Maybe I Need a Non-fiction Life

I started reading very early, at the age of four, and my first and most enduring love was fiction.  I remember, vividly, my experiences reading certain books for the first time.  I remember reading Little Women when I was seven, and the intense pleasure/pain of realizing, through Jo, that people wrote fiction; that I could write it, if I wanted to; and that fiction could create real emotion.  Oh, how I cried when Beth died.  Words did that.  Words made me cry over the death of someone I didn’t know.  But I did know her.  Louisa May Alcott introduced her to me, and because I identified so strongly with Jo, Beth was my little sister, too.  I have two younger sisters.  Fiction taught me about empathy.  Fiction taught me about life. 

When I was twelve I read Gone with the Wind.  I was in the seventh grade, and my teacher recommended it to me for a book report.  I remember thinking, this book is so BIG; can I really finish it in time?  And then I remember staying up, latelate into the night, devouring the story of Scarlett and Rhett and Melanie and milquetoast Ashley.  Even at twelve I couldn’t understand what Scarlett saw in him. 

I have met and fallen in love with Alice and the Mad Hatter, Nancy Drew, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy, Peter Lake and Beverly Penn, Prospero and Beatrice and Benedick and Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen and Jack Reacher and Mosey Slocumb and so many more.  Too many to count. 

Then there are the characters I have created on my own, and co-created with Tony.  Manny, the perfectionist cannibal chef.  Delilah Macintosh, the jilted beauty queen who takes up boxing in Fighting Belle.  Leon, a disgruntled elf in Santa’s workshop.  Dana and Teddy, a talk show host and her husband working their way through infidelity.  Eugene Bloom, a guilt-ridden shut-in who can’t forgive himself for his wife’s death.  So many of them, and all so real to me that I would instantly recognize them if I ran into them on the street.

So why, since Tony died, have I barely been able to touch fiction?  I read a couple of Janet Evanovich books – light, easy.  I read a kids’ book my sister Stephanie loaned me.  But for the most part, fiction and I have a strange relationship right now.  I am reading right now, simultaneously, a book called Mindsight about how we can actually train our brains to react differently; Dr. Brene Brown’s astonishing I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t); and The Omnivore’s Dilemma

It’s not just books, either.  I think I have watched only two films since Tony died, all the way through.  I watched Kiki’s Delivery Service with my niece and nephew; and I watched Les Miserables.  And now that I think of it, I didn’t watch Les Miserables all the way through; I left the room and did not watch Javert’s suicide.  There were a few times I put on a movie in the background because I needed some noise to be able to get to sleep; but I didn’t really watch those. 

It bothers me, this aversion to fiction.  I’ve been wondering why it is, and I’ve said a few times that maybe it was because I didn’t need any invented drama, having had such a surplus of it in my own life lately.  But tonight, in therapy, I said the six words that are the title of this post.  Maybe I need a non-fiction life.

As soon as I said them, I knew it was true.  I need a non-fiction life right now.  I do.  As much as I loved Tony, so much of what we presented to the world was a fiction.  We were both participants, authors of that fiction.  We pretended everything was okay.  He pretended not to be afraid; I pretended not to know he was afraid, and not to be afraid, myself.  When people asked me how he was, he was great, perfect, the best husband anyone ever had, ever.  He loved me!  He got up and did the laundry every week on Saturday.  He worked harder than anybody I knew.  I’m not saying those were lies; no, not that.  Those things are all true, as far as they go.  Tony did love me.  I know he did.  He was the best husband he knew how to be.  He did get up and do the laundry ever Saturday; but the reason he did was because he didn’t – not really – trust me not to ruin his clothes.  He was very anxious about his clothes.  I don’t know what he thought I was going to do to them, his jeans and tee shirts and socks and things, but it was part of the fear that enveloped him.  He did work hard; but the reason he did is because he was unable to sit still, unable to relax, unable to rest because if he sat still, might not the fears catch up with him?  I didn’t know that then, couldn’t put it into words, but I know it now.  We pasted a fiction over the truth of our lives – the scary, painful, naked truth of it – and we sold it to the world like it was one of our screenplays.  And then when we were alone together, most of what we talked about was related to our scripts.  To people that we created, out of whole cloth, the same way we created ourselves.  We created ourselves.

