The book’s almost published. The artist has the manuscript and is turning it from an 8 1/2” x 11” manuscript to an 8” x 5” book. Time to be Julie Andrews in a huge alpine field and sing, “The Hills are Alive.” Time to be Liza Minnelli in black fishnet and bow-tie and sing, “New York, New York.”
Time to run like hell out of town.
Let’s see, what have I done in this latest writing? How many people have I stepped on in my single-minded effort to walk on their hearts to that alpine field and on that gritty, indifferent New York stage?
First, is my mother. She read to page fifty of the draft and declared it more than she could bear. Memoirs can suck. After her, my husband and son felt like walk-ons when they both said, “Well, it is your story,” and gingerly handed it back to me.
So, what is this work about? Draft after draft, I turned myself into an “expert” on the classic hero’s journey. Like the quiet nondescript kid who sat in the back of the room in a class on the revered Joseph Campbell, never asked a question, and at the end of the semester had a weird dream after eating a greasy sausage, and declared herself a Campbell expert. In a mean streak someone could declare that of me, though I did read a hundred books, and Campbell’s weren’t the only ones. I never did call myself an expert, though I am saying I’m knowledgeable, even if the only letters I can claim by my name are Mrs. and BS.
Next, I have the audacity to, get this: Declare myself a hero. When no one else sees it in me. Clearly. Loudly. On paper in black ink where it will remain as evidence.
And what brought me to this astounding, one-woman conclusion? I lived through grief’s devastation after my brother’s traumatic death. It was suicide, though that is not more important than the murders, accidents and illnesses covered in the book other grievers suffered with their loved ones. Separately we have all walked the steps of the classic hero’s journey, to once again live a good and productive life.
My one redeeming virtue may be that my purpose with this book, Blossoms of the Lower Branches, a Hero’s Journey Through Grief, is to convince grievers of traumatic deaths to appreciate themselves for what they have become: heroes in their own lives. That is the purpose beyond me, me, me. All of us have unwittingly and unwillingly followed a tradition dating back to the story of Gilgamesh four thousand years ago.
Believe me. Several times I’ve thought I could give this project up. I don’t want people reading about my life. I don’t want them judging my parents or my brother, husband and son. But I do know the devastation of my brother’s death. I veered into years of near blackness with my husband and son as quiet beacons.
I cannot save others. I cannot prevent suffering. But I can give encouragement and signposts that they are walking in the very steps that heroes have walked for centuries. Others have said similar things. Therapists and doctors with half an alphabet of credentials behind their names have had the five stages, seven steps, or ten gates. I describe a long, frightening path through the underworld of demons, a slow walk through fairy tale forests, and a time of weaving life’s threads with the Norse Three Fates. There are tasks similar to Hercules slaying Hydra, and Odysseus having himself bound so he could resist the seductions of the sirens.
Don’t let my comparisons fool you. This is a deadly serious journey. Grief’s stranglehold can kill the life of whoever suffers in its clutch. Traumatic grief is not easy. It’s not pretty. The written and oral traditions of the hero’s journey across the globe from the beginning of storytelling all say this: Only those who walk the lonely journey and learn its lessons are heroes. In the end, if the hero is not applauded for bravery, it does not matter. The alpine field is left to Julie Andrew’s innocence and a New York audience is better entertained by Liza Minnelli, but grief’s solitary hero knows.