Donald Murray, in his introduction to Crafting a Life, provides the repetition of the clause “I write…” to seamlessly move the narrative of his life through conflicts and various resolutions. Over the past ten years, I have written, reworked, and continue to write using his line. Each writing brings to the forefront of my narrative the lingering question of “Why do I write?”
This is my thirteenth year of teaching. As I welcomed 73 freshmen and 48 seniors into my classroom, I told them I have always thought the first few weeks are the most challenging because we spend so much of our energy trying to figure each other out. Most of the students I do not know before the first day. Growing up in a small town, the concept of this yearly first impression is unknown to me. I can still tell you the names of all 46 of my high school classmates, as well as most of the students in the classes in front and behind of my graduating class.
Daily, I stress for students to recognize and embrace that they control their own narratives in regards to who it is they portray on the page. We discuss audience, purpose, and voice. We examine how the content we write can be many layers down or only surface deep, but that whatever we put on the page is still us. If we protect our narratives, it is not that we do not have a story to tell, but rather that we haven’t found our audience.
Later in the semester, I share with them the story from the week after Josh passed away. A Facebook friend who had a son with the same terminal Menkes diagnosis commented that she didn’t know Josh was sick. It made me realize I had only included the version of my life I wanted others to see. In this version of my story, my little boy was full of life. I think this partial truth sharing is all too true for adolescents and what they portrayed through various types of social media. But, it isn’t a conversation I am willing to have the first week of school. Even now, years after losing Josh, I am cautious about with whom I share his part of my story.
The point of this post isn’t to stand on my hypocritical social media soap box. Instead, it is to call myself to the table in regards to what I choose to write, the me I am able to share. It is the part of my story I want to share with an audience who has opted in for better or worse. It is the me who is strong enough to show I am vulnerable.
Last summer, I completed my M.Ed program with a nine credit class which culminated in a final portfolio. Over the course of the class, I kept bumping my head into the wall of what I should write versus what I wanted to write. Ironically, I am frequently frustrated that my students want to write on the safe paper instead of a real paper. They write what they think I want to hear instead of what they actually need to say. The portfolio presented me with the same challenge and I was struggling to find my voice.
The program director gave me the excuse I needed to put into form the writing I had been drafting since Josh had been born. She told me “write about your son if that is what you need to write about. Stop trying to write what you think your students need to see.”
I write to find myself
I write since he cannot tell his story
Everyone has a story. When I was in college, I used to sit at a coffee shop and create stories in my head for each person who walked past the window.
I wonder what story someone would write about my life those first few months after Josh’s death:
Does my grief show on my face? Is it obvious a part of me is missing? Or, do I have everyone fooled? Could someone write the narrative of this Monday morning:
I went for a three-mile run. Now, I am rushing to get to work by 11, but my car automatically turns into the snow-covered cemetery. I pull the snow shovel out of my trunk and dig my way to his marker. My frozen fingers delicately revealing his name on top of the stone.
I know that he is not here, but it makes me rest easier knowing I stopped, even if only for a minute. I question my briefness and wonder if it is the negative wind chill or the pain of reality that drives me back to my running car. I place one of the solar dragonfly lights in the cup next to his stone so, like in his nursery, there will be a light in the night.
At home, his crib sits unchanged: a month-old impression set in his memory gel pillow, his smell still on the blankets. Every night, I turn the nightlight on and fight the urge to stay there more than I know is sane.
People keep waiting for us to break, fall, or crumble. They do not understand we already have. They ask the question, “How are you?” and wait for us to respond. I can only answer with partial truth: “We are hanging in there. We are taking it one day at a time. We are surviving.” How long will it take before I can respond “good” and not only say it, but believe it?
I write for grieving parents
I write for the student narratives I wish I had the influence to change
A few years ago I opened the paper only to find a student’s obituary looking back at me. I pray for comfort for his family. I am sad to know his death could have been avoided. I remember sitting with my Grandpa Hilderman when my Aunt Kathleen passed away. This rugged cowboy, whom I had never seen cry, sat in the hospital room, face in his hands crying as he stated, “No father should have to bury his child.” I didn’t know how to comfort my grandfather and could do nothing to ease his pain, but place a hand on his shoulder, and cry with him.
As parents who have lost a child, we hold our heads up, and cry in silence so as not to make others uncomfortable. Our society is not tolerant of grief. We categorize, trivialize and compare our lives to others. Our social media posts illustrate perfect lives, but we do not live perfect lives, so instead, we try to portray only the positive.
In August of 2016, my Facebook feed full of first day of school pictures caught me off guard. Josh would have been in kindergarten. I sat in the school parking lot after work and sobbed.
I write for hope
I write for courage
Joshua taught us many things about life through his innocence and suffering. He showed us our lives are fragile, but our relationships and the moments we share are what make us. I had a friend tell me “It’s not that I didn’t like you before, but you were so uptight and dramatic. The new you is a gift that Josh will continue to give you and you are a better version of yourself because of him.” I hope so.
I want to write his story, but struggle to find my voice. Emily Rapp writes beautifully in the first line of her memoir The Still Point of the Turning World, “This is a love story, which, like all great love stories, is ultimately a story of loss.” How do I write the story so it is not only of loss, but also of love, hope and courage?
I write for him
I write for me