Category Archives: Uncategorized
No time for a real post, I’m afraid. November is my crunch month, and we are right in the thick of it. I’m not even doing NaNoWriMo; it’s just that a lot of major things have deadlines now/very soon.
But a quick shout-out to my pal Brandon Crilly, whose encouragement and mutual shaming is keeping me on track.
In lieu of anything else, here’s some pretty art I looked at this week:
What I’m Listening to this Week
I love Morten Lauridsen; his music is so tender and gentle, with a core of strength throughout. This is “Dirait-on,” or, “the Song of the Roses.” I found this lovely translation:
Wildness surrounding wildness, Tenderness touching tenderness, It is your own core that you ceaselessly caress, … as they say. It is your own center that you caress, Your own reflection gives you light. And in this way, you show us how Narcissus is redeemed.
You know that thing where someone gives you really good advice, but you’re not ready to hear it yet? Or you’re not able to understand? And then—maybe years later—you say, “Aha! That was very good advice!”
That’s where I am right now.
During my second semester at Stonecoast, I was mentored by the fabulous Nancy Holder. Towards the end of that semester, she said this to me:
I appreciate your observations about having “potential.” I know that can be quite paralyzing. My task to you is to connect deeply to your work and let go of why you’re doing it and what the outcome may be. Try to work on flow. Work on “what am I going for here?” instead of “what does this mean for me as a writer?” If I haven’t suggested THE VAN GOGH BLUES by Eric Maisel to you before, let me suggest it now. Maisel talks about a writer’s need to make everything mean something. My suggestion to you is to try to stop searching for the meaning in your process and just fall into these amazing, affecting stories you tell. Revel in the work. Enjoy being a writer.
At the time, I shrugged it off (sorry, Nancy, I was young and foolish). But since then, it’s floated up from the depths of my subconscious. See, humans instinctively look for patterns in things. We try to order the universe in a way that makes sense to us. Often, we do that by making up stories. Writers especially do this—making up stories is our thing. And so, we try to apply narrative structure and plot principles to reality.
This is really hard but it’s okay—this is the part where the hero is in despair, but they don’t give up, and then after the big struggle, they get the crown and glory.
It’s just the descent into the underworld. We’re at the “trials” part of the story. If we keep going, they’ll end soon.
This is just the dark night of the soul. Everything looks like angst and despair now, but it’s actually transformation. It’ll end. It’ll pass. And in the end, everything will be better.
To an extent, that’s helpful. If it keeps you putting one foot in front of the other, then it’s got some merit.
The problem is when we cling to our narrative structures too tightly:
Wait a sec—if I do the trials, they’re supposed to end at some point.
Okay, okay, so I’ve been waiting through this dark night for a real long time. I don’t think I’m transforming.
I’m not giving up, so where is my crown?
This isn’t the way the story goes.
Cycling back to Nancy’s advice, it can be paralyzing to apply this logic to our work and careers. We hunch over submissions responses like auguries over tea leaves, forecasting our writing lives. Another rejection? And another? After all this struggle? Well, this isn’t the way the story goes, so something is deeply wrong. With you. Obviously.
But even worse, I think—in stories, a taste of success means that more is coming and we’re shifting into a new act. Any glimpse of light is the first ray of dawn breaking through the soul’s dark night. And so when the morning doesn’t come—when we’re plunged into darkness and struggle deeper than ever—it feels wrong.
This isn’t the way things go.
It’s imposter syndrome with the fatal perfume of plausibility, because hey, you got stuff out. People saw it. And now?
Right. They figured it out.
So every moment—every step on the journey—becomes a plot point. It foreshadows everything else. And when the story doesn’t follow our accustomed structure, we feel like failures.
But here’s the thing: reality doesn’t plot well. The writing life isn’t a story. It’s the most unpredictable, least logical field out there. It’s not foreshadowing, it’s down to circumstances that we can’t control and that change by the minute anyway.
The only caveat I’ll throw in is that sometimes, yeah, you do need to up your game, craft-wise and art-wise. That’s where I am.
…stop searching for the meaning in your process and just fall into these amazing, affecting stories you tell. Revel in the work. Enjoy being a writer.
I know one thing for sure. There is no sure way to succeed in the arts, but the best way to fail is to stop trying. We got into this whole creative thing because we love it, right?
Then we should love it. Because we don’t know how long the road goes, and we don’t have a map to predict its twists and turns. In the end, that love—that revelling—is all we have.
