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I’ve been crying since I was eight years old. Blame Lurlene McDaniel. I do.
In the summer of 1987, I found death on a shelf at the Lee County Library in Sanford, North Carolina. I had been looking for those pre-teen romance novels, the ones where boys didn’t have naughty intentions and girls said no to drugs even in the midst of the popular kids. I had devoured these sorts of books all summer and had finally exhausted the library’s moderate selection. So, as any other little girl would do, I began perusing books for the coolest, hippest teenage girls on the cover, the girls I wanted to be.
It was time to go and I was desperate to find something to read. By chance (or was it?), I saw a really pretty blond girl, whose hair was crimped and massive, sitting with her mother. I hastily picked up the book and ran to the check out.
Later, I examined the book more closely. The book was called Mother, Please Don’t Die. Which, of course, meant Mother was, in fact, going to die (but I wasn’t a savvy reader back then so I held out hope things would end well). The book followed a girl’s journey through her mother’s dying and her own grief as well as the difficult transition from being a little girl to being a teenager. Megan made sense of her mom’s worsening symptoms as best she could as a young girl; she told me about the terrible pressure and the anger bubbled to the surface at baseball practice, resulting in her consequent suspension. After her sister’s wedding, Megan sat with her mother and they had the first truly frank conversation about death that I had ever read; Mother was not going to be there for Megan’s wedding. She was dying.
And when she did die, my heart was shattered and I sobbed out loud. I’ve been reading and sobbing ever since. I developed a voracious appetite for the dying genre. Through my middle and high school years, I learned about living with diabetes, juvenile arthritis, kidney failure, and AIDs. I felt enlightened with each page. I groped for all the empathetic artifacts in the words that were written. I began to live with all of these hardships. I felt I knew what it was like.
The year before, 1986, had been a bad year. In January, my grandfather died of lung cancer. It was the first death I’d experienced. It was scary flying from North Carolina to Arkansas, only to see a dead body, dressed in blue and not breathing in a wooden bed. Two weeks later, I sat forward with the rest of my class, eyes glued to the television as the Challenger exploded and everyone on board was killed. They sent school counselors around to speak to us about dying and grief. I felt terrible for the teacher on the Challenger, but I cried terrible, painful tears for my grandfather.
Weeks later, I randomly asked my mother if she had had any other children before my brother and me one night before our bath. She hesitated and told us she had given birth to a little girl when she had been previously married, but the girl had died when she was a toddler from cancer. I nodded and soon forgot about it, as children will. It wasn’t long before my subconscious mind kicked in and I began to wonder if I had cancer, too, and asked my mother if I was going to die. Months I asked her and for months I must have drove a stake in her heart.
Little girls don’t understand these sorts of things. I didn’t. By the time I held a copy of Mother, Please Don’t Die in my hands, I needed to read about grief. The only problem is I never stopped grieving. The reading and the grieving is a question of insignificance; no matter if the chicken came before the egg, the chicken and the egg exist.
When I was eighteen, a very receptive former teacher gave me Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt as a graduation gift. Since then, it’s the real stories of laughter and pain that have touched me the most. Into Thin Air. Devil’s Knot. Young Men and Fire. Books about the Holocaust, 9/11, surviving freak accidents, OCD, alcoholism, depression. The stories are compelling but they are most important to me as conduits for processing my own life (and grief).
In a nutshell, I read books that are too sad for other people. A book is deemed good if I cry. It is deemed brilliant if I can still sob thinking about it a year later. There are many brilliant writers out there.
Right now, The Dark Tower: the Gunslinger is impatiently waiting on my bedside stand for me to finish it. The sojourn will be short and I will soon return to form. Stacked in the corner are my standard fair, books about the Taliban, mental illness, murder, the Mormon lifestyle…all await me. I can only think greedily of the sobs I am soon to cry.
I can’t help but think I’ve made Lurlene proud.
Between Birth and Decay
My aunt had cancer.
Actually, she still does.
It’s just rotting with her bones in an underground cavern.
Between birth and decay,
it’s the suffering that counts.
Two other aunts have cancer now.
Don’t they deserve it, never coming to visit
never seeing the suffering until the end.
More endings coming forthwith.
My ex-boyfriend had gone to Miami for four days in April.
I know because I drove him from the airport.
He went to a strip club.
He met and took pictures of girls he met there.
One night on the town, three pictures of these girls.
I know because one morning after he’d gone to work, I looked through the pictures on his camera.
Six months with me, not a one picture did he take.
I know because I was there.
I know because he’s so predictable.
I know because I drove him to the airport.
My dog had a bone
but no meat on it
not even much of a scent
where there should have been flavor and bite
My friend nodded
saying it’s a shame
puppies having puppies
but she didn’t know better
She just wanted a chance at a real bone
but she has the real thing now and I give her bacon-flavored bones everyday
See poeticgrin.com for the rules of this exercise.
Note: “Miami” and “Bones” appear to have 11 lines; however, there is one line in each that is too long for wordpress’s sensibilities.
Am I going to kill my mother? My Aunt Ty died. Now, two other aunts on that same side of the family have cancer. These three aunts have at least one thing in common: they always swore that there’d been a mistake and I was their daughter. My aunts soon to be dead or already so. And I wonder, if I’ve killed my other mothers, am I going to kill my own mother.