On Being Stubborn, On Celebrating Life, On Teaching

I will admit. I am a stubborn writer.

I will fight and fight and fight what I am meant to write sometimes until I am drawing at straws for any other single topic.

All without realizing I’m doing it.

So as my senior honors class and I began our writing adventure (otherwise known as ENGL 101), I decided that I was determined to stick to the same schedule and time-frame for writing the assignments this year. We shared our ideas for topics for this first paper on Wednesday and everything on my list was very plausible for the assignment.

The signs from a frustrated muse seem to come out in my conversations in such a way that everyone BUT me knows what I’m meant to write before I realize it.

The stuff I fight writing is often the stuff I find most personal. Not off limits for conversation, but somehow it seems too strong for writing. It’s also the stuff that usually leads to my best writing because it means so much to me that I don’t want to screw it up.

I actually pitched my list of topics that will get filed away for later papers (I really have a desire to write about Dorothea Dix – but it will wait for the next one) to my dad on Tuesday night over the phone. And even our topic of conversation kept gravitating to what was on my mind, what I had so much more to say about: my brother.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Every year for the last seventeen he and I have had similar conversations about my younger brother Matt as his birthday approached. The where-would-he-be, the what-would-he-be-like, the where-should-we-celebrate-his-birthday-dinner conversations.

Then he made a comment that I had never heard before. Something about going out to see what might be out on Matt’s grave now, that there’s always something interesting. “I wouldn’t know, Dad. I don’t go there.”

He seemed kind of surprised, I think. Not judgmental. After years as a minister, he knows that we all have our own ways of dealing with loss. We all handle anniversaries and memories differently. I explained that there is nothing for me there to bring back the memories I have of my brother. I only remember standing there the day that he, my mother, and I buried a tiny little box that couldn’t possibly (at least not in my nineteen-year-old mind) hold any part of my brother who had only a month or so before that day towered over me at better than six feet tall. His name was on the stone, his remains in that box that we left behind there that day, but I couldn’t really connect that place with him. Only once since then do I really remember going there. My son was getting big enough to ask about his Uncle Matt that he’d never get to meet and I decided to take him on a whim. He seemed more confused than ever and I left feeling vaguely empty and upset because all I could focus on was the fact that my son would never meet my brother.  Not one story about Matt himself could come to mind.

“No,” I explained, “I’m far happier to remember Matt when he was alive, not the end.”

“Maybe that’s what you’re supposed to be writing about then.”

I shrugged it off.

Still fighting.

But the suggestion chewed on my conscience all the next day. As I conferenced with my students about their topics and how they might go about drafting their papers. As I heard a song on the radio that Matt and I liked. As I saw the smirk on my son’s face that looks so much like Matt’s.

Okay. I get it.

But where and what would the purpose be?

Fast forward to Friday’s birthday dinner with my parents. No sooner had we placed our orders than my parents recognized one of the other diners: Mr. Campbell, Matt’s English teacher.

A particularly happy memory lit up in my brain. A phone call from my brother while I was at college. Matt wasn’t one to talk in exclamation points, but he did that day.

“Guess what happened today!”

“Uh…I don’t know! What happened?!” I said, mocking him in my best big sister fashion. I figured it would be about a girl. Or something else for his attic “apartment” in the parsonage.

“I got to start my motorcycle! IN school!”

He went on to recount how he’d had to do a how-to speech in class and he had decided to demonstrate how to start a motorcycle. He’d figured they’d go out to the parking lot for his speech, but he’d gotten to wheel it into the classroom.

“And at the end, he told me to start it! IN school!”

(Lest anyone worry, it was only on for a couple of seconds. Just long enough to get some laughs.)

And that’s when I remembered why I remembered so much of his speech and that conversation: Mr. Campbell had videotaped it. And after Matt suddenly died while riding that same motorcycle, Mr. Campbell went into his classroom that July to locate his speech on the tapes that were there, copied it, and delivered it to the house.

My parents went over to chat with him but I purposely stayed behind knowing the conversation would turn into something so much longer and more involved than saying hello. And a letter thanking him for what he did began to form in my head. Something far more involved than the thank you note we wrote him seventeen years ago for the VHS tape he brought us.

What he gave us was an opportunity to give a glimpse of my brother – the Matt not just of our stories and memories, but moving, talking, laughing, smirking – so that we can share it with my son.