What I’m Listening To This Week
I just discovered “Down by the Salley Gardens,” and honestly, I’m surprised it took me this long. It’s the lilting-haunting-lost-love sort of piece I love. Plus, it’s a setting of a poem by Yeats, whom I adore.
Add in a solid treble voice, and I’m in.
I almost didn’t go to the Nebulas. In total, I flip-flopped three or four times. First, I was reluctant to skip work over the Victoria Day weekend. Then, no one knew how the political landscape would look by May. Then my novel wouldn’t be ready to query in time. Then it would be ready, but I had a crisis of self-esteem.
In the end, I am very, very glad I went.
For those unfamiliar with the term, the Nebula Awards are a series of awards for outstanding fiction nominated and voted upon by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). In recent years, a conference has developed around them.
When I go to cons, you can assume that I learned lots, saw stellar programming, met amazing people, and caught up with old friends. That was certainly the case this time, so I want to zero in on a few particular moments.
Moment the First
I met Connie Willis during the mass autograph session on Friday night. I absolutely adore her fiction. Plus, I’ve been putting together playlists of all the SFWA Grandmasters—and hers was one of my favourites to curate. The woman is just so incredibly lovely and smart.
To set the scene a little: the hotel’s massive ballroom was opened up. Tables seating an author or two each filled the room—like a maze of books and tablecloths. People strolled through with drinks and ice cream, chatting and signing and snapping photos. It was basically a cocktail party with 2/3 of the guests seated.
I’m always loath to interrupt conversations, so I waited until there was a gap in the stream of people around Ms. Willis’ table. Then I cautiously approached, stuttered something about loving her fiction, and stammered something further about how much I’d enjoyed listening through all her interviews and readings.
I frequently claim that I no longer get star-struck. I lie like a lying McLiarPants.
In any case, she was super gracious and somehow turned the conversation to politics. And politics and fiction. And then somehow, I was having a real conversation with Connie Willis, all stammering and trembling forgotten.
But wait, there’s more.
The next day, I found myself on an elevator with her. “Oh, hello again!” she said. “How was the rest of your evening? Are you enjoying the weekend?”
Part of being a writer is that you learn from everyone around you. With Connie Willis, I look at her graciousness and kindness and say, “I want to be like that when I grow up.” It’s modelling behaviour, really, and she sets a prime example. I was so incredibly touched—I just hope that when I’m in her position, I leave half as good an impression.
Moment the Second
Part of the Nebulas involves celebrating the latest SFWA Grandmaster. For 2016, it’s Jane Yolen. Like Connie Willis, I love her fiction and thoroughly enjoyed creating her playlist.
Same ballroom, but now filled with banquet tables and rows of chairs. People glide around in suits, tuxes, dresses, and gowns. The main lights are lowered, bright purple accent lights shining around the stage. Anticipation hums through the air.
And when Jane Yolen is presented—
Standing ovation. As President Cat Rambo said, Ms. Yolen writes “those” books—the ones which probably steered many of us in the room towards writing and fiction.
Writing can be such a lonely art. Jealousy bites sans warning or logic. It can feel like a zero-sum game (it isn’t—but sometimes, in our darkest hours, it feels like one). But here—the anticipation richened into a blur of pride and goodwill. We were all there because we love stories. We were all there because of a certain commitment to them. Ms. Yolen exemplifies a life dedicated to them.
And in that moment, I realized something:
As writers, we need to constantly check in with ourselves. “Is this what I really want?” Writing is hard. It’s lonely. It doesn’t pay well. It comes with LOTS of rejection. It takes a long time.
“Is this what I really want?”
Do I want a life of strange airports and con hotels? Do I want a life of uncertainty and no guarantees, ever? Do I want a life that pretty much has to run on faith and love?
Feeling that swell of good feeling, I answer as always, “Yes.”
Moment the Third
This isn’t a particular moment, so much as it is an observation.
During the post-award parties, I noticed something interesting. My imposter syndrome is worse when I have a safety net. In a room with people I know really well, I found myself getting quieter and increasingly uncomfortable.
Recognizing this pattern, I struck out alone.
Very quickly, I met a whole bunch of new people, got to know other people better, and had a lot of excellent conversation (and alcohol, but that’s beside the point).
This makes no sense, so what’s going on? I think that subconsciously, I assume the people I know REALLY well will spot my social fakery, and so I get too nervous to try.
But—if you can do it, it’s not really faking, is it? I mean, the thing about “fake it ‘til you make it” is that, eventually, you make it….
