Friday, March 27, 2009

Guest Post - Phyllis Schieber - Willing Spirits Tour

A Bookworm's World is pleased to have Phyllis Schieber, author of Willing Spirits stopping by on her virtual book tour. Her guest post today is an extremely personal view on loss. Thank you Phyllis for sharing with us.

Other stops on the tour can be viewed here. Phyllis will stopping in throughout the day to respond to your comments.

"Each comment on any of the blogs in the tour will offer a chance to win a free copy of Willing Spirits or Sinner's Guide to Confession. A couple of people who make a real impression on Phyllis during the tour will be chosen to win a free book."

"I know loss. My father died when I was twenty-six. It was the first truly profound loss I ever experienced, and it irrevocably changed my life. I lost a dear friend, Bette, a few years later. And then, the tragic death of her daughter Polly some ten years later from asthma attack. I dedicated Willing Spirits to Bette and Polly. I know loss. Another much loved friend, Shelly, died two years ago. I lost my mother in December, but she was lost to me years before as I watched her battle dementia and physical disabilities that compromised her life and made her a stranger.

And just this week yet another friend passed. Our dear friend Freddie, who would have been sixty-four in a few weeks, was buried just two day ago. I know loss. But I am more fortunate than most because I am a writer. I can take the pain and make it something else. I can make the pain and the sadness and transform it into something that, unlike people, will last forever.

I have come to realize that I see the world differently than others do. As we stood vigil in the hospital, anticipating the removal of the ventilator that was nothing more than procedure, I watched the drama of death unfold. I try to comfort the heartbroken aide, Janette, who cared for Freddie these last months. She is from Togo, and the lovely lilt of her voice does nothing to mask her pain. She weeps fully, and I am once again reminded that culture defines everything. Janette openly laments what she has lost. “He was my friend,” she says. I wrap my arms around her and reassure her that she had done everything possible to make his life comfortable and easier. “I know,” she says simply. “But I will miss him so. He was my family.” She presses her head into the wall and howls. The rest of us move from the room where Freddie is comatose, lifeless already. We intermittently stroke him and talk to him, but Janette kisses his feet. We are almost embarrassed by this open demonstration of love and devotion. My husband, a lifelong friend of Freddie’s, is pale, but quiet. He tries to comfort Freddie’s wife Kathy. I stay close to Freddie’s daughter Stacey, a young woman I have known since she was born. Her mother, gone now nineteen years, was my friend. There are others present, the rabbi and her husband, a neighbor, my brother-in-law (Freddie’s best friend), who works hard to contain his grief. I hear his gasp as a cry threatens to escape from his throat. He will not allow himself to indulge in open pain. He will not expose himself. When it is finally over and we say goodbye, I am ready to leave. We have been in the hospital all day. My husband holds my hand as we walk to the garage. We are tired and hungry. We are accustomed to the rhythms of loss, and we still have to face the funeral and the shiva, the requisite period of mourning during which the immediate family receives those who come to pay their respects.

During the funeral, I notice the surreptitious glance of the grieving widow Kathy as she looks toward her inconsolable step-daughter, hoping she will hear the rabbi’s words of comfort and perhaps acknowledge the effort to pay homage to the mother lost so many years before. The attempt goes unrecognized, and I grieve even more because I see the consequences of obdurate behavior, the unyielding refusal to let others in. The unwillingness or inability to be comforted can be a hardship for everyone. Kathy is what my mother would have called, “a lady.” She is gracious and warm to everyone who has come to share her loss. I am surprised to see the coffin draped in an American flag. I had forgotten that Freddie was a Vietnam veteran. I had forgotten how he and several of our other friends had been forever changed by that war, physically and emotionally. My husband delivers a eulogy. He is nervous. I can tell by his gait, by the way he laughs a little before he begins to speak. The rabbi refers to him as one of the “band of brothers,” the group of guys who grew up together in the Bronx. The eulogy is moving. They guys embrace my husband when he steps down from the podium. They approve.

I notice everything as the service ends. There are small dramas everywhere. The family of Stacey’s late mother is there to support Stacey. The children of the “band of brothers’ who came to pay their respects to a man they had known all their lives seem nervous. It is touching. I see the fear in their eyes. Could one of their parents be next?

Several times throughout the day, I am inspired to jot something down in the little notebook I always keep handy. Did anyone else feel the grief of the men as they, according to Jewish custom, filled their friend’s grave with dirt until the plain pine box was covered? Am I the only one who internally recorded the depth of Stacey’s suffering as she doubled over and cried so deeply that I felt a chill? I noted the irony of the Honor Guard at the grave of a man who despised war. Yet, it is impossible not to be moved by the young soldiers who carry out the military protocol with such dignity, such precision. Freddie would have had something to say about the need to repeat the ceremonial folding of the flag—they got it wrong the first time. I smile as I think about his reaction.

