Danse Macabre

Have you ever had to pick out a casket for a loved one?

I have. This doubtful honor is a right of passage for many family members. The memory of this event is often surreal. Its grim reality weighs heavily on us, demanding stoic posture and the composure of a Vulcan. We fight to submerge the horror and the pain that goes along with it. If you are the one making the decisions, the needs of the living and the recently deceased outweigh the personal luxury of mourning.

For others, a staggering loss compels them to write, to record every vivid detail. They create a memoir of the event for their own release and to “entertain” others. This response confuses me and makes me wonder: is it because the words come easily to them, or is each one, as they are to me, a stiletto of exquisite pain they can somehow endure? What is the best medicine if your heart is an open wound? Is the exercise of recording such personal experiences viable as more than a personal exorcism? Will readers other than your friends and family care? Consider a scene in my own hell.

I arrive in the ice-covered parking lot at the same time as my brother. We run past hospital security and they know better than to stop us. The ICU floor is eerily quiet as we walk into the room that our mother has occupied for the last six weeks. I say simply, “Mom?” My father, softly crying, shakes his head “no.” I look up to the monitor, I have no idea what it is for, and it is at 84. I know this is too low. The woman in the bed is a ghost of the beautiful, vivacious woman I had always admired. To her right is one of her sisters–the one who treated her cruelly after my grandmother’s death six months earlier. My mother specifically did not wish to see her. I walk to the bed, lean down and hug my mother.

“You had a very rough time. I’m so sorry.”

My dad says, “Let her go, nurse.”

There is an odd, pale green fluorescent glow to the room. I look directly at my trespassing aunt, dismiss her, and turn to lean in the doorway. Behind the ICU counter, off to the side and standing alone, is her hematologist. “The arrogant little jerk, ” as my dad called him. His face is etched plainly with the devastation of his failure. Two nurses behind the long row of monitors hug. A cascade of tears runs down Lisa’s cheeks as she unplugs the orchestra of machines that have filled my mother’s cell with their beeps and sighs.

I didn’t cry for six months. My husband tried to talk to me. Finally, he said in frustration: “Lois, you don’t need to climb a mountain like the Dalai Lama.”

If you are still reading this, I’m impressed. This memory is mine, and those of you who don’t know me have no reason to care. It doesn’t hurt my feelings. It would be narcissistic of me to think my loss is any more painful than one you have suffered through yourself.

My question is, “why does anyone read a memoir that is full of such remembrances?” I certainly do not. Writing the above scene did not help me. It did not make me feel better. On the contrary, it made me quietly sad, the way I felt reading, “The Diary of Ann Frank.” I whispered for days, treading in sock feet carefully in my attic bedroom. I have no desire to stir up such feelings. The experience of a mother’s death is replayed in hospital rooms all over the world, over and over again, as the generations pass on. You will have your own death scene to witness. None of us escape.

I don’t want to be depressed. If I need to see the sad state of the world I will turn on the evening news. I am not a Pollyanna, but my reading time is limited. I don’t have the energy to read about death, destruction, and evil people. I suppose that is why I write stylish fiction. I will never describe a murder scene in one of my novels beyond the basic, required forensic details.

For me, there are a few exceptions to this rule. A memoir that recalls a cataclysmic, historical event is something I would read. There are also certain celebrities whom I find fascinating. (Not Snookie.) Their personal journey and style are interesting.

I started thinking about memoir after reading an article about the writer Mary McCarthy. Her memoir, “Memories of a Catholic School Girl” had come up in several different articles in the last couple of weeks. Her cutting and witty comment on the Dick Cavett Show about Lillian Hellman, ” … I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie including ‘and’ and ‘the'”, intrigued me. Perhaps memoir is a genre that requires some of my time, even if a lot of it is lies as stated by Mary McCarthy.

There is something about the festive holiday season that can make us quite morbid. Thank you for staying to the end of my Danse Macabre. I promise my next post will be as bright and shiny as the ornaments on my Christmas tree.

Author: L. A. Lewandowski

Lois Lewandowski graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Political Science and French Literature. A passion for life lived well is reflected in her novels, Born to Die-The Montauk Murders, A Gourmet Demise, and My Gentleman Vampire, giving readers a glimpse into the world of the beau monde. Lois lives in Tampa, Florida. Learn more at her lifestyle blog, and her Amazon author page.

12 thoughts on “Danse Macabre”

  1. I can relate Lois. Memoirs are not my thing either. Nor are blogs that journal personal pain. I guess if there’s a lesson to be learned from pain then I’d rather learn it gently through fiction. But then I’m old. I grew up in a society where we were taught not to burden others with our problems. “When you laugh the whole world laughs with you; when you cry you cry alone”.