Of course, recognizing the pattern is Step One. Now, I’m trying to figure out how to change it.
There are many, many people I need to thank—more than can fit here. So, please know that if you attended, you made my weekend special. That said, an extra-special thanks to Derek Künsken and Brandon Crilly for letting me room/hang with them through the weekend. Next stop: CanCon!
Happy sighs, and back to work.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Shortly before I left for the Nebulas, I saw new vocal ensemble Vocalis give their inaugural concert. While the program was incredibly strong, this one’s stuck with me. It’s got the relentless, driven choral lines I find so fascinating. Much like my beloved polyphony, the parts all fit together like pieces of a well-made clock…
The American Grand Tour continues! Another short post this week, I’m afraid. This time, I’m happily ensconced in Tennessee for the Smoky Writers Retreat. This is one of my favourite events each year: a week filled with friends, words, food, and booze.
Not only is Smoky an amazingly fun time, it’s super productive. “Her Hands Like Ice,” “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens,” “La Corriveau,” and a good portion of my MFA thesis were all written there. This year, I’m planning to dive into a novel—though I have a pocketful of short stories and a play if I get stuck.
A more thorough recap is coming next week—I’m excited to see what I learn and accomplish this retreat!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Ola Gjeilo again, because I adore him. This is “Across the Vast Eternal Sky,” a transcendent piece about phoenixes and rebirth. Listen for the dance-like piano theme kicking in around 0:45 (bonus: Gjeilo himself is playing it!) and the ascending line at 1:55 that blossoms into a magnificent crescendo.
But also, this is the new novel’s theme song. I wasn’t necessarily expecting that, but one rarely does…
I am walking through my village
Drinking a hot chocolate –
Quickly, because it’s spilling over the sides,
Cresting with each crunch
And rasp of leaves underfoot.
It is – in truth – a little watery,
Tasting of rinsed-out Thermoses
And ice-skating arenas.
But it was given to me in kindness,
And this sweetens it,
And as I walk through my village,
Drinking my hot chocolate,
Geese wing through weakening sunlight,
And my throat goes tickled, tight:
An early foretaste of
My annual laryngitis.
All signs suggest
A long, hard winter ahead.
But for now,
I am walking through my village,
Drinking a hot chocolate,
And it is sweet indeed.
It’s 2007. I’m sixteen. And I’m terrified. I’m sitting on a hard church pew, music in hand. The notes don’t make sense. They make sense for piano, but I can’t just pluck a G out of the air and sing it. Besides, I’m supposed to be singing the harmony, not the melody, but I can’t hear it under all the other voice parts. Tenors, basses, and piano completely bury it, but the sopranos are worst because they actually have the melody and they’re loud and even though I’m singing barely above a whisper, people keep shooting me sideways glances because I keep screwing up and I just want to sing so badly but I can’t do it.
And that’s my first year of choir in a nutshell.
A combination of writing my first real “book” (Phantom of the Opera fanfic) and Toronto getting its first real opera house had given me an insatiable appetite for opera. My younger sister had spent the last year in the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, and I watched the Youth Chorus rehearsals agog.
I wanted to sing like that. So, so badly.
There was, of course, one slight snag.
I couldn’t sing.
Somehow, I got in. I’m still not sure why. Maybe Ann—the music director, a wonderful Texan force of nature—saw how badly I wanted it. Maybe it’s hard enough to find teens willing to sing classical music, and she worried about crushing my interest.
I don’t know. In any case, I was in so far over my head, I couldn’t even see the surface.
Most of the kids in the Youth Chorus had graduated from the CCOC’s younger divisions. Which meant they’d been singing for years. Not only that, they’d been singing together for years. And then there was me: new, and shy, and totally unable to keep up with the music.
I couldn’t even read it. Oh, I mean, I could look at a piece of music and tell you, “Yes, that note is a B, and that’s a sharp, and we’re supposed to get louder over here.” But when it came to matching “note on page” with “note in voice,” I had nothing.
As for technique—I had less than nothing. The voice is an instrument. Like all instruments, you have to learn how to use it. My joining the Youth Chorus was like grabbing a trumpet and expecting to join an orchestra.
All that to say, I was pretty effing terrible. In a choir of burgeoning pros, I was the weakest link. And I wasn’t used to that. My whole life, I’ve been an overachiever and a quick study. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I was used to just…picking things up.
Algebra. French. Soccer. Piano. Never much of a learning curve. Never much angst. Just trying something, and very quickly becoming good at it.
