Writing to Raise the Dead
In preparation for Halloween, my neighbor transformed his front yard into a graveyard.
Between the lamp post and flowerbed are Styrofoam tombstones engraved for the souls of Michael Myers, Freddie Kruger, David S. Pumpkins, and Al B. Back. Watching over the graveyard is a 15-foot rubber Skelton with his knees bent and arms extended in front of him like he’s pulling up the rear in a conga line.
This week I was interviewed by Christopher Lewis of the Dads with Daughters Podcast. The conversation with Chris was great (it will be available in December). We talked about fatherhood, my disease and it’s effects on my children, and why I wrote Bedtime Stories for the Living.
During the interview, I explained our stories are our gifts to life’s party. That our stories, for better or worse, must be shared with others. And it’s through stories we can achieve some sort of immortality.
I recently told a friend Part 4 of BSFL is all about death.
“Really? Do you want to scare your kids?” he asks.
“Yes. I want to scare them straight. I want them to understand they don’t have all the time in the world. Maybe it will motivate them to get serious about living.”
“Maybe it will give them nightmares.”
On our morning walk, Maggie and I pass my neighbor’s graveyard. She and I stop, cock our heads and stare at the 15-foot Skelton. Maggie sits, salivates, and I’m pretty sure she is thinking, “BONES!” I’m thinking, how much does that cost? And where would you store such a decoration? And why, would you wanted to be reminded of death every time you fetched the mail?
But the truth is that we, the living, must decide what we can live with. Writers or not, we must decide if we want death to inspire us or simply ignore death until we’re forced to join his scary-ass conga line.
In BSFL, I try to get comfortable with death. Like it’s on my front lawn. Waiting for me to dance. Every time I fetch the mail.
PS: My copyeditor did some great work on the chapter, “Writing to Raise the Dead” ( formerly known as “Voodoo”). Below is the new version. I hope you enjoy!
Early Saturday morning, I receive an email at 2 a.m. from a former student. She’s leaving for Colorado State University in a few hours and can’t find her Creative Writing final, a forty-page collection of poetry and personal essays she had written for my class. She writes, “I’m hoping you still have my project. If you do, could you send it to me? I wrote my heart out. I shared parts of my heart I had hidden from others.” She had written about love, friendship, leaving her hometown, and about her classmate who died five days before the senior prom. She thanks me for teaching her about writing and about life. She says, “Like a toothbrush or pillow, I’m bringing your lessons with me.”
Then she says she misses writing.
I close her email, find her final project in my files, and send it to her. A few hours later, she thanks me with a lot of exclamation points and wishes me luck with the upcoming school year. I’ve taught writing for nineteen years. By my own assessment, I’ve only taught writing well for the last nine. For the first ten years, I didn’t know what I was doing. I taught writing the way you read instructions for assembling cheap furniture. Dispassionate. Indifferent. Rushed.
I respect and understand that, for some of us, writing is just something you have to do. A requirement. A chore. A nuisance. Even a waste of time. But for others, writing is as essential as a pillow or a toothbrush. Writing comforts when you’re far from home or when a friend dies. Writing offers peace and perspective and reminds you that you’re fully alive. And writing, real writing, takes guts and thought and imagination as if you’re responsible not only for decorating the living room but also for inventing the furniture.
In August 2019, a friend with cancer died. She had one of those big laughs that came from somewhere deep inside her lungs—a laugh I secretly wished I had. Hours before I learned of her death, I had stepped onto my porch to toss chicken on the grill for dinner. It had been bright and sunny and raining. A summer sun shower. I had stood watching the rain fall and, as it so often does, memory had taken over and I lost my attachment to the present world.
It’s now January, and I’m leaning against a granite kitchen counter, again lost in memory. My friend with cancer stands before me. Shaved head, paper-thin skin, and electric eyes that dance like a pair of candle flames. My children are there, behind her, sitting at the kitchen table, staring at me as I try not to cry. I can sense the real world around me. The heat from the grill. The rain falling on leaves. But I’m not on the porch. I’m in the kitchen.
As if looking through an empty beer bottle, the kitchen is amber and blurry at its edges, but my friend with cancer is clear standing there before me. She is close and earnest and cups my cheeks with her hands. Looking into my eyes, she says, “I fucking love you.”
I cry. My children watch. They don’t ask questions. They just know things are serious when Dad cries.
I hug my friend. I can feel her bones shift under her skin. I feel her lungs work hard for air. She’s in my arms and she’s alive. Fiercely and forever alive. We let go of each other and say goodbye. That was the last time I ever held my friend.
My friend was special. An energetic and fiery woman who loved people. Never shy. Never afraid to laugh. She bottled joy and was eager to share with anyone sitting at the table. She was a master of ceremonies, loved her martinis, and was always game for a good time. She grew up with my mom and became my adopted aunt. She took me to concerts and baseball games. She had a husband, a son, and a dog, and it was difficult to tell which one she loved most. A free spirit, she once hitchhiked from Pennsylvania to California. She told me how she loved being on the open road. Driving into the unknown with the windows down and the radio on. Freedom. Possibility. Aliveness.
Doctors had given her four months. She lived for fifteen months. Even in her final weeks, when breathing and eating were hard, she still roared with laughter. She laughed as if she would never die. And maybe she didn’t. Maybe her body simply couldn’t hold her spirit any longer.
She was, and still is, all heart.
Windows down just driving into the unknown.
School doesn’t teach you that writing is a form of magic. But it is. See, I’m writing these words because I want my friend to be alive again. By telling you about her, she’s suddenly breathing on the page. She’s cupping your cheeks. You can feel her bony fingers against your face. She calls you “doll” and is looking at you as if you’re the most important person in the room. Because when my friend talked to you, you were. Writing allows you to bring back the dead. Something public education frowns upon. Something I don’t. Maybe it helped my student resurrect her classmate.
In our final conversation, my friend had encouraged me to keep writing. “Keep writing stories. People need stories,” she said. And this is why I write every day. Because my friend is dead and she told me to keep writing, and by writing I can make her talk again. Make her sip a Lemon Drop martini again. Make her laugh until she loses her breath again. I can make my dead friend hug me when I miss her, when tears fill my eyes. Like right now.
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