Posted on Leave a comment

Revising grief

There’s no particular reason why you have to make anything out of grief that’s for anyone else’s consumption. A lot of people don’t; but then a lot of people do, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Roland Barthes and Donald Hall and Jane Yolen and, apparently, me. The stuff that you pour out into a journal or sketchbook or freeform on your instrument can just be you and your grief, you and a bunch of tears and snot and the knots in your chest. But the minute you say, hey, I think this might actually be good, this might be worth going on with, then there’s subjecting the art you made from grief to revision, and that is, frankly, very weird.

I think for me the thing that has been weirdest about this process is the bifurcated view that it requires. Because a lot of what I’ve been doing is looking at sentences and saying, yes, that is exactly right, that is exactly what my experience of grief and mourning was like–and, simultaneously, this sentence is not doing what it needs to do for this story as a story. And so it needs to change, it needs to communicate more with the outside world, or it needs to go away completely, having served its purpose of getting my emotions out and not having a purpose in the other thing I’m doing, which is telling this story.

Which is a story about grief. Yes. It totally is. But it’s a story, I am asking an editor to publish it as a story; I had the choice of just doing a blog post that was word soup, an outpouring on the page, and instead I shaped it into something else, something indirect; I wrote about my grief by writing about the grief of someone who lost their mother, a person who lived alone, a person who had an alien visitor. None of those details are true of me. I took it into the realm of fiction because that’s what I do–but then the other thing I do is actually, I revise, I consider, I add and prune and think about what’s there compared to what I meant to be there.

Even when it’s something incredibly personal.

Even when it’s one of the worst things.

It’s always okay to say no. It’s always okay, when someone says, hey, can you make this clearer, can you make this longer, can you make this shorter, I don’t understand what significance the bananas have here–it’s always okay to say, no, you know what, I don’t want to do it that way, this is how we’re doing it or not at all. And I think being a short story writer gives me a very particular outlook on that, because there is always another one.

But there isn’t another of this one, there isn’t another that does what this one does, that says what this one says, and at the end of the day when I weigh the variables I find that I actually do care enough to make it worthwhile, to look with double vision at my own suffering and say, okay, this part is just for me, this part is to try to talk to the world about what it is like to suffer in this particular way. This, and not that.

All of the things I have to say about Dad’s opinion of this are circular: Dad would want me to if I wanted to. Dad would want me to have something to say about this if I had something to say about it. Dad would think it was worth it if it was worth it to me.

Dad trusted my judgment.

Dad wanted me to trust my own judgment too.

It is a very different kind of exquisitely painful to mourn someone who wasn’t good to you, and I try to be careful how I talk to people when I know their parental relationship was more complicated than this, but for me, I have this, I have this support that has lasted, that will last, because one of the things about knowing him this well and honoring who he was is that when I take a deep breath and think about whether this line stays or goes in a story, I don’t have to second-guess whether he would be upset or not, because that is not how this worked, that is never how this worked with my work, he would never have second-guessed my work, not once, he would have been horrified. I can do this when I say I’m ready, and my dad was in the absolute front ranks of the people who would say that.

I was never going to be ready for the grief part. But the revision, well. Apparently that’s now. Bring it on.

Posted on 7 Comments

Memorial remembrance of my dad, Dan Lingen, 6/22/19

(This is the eulogy that a family friend, Barry Anderson, read on my behalf at Dad’s memorial service yesterday. It is by no means my final word on my father, but rather a beginning of the writing I will do about Dad and what he’s meant to me–and one for a very broad audience, since we had at his memorial various sides of the family, my friends, Mom’s friends, Grandma’s friends, my colleagues, his colleagues–and of course his friends from all different parts of his life. Still. This is where I started.)

I think most people go through at least some phase in their life when their dad is not one of their favorite people–some time, usually in their teens, when they kind of get at each other. I never did. My dad has always been at the top of my list.

