A Truant Disposition

"I must be idle."

The Year So Far

Written By: Ainy Rainwater - May• 22•17

You may have noticed that I haven’t been on social media much this year; the reasons have nothing to do with politics, friends, or social media. A lot has happened this year.

First the bad news, because the good part of this post must necessarily come after the bad. In late December a routine scan of my elderly mother-in-law showed what could possibly be a return of her cancer. She’d had part of her lung removed 6 years earlier and been cancer-free since. The biopsy couldn’t be scheduled until after the first of the year, so it was a nervous holiday season for us. The biopsy came back positive for cancer. She did both chemo and radiation. It was daily outpatient treatment so family members swapped off driving her because the treatments made her too dizzy to drive. She had some problems and was hospitalized three times. The last time she ended up in ICU a few weeks after she finished the first round of treatment. The combination pneumonia and flu, on top of her existing COPD, plus a weakened immune system from the cancer treatment, and a weakened heart from a mild heart attack was just too much for her body to cope with. She didn’t respond to any medications. Eight days after being admitted and after a few days of being unresponsive, she passed away peacefully, surrounded by family.

That was a few weeks ago. I’m still grieving, but oddly enough I’m sleeping better because I’m no longer anxious about her 24/7, which is what has defined my life this year. Phone calls to her, taking her to her many doctors appts and treatments, texting with family constantly, having a knapsack packed and being ready to run to her house, to the ER, whatever 24/7. Flinching every time the phone rang. Staying close to home so we could be there if there was a minor crisis, or a major emergency, both of which were not just potentialities, but actualities. My concentration has just been shot this whole year. I feel tired and generally bad all over a lot of the time. Those of you who have had to deal with a major medical thing involving a family member will know what I’m talking about. My wish for all of you is that neither you, nor anyone you love ever has to go through this.

Of course, it has been impossible for me to get any substantial amount of work done on revising the draft of the next book, but I gamely tried to work around her appointments and work through group text messaging sessions during her treatment and hospitalizations. Things stabilized —briefly — after she finished the first round of treatment. I had whole blocks of crisis-free time with few appointments on my agenda. I began to make progress. But when she was admitted to ICU, I stopped working on the book. I did a lot of knitting. She’s had a lot of health problems in the past couple of years. I’m glad I took up knitting again because it was relaxing and socks are a nice portable project. After she died I looked at my knitting projects and did a count: I worked on six pairs of socks and one sweater in ERs, hospital waiting rooms, hospital rooms, and doctor’s offices, at assorted medical facilities. Now I’m knitting through both grief and anxiety for friends. You see, she’s not the only one who has cancer.

This book I’m working on now has had the nasty shadow of cancer and death hanging over it from the time I started brainstorming the idea of doing a sequel. At that time I had two friends in hospice, dying of cancer. I drafted the book anyway, but it was very difficult, and the draft was a lot rougher than most of my first drafts are. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have even started this book. I had almost a year to revise the book before another friend was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer, but during that year my own mother had a medical crisis that landed her in the hospital, and my mother-in-law had hip surgery and assorted other medical crises, so I still felt like I was just lurching from crisis to crisis. Then came the ominous scan that indicated my mother-in-law’s cancer had come back. Then treatments, assorted medical emergencies related to treatments, then the end. The same week as her funeral we found out another friend has cancer. Which really hit us hard. The funeral flowers were still fresh, but the scent had started to turn. Also, the friend with the aggressive cancer had a setback. 

With the exception of my mother-in-law, who lived a long and full life, all the other people with cancer are/were far too young to die. I think, as much as my mother-in-law’s death, this is what just breaks my heart into pieces. Anger is usually listed as the second stage of grief, and I don’t know if I will ever have enough time between catastrophes to get past that. At this point I’ve already been in mourning for over a year and a half. I need everyone I know to live—preferably for 100 years or so.

As bad as all this sounds, it hasn’t been all bad, all the time. Sometimes it just seems that way because death and grief and anxiety distort my sense of time. This year I went to Arbor Day at the Houston Arboretum, the Art Car Parade, and I Marched for Science. Though I’ve had my moments of exhausted collapse, I’m still moving forward. Errands, chores, and the ongoing struggle with the Squirrel Army for control of the garden…The dogs are assisting me with that as well as comforting me.

