by Cait Johnson
Deadline. It’s not a warm and fuzzy word. In fact, it can remind us of the hospital monitor flatline that usually means the patient is, you know, dead.
Back when I was a starry-eyed new author, I believed deadlines were graven in something violently explosive that would shatter if I missed one, maiming me for life, and booting me into a circle of hell that included never being published again. But no, a seasoned editor friend told me with a wise smile, nobody makes their deadlines. Editors don’t even expect you to make your deadlines. (Note to students: Please forget you ever read the preceding.) It’s all an attempt, said my friend, to keep authors at least in the ballpark of being on track, which is, she went on, an awful lot like herding cats.
At the time, I was shocked rather than relieved to hear this, and I vowed that I would never, come hell, high water, or personal tragedy, never, never, never miss a deadline.
So much for my idealized self-image.
It turns out that I missed the deadline (thankfully a flexible one) for this blog, because even for writers, in the triage of life, death trumps deadlines.
Sure, we all know that everyone dies, although secretly most of us think death is for the neighbors. When faced with the death of someone they know, you may notice how people often keep silent because they are more concerned with not sounding stupid or trite than they are with comforting the bereaved. We may think that’s because they’re not writers. They don’t know, as we do, how to put the wordless into words. After all, that’s our job—making the messiness of emotions like grief, if not tidy, at least coherent. Until the dead person is someone you loved, and loved deeply. Then it can be hard to put three words together in a straight line because the mind is winging out in surreal loop-the-loops, or floating off into the endless dark spaces of sheer disbelief.
It can sometimes take a little time before the words can be organized like willing troops and made to march up and down the page at your command. For a few days or weeks, there can be a terrible silence, like the nothing you hear after a great blast has stunned your eardrums.
Of course there is a literature of grief; throughout history, people have stared into the abyss of permanent loss and tried to make sense of it, written about it with honesty and even grace. I think of Mark Doty, who chronicled his lover’s death from AIDS and who wrote about their home in Cape Cod, surrounded by the water they both loved, and feeling, he writes, as if they were standing on a kind of sandbar and watching as the edges crumble. When you think about it, we are all on a similar sandbar, whether we know it or not.
After the first paralysis has passed, it can be a comfort to put the vastness of death—or at least our reaction to it—into the container of words. It is, at least, something we can do. Because our struggle to express this profound mystery—one that that touches all of us sooner or later—is part of trying to make sense of this messy, difficult, beautiful human adventure. While many opt to turn on the TV and shirk the job entirely (and believe me, I’ve been watching more than my share of Downton Abbey), it seems to me that we are called to make some kind of sense of it or to make, at least, peace with it.
We are fortunate to have words as our allies in the struggle. And to have each other, we explorers and chroniclers of the full catastrophe of being human. And to know that in our own ways we are trying to express something meaningful and true about it all.
In memory of Jo and Maggie, two dear friends who died 18 days apart, in March.
Cait Johnson is the author of six books of spirit-based non-fiction, as well as an editor, ghostwriter, and counselor in private practice. She also writes and directs slightly surreal theatre pieces. The next, Outside Time, will be performed on May 10 and 11 at the Rokeby Estate.