This was the first time that hadn’t happened. Those rehearsals fighting back tears were the first time I wasn’t near the top of the class.
People worried, of course. Ann worried. My parents worried. Every Monday afternoon, dread sat in my throat like a mouthful of cold worms, and every Monday night, I came home sobbing at my own incompetence. But I. Kept. Going. Back. It was stubbornness, sheer and simple—this was the first time something had beaten me, and I couldn’t let that stand.
So I did what anyone does in those situations:
I learned to survive.
Since I couldn’t read the music, I memorized it instead, tracking down recordings of every piece we did. I went to weekly lessons wherein I worked my bum off learning technique (without the mentoring I got from Ann’s daughter Erin, I might well have crashed out). Finally, I decided that if I couldn’t be the best singer, I would be the best chorister—always on time, always prepared, always listening and well-behaved.
“Come on, you guys! Get ready!”
“You don’t count. You’re always ready.”
When I aged out at eighteen, I still wasn’t a strong singer, but I’d passed the initial hurdle. Music had woven itself into my life—to feel grounded and whole, I needed a choir.
By this point, I knew enough about my own voice to realize that opera was not a great match. To the surprise of no one, my voice is very high, very light, and very straight-toned. I don’t have the vocal weight for opera, and I never will. In terms of voice, I’m not built that way.
I am built for church singing.
So I went hunting church choirs. One rainy night in September, I climbed a million stairs to one church’s choir room. I said, “I’m a first soprano,” and the director pointed me to a seat.
Whilst my voice is better suited for church singing, there was an entirely new learning curve to contend with. Hymns that the church ladies knew by heart, but which I’d never seen. The shape and structure and music of the liturgy itself. Psalms.
But the CCOC had given me enough foundation that I could stick things out. Of course, the community helped. The ladies very quickly became like a legion of extra aunts; the men, like older brothers.
Here’s the thing about singing church services, though. There isn’t actually a ton of rehearsal. Anthems get a few weeks of practice, but the hymns and psalms change every time. It was too much music for me to memorize.
So I finally learned to read.
There was no shaft of light and angelic “Alleluia!” as the notes resolved themselves. It happened bit by bit, water wearing away at a stone, until I realized I’d actually been reading the music for a while.
I learned to support. I learned to breathe. I learned to make my voice do what I wanted as we tackled a huge range of music—from Palestrina and Byrd to spirituals. Sure, there is something of an “Anglican hoot” about it, but I’m pleased with the way it’s developed.
And I learned all the ecclesiastical side: the psalms, the hymns, the pulse and pattern of the liturgical year.
But the best thing?
I’m proud that I stuck it out. I’m proud of how much I’ve learned. But in a funny way, I’m even more proud of the battle I fought with myself. It took a long, long time, but I learned to stay with something because I love it, and no other reason.
You see, I’m still not the top of the class. Not even close. I am a competent vocalist. Not great—competent. And in this arena, I’m okay with that. I’m okay with it because for me, it’s all out of love: love for the music, love for my friends, and love for the sheer breathless rush of having a high G hit the church’s vaulted ceiling.
I am a chorister, well and truly. As the hymn goes, “How can I keep from singing?”
What I’m Listening to This Week
We’re returning to Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo. I never thought I’d do this, but here’s…um, well, here’s me. Anglican hoot and all.
For me, the year starts in May. This is wholly a side effect of my dayjob. We go back in May—it’s like how academics get new beginning and carpe diem feelings around September. The calendar year is one thing. On a bone-deep, feeling level, we shape the year according to our own lives.
(Fun story: I once exclaimed to my crazy-smart and priestly friend Rachel, “It’s so cool how the liturgical and agricultural calendars mirror each other so well!” She just laughed.)
So for me, the year falls into two distinct parts: Season and Off-Season. Dayjob and full-time creative work. Museum Months and Winter. They’re both important parts of my life. Usually, I’m chomping at the bit to get back to work. This year’s been so busy that my feelings are more, “Oh…sure! Yes, that would be very pleasant!”
Still happy to go back. It’s just not been foremost in my mind, you know?
I like this idea of thinking of the year holistically. There’s something very comforting about seeing its rhythms as part of a larger context. The off-season is ending, which means that my creative work will slow down. It has to. I’ve been working full days all winter—I can’t add another 30-40 hours/week and expect to maintain the same pace.
But that’s okay, because we’re looking at the larger picture. Just like the agricultural calendar: it’s okay that the fields lie quiet in January. It’s not the time for sowing in January. It’ll be time in the spring. The time will come.