When I started studying physics, I found out about binary star systems, where two stars form a stable orbit around a center point instead of one consuming the other’s mass. I thought, that’s Mom and Dad. Then I learned that the planets in those systems tend to have very eccentric orbits, and I thought…well, there’s me. There’s always been more to our family than that–but so much of my childhood took place in that binary star system that as I try to write this, I’m having to translate from a private language with only two native speakers left. Some of the small communications among us were not even conscious. The day after Dad died, when I was missing the way that I would go off with Dad to just be silent together for a moment, Stella told me that we each made the mirror image of the same face at each other when we wanted to have that silence together. I never knew that, I just did it. It was like breathing. Right now I am trying to write this with half the light on my planet gone. When Mother was talking about how overwhelming it was to try to write a eulogy for Dad, I said to her, Mom, we can walk on the surface of the Earth, we can send people to walk on the surface of the Moon, but we can’t send people to walk on the surface of the Sun. Her relationship with Dad was two suns, and you can capture flashes of that, the lens flare of shared jokes, the warmth it cast on everything else, but you can’t portray it directly. It was just too bright.

Tolstoy said that happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Being raised by my parents made it clear that that Tolstoy was completely wrong. I’m willing to believe that we are not the only happy family! But I’m pretty sure the other happy families didn’t spend nearly as much time talking about prehistoric giant beavers, Earl Battey, the Oglala Aquifer, the politics of mountain regions vs. prairie regions, or Haakon the Seventh as we have. I think it’s hard to explain how much variety of stuff I have always talked to my dad about. It’s pretty normal that I talk to Dad about how Mom is doing or how to best encourage the godkids in their dreams–although I know not everybody has a relationship with their dad where they get to do that. It’s less typical that I’ve been excited to talk to Dad about dinosaur poetry or a new book about algae that’s coming out this summer, but that’s how we roll. I have no idea how I will prepare for the talk I’m giving next month about existentialism in the works of children’s author Lloyd Alexander, without talking to Dad about it. For so many topics he was the only person in the world I could think of to talk to. Part of this is that Dad was always, always willing to go off on the weirdest tangents. No road was too obscure or too strange for my dad’s attention. There’s a story about my uncle Phil that ends in “Nah–too weird!” but one thing he got from Uncle Phil and passed on to the rest of us is that nothing was ever, ever too weird to talk to Dad about. Nothing too personal, nothing too unimportant, nothing too philosophical, nothing too off-the-wall…it could all go to Dad.

My dad approached parenting like he approached everything else: in a spirit of joyful exploration. My mom tells me that when she was pregnant, he would bend down and whisper to me in her belly, “Chemistry is fun. Math is easy.” The fun part there was not optional. The message was not “put your head down and do science at all costs, no matter how terrible it is,” it was “let’s poke at the universe together and see what fun we can have.” It was “don’t let them tell you this is a grind, because it’s actually a great big game.” After lab in college, I would call Dad to talk about how each experiment went. I still remember the surprise and excitement in his voice my junior year when we got to Franck-Hertz experiment, one he had never performed, and I got to describe the lavender mercury vapor and the peaks and valleys that showed the quantum world in a way he’d never seen. Dad loved to bounce his new membrane ideas around with me. We got excited about the world’s beautiful new possibilities together.

We explored maps together from the very beginning. When I was almost six, we packed up the five of us in Grandpa’s big blue Buick and set off east. Dad handed me the maps one morning and said, “Let’s try to get Grandpa into the middle of downtown Toronto.” For the first time, I got to help navigate–and I steered Grandpa right into the heart of Canada Day celebrations, because Dad believed I could do it. He never believed anything was beyond me. Coming out of one of the hardest years of my life, I wrote in his Father’s Day card, “Your support has always meant the world to me, Daddy, but in the last few months it’s given me the strength to pursue my dreams. Thank you.” He kept it. Mom found it in his pajama drawer along with the postcards I’d written him every week of that year, which was the year I started publishing fiction. He taught me not just how to use a map but how to go off the edges and make my own.

