Reaching for My Pen
Last Saturday, my youngest daughter, Lil, and her friend sat at the dining room table with every art supply we owned spread out in front of them: markers, beads, paints, modeling clay, and the hot glue gun. I was a few feet away, in the kitchen, cutting up strawberries and prepping peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“What does your mom do?” asked Lil’s friend.
“Oh, my mom . . . ,” she answered. “My mom’s a writer.”
The warm delight of her words spread through me.
I’ve been a daughter, mother, teacher, and wife (twice), but until recently, I never saw myself as a writer. Sure, I have written in diaries and journals since the fourth grade, but I never shared those with anyone. That was just for me. To process my life. To record my thoughts and feelings and musings. I didn’t think I was a “writer.”
Journaling was a constant in my life, and became an important support when I was twenty-nine years old, and my first husband, Spencer, was diagnosed with terminal melanoma cancer. One week after the diagnosis, we discovered that we were pregnant with our first baby, Alice. Joy mixed with sorrow. I used my journal to record my worst moments, saddest days, and countless pages of worry. I worried about the health of the baby. I worried about how the stress of Spencer’s diagnosis and treatment would affect her development. I worried about eating enough protein. But mostly, I worried that cancer would take him away from us.
Two years later, when Spencer died, I was left with Alice, our twenty-month-old baby girl, and a broken heart. Everything I knew about grief and mothering, I had learned as a nine-year-old child when I watched my mother and grandmother mourn the loss of my grandfather. They whispered, they cooked, they cleaned, and they cried silently. When I came close, they wiped their tears away. Smiled at me. Offered me more food. What do you want? A soda? A cookie? They fussed over the men in the family.
I learned from these women how to mourn. Don’t let people see you cry and Keep busy. As I grieved, I followed in the footsteps of the women in my family. I kept my crying private. A practice that I controlled. I cried while driving to work each and every day. My twenty-five-minute commute. A set amount of time. A small release.
At the beginning of this challenging time, I turned away from my journal for almost a year. I tried to push away the grief. Avoid thinking about it. I feared writing about my loss and heartbreak would unlock a sadness I couldn’t manage. Writing it down would make it permanent.
But eventually, I found myself reaching for my pen. Sitting alone in bed at night, I missed my ritual of writing. I yearned for the feeling when my thoughts were written down on the page—a sense of order created from the chaos of my mind. Recording an awkward conversation I had with someone helped me see the humor in it. Writing down concerns made me feel less alone in the worry. Slowly, I started writing in my journal again. First, a few words and phrases each week. Then, I wrote a couple of sentences daily. Now, when I look back at the earliest entries from that time in my life, I find that I mostly wrote about Alice. Her firsts. Her milestones. Funny moments. I recorded whole conversations between Alice and me on the pages. But nothing about my feelings of loss and grief. I didn’t realize it, but I was keeping busy being a mother.
Caring for my daughter was an easy place to stay hidden. Motherhood, especially single motherhood, is demanding work: making breakfast, packing lunches, dropping off at school and picking up again, taking walks, going to the park, doing the dishes, filling out the school forms, cooking dinner, grocery shopping, cleaning the house, maintaining the yard and garden, reading the books and singing the songs, keeping up with playdates, and all of the loving. I kept busy for a long time. I was really good at being busy.
Years after Spencer died, I had a second baby and remarried. When Lil was born, I took a whole year off from my work as a teacher. I slowed down. Way down. I had never had that kind of downtime. Alice was in second grade, and she and I walked to school together every day. Slowly. She talked and talked the whole way there. With a new partner to share the demands of parenting and without the pressure and expectations of lesson planning and serving the many needs of my students, I finally had the time. To walk slowly and listen. Time to think. Time to remember. I even had time to sign up for a creative writing class at the community center—my first writing class ever. Something I had always wanted to do.
In that class, I first learned that writing comes from the desire to speak. Everyone has something different to say. I have my own story to tell, I thought. Why had I never realized this before? In each class, the teacher gave us a prompt. I started writing the next day while Lil napped and Alice was at school. That was the first time I put down on paper my memories or my feelings about my first husband’s death and my grief. I wrote about when the surgeon called to tell us the horrible news. How I handed Spencer the phone while he stood in the shower. How the white shower curtain clung to his leg. The cancer was back, and the prognosis was terrible. I hadn’t even intended to share this memory, but it came to me and flowed onto the page. I submitted the story to my teacher.
She gave supportive feedback. Great details here. Strong dialogue. Nice work.
“Keep writing,” she said as she handed me my paper.
One month into the class, the teacher asked, “Andrea, will you read aloud this week?”
My stomach flipped. I had never shared my writing with anyone besides the teacher. I nodded. I stood up from my metal chair. I stared at the paper shaking in my hand. The teacher cleared her throat, and I took a deep breath. My heart pounded in my chest. In a tentative, shaky voice, I began to read my story.
After days of quietly sleeping and slowly dying in our bed, Spencer had come back to me. He had woken up, and we had shared a moment of coherence and love that I will never forget. He spoke as he held me in a tight hug, something he had not been capable of in over a week.
“I’m so sorry about my timing,” he said. “I love you more than you will ever know.”