I know for certain that some of this day will find its way into my work in some form at some time. Later, I ask my husband if he saw what I saw. More often than not, he says no. The last few days have given me an idea for a new novel. I’m not certain if I will write it, or if it will still seem like a good idea months from now when I finish what I am working on, but I know some of what I have heard and seen will be used in some way. I am grateful that I can cull my experiences and arrange into a form that others will recognize as exactly what they were feeling at some other time, in some other place. I am grateful for the stories I will be able to create."

Willing Spirits - Synopsis

Jane Hoffman and Gwen Baker, both teachers and in their forties, have a friendship that helps them endure. Years after Gwen is abandoned and left to raise two sons alone, she finds herself in love with a married man. After Jane is humiliated by her husband's infidelity and Gwen must face her own uncertain path, the two women turn to each other.

Now, as each is tested by personal crisis, Jane and Gwen face new challenges--as mothers, as daughters, as lovers. And in the process, they will learn unexpected truths about their friendship--and themselves.

A little bit about Phyllis herself:

The first great irony of my life was that I was born in a Catholic hospital. My parents, survivors of the Holocaust, had settled in the South Bronx among other new immigrants. In the mid-fifties, my family moved to Washington Heights. The area offered scenic views of the Hudson River and the Palisades, as well as access to Fort Tryon Park and the mysteries of the Cloisters. I graduated from George Washington High School. I graduated from high school at sixteen, went on to Bronx Community College, transferred to and graduated from Herbert H. Lehman College with a B.A. in English and a New York State license to teach English. I earned my M.A. in Literature from New York University and later my M.S. as a developmental specialist from Yeshiva University. I have worked as a high school English teacher and as a learning disabilities specialist. My first novel , Strictly Personal, for young adults, was published by Fawcett-Juniper. Willing Spirits was published by William Morrow. My most recent novel, The Sinner's Guide to Confession, was released by Berkley Putnam. In March 2009, Berkley Putnam will issue the first paperback publication of Willing Spirits.

I live in Westchester County, New York where I work privately with students, teaching writing. I am currently working on a new novel.

You can visit Phyllis's blog here.

Thank you so much Phyllis for stopping by A Bookworm's World!


Kat Bryan said...

That was a very moving interview. I, too, know loss - the loss of my dad from suicide 20 years ago and the loss of my sister last year from cancer. I like to write but have a hard time putting my true feelings down. I'm afraid if I put it on paper it will make me too vulnerable, I guess.

Kat Bryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phyllis Schieber said...

Hi Kat. Thank you for sharing your feelings. I think based on what you said, it's all the more reason to write. You have to make yourself vulnerable to be a good writer. Many people have taken credit for the line, "All you have to do to be a writer is open a vein and bleed." Some say it was Dorothy Parker, but I'm not certain. Regardless, the words are true. Good luck, and thank you for stopping by.

Anna said...

What a very touching post. I wrote through my mother's illness and long recovery when I was in high school, and I wrote a lot when my father died when I was 22 and pregnant with his first grandchild.

Diary of an Eccentric

Phyllis Schieber said...

Hi Anna. Ah, so you have known your share of loss as well. I'm sorry, but I am glad you have been able to write through helps, doesn't it?

Luanne said...

Many thanks to Phyllis for guest posting today.
Thank you also Kat and Anna for sharing...

Phyllis Schieber said...

Thanks for inviting me, Luanne.

Morgan Mandel said...

Not many people are immune from loss. Even when you know it's coming, as in the case of both my parents, it still hits hard. Watching deterioration isn't easy and is pretty scary. We can't do anything about it, so we must endure and make the most of what we have.

Morgan Mandel

Phyllis Schieber said...

So true, Morgan. Loss and change seem to define our lives. Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

Ladytink_534 said...

I've lost quite a few people in my life but the one that hurt me the most was my great-grandmother, my Meme. She helped raise me and I always thought of her like another mother. Even though she too had dementia in her later years (it wasn't horrible, thankfully and she was still her but it wasn't pleasant either) she was still my Meme and I'll always miss her.

I'm not a writer unfortunately so I couldn't deal with my grief that way but I've always had a bit of an imagination so I was able to that way. In my mind when a person or pet dies they just go somewhere where I can't follow just now. Not sure where that place is, it could be anywhere as long as it's pretty and they're happy. That's the only way I could get through death without breaking down.

Just hearing you tell about what you observed sounds so sad. I'm sorry for you and yours' loss.

Phyllis Schieber said...

Ladytink_534: Thank you so much for your touching words and your expression of kindness for my recent loss. You don't have to be a "writer" to record your thoughts and feelings. You might surprise yourself! I know what you mean about pets, by the way. We have an almost 15-year-old cat, and she inspires us to be better people. We worship her!

Luanne said...

Morgan and Ladytink:

I am going through this now with my beloved grandmother. It is so hard to watch this beautiful vibrant woman deteriorate, but I am thankful for each and every moment I have with her.