Lifesaving Measures

by Joan Frank

February 2016

It's happened to most writers by the time they're hip-deep in the game.

Some personal catastrophe, instant and absolute as a meteor crushing your house – something that reads like an insurance policy exemption.

Here's mine. My only, cherished sibling, my younger sister Andrea, died suddenly one year ago. My beloved baby sister – an abrupt medical event no one saw coming nor that (one year later) anyone can yet believe. Andrie was the soul closest to mine all my life. We could finish each other's sentences. We used a code-language with canny taglines. Each knew when the other was about to phone. My house and closets and kitchen are filled with clothes, comforters, earrings, and tableware she's given me. Our walls are hung with her watercolor paintings. My alto voice resounded in hers. We shared dramatic history – loss of our parents, very young. But sharing it always helped us bear it. I wrote a long essay once for the Chicago Tribune Magazine called "Womb Mates," praising my sister's brilliance as a mother, athlete, artist, matchless heart, and (for me) twin soul. A more generous, loving, ferocious champion of life would be impossible to find. At her death she left three grown sons and four brand-new grandbabies for which she had longed, two of them twins.

For a year I've felt I was moving around on my knees. The notion of meaning flickered – sometimes vanished. Objects, faces, names, stories floated randomly in space. Very little mattered. How could writing matter?

At first, standing hapless in the black hole of loss, I would think: I don't know what's left to want. Even registering that awareness was dim.

For weeks and months I would also think: writing is finished.

No matter how much success my work had enjoyed, however passionately I identified with it, writing now looked as superficial and ephemeral as tissue. What difference, I wondered dully, can it ever have made? A handful of forgotten books with yellowing pages, crammed into shelves stuffed with thousands of similar others? Lines of words onscreen, ignored in the ethersphere? I felt nearly ashamed of the whole endeavor, ashamed of having devoted so much of my life's real and unrecoverable hours to it.

For some while I drifted in a nether-zone, neither day nor night, unable to think, let alone convey words.

Reading, for a while, seemed worse than useless. I leafed through magazines.

Fine, I told myself. This was the marker, the line drawn. Now I had only to figure out how to get out of bed. Also, why.

I can't pinpoint when that thrust began to change.

One thing that happened: I found a book. A novel. I'd been wandering sadly in a bookshop in Bath, England, on a family-mandated trip. A cover caught my eye, showing the back of a young man hitch-hiking, facing an open road on a gray day, belongings strapped to his back, arm out, thumb up.

Oddly, I felt a little like that boy.

I opened the novel to its first sentences: fresh, hard. One stood out: I don't call that living when all you think about is staying alive.

The Life-Writer, by David Constantine, was about life, love, death, grief, and what falls to the living. Its pages spoke so fiercely and clearly to me that I wound up rationing out portions to read during the rest of my journey. When I got home I copied out passages; they seemed written in fire.

Slowly, imperceptibly, I began to glance at writing projects I might yet be able to resume. I still struggle to let myself re-enter them, knowing it has to happen through a half-conscious "side-door."

* * *

Of course this is my own experience. But I have witnessed it happen to others – others who've suffered horrors so terrible I feel superstitious even citing them.

The first sign that something shifted was when I found myself writing in my head about the end of writing. I imagined the sentences someone else might write about me.

After that (I savored the finality of the sound of it), she never wrote another word.

In the wake of horror, it is tempting to assume that art is impotent.

Yet eventually, art holds open its arms. How? By telling you exactly what you need to hear.

Writing sneaks in. Sometimes it's through the side-door of other actions. For me, it was simple e-mails to concerned friends. Composing them forced me to organize and name thoughts. Later, accidentally finding a book that spoke straight into my skull pushed me face-to-face with the power of language, a power that could – if not free me from agony – make me know I was not alone, and that there might be, if I allowed it, something to do, something to try for.

I had told my husband early on, "I may not write again."

"Well," he quipped very gently, "It'll free up a lot of time."

Like a horse finding its way back to the barn, I gravitated to the keyboard. It felt urgent to get the feelings told correctly.

To get it right.

* * *

My beloved Andrie was crazy-proud of my work. She embarrassed me, trumpeting the news of my every book, article, essay. But I treasured her devotion.

After she died, I stopped writing – until at some point I grasped that writing was the only thing I could do. Writing became necessary: to describe, record, make known the bitter richness of human experience, no matter how few may ever see what I’d written. To understand (in some shuddering way) that grief is a richness – even a privilege, if you can stretch your mind around that – because it's a measure of love.

I will never leave my sister behind. I will find a way to infuse what I have learned into my work. To write is to breathe, to remember, to witness, testify. Writing gives nourishment, before and after decimation. As if by reflex, we save ourselves again and again by writing.

Joan FrankComment