In October 2010, my mother-in-law, Mary Higgins, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Mary died on May 31, 2011, in her own bedroom. It was her wish not to die in a hospital, so my husband and assorted relatives and friends, and myself, banded together to care for Mary at home.
Anyone who has cared for a terminally ill person knows that the nearness of death will reshape your life. It’s not just the rota of medications; the too-fast doctor visits; the nebuliser’s rattle and hiss. It’s also those moments when the condemned person confides that they are frightened, in pain, disgusted at what their body is becoming. It’s the times when you are away from this, trying to attend to the other parts of your life. Trying to remember the route to work, your students’ names, your ATM password. Everything outside the sick room is arbitrary, trivial. The day before Mary died, I wrote in my journal: Nothing in this life is as hard as leaving it. That eventually became the last line of a poem.
Many of the poems in my collection, The God Thing (Salmon Poetry, 2013), grew from such seed-like phrases in my journal of this time. I wrote the book between early 2010 and the end of 2012. Most of the time it felt as if I was remembering something inscribed long ago, rather than writing something new.
I was lucky enough to understand as it was happening that this mindset – the acid grief, the distance between me and the mundane workings of the world, the ability to be moved by very small moments – this wouldn’t last. So I needed to record what it felt like. I needed to record, however imperfectly, what we all went through in those eight months of reverse gestation. That long, wrenching goodbye.
The God Thing is not only about death and grief; it’s also a book about faith. A book full of questions about whether or not there is a God. I was raised to believe, but as an adult my faith in Him has taken some pretty hard knocks. I now call myself an agnostic, which is a more elegant way of saying that I haven’t got a clue. I rather suspect that there is no God; yet there is a shy, soft part of me that wants desperately to believe. I am protective of this part, because I imagine it is precisely this – this sense of humility and wonder, this wish to emphasise that which connects us rather than that which distinguishes us one from another – it is this that makes me as intellectually restless, as personally kind, as aspiring to decency as I am. At least, on a good day. That is of course less a justification of God than a justification of faith.
The God Thing owes much to the confessional poetry movement – poets such as Anne Sexton, who wrote about menstruation and masturbation, abortion and suicide. Poetry of flesh and blood, of visceral (female) experience, such as had not been seen before. For me, as poet and woman, the work of Sexton and Sylvia Plath is still deeply relevant. I’m moved by the sight of these two very troubled women taking power by seizing control of the narrative of their lives – bending and coaxing it into art. This is what I needed to do with The God Thing. I needed, in the face of suffering and death, to regain a sense of control by telling the story; to bend and coax my experience into something comprehensible, relatable.
All the more distressing, then, when (months after my book was published) another individual who was affected by Mary’s death sent me solicitor’s letters, threatening to sue me over The God Thing. The emotional toll of receiving those letters was more awful than I can convey. This individual wanted my book destroyed (that word was used) because it didn’t tell the truth as they saw it. Their own version of things remained untold, and their remedy for this was not to try to tell it – in poetry, in prose, in paint or music or choreography or by carving the damn thing in stone. Their remedy for their own silence was to try to silence me.
As a poet, for whose truth am I responsible? Only my own. That is my very hard-won conclusion. I hope the words I write can ring true, can move other people; can move past self-expression into real communication that sustains, enriches. But I can only start that process from here. From where I am.
(c) Susan Millar DuMars