This Little Light: writing through pain and loss

Today is not the day.  It could be but it is not.  Today is today.

–Audre Lorde

Recently, my father and I spent most of the day at my mother’s bedside—him with his laptop and me with mine—and spun words to try to whisk ourselves somewhere else.  Anywhere else.  I worked on my upcoming mystery novel; my father, a civil rights attorney, worked on his memoir on race and racism.

While my mother slept, we wrote to try to dull the pain of her dying.

My mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, is gravely ill with thyroid cancer.  After a two-year fight with ups and downs, advances and setbacks, my sisters, father and I are realizing that she will not be with us much longer.  Her moments of responsiveness are farther apart.  Her body is weaker and weaker.

Although in years past I found comfort in journaling during times of crisis, I have been unable to journal about the experience with my mother’s illness.  I wrote a column about her cancer fight for [SEE STORY HERE] last June, but since then I have been largely wordless.

Holding my mother's hand

Instead, I am busy.  In addition to the time I spend with Mom, I teach my classes at Spelman College, I’m raising my 8-year-old son, Jason, with my husband, and I’m racing to finish a novel that has been competing against my mother’s illness since the day it was born.

But the novel, which I’m co-authoring with my husband, Steven Barnes, is far from a burden—now, my novel is my sanctuary.  When it is finished, I’ll be expelled from my world of imagination, left to face the reality of here and now.

Recently, I assigned my Spelman freshmen a literacy narrative, an essay recalling a significant encounter with reading and/or writing during their formative years.  As an example, I shared my experience as a 14-year-old during race riots in Miami, the day in my junior high school cafeteria I first learned that I could write to save my sanity.  My essay, “I Want to Live,” described a society without bigotry and hate, and writing it made a pain in my chest go away.  I remember my mother telling me how lucky I was that I have writing as an outlet.

Mom also taught me the power of writing as a tool of preservation.  In 2003, we co-authored a nonfiction civil rights memoir, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, which is oh-so-precious to me.  If we do not write our own stories, Mom always said, they will never be told.  We must write, she said.

And here is my old friend, yet again.

Over these past difficult years, months and hours, watching my mother’s decline, I often have reassured myself with the stanza in Audre Lorde’s poem, “Today is Not the Day,” which she wrote while fighting breast cancer:  Today is not the day. / It could be but it is not. / Today is today.

Those words have served not only as an inspiration through this season of uncertainty, but also as a reminder that Lorde herself found refuge from her cancer battle in her writing.  One day, I hope writing will help ferry me to the other side, too.

But I know that writing will not patch every hole, or stanch every tear.  I have heard about a writer I admire who reportedly could not write for a year after her own mother’s death.  Writing, like everything in life, has its limitations.

But as my father and I sat in my mother’s room together—each of us transporting ourselves to a different world—I remembered anew what a blessing writing has been in my life.

Today was not a good day with my mother medically, and I am writing.

Tomorrow, I will be writing.

We write.  We write.  We write.

UPDATED 2/8/12:  Patricia Stephens Due died on February 7, 2012.  From CNN’s “In America” blog:

For more information about Patricia Stephens Due, see Wikipedia.

Hear an interview with Patricia Stephens Due and Tananarive Due on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (2003)  LISTEN

(left to right) John Due, Patricia Stephens Due and Tananarive Due outside of the White House after the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009


Filed under On writing

28 responses to “This Little Light: writing through pain and loss

  1. Thanks for taking the time to share this. Best wishes to you and your family.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I love your mom dearly. I think I may have taken that picture of you guys in front of the White House when we ran into each other on that cold DC day, trying to get a little closer to our new President. She has been an inspiration and a supporter to me literally all of my life. Her light is shining brighter and brighter and brighter and though it seems dim, she will light our way for years to come. Love you guys.


    • Yes, LaKeitha, I was just remembering how we ran into you outside of the White House that day and you snapped that photo for us! It was meant to be. Now, of course, it is such a treasure. Love to your Mom and family!

  3. I leave my heartfelt sympathy to you as my father is battling thyroid cancer as well and I try hard to contact him often as I can given my present dire circumstances of losing a home, etc. But nothing takes precedence over a loved one’s health- and writing seems to be, thus far, the only tool and friend I have.

    Reading your blog post reminds me that today is certainly today…one day at a time as emotions try to well up, one day at a time as we continue conversations, and one day at a time as we continue to love one another and keep our spirits.

    Thank you.

  4. My thoughts are with you, Tananarive. This is a difficult time, one with will produce both pain and painful art. Love your mother every chance you get.

  5. Tananarive,

    Thanks for sharing. My prayers are with you, your mom, and the rest of your family. Writing is truly a great escape and a blessing. If you can fight and write through the pain, you are a strong brave soul.

  6. Tasha Martin

    Thank you for sharing this, your words, and your courage. My heart and prayers go out to you and your family.

  7. C. Grant

    I am with you in spirit and may my prayers float over as whispers of comfort.

  8. Nanci

    I have few words…too emotional!!!
    But, I do have love, respect, and admiration for The Due Family.

    Love and Light.


  9. Thank you for sharing this, Tananarive. Since I was seven, writing has also been a refuge and healing for me. Honestly, I don’t know where I would be without it. I pray for you, your mom and your family.

