Getting It Right

I’m steeped in a past where the details get blurry. I’ve been trying to write a post about the few days after Philip died, but I couldn’t remember how it went down. I called Austin, Philip’s friend, who I haven’t spoken to since Philip died. He was there in the aftermath. So now I have it clear. Except for one thing. I forgot to ask – was it Tuesday and Wednesday, or Wednesday and Thursday, or Tuesday and Thursday? I am not kidding. The “scene” involves one of these pair of days so how can I write it if I’m not sure? Call Austin again? He’ll think I’m crazy. Why should I care? It’s not like it isn’t true.

As a non-fiction writer, my responsibility is to tell the truth. As a narrator, I want to be reliable. As a human being, my memory is what it is. As a mom, I need to make Philip visible. I’ve a hard time accepting that maybe something didn’t happen exactly as I remember it. I work hard to get it right, to get you to see what happened. I don’t believe “creative nonfiction” means making up things that didn’t happen to fit the narrative of what did. Creative nonfiction is story-telling, with the obligation of telling it true.

Of course, who’s to say what’s true? We all know the phenomenon of, say, five people witnessing an accident and getting five different accounts of what happened. But that’s not a mystery. Our minds are a locked box. No one gets in there but us. What we see has to do with what we’re looking for. So if I look for death, when I see an accident I’ll go for the gore. If you look for life, when you look at that accident, you’ll look for who’s left standing. Of course, it’s all way more subtle than that – and it’s in those subtle ways we create our reality.

I’m writing the story of living with Philip’s death. What happened, what’s happening, how it all feels. I am trying to get at something, something that’s eluding me. Writing’s the way there. Writing stops me, forces me to breathe, to put form on the formless. But when I can’t remember something, anxiety forces me from the keyboard and to the internet where maybe I’ll shop for things I won’t buy or bookmark recipes I won’t cook. I think writing’s a way to get control over some aspect of what I really haven’t any control over. If I can’t get it right, I panic. If I can’t get it right, I lose a piece of Philip.

I think the holy act of writing is going to absolve me of something. Getting it right is Philip’s resurrection as well as my redemption. If get it right, Philip will still be dead, but at least I’ll have been a good mother. And there’s my karmic circle. “Getting it right” is another something outside myself that’s going to rescue me and pushing the “publish” button 83 times hasn’t cured me of that. It’s an impossible end, this Getting it Right. Because there isn’t any end. No matter what it is, there isn’t any end. Death included. Philip “died,” but he isn’t gone. And I’m not talking about his constant signals. That’s part of it, but there’s the fact of all the people he’s touched and continues to touch, the way we love him, remember him, live with his spirit. There’s me, writing about him, sharing him with those he’s never met. Dead has to do with body, not with what really matters.

But then, isn’t getting it right what drives art? That need to create so we can share our vision, to have others see as we do? It’s that need that keeps me writing, it’s that very getting-it-right that slows me down enough to get familiar with what still feels like the hole where Philip used to be. And that hole doesn’t get filled. It gets lived with.

And so I fret. Was it Tuesday and Wednesday…Wednesday and Thursday…Tuesday and Thursday…

© 2014 Denise Smyth