by Electra Rhodes
Read Grief is a Story I Was Told on Rosary Beads
When I’m writing about caring I’ve found that I come at the narratives in one of two ways. This means that I usually lean into either “just because it isn’t real doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” or, “just because it isn’t true doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
These are the two phrases I came up with to help people in nonfiction classes think about their writing, particularly if they’re leaning in towards a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction – something that feels close to the reality, but isn’t quite true, for whatever reason. Or, something that is close to the heart of the matter, something that feels deeply true, but is told out of sequence, or in a non standard form (like a fairy tale or other hermit crab), or is verging closer to the surreal.
These borderlands between fiction and nonfiction, truth and reality, are frequently contested and take a fair amount of wide awake navigation for both the reader and the writer. Just how much do we want to share of what’s real or what’s true?
In this instance (a story about a mother daughter relationship at the end of the mother’s life) the realities of long term caring, the grind, the worry, the fear, might make a good piece of writing, or a good “story,” but that delineation of miseries might take its toll. So, I’ve fudged it, and I feel OK about that.
My mum died almost 25 years ago. It was hard. For her. For my dad. For me. I’ve written very little about that period, I’m not sure I’ve untangled it enough to write something I feel illustrates and illuminates the experience (not everything I try for when I write nonfiction, but I think we all deserve it here) but this piece feels as close to the experience as I can manage at the moment. It’s not quite true, but it feels quite real, it’s not quite real but it still feels very true.
It’s a contrast to a piece I wrote last year about my very elderly dad who was slowly dying then and is dying faster now. That’s a piece that feels bright and sharp and clear, it illuminates, and I use it as an illustration of what to do right when writing very short CNF in workshops and classes.
What’s the difference between the two pieces? Beyond the relationships? I’ve been fortunate to love and be loved by both my parents. But I’ve thought about them enough both as individuals and in their relationships to understand the difference that time and absence allows to the stories we want to tell. I’ve permitted myself to tell of some of the grit of caring for my mum before she died, but I’m not yet ready to do that for my dad. With him it’s still about the grace. For both of them it’s all tied up in grief. Both the experience and the anticipation of it.
And that’s what I think writing about caring and losing those we love concerns: grace and grit and grief. It’s more or less painful to go through the experience, it’s a new encounter with each emotion to set it down on paper, and maybe, finally find a way to let this version go.
Electra Rhodes is an archaeologist who rushes between Cardiff, Wiltshire, and her very elderly pa in Hertfordshire. Her prose has been widely published, most recently in the Parthian Press anthology, ‘An Open Door – Travel Writing For A Precarious Century’. She’s currently writing an intersectional biography of the British Landscape as one of The London Library’s Emerging Writers for 2022-23.