AS YOU KNOW, I teach memoir. In each first class of a session, I listen to each student’s chosen personal essay topic. In every class, someone will choose to write about someone who left, about loss.
To get the topic going, I might ask the writer to simply make a list of what the person took with them when they went, because when people leave us, what they take tells us if they are going for good, going for show, or merely slinking off to someone else. Saltshakers are a good indication that he has not got someone else lined up. Taking only a sandwich tells us first that she’s hungry, and has little more than tonight in mind.
And we all know what he takes when he or she is leaving for good. Because it has happened to us, and it is in the list of what he took that the tale is told. That’s what makes the story truthful, as well as what makes it yours: What did he take of yours, what of his, and how do you define those, divide those, when at one time those lines were blurred by the smudge of love?
But people leave in different ways. In one first class, a woman sat stiffly, her arms crossed in front of her, dark bangs slammed right down to her brow. When it was her turn to reveal her topic, our exchange went something like this:
“I’m not even sure why I’m here.”
“My best friend just died.”
Oh. Oh dear.
“And I’m not writing about that. Nope. Got nothing to say. Too soon. Three weeks ago. Cancer.” She exhaled and unfolded her arms, and I exhaled, and we sat. All I could remember was the inutterable grief it was to lose my friend Susannah and what it is I did.
“Were you there when she died?” I asked.
“Do you live far away or nearby?
“Three hours away. I got the call.”
“What did you pack?”
“What did you take with you?”
The next week she came in with a list. Actually it was three lists:
- What I brought.
- What I heard.
- What I said.
Under each were five mere sentences, 15 in all. And next up, I’ll publish that piece of hers for you to read. It’s a wonder.
But first, consider this: Have you got a list that helps with loss? While each hurt is unique, it carries within it its own identifiers that when shared, help us all to sort through grief, especially in this time of year, this time of plenty.
Have a list? For some of us it would be what we drank or ate at the time, for others what we packed, perhaps what we prayed, or scribbled down, or maybe what we cook at the holidays to remember her by. I decorate my cookies with my friend Susannah’s panache; were she here, she’d be at my counter with me, covered in nine colors of royal icing.
Have you lost a sibling, a parent, a sister-friend, whether to distance, disagreement or even death? Write your list. It would be my privilege to see it.