The Mute Dinner Guest

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I have a group of friends, we call ourselves the Supper Club, because we do our best, with ten kids between the four of us, to go out to eat together on a regular basis. It used to be once a month, now it’s every few months. Once at dinner, when we’d been the Supper Club for well over five years, I began talking about my mom’s long-term boyfriend. One of my friends politely waited until I finished my story then asked, “Where is your dad?”

She didn’t know he died. Because I never spoke about him, she assumed he was somewhere unknown and just – not part of my life. It was a mystery, where he’d gone. And, in some ways, it was like that for me, too.

“Essentially, I specialize in how people talk about death.”

Dr. Jillian Tullis

I recently met Dr. Jillian Tullis, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at University of San Diego. When she introduced herself, she described her area of study. “Essentially,” she said, “I specialize in how people talk about death.” It made me think of my own experience with my father’s death. What did we talk about? How were my siblings and me told about his illness, what was going on?

We weren’t. We didn’t talk about it. Not before, not during or after. We just – lived day to day waiting for whatever was next. There were hospice nurses who came to our home at the end. They were nice and paid attention to me, as much as they could. Did I know why they were there? Sort of. To give my mom a break at night. Did I know they were there because my dad was near death? Not exactly.

My dad died when I was seven. I was nearly thirty when I learned he had spinal cancer. It was during a physical when the doctor asked me the type of cancer he had. I told her that I wasn’t sure. That’s how much we talked about him after he died. Close to never. And yet, he was an unspoken presence in our family, like a mute dinner guest we all took pains to ignore every night.

After the visit, I called my mom. I had always assumed he’d died of lung cancer because he smoked. I was wrong. Medulloblastoma.

“As in the medulla?” I asked, taking in the news.

“Yes.”

Brain cancer?”

“Well, it’s complicated,” she said. “He had medulloblastoma in his spine. It was so rare that the doctors sent tissue samples to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.”

One of my earliest memories involves magnets around the time I was two or three years old. The magnets were letters of the alphabet, primary colored, fixed to the side of our maroon fridge. Or was it olive. Mustard? My memory of the magnets isn’t about playing with them or trying to spell words. What I remember is my mother insisting that I pick them up. “Don’t leave them scattered all over the floor,” she said. “Your dad can’t feel them when he walks.”

“How long did it take me to write the book? My whole life!”

I have a book of essays coming out this Spring called ‘Mass for the Shut Ins.’ Someone asked me recently how long it took me to write the book and I immediately answered, “My entire life.” Even though it felt like a knee-jerk answer tinged with melodrama, I knew it was the truth.

Every time I try to explain what the book is about, I come up with something different. It’s a hologram. I hope. Or maybe it’s a mirror – reflecting whatever it is the reader needs to see. Maybe that’s how all books work, though. Sometimes I ramble a response along the lines of: the book is about grief, how grief isn’t a diagonal line from sadness to all better. With grief, one day you’ll feel great, joyous even, exuberant, then suddenly it’s like you’re on a ride at an amusement park, dropped from the sky straight to the ground. Grief is fragmented – because we all have lives and responsibilities we can’t ignore: school, work, kids, bills. My hope for ‘Mass for the Shut Ins’ is that it tells people who most need to hear it that there are lifeboats in the sea of grief and those lifeboats are how you survive. Find them and hold on. When you’re able, express how grateful you are to them – the people who tossed you a line and reeled you in.

I wish I’d been able to read ‘Mass for the Shut Ins’ when I was young, grappling with how to cope with my dad’s death and the aftermath of that experience. What I hope for this book is that it helps another kid struggling with such a seismic event in her life. That it’s a salve for the wound. It was right around the time I first learned about my dad’s medulloblastoma that I began writing in earnest. Maybe it was coincidence, maybe it wasn’t. The answer to one mystery opened a door to another and another and I had to find the right key for every door.  At least that’s how it felt.

I’d kept quiet about my dad and my experience with his death for so long, that when I was finally able to put words to that space inside myself I’d hidden – or ignored – I found I couldn’t stop.

Gwen Goodkin’s stories and essays have been published in literary magazines throughout the U.S. and beyond. She is the recipient of the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction and Folio’s Editor’s Prize for Fiction. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Find her at: gwengoodkin.com

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