After my father died, I threw myself into a frenzy of writing. It was, in retrospect, an unlikely time to be productive. My writing did not happen in the relative calm of the weeks after the funeral. It happened in the midst of everything.
In the Philippines, wakes are held round the clock. We kept our dad company, and we were in turn accompanied by other relatives who arrived at odd hours. My brother and niece and I took shifts. In the mornings I am told, Go home and get some sleep.
After nights on a church pew, I wanted a mattress, and a dark and quiet room. But the little time that I could have spent napping in a real bed I spent instead fiddling with words.
In between my father’s four-day wake, being with family and friends, figuring out funeral and insurance and estate tax logistics — I wrote in my notebook, or on my laptop, its battery dying. Words spilled out at three in the afternoon and at three at night: A eulogy. Journal entries. A poem, even; I hadn’t attempted writing one in almost a decade. I finished revising an old essay about my childhood, which, to my delight, was accepted for publication a couple weeks later.
Exhaustion would finally catch up with me: at some point I passed out flat on my back in one of the pews at midnight, my feet still on the floor, fellow mourners still milling about.
I do not recall if I dreamed in the days right after his death. What I know is that I would wake up and remember he was gone, and then I would write.
Now it has been seven weeks since my father died, and I am dismayed to discover that, after the funeral, something has changed: I can no longer read or write for more than five, ten minutes at a time.
I hope it isn’t that Internet-induced rewiring of the attention span we’ve all been warned about. But at my laptop, I am offline, and when I try to read, or write in my notebook, all my electronics are out of reach. I don’t think the Internet is the problem. I just cannot concentrate.
Writing is both a pleasure and a chore, and the reason I persist is that the former always far outweighs the latter. But this last month, writing has been neither. Those story drafts that consumed me for months seem lifeless now. Whatever it was that excited me before seems snuffed out.
All writers go through slumps like this, and I tell myself this is just one variation, a different kind of dip. But it it isn’t difficult to make the words come out; I write for five minutes and out comes new scenes and snatches of dialogue, and then the spell is broken.
I look back at what I just wrote and my words are stale and without feeling. I constantly write myself into a corner, with conversations and digressions that lead nowhere. The characters of all my stories in draft — the guerrilla leader in the mountains, the gangster’s driver, the inventor’s assistant, the PR marketers lost in the desert, the schoolgirl wishing for a comet to arrive — are dead on the page. I write and I catch myself looking away, or staring at the cursor, a thin black line winking in and out of existence.
Reading is a little easier, but the same thing happens. Reading, of all things. I have lost the ability to be willingly tugged by the pull of plot, to immerse myself in other people’s lives on the page. Short stories feel neither short, nor do they feel like stories that cohere. The words blur, and I have to reread the paragraph or sentence I just finished.
Most often, I find myself staring at the wall or at the handle of a coffee mug or the edge of a tablecloth or the reflections of headlights in a bus window.
The worst part is that when I catch myself doing this, I also realize I am not simply lost in thought. I am, instead, thinking of absolutely nothing. My mind is an utter blank.
Perhaps this is expected, after such loss. But I do not want it this way. I do not want this nothingness to be normal.
It isn’t like I think about him all the time. But I do think of him more often — his laughter, or saying grace at the dining table, or just walking down the hallway in my childhood home — when I am alone.
I think that deep down my wish is for my father to fill all my idle thoughts, for memories of him to crowd out the nothingness. For me to experience the raw physicality of grief once more. I want to be blinded by tears again just as I was when I was washing his body. I want to be reduced to lying with my knees pressed up against my chest again, so I can hold and feel held. For even that would be better, more meaningful, than this emptiness. At least I would feel something. It would be better than staring at the wall.
Like my writing, the process of grieving will be long, and it will happen in fits and starts. There will be good days and bad days. Right now I cannot write through this emptiness in the same way I cannot will myself to work through this grief; I must simply let myself be carried by the ebb and flow. There will be moments when my words and sorrow will come hot and fast, and there will be more times, unbearable in their own way, when there will be nothing.
By writing this blog entry I am reminded that the words will still come. I am reassured that my characters will still be there, waiting for me. But for now it is still my father about whom I write.