The Catalyst

A Writing Teacher Writes (plus some writing prompts and recipes)

Stepping Back July 19, 2013

Filed under: Grief,Poems,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 6:23 pm
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The prompt this time was Breyten Breytenbach’s poem, “Your Letter,” which was written while he was being held as a political prisoner in South Africa, fighting Apartheid. I’ve pasted it below, but for an audio link, click here.

It’s a powerful poem that produces powerful writing. What I wrote is below, following Breytenbach’s poem.

 

your letter

 

your letter is larger and lighter
than the thought of a flower when the dream
is a garden—

as your letter opens
there’s an unfolding of sky, word from outside,
wide spaces

I slept in green pastures,
I lay on the cusp of the valley of the shadow of death
during the last watch of the night
listening to those condemned to die
being led through tunnels in the earth,

how they sing
with the breath at their lips
as residents at the point of leaving
a city in flames, how they sing,
their breaths like shackles,

how they sing—
they who are about to jump from light into darkness,
they who will be posted to no destination—
terror fills me at the desecration

the table before me in the presence of my enemies
is bare, I have ash on my head,
my cup is empty

and I fled to your letter to read
of the orange tree decked out in white blossoms
opening with the sun,

I could smell it on the balcony—
I can smell you
lovelier and lighter than the thought of a flower
in this dismal night

I will be suspended from the sky of your words—
grant that I may dwell in your letter
all the days of my life

your letter is wonderful, larger and lighter
than the thought of a flower when the dream
is the earth of a garden—

as your letter opens
there’s an unfolding of sky, word from outside,
memory

________________________________________________________________________

Who was it that shone a light in those dark years? My teenaged friends, of course. The ones who passed me joints and wrote me cards and took me on hikes. Had I been isolated, withdrawn, I wouldn’t have had those relationships, and I wouldn’t have survived.

Loss is complex. I can’t spell it out for you, can’t simply say, “She died and our whole world fell apart.” Because dementia doesn’t work that way. It’s insidious in the truest sense of the word, seeping in like water into stone, like mold into layers of plaster. A slow rot. Now you recognize her, now you don’t.

Had she simply died, it wouldn’t have messed me up so badly. I wouldn’t have always expected the worst, or felt incapable of everything adult for so, so many years afterward.

I resist the tedious details. The way her mind unraveled, the way she couldn’t feed herself, or remember where she lived, or use the bathroom. Fifteen years this lasted. Do you know what that does to a family, to a fourteen-year-old boy?

No one really wants the details. And even now I can’t tell you who really pulled me up and out of that hopeless place, the place that said, Just die with her, because the guilt of surviving her—and perhaps the fear of having to grow up without her—was too great to reckon with, while all of life stretched out ahead of me.

I was lost. (But am I found now? Am I?)

Who saved me?

My father, though he made a lot of mistakes. My father, who fed me: risotto, carbonara, and chocolate cheesecake, who made Thanksgiving dinner and watched Dynasty with me every Wednesday night, laughing at Joan Collins’ terrible makeup and hilarious dialogue.

My loyal, loving dog, the same dog who followed Mom around and kept her safe. Who recognized her over and over again when she lost the ability to recognize herself, me, her own hands.

A few nurses, who guided me back to school, to daycare for brain-damaged adults, to medical journals and national associations.

Those few kind lovers, and one remarkable therapist.

And I suppose I saved myself, didn’t I? By reading and dancing, by believing in the future despite my DNA, my sexuality, my lack of resources. I found flowers and airline tickets. I kept believing—I still believe— in love, in healing, in practicing patience and kindness. I had faith.

I suppose I promised her in some silent way that all the time she spent with me in childhood, through the fevers and fears, through the hunger and the celebration, that all her good love wouldn’t go to waste.

And here she is on the page with me now, still humble, reminding me: Look what we did together, you and I.

Look how we did that together.

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2 Responses to “Stepping Back”

  1. janishaag Says:

    Oh, Chris, this is gorgeous writing! So many wonderful lines (the last ones so very touching that they prompted my own tears):
    • “the way her mind unraveled”
    • the whole paragraph that begins, “No one really wants the details” (“the guilt of having survived her–and perhaps the fear of having to grow up without her–was too great to reckon with”)
    • “when she lost her ability to recognize herself, me, her own hands”…
    • “those few kind lovers, and one remarkable therapist.”

    And the poignancy and truth of “And I suppose I saved myself, didn’t I?” That the narrator still believes “in love, in healing, in practicing patience and kindness. I had faith.”

    And (oh!) “that all her good love wouldn’t go to waste.”

    Such strong, powerful, honest writing. Thank you for sharing it!

  2. Daniel Raskin Says:

    Thank you, Chris. I find a very big and complex story in these brief words.


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