Joyce Maynard: The lessons of loss

By the time I come to speak in Concord tonight, I will have been on the road for six weeks, speaking about a subject

By the time I come to speak in Concord tonight, I will have been on the road for six weeks, speaking about a subject that makes a lot of people more uncomfortable than religion or politics or even sex, though it’s one that will touch all our lives. The subject is death. And another topic close to taboo for many of us: the loss of someone we love.

The dying part is something we’re all going to experience of course. And if we’re lucky enough to live a life of any duration we’ll experience the death of others dear to us. In my case, there have been – not unexpectedly for a woman in her sixties – more than a few. I lost both my parents long ago. Good friends – a high school car wreck that took four boys from my high school on a single night and a gay man I loved to AIDS in the ’80s. The deaths of two of my children’s best loved friends. Then, 15 months ago, my husband.

We had met just four years earlier – both of us having been divorced close to 25 years, our children grown and gone from home by this point. The day of our wedding on a New Hampshire hillside, with fireworks exploding over our heads – as the two of us sang (badly) a John Prine song about imperfect people who know all about each other’s failings and love each other anyway – we felt like the luckiest people on earth.

Fifteen months later came the diagnosis. Pancreatic cancer.

For the 19 months that separated that day in the doctor’s office from the night Jim took his last breath, in our bed, I did something totally unprecedented in my six decades of living, my four-and-a-half decades of being a writer. Except for the surprisingly comforting practice of posting parts of our story on Facebook, where a community previously unknown to me offered encouragement and support, I barely wrote a word.

The night my husband died – within hours of the moment when I woke alongside him to find that he had died, in fact – I began to write a book about our experience. Now I’m traveling around the country talking about it.

When I speak about this, I do not say “Jim passed.” I do not speak of the man I loved being “gone.” I say He died. He is dead. As a writer, I was taught to use the real words for things. Even the hard ones.

It has also been my practice over the many years of my writing career to explore in my work topics that may be difficult to look at. I do this out of the belief that when you shine a light on that corner of the room where demons reside, you begin the process of bringing them down to size. I learned young – from growing up in an alcoholic family where my father’s drinking was never mentioned – that nothing is so terrifying as what we don’t dare to talk about.

So now I’m out there talking about death. Though really what I am talking about is life. How precious it all was. (And still is.) How much every day matters. More than a story about losing my husband, what I wrote, I think, was a story about finding out – in my seventh decade on earth – the meaning of love. The meaning of marriage, anyway. (Love for children, I understood. What it was to have a true partner and to be one, not so much.)

Here’s something I’ve learned from visiting a dozen or so cities around our country in recent weeks and hearing wise, serious, good people tell me they haven’t had the courage yet to talk about a death in their own family. Or that they had felt fearful to come hear me speak. Though once they did, they were glad they’d done so.

When a person dies, the impulse is strong to look away. When someone is left, grieving, even those who care about him or her greatly and want to offer comfort are often at a loss for words. Most of us are so inexperienced with talking about this part of life. The part where it ends.

An insurance salesperson I spoke with not long ago, discussing coverage, used the phrase “if you die,” as if there were any question about this. A well-meaning acquaintance I ran into asked “if things are back to normal yet.” The implication: that “normal” is life without complication or trouble, or sorrow. Anything short of that, an aberration.

In Mexico, they’ve made an entire holiday to celebrate the dead, where people head joyfully to cemeteries with baskets of food and portable TV sets to share a soccer game with beloved family members below ground. I visited an African nation once in which the embalmed body of a beloved uncle had been propped up on a chair for over five years. In Guatemala, where nearly every Mayan family I know has lost a brother or sister or child, young, death is a part of daily conversation. As is the person who died.

Here in home territory, when someone you love dies, the words most often spoken are, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Once these have been uttered, the name of the person frequently fades from conversation. Though not – in my case, and the case of anyone I ever knew who lost a beloved person – from the heart.

In this new book of mine, I wanted to talk about the experience of losing someone I love because it’s only in the recognition of losing someone precious, I believe, that the beauty becomes clear, of what it means to have had him in one’s life.

More than once over the 19 months my husband and I were fighting that brutal disease, I heard myself say, “If only you could learn the lessons of cancer without getting cancer.” The story I wrote was my attempt to reveal them. My goal has been to open up the conversation and look square in the eye of an experience that remains for most of us the one more feared than any other.

I would give almost anything to have been spared the lessons of loss. But I’d be a fool to have lived through those two years that were the hardest of my life and take nothing from them.

Life has not “returned to normal.” I have not “bounced back.” I am a different person than the one who walked into that doctor’s office three years ago this coming November. And though the cost was terrible, that is a good thing. Because I am a wiser one.

(Former “Monitor” columnist Joyce Maynard’s new memoir, “The Best of Us,” will be the subject of her reading and talk at Gibson’s Bookstore on Thursday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m. She will be at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough on Saturday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m.)

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