When my grandfather died, it was as if his thoughts were transferred to me. All those years he said I had itchy feet, I’d thought he was criticizing the fact that I changed jobs every year or suggesting I’d had too many boyfriends. But no, he just wanted to see me settle down while he was still alive. I wrote a story about him, and found myself for the first time in a place where it didn’t feel like I was being told what to do or trying to please anyone. Death cuts through the clutter.
From then on I had to write.
Now both my parents have died. If it weren’t for my day job, I’d be writing all the time. I wake up early to clutch at details before they are erased by waves on sand. I recall how my mother smiled for a camera, the way my father used to swear through clenched teeth. Small gestures are all that’s left, isolated incidents, and the broad strokes of their lives.
I used to think that writing about real people was a phase. But then it seemed frivolous to invent characters when they were sitting right in front of me, rich and fully developed. When they stopped living, well, I realized I couldn’t possibly improve upon the compelling arc of a life. My work is to distill. I gravitate to the restraint of truth.
“If it weren’t for my day job, I’d be writing all the time. I wake up early to clutch at details before they are erased by waves on sand.”
My mother tried to be a housewife, but she was never comfortable with domesticity. The four of us knew she loved us because she tried so hard. One year, she joined the women who formed a phone chain to keep the price of vegetables down at the local Dominion store. While she talked, she doodled on scraps of paper, creating labyrinths of shapes that eventually took on a life of their own. We all remember the time the face of Batman emerged from the page.
My mother landed a job reading the news on television. It was how she supported us after divorcing my father. Like Neil Armstrong, Betty Friedan, and John Lennon, she taught us anything was possible. Early morning shifts and dressing for the public ate up a lot of time. It wasn’t until after we’d left home that she went back to school for the degree she’d always wanted and started writing stories and plays.
I knew my mother would die eventually; there had even been a couple of false alarms. But when the time came, I treated it with the nonchalance I suspect children require to carry on. I have to be at a meeting, I said to her that morning. Can you wait? Yeah, I can wait, she answered, her tone shifting, sounding as if she had waited before. Surely I added I love you—it was how we said goodbye on the phone.
“It wasn’t until after we’d left home that she went back to school for the degree she’d always wanted and started writing stories and plays.”
The morning after she died, I woke with the sensation that I’d been left to contemplate fathers. My mother never really got over my father, even though it was she who’d left him all those years earlier. Or was it that she never got over missing her own father? I’ve learned that while adults maneuver around broken connections, children absorb the intensity of missing into their flesh.
All those years, my mother loved my father. Even after she found out about the affair. Even after another husband. In conversations with us, she had started to refer to him as if they’d kept in touch, each knowing how the other had changed. As if he didn’t have another wife.
When my father died, my mother’s vision, already clouded, deteriorated. It became harder and harder for her to breathe. It was as if without him in the world, an important part of her was no longer accessible. The last entry in her journal, dated a couple of weeks before her death, recorded a dream where my father had kissed her, just like in the old days. “Wow,” she had written. “I’d forgotten how good that felt.”
The desire to capture my mother’s essence after she disappeared is more profound than anything I’ve ever felt. I write to sit with her, remember textures, and relieve the missing for a while. I write to piece together meaning. Death is her closing chapter. Writing allows me to sift through the pages of our life together, looking for clues.
Kate Henderson lives and writes in Montreal. She recently published a story about her thesis advisor, who died too soon, and is currently working on a memoir about her mother.
Photo credits: Lisa Henderson (Batman doodle, drawn by Lynn Henderson); Vanessa di Gregorio (headshot)