    Maybe laying it all out in public is part of the cult of personality that seems to be sweeping all parts of society. I honestly don’t know, but I’d rather become famous for my ability to distill pain into something more universal.

    1. Hi Meeka,
      This post exhausted me.
      I have also observed the cult of personality. Should I post on facebook that when I take a break from writing I am stirring the chicken stock that is bubbling on the stove? Why would anyone care unless they are coming to dinner?
      I feel a couple of threads that I used to participate in have become overrun with the same conversations day in and day out, mostly about memoir writing. This is why I think IU is such a good place for writers to hang out. The material is so varied and comprehensive, and the posts/comments are not as narcissistic as what has, unfortunately, occurred elsewhere.
      Btw, I enjoy the e-mails I get from your blog.
      Thanks for your comments.

  2. Reading your memoir, I telt your pain, pain that is deeper than mine at the loss of my parents. You expressed yourself and I was with you every step of the way, from running across that icy hospital parking lot.
    One day the dam will break and you will be able to cry and cry until you feel you’ll never stop. Then the healing begins, but the loss will always be there, lurking. Let your remembered mother’s love for you warm and carry you through. She’s still there in heart and memory. Celebrate her life. She was a marvelous woman.

    1. Michael, what lovely sentiments. Thank you.
      I have cried over my mother, but I find that now, so many years later, I simply miss her. She did not get to see my children grow up, see her granddaughter dance the part of Clara in the Nutcracker or see her grandson who has her father’s eyes.
      I also have found humor in discovering that she tried to control the distribution of her cherished possessions through white lies. Here is a link to a post on my blog “Lies of Endearment: the Dog Didn’t Break It”
      Thanks for your comments.

  3. I’m a memoir person, writing them, reading them, I am addicted to real life but generally the comic version, my tragedies stay firmly inside. I do think there is a difference between writing the pain to heal oneself and to heal others though. Journaling is an option frequently suggested to people facing loss, grief and trauma and it helps some, it is either extremely comforting or utterly pointless, I’ve not met anyone in the middle.
    It’s been my observation that memoirs written to ease personal pain don’t necessarily help others, but those written from a place of healing, the ones that almost effortlessly chart a way to recover despite being about the pain…those are the ones some people cling to. For some it helps to see that another person has been in the same depths and found a way out, it eases the loneliness. You may not be where you wish to be with regard to this pain when I read your article I thought of two or three people I have worked with in the past who would read it with a sense of relief, that someone else has been in that place and had the generosity to write it down.
    To a reader who needs company in their grief (not all of us do) you didn’t write about your pain, you wrote about theirs, and that is why they care.

    1. Carolyn,
      I appreciate your comments and insight very much. It makes me happy to think that the stress those few paragraphs caused me could help someone else. That makes me feel this post, and the big glass of wine I had after finishing it, was worth it.
      As my husband said to me a long time ago, I don’t need to be the Dalai Lama. I will challenge myself in 2013 by reading a couple of carefully chosen memoirs.
      Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Thank you for sharing, Lois. While you may not think it had any positive effect on you I believe that these things can be incremental. One day writing this may make sense – or not. But It did help me to know you a bit better and I see that as a positive thing.

    As for reading or writing memoirs – they are no my usual choice either. Yet, i have been encouraged to write my own for the possible hope and solace it may offer others who are in the midst of similar suffering. I feel no need to do it for myself – i have done most of my healing. But I am beginning to consider it for the benefit it may offer others.

  5. Yvonne,
    I’m very sorry to hear that you are writing a memoir because of a personal stress. It is incredibly unselfish of you to share your pain so it might help others. You rock, woman.
    I wonder, though, if my reaction to my mother’s death is not unique. I think allowing emotion and loss to have its way with us is counterproductive when we have to make a lot of hard decisions. Mourning was a luxury that I didn’t have.
    I suppose my issue with memoir is if it is the only genre a writer devotes their efforts to, and if the memoirs are always about them. I can understand someone ghostwriting a memoir for another person so that there can be a historical record. Otherwise, it gets back to the cult of personality as discussed above.
    Last night I was invited to a book club and I asked them what type of books they liked to read. These were very educated women. Only one woman out of seven said she read memoir, and only if it was a famous person, or if it had been given a wonderful review. Food for thought.

    1. Thank you, Lois. As I said, I have done most of my healing. I daresay that my journey has made me more aware of others and helped me know myself better than many who have not had that experience. It helps me write believable characters so it has not all been for nought. And i believe it made me a better parent and a better spouse. But the decision to write my memoir has not been made yet. At this time is is only something I am looking at.

      And in the end, most are so subjective, that, in the words of our own JD Mader “It’s all fiction”. Our memories are so subjective. Food for thought, indeed.

      (I just noticed some typos in my first comment. grrrr. :P)

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