All my plans for this year have fallen by the wayside. I’d planned on writing and posting serial fiction, as well as a nature journal on Wattpad this year. The nature journal was started but updates stopped because I was spending too much time in medical facility waiting rooms and not enough time in the woods to keep it up. Fiction, even short fiction, was just impossible because all I’ve been thinking about for months were things related to my mother-in-law’s medical situation. I don’t know when I’ll get back to work on revising the book, which is a sequel to last year’s If Wishes Were Spaceships. Writing and revising take a lot of time, concentration, and energy. I’ve been going in high gear, with a highly disrupted daily routine, for so long now that getting back to normal work flow will take some time. As I told my writing group, I still feel a bit crash-y.

There have been times this year when I just wanted to quit, set the sequel aside permanently, drop out of my party and guild on Habitica, cease being a writer because there was just too much other stuff going on. But I know from experience that I can’t give up writing; I’ve tried, but it doesn’t work. It’s what I do; it’s who I am. I also know from experience that waiting until there’s a “perfect time” to write, or waiting until I’m less busy, or there’s less going on, or until some future time when things will be much more conducive to writing, that the “good time to work on a novel” will never, ever, come, or it will be so brief that I could not possibly finish a draft or polish a draft in that fleeting halcyon time. There is never a good time to write a book. There never has been and there never will be. There will just be times which are better or worse for working on a book. Everyone has to figure out for themselves under what conditions they can write and under what conditions it’s better to temporarily set a writing project aside—not until the world is right and things are good again, but until things are better, just “good enough” to pick up the work in progress again. I’m still figuring things out. I’ve been through enough in the past couple of years that I now have a passable set of guidelines. Friends in hospice; brainstorming is okay if my concentration isn’t yet gone, but actually drafting a novel, probably not. Elderly family member with chronic health problems that send her to the ER 1-3 times a year, yeah, I can definitely continue with editing and rewriting, just taking a day or two off as needed. Not sure if I could do a first draft under those conditions, though. Maybe. Elderly family member having outpatient cancer treatments and assorted hospitalizations, I definitely cannot write, nor can I do any major revisions or edits, though I discovered that I can do small highly focused edits and rewrites, setting myself a minimum of one paragraph per day, some days more, but never as much as a chapter. That’s how I’ve been working — when I’ve been working at all this year — literally one paragraph at a time.

I could not have done even that much if it hadn’t been for Habitica and my party of writers there. The To Do list functioned as a second brain for me because in the past five months I’ve often been so overwhelmed by details and a highly fluid situation that I was afraid of losing track of things, of dropping some vital thread. The Habits list encouraged me to keep to certain routines and good lifestyle habits as much as possible even though some days were borderline chaotic. I redid some of my Dailies to accommodate my more fluid and volatile schedule and deactivated others or moved them to Habits. And when things got really bad, as they did occasionally this year, I checked into the Inn, which stopped the game from accounting any losses I might incur. I tried to keep my time away from Habitica as minimal as possible because even when I was technically not active, I depended on my To Do list and other lists to help me keep some semblance of a life balance. Chores and errands were done less promptly, but they were done. It served as a reminder for important things I otherwise might’ve forgotten.

But most of all my party of writers there really helped me get through these past 5 months. One of them told me about the Calm app which was a real life-saver. I’d been trying to get back into meditating regularly last year before things got really bad, but once things got bad, it just seemed even more difficult. The Calm app helped tremendously. Other party members suggested ways of coping with an ever-changing daily schedule, and it was a relief and reassuring to have other writers to talk to about whether I should even try to keep writing. I felt guilty about not writing and felt like a monster if I kept at it. They were very insightful and supportive. They are the reason I didn’t just put the book away forever, drop out of everything, and disappear completely for a year or so. My party in Habitica was this little bubble of calm and happiness, even though I wasn’t the only one who was going through bad things this year. That’s an important point too: they need my support as much as I need their support. Life — and death — happen; there’s never a good time to write a novel. Writing is a solitary task and the work is brain-work. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard, but there’s no one else who can write your book except you; it’s all on the shoulders of the novelist. That’s why it’s good to have other writers standing shoulder to shoulder with you. Habitica stresses “accountability” as being a big thing in its system of parties and guilds, but I think of it more in terms of community. I appreciate the support of real life friends right now, but having a virtual writer’s group composed of members all over the world has the advantage of being a (virtual) place that can be supportive and helpful—and be totally separate from whatever hellish thing is happening in real life. My real life friends are grieving with me: most of them knew my mother-in-law. My online friends are sorry for my loss, but they’re not wobbling under the burden of grief themselves, and that’s comforting to me in its own way. They’re still writing and wrestling with rewrites, and — eventually — I’ll return to work on my book, too. Because we are writers. That’s what we do. And we’ll somehow write our way through.

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