Parallels in Grief

I have a complicated relationship with Canadian poet and novelist Helen Humphreys’ poignant memoir Nocturne – On the Life and Death of My Brother.

I met Humphreys at a literary event and we had a conversation about the parallels in our lives:

  • She lost her brother to pancreatic cancer;
  • I lost my long-term partner Bill to pancreatic cancer; I also know the grief of losing a brother – my brother (we were only thirteen months apart in age) committed suicide in the same year that Bill died;
  • Music and literature play a big role in Humphreys’ life: she is an author and her brother was a concert pianist;
  • Music and literature play a big role in my life: I am a writer and play the piano and Bill was a teacher of piano and voice;
  • Humphreys wrote Nocturne in part as a way to process her grief on the loss of her brother;
  • I wrote my memoir August Farewell – the last sixteen days of a thirty-three year romance in part as a way to process my grief on the loss of Bill;
  • Humphreys is a lesbian and I am a gay man.

I have highlighted many of Humphreys’ sentences and paragraphs in my copy of Nocturne because of their resonance with my experiences:

  • “One of the things I learned about death is that it makes you behave in ways you never thought you would.”
  • “The music to which you’d given your life sustained you while you were dying.”
  • “We all give our lives to something, and our lives are taken from us at some point. We are lucky if what we devote ourselves to can offer some comfort at the end.”
  • “ ‘I’m not afraid to die,’ you said. ‘I just don’t want to.’ “
  • “I’ve been thinking about the human soul, about the presence of the unseen in our lives, about how, the moment you died, I felt you leave. What was it that left? And why did I feel that you did leave? It wasn’t simply that a light was turned off, that your consciousness stopped, but rather that you moved swiftly from your dead body and went somewhere else. But where did you go?”

Helen Humphreys knows that life goes on.

I continue to write. I continue to read. I continue to listen to and play music. I continue to love. I know that life goes on.

But for both Helen and me, life continues under a shadow.

* * *

Information on Helen Humphreys’ writing is on her website at:

Information on my writing is on my website at:



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Writing and Reading: Capturing complexity in Anne Enright’s “The Green Road”

“That’s an excellent question! You really grasped the essence of Rosaleen,” Irish writer Anne Enright exclaimed.

I was near the back of the theatre at the 2015 International Festival of Authors in Toronto. The audience Q&A was winding down at the end of a panel session in which Enright and several other novelists had been discussing their recent works.

I got the moderator’s attention and posed my comment/question to Enright: “You have drawn Rosaleen, the mother character in your exquisite novel “The Green Road,” as such a complex character. At least that’s how I experienced her, especially in the final climactic chapters. She relates to her adult children in an irritating passive-aggressive manner hurtling guilt-ridden barbs at each of them for what she perceives as their abandonment of her. As a reader, I identified totally with the frustration that her children were experiencing. And then Rosaleen goes off, disappearing into the countryside, and we see this incredibly vulnerable and fragile woman prepared to lie down and die, not out of vindictiveness toward her family but out of genuine despair at the loneliness and aridness of how her life is shrinking. And suddenly, you have me as the reader, in deep sympathy for her. How did you manage to create such a complex character that we find ourselves simultaneously irritated by and weeping for?”

Enright replied, “That’s an excellent question! You really grasped the essence of Rosaleen.” I was thrilled. Esteemed author Anne Enright, winner of the Man Booker Prize for her previous novel “The Gathering,” was complimenting my perceptiveness. I know… I’m easily flattered. But when a writer whom I hold in high regard talks with me as a peer … well, that’s terrific.

I learned as our conversation continued that for Enright, there was some degree of planned intentionality about creating the complexity of Rosaleen, but by in large it emerged for her spontaneously. Enright said that she had procrastinated writing much about Rosaleen because she knew that the character was going to have to be so multidimensional. She wrote most of the rest of the novel and fleshed out the other characters before tackling her. But when she began with Rosaleen, especially in the climactic finale, it just flowed. She knew what she had to write and how. In one sense, it was already formed in her mind after she had laid down the rest of the story, and in another sense it was emerging spontaneously from her imagination. She did little rewriting of those final scenes. Creating Rosaleen was one of the most satisfying occasions of her writing career.

“Thank you so much for asking your question. I’m glad that I got an opportunity to share that experience.”

As I said, I was thrilled by our little exchange. Reading fine literature is such a source of enrichment for me. Encountering and being able to dialogue with the creators of fine literature deepens my appreciation for the product, the writer and the craft, all of which encourages me further in my own writing. Intellectually and artistically, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The Green Road

* * *

For information on my writing, see my website at

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How do I want to die? Reflections on Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End”

IMG_3109Many of the case studies and personal experiences that surgeon and writer Atul Gawande depicts in his new book “Being Mortal” resonated with my own recent history of the deaths of my family members.

Gawande talks about patients with whom he worked during their struggles with ultimately incurable diseases. He carries us with him as he, despite his professional expertise, describes his sense of inadequacy when he accompanies his own father in his last years, months, weeks and days.

All the way through my reading of “Being Mortal,” my mind and heart were constantly flipping between the text on the page and the searing memories of the end-of-life for my parents, my partner Bill’s parents, my younger brother who committed suicide and Bill’s two weeks between his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer and his death.

