I approached the church-like structure and hesitantly opened the tall, wooden door to the Corvallis Arts Center. The floor creaked as I walked toward the open room where all the guests were mingling. The chairs were placed in the center, intimately arranged with the podium just a few feet from the front row.
- A wave of nostalgia hit me as I walked through the entrance of the First Presbyterian Church of Mankato. Memories of my grandmother taking me to the church filled my mind. I would’ve never expected to be here again, especially not for his memorial service.
I saw a few people who I knew, Carly Lettero, Charles Goodrich, and some other familiar faces who I couldn’t quite place. I walked around the perimeter of the room, viewing Dawn Stetzel’s I could live there exhibit on its last day. Then, Michael Nelson walked in, and he, Carly, and I exchanged some pleasantries. I was ready to get to the poetry and was a bit wary of how I might respond to Alison’s works given my recent loss.
- Surrounded by six of my family members, I walked up the church’s lobby steps and greeted the few people I didn’t know, those who saw enough good in him to pay their respects or who wanted to support the family. As I smiled and shook their hands, each of them just couldn’t help but say, “Wow, you look just like Bill.”
Everyone was seated, ready to hear the latest from the well-respected author. After a quick introduction from Spring Creek Project’s director, Alison prefaced her Stairway to Heaven reading with a few comments about the book, then, to my delight, she broke into song:
“There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Ooh ooh ooh ooh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven”
- Just a week ago, I was listening to Alison Hawthorne Deming’s poetry, engaging in someone else’s brilliant and creative way of coping. Now, I sit in a smaller room with fewer people, and a slight air of solemnity for my father, a man with whom I spent less than a few hours of my life. His high school friend approached me and said, “I’ll be sharing a few stories about your father, good ones before he lost his way.” A single tear fell from my right eye as I thanked him.
Alison explained Robert Plant’s intent behind those lyrics—it was a commentary on consumerism, our incessant need to amass fortunes, and our obsession with the material even after death. Not only did the inspiration behind “Stairway to Heaven” tie into her work, which shines a light on how we, as humans, live on Earth within vast ecological systems, but using “Stairway to Heaven” as her book’s title referred to the loss of her mother and brother whose passing inspired many of the poems.
- My cousin Paula and Bill’s best man at his first wedding shared a few good and many honest stories about him. Bill was addicted to gambling and alcohol, spending much of his adult life betting on sports in Vegas. The work that he did was to find the short cut to success, thinking that he could outsmart anyone and constantly looking for a way to “work the system.” He had an affinity for material things and wealth, perhaps because he felt more connected to money and stuff than people. He aspired to reach the highest rungs of society, always coming up short. For all of his faults, he had many positive attributes, but even those traits could get him into trouble, like his charisma, his humor, and his intelligence, especially because he couldn’t push his ego aside.
To my surprise, I didn’t hear a lot of grief in the poetry that Alison selected for the night. Not to say that grief and healing weren’t evident in what we heard, particularly in “Castalia” and “The Drowned Man.” But, more than anything, I felt a deep connection to place, to those settings that her words so vividly described. Of the works that she read, my favorite poem was “Mosquitoes,” mostly due to her depiction of an experience shared by all in the room but also because of the perspective she offered: that we sacrifice our flesh for their survival. Laughter filled the room as each of us was transported to a time that we were swarmed by mosquitoes.
- Tears unexpectedly rolled down my cheeks as I listened to stories of my father as a young man, one full of promise and drive, who worked hard and even was voted most likely to succeed in high school. Tommy and Joye’s tragic deaths flashed before me, causing me to experience that grief all over again, and intensifying the emptiness that I felt with Bill gone. The idea that one day I may know my father, a constant desire throughout my life, was squandered. As much as I love and care about people, animals, and plants—those who I’ve never met or witnessed—I never could muster the courage to forgive him, to accept him, or try to connect with him.
At the end of the poetry reading, I went up to the podium to talk with Alison about the recent loss of my father and the other unforeseen losses of people whom I loved. I spoke with her about the cyclical nature of experiencing grief and whether she experienced this phenomenon while writing “Stairway to Heaven.” Specifically, I asked Alison, “Did you have any profound moments of clarity or crushing moments of grief? If so, did those moments inspire any specific poems?” I could see in her expression that my question provoked a deep emotional response. She referenced “Luminous Mother” as the poem that resulted from a low point of grief and experienced some clarity while writing “The Drowned Man.” Then she said that the writing process itself was healing, but she emphasized the great benefit of doing physical work. Trail clearing, which she wrote about in “Castalia,” was one of the most effective coping mechanisms for her. Alison ended our conversation with this piece of advice, “We have to heal bit by bit. What you experience after a loss shows your capacity to be human, to experience these emotions and embrace them.”
- I approached the podium to reassure everyone there, and perhaps more than anything, convince myself, that I was OK, that I have a good life. I understand who he was and that he put himself before everyone else, but I was grateful for him and the way he lived. Without him and his selfish decisions, I wouldn’t exist—not just as a human but as the person I am today. Also, for as much pain that he caused other people, he never, for one second, departed from who he truly was. I think that there is something quite freeing in being true to ourselves, for better or worse. In that moment, I said goodbye to the father I never knew.
“I’ll know whatever I suffer is small on the scale of what people are made to live through. A net of words holds a place together and those who are broken are lifted home.” – Alison Deming Hawthorne, Excerpt from “The Drowned Man”
Over the summer, I traveled the country with my husband. During this time, I had a lot of time to reflect and finally felt at peace knowing that I had no relationship with my father. Even if he didn’t think about me or want to hear from me, which who knows if he did or not, I persevered and found happiness. I have so many people in my life who care deeply about me, including the family he and I shared. I also find comfort in knowing that for all the demons he faced, he lived a full life and shared some happy memories with the people I love. I met him once during one of the toughest years of my life, and our encounter left a lot to be desired for me. For as angry as I was for being 100 percent blindsided by his visit, I’m eternally grateful to my grandmother for arranging it. Who knows if we would’ve ever met otherwise. Growing up, I often fantasized about our conversations and wondered what was stopping him from reaching out. Recently, I planned to contact him and try to clear the air. At the very least, I wanted to let him know that I harbor no ill will against him, that I’d be happy to learn more about him and his life, and if he was interested, I could tell him about my life. Once my husband and I were finally settled in Oregon, I got the news of his accident and felt like I missed my big opportunity to connect or at least bring him some peace. I hope that he somehow intuitively knew how I felt, but I wish that I would’ve contacted him sooner since I found out late last year that his health was declining. I have a lot of complex emotions that I’ve grappled with my whole life and am still trying to make sense of now. For those of you who have faced or are facing similar circumstances, who are scared, unsure, or reluctant to act, I encourage you to do what your heart tells you, whatever that may be, and make peace with your decision.
– Sarah Minette Kelly