I teach a writing workshop here on the Vineyard and often I begin the class by saying: “We are alchemists. We can turn garbage into gold. We can take what happened to us, the trauma, the hurts, the tiny murders, and we can transform them into something beautiful. But the most important thing we have to do first is, we have to feel them. You can’t skip the pain part.”
That’s how I used to begin.
Until my son Dan died.
Dan had gotten diabetes when he was nine months old and then at 22 he was diagnosed with MS. He wrestled with every side effect and slowly deteriorated in front of my eyes. He held on for 16 years and we watched as he went from rage to constant questioning (why me? why me?) to total acceptance.
Soon after we lost Dan, I woke up with a mild backache and joked, Dan’s got my back. And then I was flat on the floor unable to move. I took Advil, I got acupuncture, I got chiropractic therapy, I used ice, I used heat, I even hung upside down. And still the pain persisted. On about the 15th day, I got it. Oh, you mean I have to grieve? Me . . . the teacher? You mean I can’t skip the pain part?
It’s so funny how no matter how much you know intellectually you don’t know anything until you actually experience it.
There was once a cartoon in The New Yorker. There were two doors. Over the first door it said Lecture on Heaven. And there was a line around the block. The second door said Heaven. And there was no one there.
So now I was taking my own workshop. And I laughed and I sobbed and I rolled my eyes at myself and I cried some more. And after three months my backache was gone.
It’s never over, the sorrow. But I know that if you try to avoid it, it will find its way into your life somehow.
So even though my back was mended, my heart still hurt. For the whole next year I played Send in the Clowns and wept. I fell into people’s arms in the middle of Cronig’s, I lit candles, I tried to read the Tibetan Book of the Dead. But mostly I stayed very still and felt my broken heart.
At one point after it was clear that Dan had completely surrendered to his situation, I remember having this conversation with him. I said, okay, I got one for ya: You can’t walk, you can’t feed yourself, you’re in diapers, you have two bedsores the size of golf balls and now you’re having trouble swallowing. I just want to know, why you? He looked me straight in the eye, there was a pause and then he said, why not me?
I called my husband and we both said, wow!
Because of his hard-earned wisdom and my shattered soul I have a real understanding, a deeper piece of life’s puzzle, so that these days when I begin the workshop with that small speech: “We are alchemists . . . we can turn garbage into gold,” I finally know what I’m talking about.
Gazette contributor Nancy Slonim Aronie received the Derek Bok Teacher of the Year award for the three years she taught writing at Harvard University. She is a commentator for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and teaches the Chilmark Writing workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. Her book, Writing From the Heart; Finding Your Own Voice (Hyperion/Little Brown) will be released as an e-book this spring.