70,000 Words

Earlier this month, I took a Memoirs 101 online class with the Writer’s League of Texas. The instructor emphasized structure and form, both of which feel like high ideals for the random assortment of memories that are currently cobbled together in a massive Word document that takes forever to open on my laptop.

I should be writing right now. My baby girl is napping and this is my chance to add to that document. Or maybe to polish it. Instead, I’ve procrastinated by cleaning both of the bathrooms in my house. It needed to be done, but still.

I sat down to write but I’m still thinking about one of the instructor’s closing thoughts. She shared, at the end of her presentation, that memoirs can take different formats. They can be anything from a short essay of 2,000 words to a full book of approximately 70,000 words.

That massive Word document on my laptop currently has 71,917 words and it does not yet feel complete. Instead of inspiring me to edit and economize, this little fact has debilitated me. It has left me paralyzed.

I am not usually one that speaks or writes at great length. My sermons are always short. I can barely manage to preach for 15 minutes and am completely and totally flummoxed that anyone could orate for 45 minutes or more. I know churches that have asked for it. They expect it more than the churches I’ve served where worship better be under an hour, or else.

Neither of the theses that I wrote in college or in seminary were this long, but here I am staring at a blinking cursor wondering if there could really be more to say. I believe there is. There are moments from my childhood grief that I haven’t fully explored. There are things that I still don’t fully understand and that’s why I’m writing this anyway. It’s why in the sixth or seventh draft of this book, I’m no longer reflecting back as an adult who has grieved for thirty years but choosing to find my voice in that little girl who first bumped into the terrible things that are so often said when someone is dying.

I want these words to matter. I want these words to speak beyond the grief of my inner child to articulate something that others have felt. It won’t speak to everyone. There will still be some that don’t understand. There will always be someone who says they’re sorry I haven’t gotten over this sadness already, but I really hope that all of these thousands of words I’ve written have some meaning beyond the fact that I wrote them.

So maybe I should just write. Each day has enough trouble, Jesus said. Tomorrow will worry about itself and there is only so much I can do toiling and spinning in my worry over word count.

Premonitions of Grief

Yesterday, another United Church of Christ pastor dared to ask a group of her colleagues and friends if we share in her experience of receiving premonitions. Stories bubbled up from within this trusted circle as much as they bubbled up in me.

I have had writer’s block. I have struggled every day this week to try to get words down on the page. Nothing has come. Or, at least, nothing has come easily. Last week, I turned my attention to this particular memory from my young adulthood. It is a story of a premonition.

The details are sketchy but I remember the feeling. I always remember the feeling. I’m sitting on my bed. I’m doing my homework. There are mounds of books and looseleaf binders surrounding me so much so that I can’t really see the pink bedspread I know lies beneath. I am tired and I really want to shake the books and binders off the bed and crawl into bed. But, I have a math test. (Or maybe that’s a detail I’m making up. Maybe it’s just because I always did my homework. I tried so hard to be the good student.) It’s not late. I shouldn’t be so tired or bored, but I am. I think I am.

The phone rings. But, ever the good girl, I do not rush down the hall. I don’t go answer the phone. I follow the rules and wait until someone calls up the stairs to say it’s for me. Of course, I know it is for me. I’m certain of it. I have no words for it but I know exactly who it was. I know it’s for me.

Finally, the call comes up the stairs confirming what I already know. My feet pad down the hall bouncing off the plush carpet. I pick up the receiver and I hear her say, “Hi!”

It is Lauren. She has some question about math, something she thinks I can help answer but I can’t say anything. I’m gasping for air. I’m sputtering tears until Lauren asks, “Elsa, what’s the matter?… Elsa, are you there?”

“I thought you were my mom. I thought my mom was calling.”

She is quiet as my sobs only get louder. “Do you need to go?” she asks.

I apologize. I say I’ll talk to her tomorrow. I say something about how stupid it is to think that my mom would be calling. She’d died ten years before. Of course, she could not call. She would not call but it felt so clear. I was so certain.

It wouldn’t be long before the phone would ring again. That same familiar feeling would wake me up from my slumber. It is Good Friday. The red numbers on my alarm clock indicate that it is very early. It is still dark. Still, the phone rings.

I hear the gruff barking of my Dad down the hall. He does not say much, grunts more than speaks. Maybe because he is so tired. Maybe because he does not know what to say. It is finished. I hear the phone return to its receiver. The hall light flashes on and I hear Dad’s heavy steps weigh down the plush carpet in the hall.

I know what he will say even before he opens the door. It had been in my dreams. She had died. Gam had died. It didn’t matter how long she’d battled cancer or how weak she had become. I wouldn’t be able to tell those signs for many years. But before Dad opened the door to whisper the news, before light flooded my bedroom, I knew Gam had died.

There’s probably a third story in there somewhere. Probably a fourth and fifth too, but these are the first premonitions of my grief. The first phone call marked a moment in time. When I retreated under my pink bedspread, it was then that I realized that I wouldn’t even recognize the sound of her voice. It had been ten years since I had heard her or seen her. It had been ten years since I had taken in her smell. I had forgotten her and I still don’t know how to make sense of that.

I don’t know how to talk about the shift that happened in the moment. How much I tried to find her. How I searched for those cassette tapes of bedtimes stories she had recorded while she was in the hospital. How I lamented ever doing laundry so that her clothes now smelled more like me than her. How much I couldn’t stand the stories that were told to me about my mom. I had forgotten her and no one else could fill in the blanks. I still missed her. I still wished for another ending, for any alternative to cancer’s victory. But, I no longer grieved her but the idea of her. I don’t want that to be true. I’m trying to write some thing else but it seems like this is the truth.

Still, there’s something strange there. It’s what my colleague in ministry wondered yesterday. We get these premonitions that someone is sick or someone needs a visit. We send notes in the mail and through cyberspace to say we’re just thinking of you. It’s something that love does. I don’t mean for it to sound trite. It’s why I am struggling to type the words into my manuscript. It’s sounds like drivel, except that I don’t believe that it is. There’s something about that connection we share that extends beyond the grave. Something about love changes us. It puts us into greater communion. It orients us toward each other’s wants and needs. It connects us even when it doesn’t make any logical sense.