Three years ago, I walked into an intermediate memoir class at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. At that time, I only knew how to write legal briefs and courtroom motions---authored with awkward phrases like, “may it please the Court,” and “the plaintiff’s claim is nullified by the principle of res judicata.”
My legal writing was guaranteed to put any normal human being asleep in five—wait, no, make that two—minutes, tops.
With the help of Loft instructors and fellow writers, including a woman named Elizabeth, I began a long journey of learning how to write as a real writer. I’ve made some progress, but hell, I’ll always have some distance to go. I may never get to the point where I consider myself an actual writer, but then again, many writers think like that.
Along the way, I’ve learned that many of us write because we’re survivors in one form or another. In three years, I’ve read pieces by rape and incest victims, beaten wives, abused children, suicide survivors, parents struggling with children who have life-altering disabilities, and adult children of alcoholics. In one way or another, we write about the human condition and how it’s possible to make it past many of life’s most difficult tragedies.
A year and a half ago, Elizabeth invited me into a group of well experienced writers. “Ellen’s a good writer,” Elizabeth vouched. The group took me in—there are nine of us in the Thursday Writing Group—seven women, two men. All but one are parents.
Some in the Thursday group write for pleasure; others write to get published. Count me in the latter group. A retired biology professor writes about his years at Yale and in Paris in the 1960s, his conversion to Judaism, and how French scientists transformed biology into a scientific power field. A woman has completed a compelling memoir about growing up with Mimi, an African American maid in Trenton, New Jesey in the early ‘60s and the racism of that time. The single man of the group is writing about his father’s suicide nearly thirty years ago and how it shaped him forever. A hospice nurse has written about how her son—disabled from birth—has remarkably achieved living independence.
For me, the Thursday group offered both professionalism and refuge. These people—all straight white folks—have allowed me the grace to grow as a writer. The put up with my abysmal first steps and urged me on as I wrote and rewrote page after page of my book. They accepted me, a transgender, and never blinked at any of the oddities about my life. It is a group of people I cherish dearly.
Recently, unbelievable tragedy struck the Thursday group. Incredibly, in the span of four months, two in the group lost twenty-something sons. In September, Elizabeth’s son Tom—by coincidence, a U of I student taking part in an outdoor leadership program—lost his footing on a mountain path in India and fell to the Goriganga River 250 feet below. Then, on New Year’s Day, Lucinda’s son Ben didn’t awake from an afternoon nap.
It’s hit all of us like a sucker punch to the collective gut. I’ve been to two funeral-memorial services in the past three months, and I’ve listened to the stories of promising vibrant lives cut short. My heart has cried for my friends, but really, I can’t imagine Elizabeth and Lucinda’s pain. After all, parents are never supposed to bury their children. I have two twenty-something daughters, and the idea of losing either of them is unfathomable—I can’t even picture myself being able to live through it. I don’t know how Elizabeth and Lucinda are doing it.
The rest in our writing group are struggling. We are collectively at a loss to find meaning out of the tragedies that have befallen our colleagues and their families.
I walked into our most recent Thursday writing group session—which neither Elizabeth or Lucinda could bring themselves to attend—and saw palpable numbness. No one knew what to say, and everyone searched for something to grab onto to find meaning in the losses. I wondered if the group would continue, but given that we’re survivors at heart, I’m sure that it will.
Last month, I invited Elizabeth out on a Saturday night. She’s alone—her son Tom is gone, as is her boyfriend of two years, who bailed when the pressure of the grief got to be too much. I took Elizabeth to a Lambda Legal fundraiser in downtown Minneapolis and then we went hip hop dancing at a basement club not far from my condo. The club was packed with twenty- and thirty-somethings—people not far off from her son Tom’s age. On the dance floor, as I awkwardly gyrated to non-stop music vibrating at a percussive beat, I saw Elizabeth smile for the first time in months.
We forget that life is transitory, that none of us own forever. I’ve learned that I write because of that precise reason—words are permanent, whereas life is impermanent. There is a part of me that hopes my words will live on forever, as a way to reconcile everything that flowed from my decision to live authentically. Unlike Tom and Ben, at least I got the chance to live my life to the fullest.
For the moment—and maybe forever—my ability to find authenticity pales in comparison to the grief—the bottomless hole of hurt and blackness—that Elizabeth and Lucinda now live given the loss of their children. I suspect they will write about their losses someday, giving us more words of survivorship and the human condition. Don’t confuse that with closure, however. As Elizabeth put it, “There’s no closure when your child goes before you.”
I’d like to offer up some meaningful phrase or quote to reconcile how unfair life can be, but I can’t think of any. I can only say that some things simply are beyond grieving.