but she didn’t cry.

“It’s OK to feel sad. Daddy and I are sad every day. We miss Seamus so much. We wish you could have met him.”


Had I gone too far? I wondered.

“Do you have any more questions about Seamus?” I asked.

“No” Greta said and Gus shook his head no, too.

They resumed fidgeting and tapping. We moved on to other topics (What are boogers made of? Why don’t skyscrapers have chimneys? What happens when hot lava touches a rainbow?) We’ve since filled in some of the details of the accident, but only when they ask.

A few weeks ago, Gus and Greta’s preschool teacher pulled me aside at drop off. She told me that during circle time the day before, they had been talking about siblings. Gus and Greta told the class that they had a brother who died. The kids were naturally curious, and Gus and Greta explained the situation in the way they understood it: They said that Seamus was hit by a car because a driver was not being careful. That it was an accident. That even though Seamus is dead, they can still love him.

Their teacher told me that this inspired the other children to share their own stories of loss, mostly grandparents and pets. She asked the children if they would like to do something to honor their loved ones who have died and they responded in predictable four-year-old fashion: A party! With cake! Their teacher asked me, through tears, if that would be OK, and I responded through tears of my own that of course it would be OK.

I wish that I didn’t have to introduce this pain into my children’s lives at such a young age. Greta will frequently shut down a conversation about Seamus by saying, “I don’t want to think about dying” and we let her know that’s OK, too, and that she can talk about it or not talk about it any time. Both of them want constant reassurance that Eric and I are not going to die. We tell them that everybody dies, and that most people don’t die until they’re very old. But that’s not very comforting when you’re four.

At the same time, it’s obvious that talking about Seamus’ death has carved a little groove in their hearts.

Gus likes to adopt insects on our hikes. He lets them crawl all over him while we walk and when they fly away or fall off, he gets sad and talks about them like they are friends who have moved away. Last summer when we went camping, Greta discovered stargazing. We sat outside as the sky darkened over a meadow behind our campsite, waiting anxiously for the first stars to appear. Greta jumped out of her chair and squealed when she saw the first one. We stayed up until stars became constellations and then finally a blanket of brilliant, shimmering lights over the Columbia River Gorge.

Neil deGrasse Tyson taught the twins that we are all made of stardust, although sometimes in our evolution lessons they get confused about the order of things (was I a star before or after I was a monkey? Was I a monkey in your tummy, too? Actually, I was a chimpanzee, right daddy? Did my star explode before Greta’s star?) I can’t say these things are directly Seamus’ influence, but they are picking up on the ways Eric and I soothe ourselves by placing our lives and our loss in context.

Most importantly, they know something about time, that it stretches out before and after our physical bodies, and that our love for each other is not tethered to these bodies. It’s how they know that Seamus loves them. It’s how they are able to love him, too.

It’s how our four-person household continues to feel to us like a family of five.