Of course, it’s problematic if you’re spending the entire year with fallow fields. That’s not the point. The point is recognizing that just because things are slower right now this second, it doesn’t mean that you’re screwed long term. As I’ve discussed, I write yearly goals. Knowing the year’s shape helps me slot them in, in their proper seasons.
The big things this off-season were finishing the HEARTSTEALER audiobook, and finishing the first draft of SING TO THE BONES. Heavy lifting, time-intensive projects, best suited for the winter (best suited, not only suited—I wrote HEARTSTEALER during the museum season). Outlining my Ed Greenwood Group novels, writing more short stories, and the odd freelance editing gig? Those fit in more easily around my dayjob.
Everything gets its time, in its time.
Quite frankly, this is how I manage to get everything done. Sure, the chronic insomnia helps, but things go so much more easily if there’s structure. You don’t have to think so much then. Essentially, you’re hacking the calendar. Everything slides into its proper place, at its proper time, and then boom—the off-season rolls around again, and you’ve accomplished rather a lot.
That’s the plan, anyway. I think my favourite winter was still the one we recorded HAPAX, simply because we were all so young and naïve and optimistic…but this one runs a close second.
Cloistered creative work gets a little…insular. While I’ve enjoyed hermiting away, I’m excited to see the apple trees bloom—for the white petals to carpet the grass. I want to meet the new lambs. I want to hear the trees creaking and moaning in the wind; to feel the sun on my arms; to walk through the stillness before we open, when everything seems brand-new and possible.
Everything in its season.
What about you? How do you shape your year?
What I’m Listening to This Week
Totally a guilty pleasure—for me, Celtic Woman is the musical equivalent of cotton candy. Light and fluffy, but damn it makes you feel good.
I wish this song had been released while I was writing Heartstealer. If I was making a fan-video of Charlotte and the Gloaming, I’d score it with this piece. It’s impossible to listen to it and not feel the urge to dance.
The one thing about listening to this group is that it does make me want to write more in the Heartstealer universe. Fortunately, I have a few other Celtic/Irish-flavoured projects in the pipeline…
Wait – we just did Balticon, though. Right? Like, six months ago? No? Okay, I guess it has been a year…
Honestly, I rarely remember that I’m going to cons until the week before, and this year has already been so hectic with plans taking slight detours, academic essays being written, secret projects being recorded, and a fledgling museum theatre program finding its feet. Nevertheless, the fine people of the Balticon Programming Committee have reminded me that I am going to Balticon. Tomorrow, in fact.
Here’s the run-down.
- Getting in around noon.
- Nothing official on the schedule until the Meat-and-Greet. Bring grillable protein and bond with other podcasters in front of the Residence Inn from 5:00 pm until whenever. Meat starts coming off the grill at six.
- 9:00 am: Researching Your Alternate History – Panellist – (Tack)
- D.H. Aire (M), Me, Melissa Scott, Jo Walton
- 10:00 am: Writing Interactive Fiction – Panellist – (Tack)
- Stephen Granade (M), Charlie Brown, Laura Nicole, Me, Patrick Scaffido
- 7:00 pm: Working With Others’ Myths – Moderator – (Salon B)
- Me, Day Al-Mohamed, Aaron Rosenberg, David Sobkowiak, Jo Walton
- 11:00 pm: Balticon Beats (Garden)
- 11:00 am: How To Intelligently Do Horrible Things To Your Characters – Panellists – (Salon B)
- Trisha J. Woolridge (M), Me, Russ Colchamiro, William Galaini, Joshua Palmatier
- 12:00 pm: Collaboration and Intermedia Writing – (Tack)
- Mike Luoma (M), Me, Dave Robison, Aaron Rosenberg
- 4:00 PM: Reading (Chesapeake)
- Sarah Avery, Me, Sarah Pinkser
- No idea what I’m reading, yet. It’ll be a surprise for everyone!
- 8:00 pm : Bars, Inns, and Taverns: Fiction and Reality – Panellist (Derby)
- Steven R. Southard (M), Me, John Skylar, Ada Palmer
- Needless to say, I am VERY excited for this one.
- 9:00 pm: Mom and Dad Let me Watch WHAT? (Chase)
- Me, Andrew Fox, Nate Nelson, the JOHN VAUGHAN
- 10:00 pm: New Media Homecoming Dance in Honour of P.G. Holyfield (Garden)
As per usual, I forget when my flight leaves, but it’s sometime in the afternoon. I’ll be around for a bit in the morning before I catch my train to catch my plane.