  10. Chip Armstrong

    “Season of uncertainty.” Your words are apropos to my world also, TD. Two years ago this month, I called the ambulance for my father for the very last time after caring for him around the clock during his last five months. Now I care for my mother who has been fighting various cancers for the last twenty years. As her mind has fallen precipitously down the slope in recent months, I’m blessed to be finishing a novel that the late Leslie A. Banks and I outlined in her living room fourteen months ago. My mother is a college-educated, retired librarian who gave me the passion for the love of words and books. Writing and playing jazz saxophone are my vehicles to spirit me away from my mother’s inevitable that is just a finite number of heartbeats away.

    Thank you for writing this particular edition of your blog. I honestly feel your pain, and I always love your written words.

    Your fan,
    Chip Armstrong
    Washington, DC

  11. I’m a huge fan of your novels, and I’m so happy you’re teaching at Spelman (because I attended school there in the 90s!). Ms. Due really admire your courage to write about your mother’s cancer and how it relates to your own work. I can relate, because of how my own mother’s death affected my writing. My Mom passed away from breast cancer in the 80s. She and I both shared a love for writing.

    When my mother found out she had cancer, and realized she was dying, she kenw that she wouldn’t have the chance to give birth to her plots and characters. It was heartbreaking. I sat by her side, with a pen and paper in hand, trying to write the ideas she never got the chance to give birth too. After she died, I felt guilty that I was still alive, able to write, when she hadn’t gotten the chance. It’s twenty five years later, and it still affects me — because of the sadness and the guilt. After she died, I couldn’t write fiction. And although I have the desire too, the feelings I have make me second guess myself. But, there’s not a day that doesn’t go by when I don’t think about her, or writing. The dream of writing a book still remains with me.

    I write for a public relations place now, but it’s not the same as writing fiction, creating art, or writing about things that will make a true difference.

    • One day, maybe you will give yourself permission to write some fiction without the added weight and pressure of your mother’s untold stories. She lives within you. The beautiful thing about writing is that it’s never too late. 🙂 Thank you for sharing that story. It was beautifully sweet of you to try to help your mother “write” when she herself could not.

  12. Kim Beall Kortenbach

    So beautifully written from the heart and rings so true. I’m so sorry for your pain yet pleased to know that the talent your mother saw in you and helped you develop is bringing you comfort at this difficult time. That’s truly a gift. There’s an old saying about how a mother is a “peaceful, quiet shelter from the wind, the rain, and the tide” and now it’s your turn to attempt to provide her with an inner peace in knowing that you will indeed continue chasing your dreams, embracing life fully and passing that same motherly love and belief in the future on to your son. I know from experience that it’s a dark deep abyss to slowly lose a parent but try take comfort in the fact that she will live on through your lips, your heart and your words, always. She’ll forever be your inner compass. I hope nature is merciful and that her suffering is as minimized knowing the depth of your family’s love and admiration to help her pass comfortably & peacefully. Be strong and cherish what little time you have left together. Hugs, Kim

  13. What an amazing post. I’ll confess that in times of struggle I feel lucky to be a writer, because it really does get me through. After my own mother died while I was in college, I remember starting to write when I got back to my dorm room and feeling like I wrote and wrote like an obsessive maniac until finally the constant need to do so let me go about a year later with the story that got me into my first permission-only writing class. I remember very little about that year accept crying and writing. It was very strange.

  14. Michelle Hampton

    It is good to write, through joy and pain. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Tananarive,

    This is a beautiful account.
    I’m sending positive energy and prayerful comfort your way. I visualize a band of angels surrounding you, your Dad and your Mom as you all toil in her room. May you all keenly feel God’s strength as you transition.
    I lost my Mother so I understand your feelings. However, it sounds like you have many wonderful memories to sustain and bring you joy, Keep them near to grab whenever it gets to be too much,
    Be well.

  16. Dyane Harvey-Salaam

    Even through the pain of witnessing this transition you are lucid and clear and she is ever present in your thought process and expression. I know this is all temporary. Often I wonder what IS the real dream- when we sleep or are “awake”…Our prayers are with you for constant healing as you mother prepares for Ascendance in to the realm of the Ancestors…Stay strong and by all means write….write…write-on my sister.

    • Dyane–The lesson begins when we are young: “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream….merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” We only realize later how true that is.

  17. naima

    Thank you so much for sharing! I will hold you your Mom,and family in my prayers. I wish I did not know the pain you are going through but I do. My mother died after battling lung cancer for 8 months this past June. I am soo grateful I was there with her as scared and shocked as I was I hope it comforted her some to have me there. I miss her so much but I see her everyday in the face of my daughter who is her mini me. My mom loved to hear people say ” her
    grandbaby looked like her she smile so big with her gap in the middle of her teeth

    • naima

      Sorry for the errors I hit send by accident. “HER BABY” looked like her she’d smile so big with that beautiful gap in the middle of her teeth showing. My mother instilled in me a love of poetry and literature, I remember a poet coming to teach my 2nd grade class and I was so proud to share with her a poem my mother wrote about me I will treasure that and all of my Mommy’s gifts forever.

    • I’m so sorry about the loss of your mother. Thank you for sharing the experience. You are blessed to have a “mini mom” in your daughter, and she definitely lives in you as well.

  18. Oh, Tananarive, that is beautiful. I forget, sometimes, that I can use my writing this way, too. As I debate whether to apply for VONA this year, here you are, reminding me. Again.

    Thinking of you and your family. Sending light.

  19. Tananarive, I had saved this essay in my Evernote clippings because it is so beautiful and evokes, I believe, all of our shared and individual pain with illness and death. I am also hoping to use it as a link for an MFA class I am teaching (I hope) this summer on health and wellness writing or narrative medicine. This may be a long shot, but any chance there may be an audio version of it? Congrats on a beautiful piece.

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