So my writing list gets longer and longer. :)

So it was amidst all of these thoughts swirling through my head and scribblings in my writer’s notebook that I opened the Nerdy Book Club blog to see Cathy Blackler’s beautiful and deeply personal review of The Fault in Our Stars. Near the end she writes, “There are no guarantees in life, we do not choose who we connect with or even who we love.  We are not perfect, but yet we are here.”

Something tells me that line will stick with me for as long as the novel because it is so true.

We aren’t perfect. We are still here even though Matt is not. Life goes on, but even the living can reflect and recall with smiles (with and without tears) the little moments of life that make the ones we have loved, the ones we have connected with so darned important to us.

And introducing my son to his uncle’s impish smile (the same one he does without having to imitate anyone) on that video will give him a glimpse of one of the billions of memories his mama has and looks forward to sharing as he grows up.

For the record, I’m still working on that crappy first draft that’s due Monday. When it’s done, I think it will have more to do with Mr. Campbell and Matt than dealing with grief. But even in writing, there are no guarantees.

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12 thoughts on “On Being Stubborn, On Celebrating Life, On Teaching

  1. Cindy…
    Love this post. I, too, struggle with writing the personal stuff when I know others might read it. I end up doing quite a bit of prewriting, but never sitting down to put it on paper, even though I know I should.

    • I write it. I just don’t share it much.
      Maybe it’s too soon to write about. I didn’t write about anything dealing with Matt for a long time. And then I would write for myself and not share it. You’ll know when you’re ready. *hugs*

    • Thank you for sharing what you did. Dad and I have spent a lot of time talking about TFiOS since we finished it. In fact, I write so much more about that in beginning drafts of this post but I decided to cut them out. Maybe I’ll find a way to post some of that later.

    • Goodness, her whole post has been haunting my thoughts all weekend in the best way possible. Such is the case with good writing, isn’t it? Thank you so much, Lee Ann.

    • Thank you. I have to say, the positive responses I have had here and on Facebook and on Twitter have another post brewing in my head. This is more teacher-y. Stay tuned. Your comment ties in really nicely with what’s getting drafted. :)

  2. I don’t put myself “out there” when I write. I wonder if I’m just afraid to think too deeply about it, or if it’s that I don’t really want to share some things with others.

    I was checking my Twitter feed today when I came across your tweet about your post. “Intriguing,” I thought, and scrolled on. Scrolled back. Read it.

    I have to admit, I shed some tears while reading your post. As I very briefly mentioned in my “Top Ten books” post a few weeks ago, my brother also died young. It was … wow… almost 9 years ago. A story so many families share – “good kid” with some bad choices that eventually cost him his life. I think I avoid thinking about it because it’s like picking at a wound that won’t ever heal. I guess it’s not supposed to heal, yes?

    My oldest son, Connor, is almost 10 now (he was just a baby when my brother died). Every once in a while he asks a question about the man who shares his birthday – the uncle he never got to know. I’m sitting across from him right now (he’s working on writing homework on the other end of the kitchen table) so I’m trying to keep my emotions in check. I do know that my brother would want my kids to know about his good times. The amazingly gentle, sensitive, artistic man that he was. He’d give a friend the shirt off his back (literally – he often had a very limited wardrobe for that very reason). Heck, he’d give that same shirt to a stranger. But he got caught up in a lifestyle that included drugs, and he never managed to get himself out. Hopefully his life and death will help me keep my own boys out of that trap. I’d like to think David would be pleased.

    Thanks for sharing your story – and helping me remember that the wounds do need to be picked at from time to time. Memories of those we love should never be forgotten.

    • We share that story also, Maria. My brother-in-law passed away after a long history of poor choices when B was a toddler. He doesn’t really remember him much either so we have the honor and responsibility of sharing about both uncles with him as he grows up. He has so much to learn from the stories about their lives that I really want to start writing down memories and encourage my husband and our parents to contribute. I know that my brother-in-law would be so supportive of this – I remember a conversation with him about how he wanted to go in and speak with students at my school during their “drug project” as a former addict to warn them against making the decisions that he had made. The sad part is that he never got the chance.
      I intend to share the good and the bad, to give him a better picture of who they were. The writing gives me the space to think carefully about what I want to say and how I want to say it. Maybe now is the time to start thinking about that. I’m sure your son would appreciate it.

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