Last semester, I took my own advice. I decided to put my greatest efforts toward the thing that I couldn’t stop doing even if I wanted to: my writing. In addition to entering a new role as English/Language Arts instructional coach at my school, I entered the MFA program at the University of Memphis. And for the first few weeks, the University of Memphis was my happy place.
Taking the new role as instructional coach freed me up to do a lot of the writing required to be a successful MFA student. In those first weeks, I received valuable feedback in poetry workshop and the fiction writing workshop. I also served as online editor on the school’s literary journal, The Pinch. I discovered new poets like Tiana Clark and Terrence Hayes. I learned about the American Sonnet, the elegy, and I learned what a volta is. I started making intentional decisions about the container to use for a poem to convey the greatest feeling. I became aware of entry points for poems and things that choices that could be made that would take a reader out of a poem. I got to interview one of our homegrown writers, Dolen Perkins-Valdez. She provided so much inspiration and insight that I was blown away by the entire experience. I took poems and short stories and approached them with a new sense of purpose and direction.
Then my aunt died. And I felt stonewalled. A month after my aunt died, my mom died. And as much of a cliche as it is, I felt like a part of me died with her. Suddenly I was waking up every morning to the realization that my mother was no longer in this world and that absence colored everything for me. I didn’t know how to be in the world anymore without my mother. Honestly, not much mattered anymore. I stopped caring about being a writer. I functioned out of habit. Moving through life without giving much thought to anything but missing my mom. I almost fell off the porch and broke my ankle. I would be driving and end up someplace I never intended to go. I would read pages and see nothing and I had no desire to write. Anything. Because what difference would it make if I wrote a beautiful short story that revealed something profound about life if my mom couldn’t read it?
As I was adjusting to life without my mother, I watched my friends peel away like the layers of a blooming onion. They moved away, went back to their lives and what mattered to them. The phone calls stopped coming as often. And no one stopped by to see how I was doing. The sharpness of my grief quite possibly was the knife that separated us. I cry, even now, when I long to call my mother. I cry when I look at pictures of her. I cry when I long to hug her and realize she’s forever gone. The one who was there for me when I entered the world is no longer here for me. The most adult thing I had to do was handling her business after her death – with the funeral home and all other entities. Without support. My blooming onion was there with occasional phone calls and text messages or just the ghost of their friendship hovering somewhere nearby, but I felt like I had traveled onto foreign soil and was trying to adjust to my new surroundings alone.
In my journal, I wrote “I feel like I’m walking around with this massive wound — one that only I know about. I’m hurting, trying to find my footing, but everyone wants me to be okay because they are. They hand me a band-aid, a comforting phrase. I’m not okay.”
This absence, this loss, colored even my time at what I’d come to think of as my happy place. Because I’d been at school, in my fiction class, when my brother called me to tell me that my mother wasn’t breathing, that she wouldn’t wake up, I stumbled across campus wailing and trying not to fall, in trying to move back to something resembling normal, returning to school was not easy. That first day I sat in class and detested everyone around me, everyone who was laughing and smiling and engaging in empty conversations about nothing. I sat in the car crying and then instead of going into the classroom early, I’d sit in the lobby and read. Though I wasn’t really reading, because nothing would stick.
But why write about this now? Because I needed to. I have discovered that when I don’t express how I feel, I get stopped up inside with grief. And I start to have headaches. It surprised me that I didn’t have headaches during those first few weeks, when I’d go days without eating and spent days sobbing uncontrollably. I only got headaches when I stopped expressing myself; I needed to communicate how I was feeling and it didn’t matter what form that expression took. And because I’m about to enter my second semester where I’ll be taking fiction workshop, poetry workshop, and creative nonfiction workshop. And with my mother alive, it would have been a complete joy for me, it would have been a happy place, a place of growth and stepping outside of my comfort zone in order to transform myself as a writer and my place within the larger writing community. But with my mother gone, it’s just me trying to shift underneath the cloak of grief, trying to test the waters, trying to find “normal” again knowing that nothing will ever be normal again, and trying to not die and give up completely. At least not until the day that I stop breathing.
Peace & Love,