And that’s it! Definitely an exciting array of panels with wonderful, wonderful people. I know there will be a few tears this weekend as we remember and celebrate P.G. Holyfield. I also know that there will be lots of laughter, and many more pictures than in years previous.
See you there!
What I’m Listening to This Week
Kathleen Ferrier is one of my favourite contraltos. Lovely, warm, and rich – without being overly dark. And her rendition of “Blow the Wind Southerly” breaks my little heart. Just listen.
Two years and one day ago, I tweeted the following picture:
I was so happy that night. Things were good at school, Christmas was coming, Hapax was out and I was clearly on my way in writing, and I was suffused with love and good will for the people at Black Creek, my coworkers truly becoming my friends.
Less than twenty-four hours after I posted this picture, my life shattered.
I went to choir the next morning. This was December 16th, 2012. The Sandy Hook shooting had just happened, and part of the sermon reflected on the loss of so many lives, the pain their families now carried through the Advent season. I can’t even imagine, I remember thinking, my toes dangling off the back of the kneeler. I can’t even imagine what it would be like, losing someone so close to the holidays.
Less than twelve hours later, I knew.
My father died two years ago today. And honestly, that’s something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It’s been two years. My dad is dead. He’s been dead for two years. It doesn’t even make any sense that my dad—my vibrant, lively, healthy dad—is dead. But two years? Jesus Christ.
This may be a little trigger-y for a bit. If you want to scroll down, I will put a picture of a cat. Past that, it’s all hope and love again.
Okay. So sometimes, I still need to talk about the horror of that night. Sometimes, I still need to tell the story again. This is, I’ve found, something that happens with grief. Friends and loved ones can be reluctant to bring up the event, in case it makes us sad. Well, guess what? We’re already sad, and talking it through, recapping it, putting it in order again, and again, and again, is the only way that we’re going to process it. Saying it out loud makes it real, but it also brings it out of our heads. It gives a bit of distance, so we can try to understand what the fuck happened.
Even two years later, I still need to tell the story sometimes.
So, around 9:00 pm on Sunday, December 16th, 2012, I was sitting at my kitchen table. A friend was over, doing some rough sketches of Serafine. Shortly, she and my other friend were going to watch Love Actually. I was trying to convince myself that I could totally take another night off studying for exams, because Love Actually was a Christmas tradition and I hadn’t seen it yet that year. Of course, I really needed to study, but—
My phone rang. It was my sister. She explained that she and Mom were coming to fetch me right now, and then we were all going to the hospital, because Dad had had an accident playing hockey.
I was not overly concerned at this point. It wouldn’t be the first time he got hurt. When I was small, he’d nearly lost an eye when he took a hockey stick to the face. Maybe he did lose it this time, I thought. Because I had been in hospitals before, I had the presence of mind to pack my bag with my textbooks and notes. After all, waiting for X-rays and CAT scans took a long time; I’d be able to study while he went through those.
As I tugged my boots on, I suddenly thought of my grandfather. During my first year of university, he’d driven himself to ER, promptly had a massive stroke, and died a week later. Wouldn’t it be awful, if—if—but no. I figured that maybe worst case scenario, Dad had taken a really bad blow to the head. Maybe really, really worst case, there’d be some brain damage, a bit of rehab. But that was super-worst-case. It couldn’t be that bad.
My mom and sister picked me up off the street, and we drove to the hospital. Traffic crawled. I remember the copper-orange of the streetlights. At one point, we crossed the foot of my friend Blythe’s street. I’d just been to her apartment for the first time, and I gazed up the street, wishing that Mom could just turn here, like I was just going to hang out with her.
My grandparents arrived at the same time we did. Some of Dad’s hockey team were already in the waiting room. I knew some of them—they all seemed very shaken. Memories fragment here. I don’t remember exactly what was said. I remember trying to shield my sister, dragging her over to a vending machine around the corner.
A man in scrubs led us into the labyrinth of emergency care behind the receptionist. He had blue scrubs, a long black ponytail. We passed curtained-off alcoves, cots and IVs flush to the wall. As we walked, a curious numbness settled over me. This is the scariest thing I have ever done, I thought. I remember thinking that, but also still hoping that later, the warm flush of relief would come. God, Dad, we were so scared, and for nothing—isn’t that funny?