I have wonderful stories of exploring the world with my family, tasting fish on the wharf in Bergen, Norway, trusting Mom’s nose to pick out the best pub in London, or dodging traffic trying to get to the North Church in Boston, but truthfully some of my favorite explorations with Dad were to such exotic locales as–silence please–the grocery store–or–drum roll–Target. Every trip to the park resulted in a magic stick. Saturday morning trips to the post office were a special treat I looked forward to all week. I think one of the things that made time with my dad so wonderful is that he was such a great listener as well as a good talker. He and Mom wanted to learn things with me, not just teach things to me. Lots of people’s musical taste stops in their early twenties. Dad did want to expose me to the artists he loved, so I got plenty of Simon and Garfunkel, Beach Boys, Carole King, and more–but he was thrilled to learn about 10,000 Maniacs, Barenaked Ladies, and the Indigo Girls in the Nineties, up to Josh Ritter and Meg Hutchinson in this decade. He never stopped having new music to love. Lillian was so proud to play Santana songs for him, but I know he would have loved learning whatever songs she and Rob grew to love, because he had never stopped and had to restart again.

This is not to say that there weren’t a few hilarious bumps in the road of joyfully exploring with Dad. When I was five, Mom worked an early shift to be able to be home with me when kindergarten got out at noon–which meant that Dad was in charge of getting me ready for school in the morning. He was still cleaning up breakfast dishes when I slipped in the bathroom and singed my wrist on the curling iron. Once he made sure it was a superficial burn, Dad did all the right things, running my wrist under cool water and bandaging it, pulling me into a hug–and then said, excited, “Marissa! Now is a great time to learn about your body!” What! I listened indignantly as he described the miracles of the white blood cells mustering a defense of my skin, which did not seem like an opportunity at that exact moment. I teased him about that one for the rest of his life, drawling out, “Daaaaad, it’s a great time to learn about your baaaaaady.”

My dad’s belief in the importance of playfulness ranged through his whole life. His relationship with Grandma started with water fights when he was a teenager and she was a fun young mom throwing her home open to hordes of her daughter’s friends. Up until his last days, Dad loved to play cards and games with Grandma and her friends–and how many mothers-in-law can honestly say not only that their son-in-law would drive their friends around for game night but that he clearly enjoyed doing it. He would also peer carefully at the intricate games Mark, Mike, and Kev would set up at Christmas, at all the tiny moving parts showing new kinds of game that he had never seen before, always a fascination.

But he took especially thoughtful care in teaching play to my friends when I was little. A lot of dads coach softball–so did mine. But I also have pretty special memories of how my dad taught one of my friends about teasing and joking. She was an immigrant whose journey to this country was pretty rough–and once she got here, her experience of Americans teasing was that she was the butt of the joke, and that laughter was always at her expense. My dad took the time to teach her in very gentle stages that it didn’t always have to be that way. I remember him coming in and saying to her, “You will be very sad because Mrs. Lingen has made brownies and you do not like those.” He waited hopefully. She paused and thought about it. “Mr. Lingen, I think you are teasing me because you know I do like brownies.” He said, “Yes–and you know you can have as many brownies as you like here at our house.” From that very simple point Dad stepped her up to the idea that you could tease somebody because you liked them–that her new American life could feature people who were including her in the joke instead of keeping her out. That was the kind of play he always liked best, and he wanted to make sure other people had the chance to enjoy it too.

With all the time they spent together from basically the minute their ages hit the double digits, you’d think my parents would know everything about each other. And yet I remember within the last year each of them marveling to each other, “I’d never heard that story,” or, “I didn’t know that!” about new discoveries they could make together, new stories to tell each other, new dreams of ways the world can get better. Some of this is that they remained always open to listening and thinking about each other’s perspective. Some of it is that they have both always listened respectfully to others, so that when they came home to each other they would have fresh perspectives to present from their conversations, new thoughts sparked by other people they value–people from all walks of life.

