Here we are, two strangers, side by side. We don’t have to talk, do we? The din of sixty prepubescent sixth graders on a field trip is enough for me. I have a book in my bag to read. And yet, as the school bus pulls from the curb, the inevitable small talk between us begins. You ask, “What do you do when you aren’t chaperoning field trips?”
Now here’s the beauty of having published a memoir. Gone are the days of small talk with strangers. In a moment, this conversation will go one of two ways fast.
I take a breath and begin, “I’m a writer. I’ve written a memoir. It’s an end-of-life story.”
I may sound coolly professional, but I’ve practiced this phrase. If you’re the kind of person who prefers to ignore death, I’m giving you an out. You can smile, check your phone, ask the girl across the aisle to lower her voice. We can ride along together, acting as if death can be banished this way, even as we’re on our way to show sixth graders a whole museum full of dead things—cats, birds, and people, all mummified by the ancient Egyptians. But you don’t look away.
So I go on, “It’s an end-of-life story when the end comes at the beginning.”
A look enters your eyes. End of life is one thing, at the beginning is another. But you seem to trust that my pain is not so raw it will gush and shudder all over this bus, startling the gleeful sixth graders from their youthful dramas. You must understand what it means to be a writer, to have distance enough to write a book. Presumably, I have language on my side. I’m even smiling. We’re both still alive. So you ask who died.
And I tell you. My son. As a newborn.
You don’t (as my former student did in the grocery store last week) back away into shelves full of eggs and apologize for having asked. No, you sit beside me on the bus and offer condolences. That’s the polite thing to do. Since my grief is not fresh, even a perfunctory condolence will do. Again, I smile.
And now I’m tempted to change the subject, to ask what else you do in your life. After all, Holding Silvan has been out in the world for three years now and sometimes I feel too tired to keep talking about it, to keep adding words to its carefully chosen 50,000. Lately I’ve been working with fewer words, 322 words, the entirety of a children’s picture book text. Sometimes I fantasize about the conversations I’ll have once my next book is published. Arlo doesn’t want to go preschool. She wants to go to the moon instead. Yes, I’m eager for those kinds of conversations.
But before I can divert us both, you ask how he died. You are persistent. You are unusual. So I tell you. He was brain damaged during labor. We chose to let him die. In the age of modern medicine, I say, death can’t always come without a choice.
And now something extraordinary happens, right here on this noisy yellow school bus.
We start to talk. For real. You’ve had an experience with death, too. You’ve had a miscarriage, a stillbirth, a problem conceiving. Or someone you know has, a neighbor, a colleague, and you’d like my advice on things to say to a bereaved parent. Or perhaps it isn’t a baby. Perhaps it’s your grandmother you tell me about. Your grandmother just died, but it was beautiful. Thanks to your grandmother’s lovely hospice worker, you’ve now decided to become a hospice worker yourself. Or you’re a social worker, a nurse, a chaplain. You’re a masseuse who specializes in treating the ill. Or you’ve just witnessed a friend’s living will. You’re an advocate for death with dignity laws around the country. You’re afraid of dying. You want your own death to be peaceful.
You will reveal something you have revealed to very few people, something you care deeply about but haven’t yet put into words, something about the shape of your own life that includes this very moment, here, together, that will soften the shrieks of sixth graders and surround us with the hum of intimacy. We have found our bond.
Writing a memoir is one thing. Publishing it is another. Though I feel sick to death sometimes of being asked a question I know will reveal my private pain again, once I open my mouth to tell you my story, I find I’m not at all sick of the conversation it inspires.