I can’t do that now.  I can’t pretend.  If I am scared, I say I’m scared.  If I am sad, I say I’m sad.  I went through a brief period where I was tap-dancing on the phone with friends, acting almost manically cheerful.  I’m not doing that now.  I was with friends in San Diego, and I cried with them.  I told them I cry every day.  That’s true, I do.  I told them how guilty I feel; how horrified I still am that Tony killed himself.  I am.  Horrified.  Every single day.  I talked about therapy.  I talked about the medication I’m taking.  I talked about my gratitude and my fear.  I am still afraid.  I don’t know where the path I am on leads.  That scares me so much it makes my stomach hurt.  I feel strongly that I am where I am, on this path at this place in my scary life, for a reason.  That doesn’t make it less scary.  I feel vulnerable, stripped naked and hurting, and instead of trying to pretend that’s not my reality, I am putting it into words and laying it out for anybody who wants to know about it to read.  I am taking the words, the very same ones, that I used to write fiction and create characters and put words into their mouths, and I am flaying myself with them.  I am dissecting myself.  I am showing you, all of you, each piece.  I am naming each one: this, here, is my fear.  This is my heart, broken.  This is my grief that my husband is dead.  This is my guilt that he’s dead because of me.  This is my relief that I am no longer living on the edge of a cliff.  This is my new guilt, because how can I feel relieved?  This is my judgment of myself.  This is my rage at Tony.  This is my gratitude for the people who helped me when he died, and who are helping me now, every day.  This is my determination, to find the true purpose of my life and to put all of these raw stripped pieces back together into a new whole, a new non-fictional Aimee who is somehow, in spite of everything, exactly who she is supposed to be.


12 thoughts on “Maybe I Need a Non-fiction Life

  1. I understand. You know I understand. And remember that non-fiction, is all its raw, beautiful, inconvenient messiness is just as poetic as any fiction on earth. I am so proud of you for standing in your truth. Holding space, love.

  2. the journey is a b***h…it is…there’s no getting around it…you know what I think about now? that Don wanted to commit suicide but he called a friend from his PTSD group…so maybe he didn’t really want to…he could have…there were 2 handguns and a shotgun in the house. so he didn’t and he was in the psych ward for 4 weeks and when they asked me if I was ready for him to come home I said “no” and he stayed another 2 weeks. when he came out within 4 months he was headed toward the crippling arthritis that would render him completely bedridden within 3 years. the mood altering drugs they gave him took away his personality, his temperament, who he was, who I fell in love with…he slept a lot, he didn’t talk a lot for 13 years. what went on in his mind? how often did he wish he’d gone through with it? what part did I play in this? the part I know I played was keeping him alive for 13 years…I wonder now if he wanted me to do that…all the doctor visits, the ER visits, the dentist visits, the ophthalmologist visits, the urologist visits, the rheumatologist visits, the psychiatrist visits and on and on and on. did he ever just want me to let him be? to let him go? how have I coped with this guilt I’ve heaped on myself…by finally, finally refusing to think about it…I can’t…if I do…I will die and at my age that’s coming soon enough…I hate the journey

  3. Truth is stranger (and harder, and messier, and ultimately more vindicating) than fiction. I read this and found myself wishing for a fictional life — one where all the loose ends get tied up, everything is resolved or at least hopeful at the end. HAAAA. Yeah.

    I don’t know what is worse in this life than not being able to save the people you love. Even if you understand that it wasn’t really your job. Even if you know that ultimately it was out of your hands. It doesn’t matter.

    You’re showing us, but you’re showing you, too. So that you can process and find peace. Which you will. xoxo

    • You’re right, of course, as you usually are. Maybe that was part of the pull of writing fiction, why Tony and I spent so much time doing that. We loved it, yes, but there was something satisfying (and I’m sure will be, again, for me someday) about being able to craft the exact, meaningful ending for the story. It doesn’t work that way in life, but that doesn’t mean we don’t wish it would. xoxo

  4. Aimee, You’re no more guilty than the rest of us for having loved someone who is severely depressed with all your heart and tried, desperately, to show him life is good. I understand you’re not wanting to read fiction right now and I doubt you’ll be able to read non-fiction. In time, you will again… and be able to retain what you read.
    Have patience with yourself and know you will be okay. ~L~

    • Thank you Loretta. I’m trying to be patient with myself. I’m fortunate that I have a lot of people in my life, both in person and online, who are so supportive. You’re part of that, and I appreciate it.

  5. The first book I read after Andy died was Say Her Name, by Francisco Goldman. I was at home, killing time before Andy’s parents got home from making funeral arrangements. I had about an hour to kill so I was wandering through the bookstore I worked at in High School, which is near Andy’s parent’s home. I came to this book, and without really reading much of it, I bought it. It’s a beautiful blend of fiction and non-fiction. It’s maybe an autobiographical novel, or a novelized memoir, depending on how you view it. Goldman writes about his wife, Aura, who died tragically a few years into their marriage. He works through his memories of her and the aftermath of her death. He blends these elements in a really fascinating way, and creates a new Aura, who lives and breathes within his book. He gives (or tries to give) himself some sort of reconciliation with her through the fictionalized scenes in the book, creating a new ending for their story.

    It was the perfect book for me at the time. I read it slowly, not wanting to ever finish what is now “the first book I read after Andy died.” It’s an emotional read, but I would highly recommend it if you’re feeling ready for a mixture of fiction and non-fiction.

    • Thank you, Kaye. I’m adding it to my “to read” list and will definitely check it out when I feel ready.

      I so identify with what you said about not wanting to finish the first book you read after Andy died. I’ve had so many moments like that.

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