The man in scrubs led us to a small, cream-coloured room. It had two brown, slippery couches, a shiny black coffee table holding a Kleenex box, and a cross on the wall. That’s when I knew that things were very, very bad. You don’t bring people into rooms with crosses if everything is going to be okay.
The man in scrubs explained that Dad had had a “cardiac event” and had gone down on the ice. Wonder of wonders, there had been a firefighter and a cardiac specialist on the opposing team. CPR had started right away, they’d used a defibrillator right away, and the ambulance had been called right away. Absolutely everything that could have been done had be done, as quickly as possible.
And they’d not yet been successful in resuscitating him.
I may or may not have been slightly aggressive with the doctor. I may or may not have been told to relax. Then we went to see him. Around yet another corner, there was yet another curtain, a sectioned-off portion of emergency. We went behind the curtain.
And I knew, the moment I saw him.
There was no resuscitating. Not anymore. We were long past that. It was disorienting—on the one hand, it was just Dad, lying on a gurney. On the other, he looked so old. Chalk-grey skin, shirtless, tubes going into his nose and mouth, electrodes on his chest. A technician furiously doing compressions. Dad’s mouth gaped open a little, and that’s what really struck me: the way his cheeks sagged inwards, the way there was absolutely no muscle control, everything was just limp. Lifeless. Two years later, and I still sometimes see it. The horror doesn’t lessen with time. You just don’t think about it, until you do, and suddenly, you’re back in that room, with the metallic smells and the beeping, and Dad’s cheeks collapsing on themselves.
We asked how long they’d been doing this.
About forty minutes.
How long could they reasonably keep doing this?
They were about at the limit.
So, if his brain had been forty minutes without oxygen, then—
Then it was time to stop.
I couldn’t touch him. I couldn’t touch him because I knew that he was already cooling, and I was too scared to feel it. And so, cowardly, I stood very close, wanting to touch him one last time, wanting to give one last hug. Someone asked if we wanted a chaplain. “He’s Catholic,” I said. “He needs Last Rites.”
Tears spilling from our eyes, we wandered the emergency department: making calls, trying to figure out next steps, reassuring the hockey team that it wasn’t their fault. I vaguely wondered what the other patients thought. Probably they knew that some lives had just been permanently changed. We’ve all been there. We never think we’ll be the people crying.
I wandered back just as a chaplain began the Lord’s Prayer. I collapsed next to my grandparents and said it too. I don’t think they realized I knew more than “Our Father.” I talked to a cop. I gave dates of birth, addresses. I agreed that yes, I was very young. I stayed with my sister, who was refusing to leave the body.
But then I looked over, and I saw that a rosy red flush was blooming along the underside of Dad’s cheeks. And that is another horrific detail that’s branded itself into my memory. See, for a scene in Hapax, I’d had to research what happens to the body shortly after death, and so I knew precisely what this was. Without the action of the heart to keep blood circulating, gravity will cause it to pool at the lowest points of the body. When a body is lying on its back, that’s the undersides of the arms, the legs, the face…
I was right, I thought.
And then I had to leave so that I could go vomit. I never saw my dad’s body again. (My choice, incidentally, to not stick around for the open-casket portion of the visitation later that week.)
We returned to my mom’s house. I had to send a bizarre text (“Sorry, I can’t study tomorrow. My dad died.”) and then I called my childhood best friend. Numb, shocked, broken, I didn’t want to go to bed, because I dreaded waking up—I didn’t want that moment of remembering what had happened the night before, feeling it fresh all over again.
I think I fell asleep around 5:00 am. I was up by 7:00. I emailed my registrar, asking to defer my exams on Wednesday. I emailed my bosses, asking not to be called that week. And then I called my friend Rachel-the-Anglican-Priest. I’d been in her office the week before, seeking counsel for stress and family tensions. Now I had to explain, “So…new developments…”
This whole thing was so bizarrely scripted.
As promised, the picture of the cat says that things get a little more hopeful from here.
My maternal grandmother and I went to the church around eleven to sort out funeral details. Although my Dad was technically Catholic (and while I still am, technically), they could do a very inclusive service. They could recommend a good funeral home. They could help us through this—it was going to be all right, I had a community at Grace Church that loved and supported me.
I had cried in the hospital, but it had been like the tears were seeping out slowly. My grandmother stepped outside of the office, and then, alone with Rachel, I sobbed for the first time. And when she told me that it was terrible, and unfair, and painful, but that they were all there for me, I believed her. For a while, I’d considered Grace a safe place—but here it was, when I needed it most, as a rock in my life.
