During the weeks and months that my husband was dying, I sat by his bedside, my laptop balanced on my knees, trying to write. I was working on my Deadtown series, but my heart wasn’t in it. There was only one story I wanted to write–Steve’s miraculous recovery and our happily ever after. My mind kept searching for ways to make it work. After all, I’ve written my characters into seemingly hopeless situations many times, and there’s always a way out.
Except when there’s no way out.
I have never been the type of novelist who thinks of myself as God. For me, writing a novel is more like trying to manage a group of unruly preschoolers on a field trip: “Come on, kids, don’t you think it would be nice to go inside the museum? Jimmy, don’t eat that bug! And Susie, please stop strangling Timmy!” I have no omnipotence; my hand is certainly not the inexorable hand of fate. No one tries to propitiate me. I can throw all the thunderbolts I want, but my characters don’t take orders. Only when I abandon my lofty post in the heavens and get down on the ground with the characters, seeing things from their points of view, can we all move forward.
So, as much as I wished for it, I never really believed I could rewrite Steve’s story. I knew where our novel should end–at that moment, 11 days into his coma, as the neurologist was telling the family that Steve would probably never wake up, when waking up was exactly what he did. When I asked him to open his eyes and they flew wide open. In a novel, Steve would have managed a smile, and I would have smiled through my tears and held him. End of story. Maybe an epilogue, showing Steve at home, recovering, with a hint that everything would be okay. A scene to leave readers feeling satisfied as they turn the last page.
But life is not a novel.
I thought I understood that. So my story didn’t get the ending I wanted. Yeah, well, that’s life. Time to move on.
The trouble is, I think like a novelist. In my mind, I started to write a new story–the story of my recovery. I did a lot of walking in those early days. I noticed that when I was walking, I felt more or less okay, and walking was the only thing that made me feel that way. So I hit upon the idea of walking out of my grief and into my new life. I’d trek the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route that stretches 500 miles across northern Spain, as a way to commemorate Steve and heal myself.
It was a good premise, one with a built-in story arc. I trained for weeks. I gathered my gear and made my plans. I developed a subplot–a friend from my bereavement group who might become more than a friend. I collected a stone from the hospital where Steve died that I could carry with me until I set it down at the base of the Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross, on the Camino. There were obstacles and doubts and fears and complications. But I kept moving forward. I knew where this story was going.
On the first anniversary of Steve’s death, I was well into my Camino pilgrimage. On that day I had a lovely, visionary moment that lifted some of my emotional burden. The Camino journey was a story in itself. I made some wonderful friends. I injured my feet. I got totally, frighteningly lost. I drank much good wine. I had interesting conversations with people who had fascinating stories of their own. I walked through heavy mud and breathtaking scenery. I struggled; I soared. I lay down my stone and the burden it represented. Eventually, I made it to Santiago.
After I returned home, I told people that my pilgrimage had given me what I needed. I thought, “This is it. Now I’m healed. Now I can get on with my life.” A year had passed, and I’d marked the passing. It was time.
And yet, life isn’t a novel. My story refused to conform to the arc I’d plotted out for it.
Just as I couldn’t write Steve’s story to the ending I wanted, my grief refused to follow the script I’d chosen for it. Some healing did take place, but I didn’t come back all recovered and ready to embrace life again. I have made progress, but I’m still struggling. There’s no resolution, not yet. I don’t think there ever will be, at least not in the sense I was hoping for. Things end and begin. Contexts change. People come and go. But not necessarily at the right time or in a way that neatly wraps up some theme or chain of events. While I live, I will never “close the book” on Steve’s death.