Last week, Stacey and I were sitting at a small pizza place waiting for our food to arrive. To pass the time we did what most people do – we scrolled through our Facebook feeds. After a few slides of my thumb I came across an article about the movie, “Steel Magnolias”. It’s been thirty years since the play that inspired the movie debuted on Broadway. Many of us know the story of the characters in the film. We love them. Some of us relate to them. Most of us cry with them. What I didn’t know was that the movie was based on a real story.
The playwright, Robert Harling, wanted to write his sister’s life story. She died young from complications of Type 1 Diabetes. Just as Julia Roberts does in the film. One passage from the article describes how the writer, Harling, wasn’t sure that his mother would want to watch the scene being filmed that day. She’d watched most of the other filming but this day would be a difficult. The scene was the one in which Susan, the writer’s sister, dies when her life support machines are turned off.
Harling had said he thought that it might be too difficult for his mother to watch the character based on her daughter, die. His mother’s response was: “I want to see Julia get up from the bed and walk away.” As a bereaved mother myself . . . I completely understand this concept.
Two weeks ago I chose an audiobook from the library to listen to as I drove the 45 minutes, twice a day, so I could spend the time a bit more productively. This is my third one. The first was “The Ocean at the end of the Lane” by Neil Gamain. A wonderful tale. Then “Travels with Charley” by my favorite writer, John Steinbeck. This choice, my third, was of a book I’ve read multiple times. I am continually drawn back to the characters and the story. As well as the tale woven between women’s lives.
I don’t want to give too much away about the book but I will say . . . it is so worth reading. Also, skip the next couple of paragraphs if you plan on reading it because I talk about some very key happenings.
There is a part near the middle of the story when the narrative character has found love, true love, and finally she is married to him. He happens to be a prince. A prince whose family has very different religious customs. To appease the way the way the whole marriage occurred, her father demands that all the men of his daughter’s new family be circumcised. To which the young prince quickly agrees. But, before this can happen, her enraged brothers kill her new husband.
The story of this young woman, Dinah, starts before her birth with the story of her mothers and their family history. Up through the births of all of her siblings into her coming of age. The writer does an incredible job of weaving Dinah’s story into colorful strands of sentences that knit together around us into something as real and comforting as a favorite blanket. There is a description, in the book, which tells us how rough wool is taken and cleaned and worked until it can be woven together on a loom to make soft and durable material. This small snippet of the whole story is mesmerizing. All of it is mesmerizing.
Dinah, and her aunt/mother Zilpah, are called to the castle where they tend the birth of a baby by one of the king’s concubines. By happenstance, Dinah meets the young prince, Shalem in an anteroom just outside of the birth chamber. They fall instantly in love and the prince’s mother, the Queen, arranges for them to meet up again and her intuition is correct. They are meant to be together. From this point we are told of the deep love between these two young adults. The writer goes on to describe this joining in great detail and with sensitivity that causes my heart to ache. The first time I read this book the next events, which were unexpected but shouldn’t have been, broke my heart. Dinah’s new husband is murdered by her enraged brothers for what they saw as “the rape and kidnapping” of their sister. The bride-price that had been agreed to by the two father in laws wasn’t good enough for them. In reality, I think their motive was jealousy not revenge.
On my way into work one morning, I came to the part when Shalem crawls back into their marriage bed and whispers that an agreement had been reached and he was to go under her father’s knife in three days. The two rejoice at the happiness they feel and the future they will share. Except, they won’t. These two characters, which in my head are as real as you and me, are blissfully unaware of the tragedy about to befall them. But, I’m not. I know what is going to occur in just a few pages. I know dark figures will breach the castle walls and silently move from one shadowed corner to the next until they find their targets. The end of a life will end quickly and with much blood shed.
Knowing that this is where the story would go next I reached up and stopped the disc. I thought to myself. No. I am not going to let this happen again. Shalem won’t die. Dinah won’t mourn. I can create the future they should have had in my own head. Or, at the very least, stop the one that inevitably follows in the book. I knew I could not bear to have Dinah suffer again, as she had, every other time I’d followed the story through. The disc stayed in the player for almost a week until I took it out and put it back into it’s numbered place in the box and readied it to be returned to the library tomorrow.
If a bereaved mother could change one thing about her past life I know it would be to stop the death of her child/ren. Or, the events that led up to her child’s dying. The days prior to the date of our child’s passing are filled with dread, anxiety, longing, anger. And, more emotions I have not been able to put into words yet, even after a dozen years without my daughter.
I’ve shared often about my difficult time of year. It subtly starts as appears at the edges of the trees leaves. The air begins to carry a chill in itself. October 31st is a clear demarcation of “the difficult months”. The dates, which fall concretely within these weeks, can be seen on a calendar. Marked days of renewed sorrow and increased anxiety. Each one ticking away the time until the moment of her death. As always, there is nothing I can do to stop this event from happening.
I can not watch an actress play my daughter, die underneath a flipped car, get up and wipe the blood from the right corner of her mouth. Neither can I switch off the narrated story of her life when the words start leading down the cold highway in the early morning hours. Her last hour. Last minute. Final breath.
I want to. I always feel as if I am failing my child again. I just can not figure out how to stop past events from happening. Or, how to trade places with her. Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. Another fixed point in time that I have no power over. The year will change, time will move forward, and I will be farther away from my child’s last living moment. Tomorrow night I will go to bed early, as I always do, because the change of one year to the next is incredibly painful. I can’t face it anymore. I face enough pain in my everyday life . . . I think I can take a pass from experiencing yet another one. I will wake up January 1, 2019 and accept that time didn’t stop when my Becca was killed. I will be firmly in another year without her.
I would give anything to rewrite the story of our lives. To unlock the secret which allows me to change past events. To watch my daughter wiggle out from under the black car and walk toward me with a smile on her face and hear her say ‘momma” in the sing song way she had when she called to me from another room. Or, to just be able to shut off the narrative of impending events.
So here I sit, spilling my thoughts onto the screen, hoping for relief? An answer? I’m not sure. Neither? Both. I guess, as morbid as this sounds, I will take some comfort in knowing the arrival of 2019 will bring me closer to the moment I hear her voice call to me again. When I can catch her in my arms and pull her close forever. I know this meeting won’t happen soon, and probably not for decades, but I can look forward to that reunion and it sparks joy in my heart.
I hope 2019 brings you all love, light, and peace.
Included in this blog:
Steel Magnolias – a play written by Robert Harling in 1987.
The Red Tent – a book written and published by Anita Diamant in 1997.