I WATCHED my friend Kerry’s life, gradually falling apart. And before I had known, this certainly took its toll. Once she was a successful elementary school teacher and an author whose work was adapted for a popular TV show. Life has its own versions of ‘flip-flops’. And a couple of flops down the lane, aided by a nasty case of writer’s block, reduced her to grinding out small contents for a wellness web site. Fiddlesticks, I would call this, in writer’s jargon. Her estranged husband Lucas, with bouts of anxiety, stunted his music career. He now lives in the basement.
Reason: the couple simply could not afford to divorce — a situation they are hiding from their sullen teenager, Rocky! And then her best friend has been diagnosed with having cancer.
So what does a woman do in this kind of situation? Well, she starts wearing her dog in a sling just to feel some kind of comfort and connection. And that is just what Kerry likes to do. I met her at the festival of Laura Zigman’s launching of her new novel Separation Anxiety. ‘When I came up with the idea for Kerry to wear her dog in an old baby sling, I didn’t even know that dog-slings were a “thing”. A co-worker once reminded this to me while she explained the synergy of a pet dog, owner, and the dog sling.
‘I didn’t grow up with dogs. So when we got one in early 2009, initially for my son who was struggling with the loneliness of being an only child, it turned out to be transformative for me. About a year after we had Lady, our Sheltie, my mother was diagnosed with having pancreatic cancer. I spent almost every day with my mother during her illness, bringing food over, taking her to chemo appointments, sitting with her at home while she rested.’
She continued with her conversation: ‘Throughout that sad time, Lady was my emotional support system: a therapy dog without the vest. I can’t tell you how many times after a long day of watching my mother’s illness progress as we braced for her loss that I came home and hugged my dog and wept. In the 10 years since, we’ve had Lady, she has saved us all. So even though I never actually wore my dog, I certainly felt like I did.’
I always wanted to write about a woman set in the time of life when loss seems overwhelming, when the sense of possibility that you feel when you are young and when your family is young is lost and has been replaced with melancholy. People you love are gone; dreams you had for yourself have not been realised; most things have not turned out the way you thought they would. Loss and grief for big and small things can wear you down and wear you out and that is where the novel Separation Anxiety starts: in that still point of sadness. It is what I have always known.
Well, that moment kind of makes you wonder how you are ever going to get through the dark tunnel to the other side. Everyone I know has hit this point in one form or another in their marriage, in their careers, following the loss of friends and family; so, writing about it felt like channelling a kind of collective consciousness.
I did not want to sugar-coat Kerry’s pain or the pain of anyone in my writings. And yet, I still desired that my published ‘pieces’ and my expressions to be funny somehow because there is often still humour and absurdity happening right alongside everything else. It was very important to me to be honest about the sadness at this point in mid-life because we all struggle with it. We all hit a wall that feels like failure. Why not admit it? Why are we all so ashamed?
Kerry once related to me that from the time she first met her husband: he had wanted to leave everything early — movies, parties, trips; and guess what? On one of the first dates, they drove two hours to a historic town outside of Naperville, Illinois. where they had lived at the time. Upon arrival, as both looked for a parking space, they turned to each other and knew that for whatever reasons, they really were not interested in getting out of the car. Not sur, they had turned around and drove home. Both could not have been happier.
Part of that sense of always wanting to leave early made them feel bonded or closer to one another — neither of us were joiners and they had often felt most connected when they were making their ‘escaping’. This was something they did not want to be at, but that was also such a huge symptom of their ‘general ambivalence’ of being part of the world.
In life, it is so much easier to take yourself out of things, to disengage and to dissociate. Being present requires energy and passion and a kind of faith in life: it assumes that you believe your effort at engagement will be rewarded, with friendship or love or a sense of belonging.
In the story, Kerry and Lucas are not joiners either mainly because of Gary’s extreme anxiety — it’s easier for him, and for them as a couple, to keep themselves apart from others than to try to find couples who can deal with their issues.
Unfortunately, that separation also come at a cost. The story moved slowly onward and Kerry started to see how their reluctance to engage socially left her without a sense of community. With her difficult marriage and her now-distant teenage son, she felt dismal and alone in the world which only made her wear her dog, even more.
It may just seem funny — the whole time I was engaged talking to them, I kept assuming that the story would end and Kerry would naturally stop wearing the dog. We may all agree that we would have to, right? It would be the necessary and obvious proof of growth and change: giving up the crutch would show she was ‘better’.
Surprisingly, that is not what happened. One of the threads that made it all the way through to the end of Lucas-Kerry story for me was how we all need to follow our own particular path from hopelessness to hope; how we each have to find a source of comfort and hang on to it for dear life.
For Kerry that meant wearing her dog. After surviving so much loss, giving up the dog seemed to me to be too much to ask of her. Why should she have to give it up to prove that she was better? Can we not all admit that life is hard and there are times we are especially needy? I have no doubt that eventually Kerry would need to wear the dog less. But not at that moment in time.
Then, she still needed the dog. And that would be just fine with her which is what I love most about Kerry: she simply never cared about what anyone thought about that.
I wish my readers to read this story, in the book form after it is published. My upcoming book Chasing Bubbles of Hope has offered a unique sense of the meaning of this word called ‘hope’. That you can survive all the loss that occurs during middle age and re-emerge wiser, with a new and different life. That there is beauty in the pain and imperfections of our marriages and our friendships and our careers.
In life, in joy and also in adversity everyone goes through the kind of rough patch that I have trudged, a period of time in life, when they grieved people that they had lost or a version of a themselves they once were. I am a writer who is about to publish his first book in the hope that someone could transform this story into celluloid or a movie made from one of them and I know this will not happen.
For over a decade, from the middle of my forties to the middle of fifties, someone who was close to me had breast cancer, lost both parents and even several friends and lost the version of self that identified as a writer. Suddenly I wanted to be a ghostwriter, hustling to earn a living. Desperation in life finds its outlets.
Finally, after years and years of having received ‘no lift’ from newspaper editors, I even went on Craigslist and found a shrink’s office to rent by the hour. Often during the week I would walk into the park and sit in an empty bench to try to write some kind of terrifying fiction. Sometimes I would write a little. Other times I would just play stupid games on my phone. But eventually, in between opinion page projects, with that dedicated time and with the encouragement of my son Yasir, I found my way back to what I really loved in life.
Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.
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