Writing: Themes

When I was young, I drove my mom nuts by asking “Why?” I wanted to understand how things connected, the cause and effect of life’s happenings. A lot of my writing explored the meaning of life. Maybe that’s why I was so drawn to mysteries, and why I’m still so drawn to plot points. Plots use cause and effect to move from one scene to the next. Mysteries take the chaos of crime and bring the criminals to justice. It makes the world…and writing…more orderly.

Now that I’m older, I don’t expect to discover the meaning of life. It’s sort of like understanding the idea of infinity. I believe in it, because it makes sense to me. How can anyone draw a line in space and say This is where it ends? Because then, we have to ask What’s on the other side of the line? Something must continue. So even though I can’t fathom infinity, I believe in it. For the same reason, I believe there must be SOME meaning to life, but I have no idea what I think it is. I’ve heard lots of different discussions on it–that life is a classroom, and we’re here to learn, that life is a blessing and sacred, even if it stinks, and that life is a stage, and we each play a part–good or bad–for the experience it brings us. I can find flaws with each and every answer I’ve heard, but that just means that the question is possibly too big for me. Like infinity. So I can’t picture the answer.

These days, I’ve flipped the question and instead of asking, What is the meaning of Life, I ask How can I add more meaning to my life? And that’s the theme that turns up more often than not in my writing. Life experience probably paid a part.

Some people are lucky and don’t attend their first funeral until they’re older. I lost my one grandfather when I was too young to remember the funeral. I only have impressions of the man–a man with a big laugh who bounced me on his knee. I lost my second grandfather before my teens. Both men went quickly, no lingering. They were there, and then they were gone. My father believed that man’s days were numbered, like the notion of the Greek Fates, who wove a person’s thread and then cut it at the allotted time. My grandfathers had lived their days, until they’d reached their quota. I decided I’d better use my time wisely. But soon after I married, my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He died before he was sixty, and the disease took him a little at a time. When his blood clogged with too many proteins and cells, doctors attached him to a machine and took the blood out of his left arm, spun it in a machine with centrifugal force, and then put his clean blood back into his right arm. In the beginning, a treatment would last a long time. Then, several months. Then, shorter. Being the man that he was, he went through the treatments with no complaints, making the best of each visit and the time he had between them…until his time was up. I’M the one who shook my fists at the heavens and asked Why? To me, a lingering death seemed more like a punishment than a quick one. It wasn’t a matter of just cutting Dad’s threads. But then, one of my close friends, who’d been through loss of her own, asked Why not? Bad things happen. Why wouldn’t they happen to you? A sobering thought, but it made sense to me. So I waded through the experience. And it helped me with the next one.

My mom died a short while ago, and my sisters and I felt almost guilty, we were so happy for her. Mom had suffered Alzheimer’s Disease for ten years. The last year was just plain ugly. My sister Patty cared for her, and my sister Mary, constantly helped. I was only an occasional visitor. My theory was to help my sisters, because it’s no fun being a caregiver. I got the easy part of the downward slide that ended my mom being my mom. But I can assure you that out of love, all three of us felt huge relief when Mom’s struggle was finally over. And that experience, along with everything else that’s happened in my life, has affected my writing. Maybe that’s why urban fantasy appeals to me right now. Life’s struggles loom large in my mind, too big for mysteries. The concept of life and death is more complicated than it once was. A witch or a werewolf live until someone or something kills him. Is that a blessing or a curse? A fallen angel is immortal and can’t die. How desirable is immortality? And what makes living each day, every day, meaningful? What purpose makes life worth living? Those are the themes I’m drawn to now. And next week, I’ll lighten up:) Maybe I’ll talk about romance:):)

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Is Death a good guy?

I’ve thought kindly of Death since I read the novel, On A Pale Horse, by Piers Anthony.  I mean, who’d want that job?  Not the guy who got stuck with it, against his will, in the Incarnation story.  But when he was called to the scene of a car accident, and a woman was crushed behind a steering wheel in horrible pain, and when he reached inside of her and gently removed her soul to release it, he realized that Death sometimes is a blessing.  I realized that when my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells.  Dad’s cells made so much protein that his blood got so thick, his heart could hardly pump it through his veins.  At the beginning, he’d go to the hospital, and they’d take blood out of one of his arms, put it through a machine that used centrifugal force to separate the heavy protein from the clean blood, and then they’d put his clean blood back into his other arm.  At the beginning, it would be a long time before he’d have to redo the procedure.  But the longer the disease went, the shorter time between treatments.  Until his skeleton and skull looked like moths had eaten at his bones, leaving pockmarked holes scattered through them.  The thing is, by the end, it was a mercy when he died.  He hadn’t turned sixty yet, but quality of life can matter more than quantity.

Years later, I watched my grandmother–in her nineties–fight a losing battle with diabetes.  She nicked a toe and got gangrene.  That spread to her foot.  That spread to her leg.  The leg had to be amputated.  They didn’t get it all, and they had to amputate above the knee.  She didn’t survive the second operation, but she let us all know that if the nurses didn’t wheel her back to her room, she was fine with that.  She’d lived a hard life, surviving the depression, but a good one.  She wasn’t up for another battle.  Death, for her, was a blessing.

Now, I watch my mom struggle with Alzheimer’s.  She’s in the final stages.  She can’t remember things and gets frightened.  Every once in a while, on a rare visit when she’s lucid, she tells me that she’s ready “to go.”  I wish she could.  I wish when your will got too weary, you could leave here.  Or do I?  Would we all hit a tough patch and take the easy way out?  I’m glad it’s not my decision.  But I know this, Death isn’t the scary, horrible thing for me that it used to be.

In my novella, Destiny With Death, Death assists people from this world to the next one.  When you’re suffering, he’s a release.  And he’s welcome.  But if it’s not your time, he won’t take you.  And if you make him angry, well….that’s just not smart.