Thank you, all of my family at Grace, for doing infinitely more than I could ask or imagine. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Where there is love, God is there.
Around two o’clock, I was at loose ends. My sister had been swept away by her friends and Mom was huddled on the couch with all of the relatives. I paced aimlessly. What would make me feel best right now? I asked myself. Who do I need to be with?
The answer was undeniable, if somewhat surprising.
Blythe. Right now, I need Blythe.
Sure, we were friends. Sure, we saw each other outside of work. But this was heavy stuff. Was it too heavy? I hesitated, looping the kitchen. The answer didn’t change. And so, I texted her, asking if I could come over and escape the madness for a bit. As I sent it, I figured that I’d get a responding text in a few hours, maybe.
She called me before I’d even slipped my phone back in my pocket.
My uncle drove me to her place. At that point, I’d actually only been to Blythe’s apartment one time, so I was a little uncertain as I directed him there. But, soon enough, I was standing outside her door. As I jabbed the doorbell, part of me wondered what on Earth I was doing. The rest was just too numb.
The door flew open. “Hi!” Blythe said. “Come on up!”
Turning, I waved to my uncle, then followed her up the narrow staircase. Maybe we made awkward small talk, I don’t really remember. What I do remember is that Blythe went into the apartment ahead of me. I bent down to take off my boots. When I glanced up, she was standing in the middle of her kitchen, looking at me: not with apprehension, but compassion. Suddenly, absolute certainty rushed over me. This was the right place to be.
She hugged me. She badgered me into eating part of an apple. Gave me odd jobs to distract me. And while the two of us tend to have different accounts of these sorts of things, I think it was then that things changed between us. We were friends before, certainly, but supporting someone in so much pain and shock is an entirely different thing. When I needed someone, she was there without question. I honestly do not think I could have managed those first few months without her.
Thank you, my friend—thank you, and all of my love.
On Wednesday, I went to work. I remember running out of the car, throwing the door open before Mom had really stopped, and booking it through the village. Like Grace, this was my place of safety. This was home. In hindsight, it must have seemed bizarre. Here I was, roaming the village with a haunted expression, dodging crowds of schoolchildren. This was my workplace—why on Earth was I there?
Because I needed to be. And credit to my supervisors and coworkers, they let me do my thing. They let me wander bleakly, surround myself with the people and places I loved. Some people came to the visitation that night (for which I was profoundly grateful, I couldn’t have done that without them—walking into the funeral parlour and seeing the casket, it was heartbreakingly, crushingly real). There was a card, filled with love. My boss sent a handwritten note. I still have all of these things.
Here is the thing about death. For the most part, it doesn’t make sense. If this was a novel, my editor would never let me get away with it. “What? And then he dies? No, that’s stretching credibility too far.”
When death strikes like this, the normal rules cease operating. And so we cry in our friends’ offices. We crash other friends’ dinner parties. We walk around our workplace because reasons. And people, for the most part, are just as stunned as us. Unsure how to react, they do the best they can: opening their arms with love, drawing us close, holding us near.
When you are grieving, nothing makes sense. You worry you’re too sad. You worry you’re not sad enough. You worry about burdening your loved ones. And at the same time—you need, desperately need that human connection. You need to be able to tell the story, as often as it takes. You need to be vulnerable, to cry—and also, sometimes, you need to go skating and live normally for a few hours, away from the sadness.
And if a grieving person comes to you…ask them. Ask them if they need to describe what happened again. Ask them if they just want to sit. Know that they may think they’re fairly functional, but in several months’ time, they will realize that they really, really weren’t.
Love us. That’s all we need.
It saddens me that almost everything that is now important in my life—working full time, Stonecoast, the nice young man, beer, my writing family, my current friendships—happened after Dad died. My life now is completely different from my life two years ago. But that’s what happens.
We heal, but we don’t recover. I will never not be sad about my dad. Every December will be hard for me. The body remembers, longer and more vividly than the mind. The body remembers the fall of light, the weight of the wind, the pattern of the clouds overhead. We don’t get over the loss; we make it a part of us, growing into and around it.
When a writer loves you, you can never die. Dad’s fingerprints touch my work now, even if it’s his death bleeding through again, and again. In the Victorian Dark Fantasy, Sara’s grief plays out alongside my own. In short story after short story, I try to use words to build a ladder down into the abyss, using fiction to go where I can’t.
Two years on, and I am usually happy. Sometimes I am sad, but usually I am happy, and I miss my Dad more than all those words can say.