Someone said that my writing was “killer.” He meant it as a compliment and I took it as such. For I have no time or patience for doing the old soft shoe. When I was 32, I was married to a man I loved and had a son and a younger daughter. Suddenly she was dying of a childhood cancer. I was on the brink of being a humorist and had sold a piece of light verse to Good Housekeeping Magazine. When it hit the stands, my heart had shattered and my writing no longer mattered. I was moving into hell, to stay there for many years.
Since I was in hell, I took to the spiritual path like a duck takes to water. We don’t need God when life is good. We just take it for granted. Now I was being shoved into the front lines of the war on cancer and children were fighting for their lives. St. Jude’s happened to be in Memphis, where Bob and I married. We were living in Atlanta when we got the diagnosis from a pediatric surgeon in Memphis. “I want to biopsy this immediately,” he said after feeling the firm knot in her right thigh.
After the surgery, with a kind and fatherly tone, he said, “I’m afraid it was malignant. Rhabdomyosarcoma, a solid tumor of the muscle. I need to go in and remove the long muscle in her thigh. After she recovers from the surgery, she will begin chemotherapy. For that, we will have her moved to St. Jude’s until she is well enough to go home.”
And when we returned, it was no longer home. The plants had died, the yard was overgrown and nothing mattered except that she be given a miracle healing. But that was not to be. And now I return to what my friend said. My writing is “killer.” I have been on the leading edge of grief for much of my adult life.
Words are my stock in trade, my press pass, my backstage pass to God. Whoever He is, He is patient with me. He lets me go to pieces with regularity. And somehow I get patched back up and soldier on. Along this journey, I have learned how lonely it is being human. You don’t know this when things are going well.
I learned how lonely I am when I found my daughter’s rubber ball under the couch a year or so after she died. I learned it when school parents who saw me at the grocery pushed their cart in the opposite direction so they wouldn’t have to see me. I learned it on every holiday when there were only 3 of us and there should have been 4.
Now it is just my son and I. We are both minimalist writers. The soft padding of an ordinary life is no longer in place for either of us. His father and grandfather both died of multiple myeloma at the age of 63. He is named after them. We do not discuss this. It is way too much, way too scary. But we manage to go on. He has sold some material to David Letterman. We are both good at writing comedy. Dark humor comes into play when people are dying left and right. We know a good laugh is a safety valve. But he has struggled with despair just as I have.
Why am I pounding this essay out as firecrackers boom in the darkness of the Fourth of July? Not because I am a patriot but because the fire inside of me has burned me out, left me with a silence that allows no room for anything but God. He is not holding out on me. He is holding me.