My husband died at the end of January. There. I said it.
The grief lives at my skin’s surface, the ground shifts as I create a new routine. Still off-balance and only weeks after his passing, I discovered an essay, online, written by Elizabeth Scarboro who experienced the loss of her first husband, Stephen, to cystic fibrosis at the age of 30. She writes eloquently in her memoir My Foreign Cities, with tenderness and honesty, about that relationship, her life with him, and his death.
Lori: Your book is unusual, in a way, because it’s written from the perspective of the healthy spouse, not the patient. What did you feel you could offer readers in My Foreign Cities?
Elizabeth: When I began writing, I wanted most to describe the strange life my first husband and I had led, juggling youth and mortality. But as I got deeper into the project, and into remembering the experience, I realized that I had a strong desire to explore the healthy spouse’s point of view. It was an isolating experience, and one I didn’t find written about much. It can be hard to share what you’re going through, even with your spouse, since you don’t want him or her to feel worse than he/she already does about the fact that the illness affects your life, too. And there is always the reality that, given what your spouse is going through, you’re lucky by comparison. And yet it affects your life profoundly. I guess I hope I can help others in my position break through some of the isolation, find voice in a situation which demands selflessness, and be comfortable with the difficult emotions that can come from the experience.
It took me a while to be honest. When I look back, my first draft really treads along the surface. But I think I started writing the book too soon, in a way. As time went on, and I got a little distance from my past I was able to look back without flinching. Looking back at the events themselves wasn’t a problem. But looking at myself, and at Stephen, and the complicated ways we felt and reacted to difficult times along the way was rough.
Vivian Gornick has a great description of the memoirist’s relationship to the self she’s writing about, which I’m sure I’m butchering, but she says you want to be both clear-eyed and affectionate toward your younger self. I found with time that got easier. I was also motivated by feeling that if I couldn’t write the book honestly, it wouldn’t be worth writing, because I owed honesty to others who were living the experience out. I didn’t want to pretend, say, painkiller addiction wasn’t hard on my marriage, because I never wanted anyone else to feel lacking about having their own difficulties with it.
Your book and, consequently, your essays caught my attention because my own husband passed away recently. It was sudden and not so sudden, and so I felt a strong connection to your work. Is this something you’ve heard from readers?
I am so sorry that you lost your husband, and I know exactly what you mean about it being sudden and not so sudden. Yes, I have had many readers get in touch who have connected to my work because of their own experience. For some it’s loving someone who is sick, or being someone who is sick, but for many it’s having lost a spouse. I got an email from an eighty-year-old retired NASA scientist, whose first wife died when he was thirty. He’d remarried, his children from his second marriage were in their forties, and yet here we were emailing about a loss he’d experienced fifty years ago. I wonder if it’s partly that in our culture we don’t have a communal way of recognizing those losses over time – I’m guessing the scientist doesn’t have an altar in his home, or a day of remembrance when his old friends call up to share memories of his first wife. Those losses get buried somehow, and yet they’re part of the fabric of our lives. Recently I wrote an essay about the experience of being a young widow, and I was struck by the number of people who responded – people who lost spouses in combat, to sudden illness, in accidents. And yet grief and loss are so invisible in our culture. One of the people who wrote me could easily be my bank teller, or a fellow parent at my kids’ school, and I’d never know.
How did writing figure into your grieving process? Was finishing the book a catharsis for you?
Yes, finishing the book was a catharsis, but not quite in the way you’d expect. The catharsis came less from unearthing loss and grief than it did from writing about some of the difficult times in my and Stephen’s marriage. Our last four years together were unbelievably fast-paced. So much happened so quickly that we never really got time to stop and think and talk about what we’d been through. And we’d been through some really difficult things. So when I wrote, I was able to slow down and think about those times differently, with more empathy for both of us. I almost thought of us as characters, and got the chance to try to understand us better. In that process, I could see that we were these tiny people, moving under the shadow of something we couldn’t control, and I forgave us both for things large and small. The forgiveness was cathartic.
Has the book reconnected you with Stephen in some way?
It’s interesting. If I hadn’t been writing the book, I probably wouldn’t have been thinking so actively about Stephen every day, or at least about my earlier memories of him. And yet once you’re writing about someone, there’s distance there because you’re shaping them, and confining them to words. You’re also focused on the particular events you’re trying to recall, rather than just carrying around a general sense of the person. In that way I’m glad I’m done with the book because now Stephen can live in my memory more naturally.
You have remarried and have a family. What do they think about the book?
The book has not only reconnected me to Stephen, but connected my family to him. It’s funny, my second husband has always had an easier time than I have, talking to our kids about Stephen. When they were very young, he thought it was strange that I didn’t know how to tell them about him. For me, it felt like a big deal. Because of the book, my kids now hear other people ask me about Stephen all the time. They also went to my first reading, and when we came home, they had all kinds of questions. They are comfortable with the fact that I was married to someone before I knew their dad, which makes me happy. It’s not a bad thing for them to embrace the fact that life is complicated from an early age. Though my son, who is eight, wants to read the book, and I’ve told him it’s going to be a while.
Your next project? Are you viewing your family as future creative nonfiction/memoir material?
I’ve been writing essays lately, but my next large project is fiction. I don’t think my family will tolerate being written about, but aside from that, it’s a huge relief to move away from writing about myself.[boxer set=”lori-myers”]