ALL THINGS WRITING: December 18th, 2019

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TODAY’S TOPIC:  Take that pain and make it into a story…

We all lose people we care about. It’s inevitable and the longer one lives the more they are reminded of that hard reality. Good stories are about life, and part of life is death, so you cannot really have one without the other.  A writer must first accept that fact and then use it to their advantage.

I first experienced death when my father’s father died – Grandpa Bill. He was a quiet man who showed great patience to a shy boy who sometimes found it hard to speak loud enough for others to hear him. Many hours were spent sitting in the cabin of his truck watching as he shifted the many gears as we traveled to and from the gravel pit. Sometimes he would let me help him change gears. When I ground them loudly he never got mad. Bill would just smile, gently move my hand and the gear into the correct location, and on we’d go.

He passed of a heart attack when I was nine. I still vividly recall that morning when my older brother Derek came into the room and told me the news. It was my father’s birthday, August 25th, and Mom and him were on their way to the hospital to see Bill who had spent the last week there after the first heart attack. The second one killed him. Because the hospital called home Derek and I knew about Bill’s death before Dad and Mom did.

From there the days sort of blurred together. Dad had us write a note to Grandpa Bill on a sheet of yellow paper which he later folded up and placed into the pocket of Bill’s jacket where he lay in the casket. The day of the note writing was the first time I saw my father cry. Mom later explained to me there had been much left unsaid between Dad and Bill and the note was his attempt to remedy that.

Then came the day of the funeral. My three brothers and I were all dressed in matching suits and black dress shoes. My shoes were much too small. By the time we arrived at the funeral my feet were killing me. I couldn’t wait to get those shoes off. It was almost all I could think of. The finality of that day didn’t really hit me until I sat at the gravesite near the big hole where the casket would be lowered into. That was the moment I realized Grandpa Bill was really gone. It left me both hurt and confused. I didn’t understand why good people have to die.

But they do.

After Bill came other deaths, mostly acquaintances, so for the most part the emotional toll was fleeting. That is, until a childhood friend named Dave was suddenly killed in a car accident. It was just a couple of years after I had graduated from college. I was teaching then. Someone from the office staff came into my room and told me the principal wanted to see me. He had me sit down and then shared the news. Again, it didn’t seem real. I had just seen Dave a couple weeks earlier while playing a game of pick-up basketball at the same school we had both attended as students and where his mother had been a longtime teacher. Dave was the same then as he had always been – happy, beaming, and quick to laugh in that high-pitched cackle of his that made it almost impossible not to laugh along with him.

The principal asked me if I was okay. I said yes, stood, walked into my classroom, closed the door, and then broke down crying.

The funeral was a gathering of former classmates. Dave was gone. We remained. The funeral took place in the same church my parents were married in and where I was once enrolled in Bible study for a few weeks during a long-ago summer. The service was well attended. We all knew each other. It was a terrible thing to see Dave’s parents in such pain. The loss of a child. I cannot imagine.

A good deal of drinking followed. I returned to work the next day with a bit of a hangover. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last.

Students die.  If you teach long enough, it happens. For me, one time would have been too many. The most notable was a young man who began his high school years as something of an academic mess, but he had just started to really redeem himself. He had that perpetual smirk that I knew all too well – a glimpse into whatever inside joke was running through his head at the time. He had written me a letter thanking me for my patience but also for being tough when tough is what he needed. I received quite a few letters like that during my decade of teaching. I didn’t pay much attention to them then. I’d simply drop another and another into the bottom drawer of my desk and close it. On my last day of teaching I took those letters out and was surprised by how many there were. And then I tossed them into the waste bin. Why? To this day I don’t really know and I scold myself for having done so. Then again, I was closing a door on my life and at the time it was a door I was convinced I’d never open again so that was that.

Another student died of a lung disease. She was just seventeen. And yet another died of a car crash. She was eighteen.

Their whole lives ahead of them and suddenly . . . gone.

And then my other Grandpa Bill died. Personality-wise my mother’s father was the opposite of my father’s father. Bill #2 was a loud and proud former Merchant Marine and quick to inform you if you were doing something he didn’t like. In his 60’s he could still scamper up into the branches of a tall palm tree, hit a golf ball 250 yards, and drive like the proverbial bat out of hell. He had a long life, well into his 80’s, but the last time I saw him it was clearly reflected in his eyes how much he detested being older and weaker. During our last round of golf together he had a hard time seeing the ball and after nine holes, even though we were using a power cart, he was exhausted. But he still made sure to praise me for a long drive, a made putt, or at the end of the day, thanking me for playing with him.

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After the last putt, he took off his cap and shook my hand just like he had taught me years earlier — a proper gentleman always did so after sharing a round with someone.  His grip was still firm, and his one good eye still gleaming, as he squinted up at me and flashed that crooked grin of his.

