Art and Death and Finding the Right Words

August 26, 2014 in About Kelly, Art, Musings, Writing

I recently had an experience that both moved and shook me. I’m going to tell that story first and then I’m going to try to talk about being a writer and experiencing a moment both from within and at one remove. The story:

I was on vacation in the Dominican Republic when I got an urgent message from my friend Pamela Gay—a gifted astronomer and podcaster.

A very close friend of hers, author and podcaster P.G. (Patrick) Holyfield, was dying of cancer—quite possibly within the next few hours—and would it be possible for me to record a goodbye message for him because my books had been important to him.

I don’t know if I can quite convey how that hit me. I’ve never met Patrick and I didn’t really know anything about him before that moment. I had one moment of complete terror when I read the message. What could I possibly say to a dying man that might make his path a little easier? While my forebrain was trying to get a grip on that, my backbrain was typing a reply to Pamela. Of course I would do it.

How could I not?

Here was a dear friend asking a favor for a dying man who had cared about my words. How could I not find a few more to help him on his way? For that matter, even if Pamela wasn’t someone I care about, even if you removed her from the equation, the question still stands. It was simply the right thing to do.

So, I grabbed my iPhone and I walked out into the dark tropical night and I recorded a message. I did it in several short fits as I struggled to find the right words and my voice kept trying to break as I did it. I don’t know if it eased Patrick’s passing—I hope that it helped at least a little—but I’m told that his family was aware that I was a writer that mattered to him and that it meant a lot to them.

As I finished my recording, the sky opened up and started pouring rain. If I were religious, I might take that as a sign of some sort and maybe find comfort in it. But I’m not, and that’s not how I find meaning. I find it in the right words. I’m finding it as I write this, I was finding it that night as I spoke to a dying man, and I will find it in the future as my brain cannibalizes the experience and puts bits of it into my fiction.

Because that’s what writers do. We analyze and pick and pull and we try to find ways to lay out the bits we extract so that others can see them. The shiny bits. The sweet bits. The horrible bits. All of them. And we don’t just do it later, we do it in the moment, and sometimes we hate ourselves while we’re doing it.

My grandmother, Phyllis Neese, was a second mother to me. I loved her completely and unreservedly. When she died a few years ago it gutted me. And I used that. I stood by her bedside after they disconnected the life support and I waited for the monitors to go still, even though it tore at me to do it. I did it because I loved her and because I owed it to her and because it was the right thing to do.

And every second that I stood there, a part of my brain was standing back and looking on at what I was doing and how it felt, and it made notes. I couldn’t not, and it made me feel like a vampire—here I was in one the hardest, rawest, most devastating moments of my life, and I was making mental notes about it for later use.

It wasn’t the first time, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last, and I really didn’t much like that part of myself in the moment. Nor for years after. It seemed somehow horrible and inhuman, and it wasn’t until I was trying to think of words to say to a dying man that I found a different sort of meaning for that experience. Just as it had with my grandmother, a part of me was standing back and observing the part of me that was talking to Patrick.

It seemed ghoulish at first, but then I realized something. The part of me that had stepped back and watched while my grandmother died was handing me things from that moment to use in the present one. The part that stood and took notes while I was hurting was the same part that gave me what I needed to at least try to ease another person’s death. It’s not a vampire, it’s a witness.

We step outside of ourselves in these moments so that later, when someone needs the right words, we have a place in our hearts where the hard things are written: a record that we can share and maybe, just maybe, ease the pain for someone else. As writers, when we hurt or grieve or bleed, we stand apart in some ways and we take notes. We do it because we can. We do it because we must. We do it because somebody has to try to find the right words.

For the first time in my life I’m entirely at peace with the observer in my head. I don’t know how much my words helped Patrick that night, but I know that trying to find them helped me—that Patrick helped me. I’d like to believe that, through this essay, they’ll help a few more people along the way.

P. G. Holyfield was a writer. He knew what it meant to try to find the right words, and I hope that he would be pleased to know that he’s helped someone else to find a few of them.

Thank you, Patrick. Hail and Farewell.

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The original post about P.G. Holyfield’s cancer diagnosis and sudden decline can be found at specficmedia.com.

Pamela Gay has written a touching tribute and farewell to her friend P.G. Holyfield at her site.

Finally, I want to say a quick thank you to my friend, essayist and generally wonderful writer Patrick Rhone for taking a look at this essay and reassuring me that it was something I ought to share with people.