On the morning of Day 7, I received news that my dear writing mentor, Judith Kitchen, had died. That day, I had to teach a software training session—no way I could cancel. I had an afternoon appointment with a student writer, and I couldn’t cancel that either. Shouldn’t life stand still when we need to grieve?
But I know better. I don’t expect life to stand still, and I also don’t expect myself to power numbly through. I proceeded through my day with puffy eyes, a scratchy voice, distracted and grieving. I wore black, though in our culture that’s no sign of anything in particular. And when I wasn’t teaching, I read.
One of Judith’s most recent works was The Circus Train, a novella-length essay published as a book last winter but first appearing in The Georgia Review last year. I’ve had that issue of GR on my dresser for a full year now, but I never opened it up and started reading Judith’s long essay. I was waiting, for some reason.
I opened Judith’s essay and started to read. Judith took me once again under her wing and let me into her thoughts as she remembered her life as a girl, a young mother, a middle-aged woman full of health and love but already squarely facing her mortality. The year after my mother-in-law died, Judith was diagnosed with breast cancer. Each time I saw her—once or twice a year—I wondered if it would be the last time. But she kept rallying, kept surprising her doctors. Just weeks ago she was hospitalized and struggling to breathe and it seemed like the end. Then she sat up in bed and started editing poetry.
Judith kept writing through the chemo brain fog, through breathing struggles, through weakness and prednisone puffiness and lymphedema.
And because she kept writing, I have access to her mind as she considered a life lived, a life about to end. And here I am in the middle of a writing challenge, wondering if I even want to keep writing. I certainly want to quit writing for today and for tomorrow, and I have struggled over the past weeks and months as well.
Judith kept writing, and because she did, I have her mind on the page. She still keeps me company, and her words continue to speak.
Judith would have rolled her eyes at my wimpy attitude. When I found a small publisher for my first book and worried that I was settling for something too small, Judith shrugged. “You will write many more books,” she said. “Publish, then write another.”
So I did. And Judith helped me, though she was sick and weak and probably should have focused on herself instead. She made sure I had the best second book possible—and I know many, many other writers who are this week remembering Judith for all she was and all we are because we had her.
I wrote a little on Day 7, though my heart wasn’t in it at all. A few hundred words. And a few hundred more on Day 8. Yesterday I felt just as weary, just as sad. Today is Monday and I started a big editing job and conducted another software training and turned in grades for my online class.
But what about the writing?
I’ve decided to make my NaNoWriMo project into an even bigger mess. Take a couple of those essays I was reserving for another book. Break them up and plug them into this one. If they don’t work, fine. Nothing else is clicking, and I’m not going to throw in the towel (until December 1).
Judith would have told me not to reserve my best stuff for some later project. “What the hell are you waiting for?” she would have said. So I won’t wait. I have no faith that any of this will come together, but I won’t quit yet.
A lifetime of writing, Judith, and it wasn’t enough. Thank you for leaving us with so much of yourself.