“Well played, boy,” he said. He clapped me on the shoulder and that was it — our last time together on a golf course. I’ve revisited those final holes in my head many-many times over the years. Bill could curse a blue streak like nobody else. The f-word was his particular specialty – specifically, “F-ckin’ hell!” and he had a hundred different variations of it.

A good drive was a happy “F-ckin’ hell!” A bad drive was a snarling “F-ckin hell!” After my best drive of the day, one that rolled out to nearly 300 yards, Bill glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, whistled while shaking his head, and declared, “F-ckin’ hell!” That version was meant as very high praise.

When he died there was no service, no fuss, no nothing. He donated his body to the nearby university’s medical school and that was that. Bill had spoken of death to me from time to time most often with an indifferent shrug. He did say that if he had known he was going to live so long he would have taken better care of himself. But then he leaned in close with a grin and a wink and whispered, “But I did have a lot of fun.” I recall one time, though, when he grabbed my upper arm, gave it a firm squeeze, and warned me not to give up and give in to old age. He pointed to a row of retirement community houses along the golf course that all had their curtains drawn in the middle of the day. “Those people behind those curtains are already as good as dead. They might still be breathing and sh*tting but they sure as hell ain’t living.” Then he poked me in the chest hard enough it later left a bruise. “Don’t you dare let yourself be like them. You hear me?” I nodded. Bill poked me again and said, “Good.”

The older I get the more I understand the warning and the tough love that motivated Bill to tell it to me like he did.

 

The next significant loss was my mother who passed just a few years after her father. It was her second bout with cancer. The first happened some 15 years earlier. Like Bill, she was somewhat indifferent to death. Being cancer, we all knew she was ill and had time to prepare ourselves.  Yet, I was still surprised by how quickly it took her in the end. The news arrived via email that she had passed. It was late morning. I got up from my desk, told my wife, and then went for a long walk. The world felt a little off. It’s hard to explain — as if something had shifted under my feet. There was pain. I absorbed it, processed it, and like those student letters from years earlier, put it all away in some internal drawer and closed it shut.

Ah, but Mom has never really left me. I still see her, hear her, and sometimes, feel her all around me.

One of her last bits of advice to her sons was to the oldest of us – my brother Derek. She was not long for this world but neither was he and she knew it like only a mother can. The rest of us had long worried over Derek’s well-being but during her own end my mother’s concern was more urgent. With only a few months left to live she took both his hands in hers and begged him not to die before she did and to start taking better care of himself. I wasn’t there to see this myself. Derek told me after she passed. He was broke up over her death. Their relationship had not been a good one for many years and I sensed Derek felt like far too much time had been wasted between them on stubborn pride and resentment.

He was right.

Derek was with us just over a year after Mom was gone. That news also came in the morning by phone. He had gone to sleep the night before and never woke up.

For several months before he died he had taken to leaving these long, late-night, rambling, often almost incoherent messages on my voice mail. The first few times I called him back. After a while, I stopped.

During our very last conversation he seemed reluctant to hang up the phone. I offered that he come by and stay a night or two on the boat at the marina. We could set the crab pots and bob around the bay for a bit like we did when we were kids. “That would be so great,” he told me. “I’d really like that.”

We never did have that last time on the boat.

Losing Derek has been the toughest loss so far. Not that it was unexpected. We all knew it could happen, it just didn’t seem possible when it actually did. He was the oldest of us and that meant he had always been there. And then he wasn’t.

I know it’s been especially hard on Dad. He’s been different since Derek left us. I imagine he’s had a lot of second-guessing, wondering if he could have done something that might have changed a seemingly inevitable outcome.

Then again, some are simply not built for the long-haul. I believe my brother was one of those.

The loss of Derek, and the visible impact on my father, as well as my own difficulty in processing those two things, became the inspiration for the novel, The Bowman Boys.

Those who’ve read it already know. Those who have yet to read it can find out for themselves.

Regardless of the time period, the themes of such a story are universal: family, the bond between siblings, and the pain of a parent who must watch a son slowly sinking into the abyss.

As much as death is something we instinctively fear or try to ignore, as a writer it is a reality which can connect almost any story to any reader because it is an experiential foundation on which we all stand.

Use it.


D.W. Ulsterman is the bestselling author of the San Juan Islands Mystery series and The Irish Cowboy.

He lives with his wife of 26 years in the Pacific Northwest and is the proud father of two grown children, Devan and Sienna.

He’s also best friends with Dublin the Dobe.

When he’s not busy writing you’ll find him navigating the waters of his beloved San Juan Islands.

All of his novels are available HERE

DW Ulsterman - UlstermanBooks.com


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