Gawande has five themes, at least as I read his book. Firstly, we can do so much better than we are in facilitating an enriching lifestyle for aging persons so that they can retain autonomy and engagement in life-enhancing interactions with family, community and society, a key element in retaining a sense of purpose and meaning. This applies even to those with cognitive impairment as Gawande illustrates with detailed examples. Secondly, our social and health care systems need to retreat from trying to medicalize every problem utilizing extreme measures to keep people alive regardless of the quality of their living. Thirdly, families and professionals need to relinquish their fear of losing the dying person and refocus on helping them access whatever supports are necessary for spending their remaining time as they want to. Fourthly, in order to clarify for both the dying person and ourselves what their priorities are, we all need to have the courage to initiate THE CONVERSATION, asking the questions that surface what is most important to them for the amount of time that they have left. And fifthly, what we learn in helping shape options for sustaining the greatest possible meaning and engagement in life for our dying loved ones can help us prepare the ground for what we want for ourselves when our time comes.

And so, as I read through Gawande’s wonderfully thought-provoking and accessible contribution to this pressing societal issue, my mind was being cast not only backwards to my experiences with all those family members whose dying I accompanied but also forward to what I will want for myself and what I need to put in place to increase the likelihood of having as a good a quality of dying as possible.

That is not to say, obviously, that I can determine everything in advance. But as Gawande writes, “you many not control life’s circumstances, but getting to be the author of our life means getting to control what you do with them.”

* * *

Info on Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” at:

Info on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead” at:

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

So Much Said in Silence – the new novels of Marilynne Robinson and Colm Tóibín

I was in the back row of the theatre when Marilynne Robinson and Colm Tóibín sat down with the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel for a panel discussion at the 2014 International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in Toronto. Sitting on the aisle in the back row, to be precise, is my preferred location at many events (the exceptions being movies and musical presentations), in part for the pragmatic reason of being able to slip out quickly at the end and not be trapped by the departing crowd. But more so, it’s so that I can be alone in my thoughts, to absorb the input from the presenters without the complication of having to discuss it with a talkative person who has taken the seat next me. I seek and create the circumstances for solitude.

In the IFOA conversation between Robinson, Tóibín and Wachtel, one of the themes that emerged was the importance of solitude and loneliness. Tóibín said that one gains a great deal from loneliness, especially in circumstances of loss, that’s not possible if one is in constant chatter with others. Robinson observed that loneliness is a kind of passion for her, that she cultivates loneliness. Robinson believes that loneliness is essential for understanding and creating one’s identity so as not to be dependent on others for your own self-definition.

At that point, I had not yet read Marilynne Robinson’s newest novel “Lila” though I was anxious to having read and adored her earlier novel “Gilead.” The same was true for Colm Tóibín’s new work “Nora Webster.” I had previously read and enjoyed much of Tóibín’s writing and was looking forward to this new one.

“Lila” and “Nora Webster” did not disappoint me. Both novels thrilled me, largely because they are such quiet works—the characters not speaking of much of what goes on. So much is said in the silences.

This is not to suggest that the principal characters exist in isolation from significant others or from community. Young Lila and her much older husband John Ames have an intense relationship despite the differences in age, education, socio-economic and cultural background. They are bound to each other by a mutual attraction that is as much metaphysical as it is physical. Nora Webster, struggling to redefine herself as a person and as a mother after the death of her husband, finds new life not through family or neighbours in her repressive Irish town but rather through the music that she relishes in a small musical society and with her vocal teacher, a community of people whose souls are enlivened by the arts.

Telling a compelling story through silences and through what is left unspoken takes enormous skill on the part of a writer. Robinson and Tóibín are such writers.

* * *

The IFOA conversation between Marilynne Robinson and Colm Tóibín can be heard at Writers & Company: Marilynne Robinson & Colm Tóibín – CBC.

Information on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead” can be found on my website at


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

…from another Forster fan

I met South African writer Damon Galgut at the 2014 International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in Toronto where he was on several panels reading from and discussing his new novel “Arctic Spring.” Two of Galgut’s previous novels, “The Good Doctor” and “In A Strange Room,” have been Man Booker Prize finalists.

The timing couldn’t have been more propitious. I was at work at the time on a short story in which I recount English author E.M. Forster’s life leading up to and including his writing of his novel “Maurice,” his one explicitly gay novel. Galgut’s novel “Arctic Spring” is a semi-fictionalized take on the years 1912 to 1924 during which Forster was working on his novel “Passage to India.” It was during this period that he also wrote “Maurice.”

The grey area between fiction and non-fiction intrigues me. One of the most widely read contemporary excavators of this terrain is Hilary Mantel with her Oliver Cromwell novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” This mixed-genre seems to go by various names such as creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, narrative nonfiction and the somewhat distinct but related historical fiction.