My dad centered values in his life, not policy–the question was always how to get clean water, clean air, how to feed hungry children, how to nurture hungry minds. When he was a young man he was interested in hearing my grandfather’s viewpoint, which was a lot more traditionally conservative than Dad’s was then. These days I’m pretty far on the progressive side, and Dad listened to that with just as much respect as he gave Grandpa. But the point for Dad was never what team you had signed up to play for it, was how the ideas worked and whether you were treating all humans with respect and decency–and whether you were always willing to take in new information on how each idea was working in the world to help real humans. My dad would be the first to tell you that if you spoke all the tongues of men and angels but had not love–real love, love that is enacted on the earth–you were a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (Probably less than that, because he would want our percussionist Lillian to have all the clanging cymbals she wants. Sorry, Stella.) 

My dad taught me that a perfect day was a day that we all spent together as a family. The details didn’t matter–it was the time we spent that made it perfect. So if I tried a new recipe and the sauce came out soupy–perfect day. If the beautiful castle and garden in Uppsala were at the top of a very VERY steep hill–perfect day. (As God is my witness, Grandma, it looked flat as a pancake on the map.) He appreciated the ways that Mom and I spent time lining up details to make a GOOD day, whether it was reading newspapers over brunch, climbing down a thousand-year-old copper mine, learning a Japanese style of weaving, or spending all day making the year’s supply of lefse and Christmas cookies. But ANY of the details were the RIGHT details as long as we were together, and Dad knew that was what mattered. He would hug me at the end of the day and whisper, “It was a perfect day.”

We had so many perfect days.

Posted on Leave a comment

My father

This blog has evolved with time, as you would expect something to do in 18 years. I used to post daily, little rambly posts, few of them particularly themed. Now it’s almost all book reviews and publication news, with the occasional theorizing about craft. But this personal thing is too monumental to leave out.

Two weeks ago yesterday my beloved father had a massive brain bleed from a med he was on. Before the bleed profused we had time to talk and laugh and say “I love you” so many times. At that time there was still a lot of hope that he might recover. There was then a second, ischemic stroke in the opposite side of his brain. The two weeks since have been a haze of brilliant care and uncomfortable facilities, of waiting and hoping and gradual realizations that the Dad I have adored was never coming back to us. He died gently yesterday morning before dawn. My mother was with him. I had been able to spend all day, every day at the hospital–always the three of us, as it’s always been, but other family and dear friends supporting us as well.

I will have so much more to say about Dad–for years, for the rest of my life. I am heartbroken, shattered, agonized. I don’t know how I’m going to do this. One step at a time, one day at a time, everyone keeps telling me. Yes. I don’t think there’s another choice. Those of you who have known me for years know that the phrases I keep handing people like “Dad and I were close” do not even begin to cover it. I never had a phase, not a year of my life, not a moment, when my dad was not one of my favorite people. He always called me Sunshine but we were each other’s sunshine. I don’t even know how to say all of what’s gone. I will have to keep trying.

But a thing I am capable of fully articulating now is this: the ICU nurses at Fairview Southdale did such an astonishing, such a phenomenal job that I never had a moment of doubt that they and we were a team together, that he was getting the very best of care. And when the hospital transferred Dad up to the palliative care floor on the last day, I kept having the mad urge to run back to the ICU floor where I felt safe. Think on that: it was the place where I found out my dad was going to die. I had so many tears in that place, so many bodily indignities for the father I love. But their care for my dad and for our family still let it feel like a safe place to me. That standard of care is an amazing achievement. I have said over and over, “This is the worst week of my life,” and it is. It is. But it could have been so much worse without the ICU nurses we had.

We’re trying to put one foot in front of the other, we’re trying to figure out how this goes. We’re leaning into the care of our friends and family. But I feel like I fell into a parallel universe, and not one of the delightful ones. With the timing of the weather in our Minnesota spring, I feel like I was beaten and mugged and shoved out the door of the hospital into a world that was suddenly bafflingly warm and fully green and filled with heart-deep bruises, and I only wish that what had been taken from me was my wallet.

Oh, Dad.