Opening a vein

My office with the desk Richard built to fit into the bay of windows overlooking the kitchen garden, town and the mountains.

Every evening for the past few, I’ve thought: I need to write a blog post. So I get my laptop and hit the couch, back leaning against one arm, feet against the other. And my brain quits. No words come.

I am writing, just not blog posts. Every morning after a considerable amount of procrastination (Yes, I really do need to hang the laundry out on the line, empty the dishwasher and obsessively read Google news.) I head into my office, sit at my desk and open the file containing the draft of my new memoir, which I call Bless the Birds, and start writing.

Writing every day is really not hard, as sportswriter Walter Wellesly “Red” Smith famously said (according to columnist Walter Winchell), “You just sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

That’s about right for this particular memoir. It’s blinkin’ hard and painful work to relive the journey Richard and I walked with his brain cancer. But to find the story–the part that matters beyond my skin boundary–in the jumble of memories, I have to go back and be there. I can’t just skim the surface; I have to immerse myself.

Richard’s sketch for a Craftsman-style pergola and bridge to frame a front entryway.

I’m fortunate to be able to draw on an abundance of data: my daily journal, though sometimes I learn more from what it doesn’t say about the hardest stuff; my blog posts and photographs; Richard’s sporadic journals, handwritten in his precise printing; a banker’s box full of his papers including sketches for sculpture projects, his appointment records, test reports, medication information, the daily charts he kept of his meds and supplements; notes I and others wrote him, and cards he received.

It’s helpful to have so much to draw on to remind me of details I’ve forgotten, or correct my sometimes muddled impression of what happened in what order. It’s also potentially paralyzing. I could spend months–no, years–reading everything, and stuff my head so full I’d be tapada, literally “blocked” in the, um, very physical sense, completely unable to write.

Richard juggles after the removal of his right temporal lobe in his second brain surgery.

What works best for me is to balance the research–delving into the sources mentioned above–with writing. I read through those data until I can hear the story forming in my head, and then I write. If I get to a point where I’m not sure of the details, I either stop and hunt for them, or if the writing’s on a roll, I make a note [typed in italics with brackets around it] right in the manuscript and keep going until my energy is gone.

Right now I’m in a particularly hard part of our brain-cancer journey, and submitting to the writing every day feels like I’m voluntarily pressing on a deep and very painful bruise. Opening a vein might just be easier. I’ve written about 56,000 words and I think I’m more than halfway through.

Why write if it’s so hard? Because it’s what I do best, my way of loving the world. And as I’ve said before, my intention is to live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, to freely offer that gift of love. (Thanks to Mary-Chapin Carpenter for the line in “Goodnight America” that inspired my intention: “dreaming with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand.”)

My love and me on our last trip.

Bless the Birds is a love story; it’s about loving life and those I share it with, even through death. While writing it is incredibly hard, it’s also enormously satisfying. I’m weaving in Richard’s voice from his scattered writings, so it feels in some ways like a continuation of our journey of almost 29 years together.

So does my other project, the trim carpentry, in which I’m finishing work he intended to get to and never did.

Between the grueling emotional and creative work of the writing and the hard physical–and also creative–work of carpentry, I end each day wrung out. I don’t get much else done. That’s okay, I guess. I’m doing what I need to do. With love. That’s what really counts, isn’t it?

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