“I love you,” I whispered.
“I will see you on the other side,” he said.
My voice cracked, but I kept reading. The story ended with Spencer drifting back to sleep. He didn’t say anything else for his remaining days. I called my piece about this remarkable yet brief exchange “Our Last Dance.”
I barely got out the last line. I read it in a whisper. My face burned. The class was quiet. I looked up and saw that some of my fellow students had tears in their eyes. One woman sitting in the front started a slow, awkward clap. Others joined in. The teacher beamed with a proud smile.
“Ok, guys,” the teacher said. “Do you see how Andrea makes her fiction believable? We all know her husband didn’t die of cancer, but she makes it seem so real.”
My eyes widened. What? How could she think this was fiction? Other students shared excerpts from memoirs. Wasn’t mine written in the first person? How did she not know this was my life? At first, I was angry. But once I calmed down and thought about it more, I was surprised to find myself grateful, and even a little excited.
Because my audience assumed I was writing fiction, it loosened the control I held on my grief. Fiction gave me freedom. I could be more honest about someone else’s grief—another mother who made mistakes. I wrote about a young wife learning that her husband had terminal cancer, and one week later, she was pregnant with their first baby. I wrote about the stupid things people said to her. I wrote about people tilting their heads at her in pity. I wrote about her being a single mother. I wrote about her being scared. I wrote and wrote. And I cried and cried. Finally, I didn’t limit myself. I cried wherever I was writing: after dinner at the dining room table, early mornings at my desk, and in the rocking chair, balancing my sleeping baby in one arm and my journal and pen in the other. It was the beginning of healing.
As I arranged the sandwiches and strawberries on two plates, I peeked into the dining room. Lil looked up from her creation and smiled at me. She’s right. I am a writer. And it is through this process of writing and grieving and healing that I became the writer that Lil knows me to be.
22 replies on “Reaching for My Pen”
Omg Andrea, this is beautiful! Unfortunately I put mascara on today, and have a work meeting in two minutes. :-P
Indeed, you are a writer. I can’t wait to read what you write next.
This is such a poignant story about loss and resilience after experiencing the unthinkable. Thank you for writing it.
That … was … brilliant. I love and admire you, so, so much and cannot wait to read more. ❤️
What an amazingly beautiful reflection. Your description of pushing through grief as a new mom was so powerful. Thank you for writing this and can’t wait to read more from you.
This is so touching and beautiful. I am looking forward to many more. You are amazing!
I shouldn’t have read this, because now I am crying… while my class is quietly working; great! So beautifully written! You are a writer.
You are an amazing writer!!!
I was told to wait to read till later but I couldn’t wait. I was crying at my desk. Thank you so much for sharing.
Just the most tragic of stories but the most wonderful piece of writing. It’s so personal and so compelling. The second to the last paragraph feels almost like a poem. Evokes deep grief and evolves to a great sense of peace.
I cannot wait to read more of your work.
You are an incredibly strong woman, phenomenal mother, and a beautiful writer! This brought tears to my eyes… can’t wait to read what you write next. ❤️❤️❤️
What a beautiful story. I could feel what you were feeling in every word. Looking forward to many more stories and books from you.
This is absolutely beautiful Andrea! I only wish I had waited to read it at home. I am sure everyone at work is wondering why I am crying! I am so proud of you! Love you!!
Andrea this is so beautiful. You are indeed a writer…I am looking forward to reading more! You have such a gift ♥️
Andrea- what an amazing piece of writing. You are very talented! Thank you for sharing your story. I look forward to many more-
The emotions you released in this writing jumped off the page. You are an amazing writer. I am so proud of you and love you.
You are, most certainly, a writer. And a talented one. Thank you for sharing your story. I look forward to reading more.
I remember you telling me about this experience when I visited you in Oakland. This is heart felt and truley amazing. Thank you for sharing your story.
You inspire me! I’m so grateful to be your friend! I’m so proud of you and this beautiful accomplishment. Love you!
I missed reading your writings Andrea, and this one was such a heartfelt read!
Thank you for sharing this story with us, and I look forward to reading more nonfiction pieces from you in the future.
I know you don’t remember me but I used to babysit you and Beth and I have a picture of you when you were just a little girl in the playpen. You named one of your babies Alice. I knew Alice and Sam and my Mom who is now 86 was 1st cousins as well as Marie and my Mom always stayed with her Aunt Jenny growing up as a little girl. My Grandmother and Aunt Jenny were sisters and my Grandmother used to bring to Aunt Jenny’s all the time as a little girl and at one time your grandmother had a liquor store right across from her mother!
I am so sorry for all of the grief you have been through and I was at your Mom’s function to raise funds to help your Mom Dad and both of your girls’!
Your Mom gave me my first job when I turned 16 at Kinko’s Hallmark and before that I babysat for your Mom and your Aunt Connie’s 3 children when Billy was just a baby!
I love your writing and know for sure your
Stories will turn into movies in the future and I will continue following you and I wish you nothing but the best!
As a matter of fact my Mom named my sister Jenny Marie LeBeau!
Keep up the awesome writing ✍️!
❤️ Wow. Truly inspiring.