With my short story “Morgan and Maurice,” I was interested not only in depicting the biographical elements in Forster’s life that led up to his writing of the novel but also the dynamics behind his decision not to allow it to be published during his lifetime. I tried a number of structures and approaches before settling on a straightforward recounting of Forster’s life up to 1913 when he wrote “Maurice” and then adding an epilogue in which Forster is in an imagined conversation with the character Maurice. Or to put it more specifically, Maurice chastises Morgan for his reluctance to allow the story out into the reading public for fifty-five years and through their conversation Forster has an opportunity to present the case for his decision.

Galgut has more guts and considerably more skill than I do. His whole novel “Arctic Summer,” while based on the known historical elements of Forster’s life, is a free-flowing journey through those years 1912 to 1924 when he was working on “Passage to India” as experienced from within the skin of the great novelist himself. Having done considerable research myself in preparation for writing “Morgan and Maurice,” reading Galgut’s “Arctic Summer” has been like a protracted and uninhibited conversation with a dear friend who was prepared to share the joy and pain that went into the creation of that work of art.

My copy of “Arctic Summer” bears the inscription: “For David – with very best wishes from another Forster fan, Damon Galgut, Toronto, 26 Oct 2014” – a lovely memento of an inspiring conversation with a very gifted writer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Reading Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge” – buckle your seatbelt

As someone who considers himself fairly well-read, I am simultaneously embarrassed and proud of myself – embarrassed that I had never read anything by Thomas Pynchon and proud that I have now made my way through his most recent novel. I’m also simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. Tackling “Bleeding Edge” required enormous energy. I look forward to reading more of his work, but not for a while. I need time to recuperate.

For years, I’ve seen Pynchon’s name referenced as one of the writers most admired by other writers along with such titans as Alice Munro, George Saunders, David Mitchell, and Marilynne Robinson. How could I consider myself semi-literate if I hadn’t ever read him? So I plunged into his 2013 novel “Bleeding Edge.”

What a ride.

Within the first half-dozen pages, my jaw was dropping at the velocity of the robust narration and I was guffawing at the hilarious images, tweeting out gems of lines such as “Dizzy’s learning curve is permanently flat-lined.” And so many countless more along the way: “I have always depended on the kindness of stranglers” and “Maxine could conduct workshops in Conquering Eyeroll” and “‘I’m an adulteress!’ Vyrva wails quietly. ‘Ah, come on. Adolescentress, maybe’” and on and on and on.

But being delighted by the scrumptiousness of such snippets is like licking the peaks of whipped frosting not recognizing that they are perched on an enormous confectionary creation that defies thorough digestion by us ordinary mortals and whose recipe includes far more arsenic than sugar. Which is not to say that “Bleeding Edge” is indigestible but rather that you need to observe mother’s ordinance to chew each mouthful twenty times before attempting to swallow and that you should relinquish any hope of being able to fully clean your plate in one lifespan.

What is it about “Bleeding Edge” that makes reading it such a satisfying and draining endeavour? The vibrant characters whose innermost workings of brain, heart, and libido we think we grasp only to have them yanked out of our hands; the complex plot that reads like an amalgam of front page news, secretive espionage files, nineteenth century murder mysteries, and nearly impenetrable science fiction; the illusions running from quantum physics to pop culture icons; the ceaseless gyrations from identifiable New York City streetscapes to imaginative worlds of deep treacherous cyberspace.

I will read more Thomas Pynchon, once I catch my breath.

* * *
For information on my most recent books, the memoir “August Farewell” and the novel “Searching for Gilead,” see my website at

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Praise of Tough Reads

I read Zadie Smith’s “NW” immediately after finishing Jonas Jonasson’s “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.” The juxtaposition taught me something about my reading proclivities: I prefer books and authors that make me work.

Zadie Smith made me work. It was sometimes difficult to sort out the connection amongst the constellation of characters in “NW.” Standard formatting devices such as quotation marks around speech were often eschewed blurring the line between what was spoken out loud and what was internal monologue. The four parts of the novel were each structured differently: the first, “visitation,” had a typical format of numbered chapters; the second, “guest,” used borough designations to set off the chapters; the third and longest part, “host,” numbered not the chapters but each individual paragraph; and finally the fourth, reprised the title “visitation” and was essentially one relatively short chapter. But more challenging than these structural variations were the difficulties that I experienced in following the characters’ evolutions with the at-times convoluted plot. I had to be constantly attentive. I needed to reread sections or flip back to previous chapters. I did a great deal of highlighting of passages that I thought would help me follow the storyline.

And, bottom line, I was totally engaged. “NW” was not a fun, easy read. It was, by contrast, difficult. And I loved it. Like a great workout at the gym, Zadie Smith had the adrenalin pumping through my brain. And that left me satisfied in the same way that a rush of endorphins does.

As for “The 100-Year-Old Man…,” it’s probably sacrilege to say that I was bored. I know that the book has been immensely popular, as are others by Jonasson. And, truth be told, I wasn’t exactly bored. It was a fun story told by Jonasson with such an entertaining narrative style that the book carried me along effortlessly. Which is not to say that Jonasson’s writing is effortless. As a struggling fiction writer myself, I know how hard it is to write a text that has the fluidity of Jonasson’s work. But as for visceral satisfaction? For me, “The 100-Year-Old Man…” doesn’t come close to “NW.”

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized