On a day in November last year, I introduced my 8th graders to Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s book Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love. The story is about many things: faith, motherhood, marriage, but they all swirl around the devastating loss of Anna’s son Jack who drowned in a flash flood on a September afternoon.
I’m pretty sure I remember that September day well. Hadley was in her first year of preschool. I’d realized when Harper woke up that morning, we’d run out of diapers and all we had were Splashers, those things you put on kids when they go swimming and for the record absorb about as much as a Kleenex. I had no idea how I would get a new pack of diapers in the storm outside, and I was mad at myself for not realizing we were low. Or maybe I did notice and was just too tired to get more. So maybe I was mad at myself for being lazy.
There is a creek that we had to cross in order to get to Hadley’s preschool, and with all the flash flood warnings I was worried about driving over the creek. Or what if, I thought while I snapped barrettes into Hadley’s hair, I could drop her off, but wouldn’t be able to pick her up? Darnestown Road, the road that the creek crossed, was the only route I knew of that got me to the school.
While the setting of my story does not a tragedy make, I remember that morning with sadness because I was going through a hard time. It’s cliche really. A gal who’s in the earlier stages of motherhood can’t seem to catch up with herself. Everything that happened back then seemed like a big deal, and keeping up was exhausting. Nothing back then felt easy.
This time is not something I like to write about or sift through. Not because there was nothing good about those years but because I’d have to sit with a lot of loneliness and uncertainty and sadness amongst all the beautiful things that were happening. It was hard to sort out then and it’s hard for me to express that now.
And I’m in no way equating my story with Anna’s, but when I opened up Rare Bird I brought with me the sadness I’d been carrying with me from those early years. Not to get rid of it, or to say, “I know what you’re going through.” Conjuring up those feelings felt more like an offering of attentiveness.
I think reading stories is a practice in empathy, but to do that, we have to bring what we have to the page. I brought my shame and sadness of those murky mothering years with me in the hope that I could not only share in her pain but also handle both our stories with care.
Still, this is not a “God has a plan,” or “God has a reason for everything” post. I hope you know my writing (and me) well enough now that I run away screaming from phrases like that. I think this is more of a post about paying attention with everything we have to a story we do not want to live.
So what do you do when a thing happens that you don’t want to write about? Why write it? And how do you write it? These are the questions I asked my students when we took a look at Rare Bird.
I wrote some of their responses on the board as they spoke: We write tough stories to express our feelings, to release tension. We write because sometimes it’s easier to write than to talk. We write to get a new perspective. And my two favorites: we write to “re-see” the event and we write to figure out.
When we got to the “how to write the sad,” we took a look at a few excerpts of Rare Bird and talked about how she told her story:
“I mean, why are we so ready to give God the credit for every good thing in our lives, from finding our mate, to doing well on a test or landing a job we like, yet we let Him off the hook for all the bad stuff? That seems ridiculous. Isn’t He powerful enough to command our destiny? Because that’s the God I want to worship, not some good-luck charm we call upon to help us find a parking space when we’re running late. I want a powerful God who is willing to make the hard, unpopular choices because He sees the big picture and knows what’s best. Sure, He wants our worship, but He doesn’t need our approval.”
Here, we noticed that the paragraph has a sort of call and response feel to it. We also noticed that Anna asks a lot of questions, so we decided that we could ask questions as we told our stories, and that it would be OK if we didn’t answer them.
Another excerpt we took a look at was a poem Anna wrote:
Heaven had better be:
Better than any stinkin’ Youth Group costume party.
And being trapped inside a Lego Factory over a long weekend with
plenty of Cheez-Its and Dr Pepper
And the buzzy feeling you get when the person you have a crush on
crushes on you back.
And sledding down a huge hill with your best friends until it’s cocoa time.
And a wonderful, fumbly first kiss.
And skiing black diamonds with your dad in Colorado.
And a high school debate trip to New York City with fun but
slightly lax chaperones.
And praising God at a retreat and finally getting how much He
And sitting around with your friends at college laughing until your
And falling in love.
And watching in person as the Yankees win the World Series…
And surprising your little sister by flying in for her college
And doing work that fulfills you and honors God.
And dancing with your mom at your wedding.
And holding your newborn baby.
And giving that baby a bath and zipping hi up in footy pajamas.
Okay, God? Good.
“Write a poem,” went on our “how to write column”, but I asked them to tell me what was going on in this poem. Who is Anna talking to? What is she doing?
We decided Anna is talking to God and that she’s telling him about the things Jack likes: Cheez-Its, Legos, Dr. Pepper – like a mother might tell a babysitter before she goes out for an evening. But she’s also sharing things she wanted him to experience: holding a newborn baby, dancing with her at his wedding, a first kiss. We realized that she’s releasing Jack to God, but it is not an easy release.
Some of the students were uncomfortable with this idea that Anna was perhaps making demands of God, or questioning Him. Some of them wondered whether this was OK.
I told them what my mom told me when I was their age and said to her (through sobs because I was ashamed and scared) that I was angry at God (the reason I was mad has left me, but it probably had something to do with the existence of long division). “You can get mad at God,” she told me. “He can take it.”
I told the students that when they are frustrated, or sad, or angry, God already knows so they might as well write it so they can see that emotion on the page. Then they can name it. I think that’s what attentiveness looks like.
So with that, I had them write “Heaven Had Better Be” poems, and with their permission, I’m sharing some excerpts here:
“There’d better be no guilt, or sadness, or feeling my work’s incomplete…”
“Heaven had better be better than being given a home and parents…”
“Heaven better be like the time I was at the park with a special girl and saw the sunset…”
“Heaven had better be better than an automatic rebounder that gets your ball after you shoot, and anti-gravity rooms to float around in, and bike riding to Baskin-Robbins…”
“Heaven had better be better than seeing the longest playoff game in baseball history…”
“Heaven had better be happier than the moment your dad comes home…”
“Heaven had better be better than knowing your parents are happy…”
One student ended his poem with this line: “Alright, God? Thanks, I’m trusting you!”
As I wrote this, I kept thinking of the word neighbor, and what writing has to do with being a neighbor. On a geographical level, Anna is a DMV resident, and there was something comforting about sharing her story with my students. None of us can do a thing about what happened but now there are about forty more of us around the Beltway that have our hearts and minds connected to Jack.
And I don’t think Anna wrote her story in order to show the rest of us how to write the sad. But I think of that verse in the Bible about a man laying down his life for his friends in order to show how much he loves them, and I wonder if that’s what we do when we lay down our lives on the page. I wonder if, when we pick up a pen and attend to a story we don’t think we want to tell, whether we are looking around for love to show others and ourselves even when the story is incredibly dark. I wonder if it is the act of a neighbor to attend to others’ stories as well as our own.