Thursday, July 12, 2012

Guest Post: Professor Emily Stinson: Signs of Life

Signs of Life Review – Emily Stinson

Death is a subject not many of us like to discuss. It makes us uncomfortable and fearful to talk or think of death because it is the one thing that we cannot control. None of us know when or where it will strike. We like to imagine we will all live a long life, but the truth of the matter is that none of us are guaranteed that. Accidents, disease, wrong place at the wrong time, any number of things can happen to us or our loved ones, altering (or ending) the course of our lives. And when we lose a loved one, we are forced to re-imagine and reinvent our "normal" lives, without that loved one. The pain and cycle of grief is a personal journey, different for everyone, and extremely difficult to endure, much less overcome.

Natalie Taylor, in her memoir, Signs of Life bravely details her journey through grief when she, at age twenty-four and five months pregnant, loses her husband, Josh to a tragic accident. The memoir begins on the night Natalie learns of her husband's death and continues on through the birth of her son, concluding a little over a year after Josh’s accident. Along the way, Natalie grieves and rebuilds her life as a single parent, helped along the way by friends and family.

This is a very difficult read, to be certain, mostly because Natalie’s personable writing style makes it hard to put any kind of emotional distance between author and reader. I felt almost as if Natalie became my friend while reading this. It is always important for memoir writing to connect to its audience, but it is quite different to ask readers to connect to an experience as personal and difficult as death, something that most do everything in their power to avoid thinking about. It is a testament to Natalie that she is able to forge a connection between herself and her reader because the cost to readers is to experience emotions so raw and powerful that it is almost painful to keep reading. I cried almost every time I picked this book up. I often found myself both wanting desperately for the impossible - for Natalie to get Josh back - and simultaneously, appreciating my own husband in ways I never had before. There were moments when I would lay awake reading and stop just to appreciate the snores I heard next to me, that I could reach over and touch a warm and healthy body. It is a shame that it so often takes death to get us to appreciate life.

Natalie's writing style and tone is very conversational and honest. She doesn't save face and hold back her thoughts and feelings about the grieving process itself and the way others treat her, which ranges from overly helpful to outright avoidance. However, Natalie never comes across as whiny or self-absorbed either. Though she has every right to feel wronged and cheated, she doesn't allow herself to go down those paths. Instead, she finds ways to appreciate life and make the best of her circumstances. The birth of her son seems to be something of a turning point for Natalie; where before she was a grieving widow, she now must be a mother. It is her decision that she does not want her son to grow up with a mother who is constantly sad and grieving that seems to draw the line in the sand between whom she was and who she would like to be.

Along with the trials of motherhood, Natalie must also deal with raising a child on her own. When selecting a new parents group to attend, she has to choose between selecting the couples group or the single parents group, not truly fitting into either camp: after all, she is a single mother, but she was married and would still be if it weren't for Josh's accident. Finding her own way seems to be a major theme in Natalie’s story; most do not become a widow in their mid-twenties, and so Natalie must create the rules for this atypical identity. She fields questions about whether her son has a relationship with his father in her grief group, and she has to explain to those who learn of Josh’s death why she doesn’t still wear her wedding ring. I imagine one of the hardest moments for her would have been receiving a letter from social security saying her marriage had been terminated due to Josh's death. How must it have felt for a government agency to tell you your marriage is over?

However, despite the unreal circumstances that Natalie finds herself in, she manages to keep her imagination alive, and it is often a tool she uses to combat grief: present in her story is a cast of imagined characters and scenarios that aid Natalie. After she connects to a particularly touching chapter in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry must confront the choice between life and death, Natalie imagines herself calling up J.K. Rowling and having a conversation with the famous author about how she, Natalie, is really doing after Josh’s death. There is a scenario where Natalie stars in her own version of The Bachelorette where suitors are tested on their ability to do household chores or care for children rather than woo their bachelorette with flowers and fancy dinners. My personal favorite is Natalie's "fairy mom godmother,” a twist on the traditional fairy godmother who comes to Natalie's aid after her son is born when others say or do the wrong things to help. These imagined "daydreams," so to speak, provide moments of light hearted humor and bring something unique to the memoir.

Another important aspect of the memoir is how Natalie's job helps her through the grieving process. Natalie is a high school English teacher whose creative approach to teaching literature is a treat for all those who have a close connection to the discipline. I’ve spent most of my life with my face buried behind a book, and now I teach English and Composition at the Community College level, so I have a personal and professional investment to not only the study of literature but the teaching of it as well. Despite the fact that it has been a while since I read the texts Natalie teaches – A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, among others – and I don’t teach them in my college classes, I appreciate the way Natalie encourages her students to make their understanding of literature personal. Natalie herself sees these texts in a completely different light after Josh’s death. The way these novels connect to her and teach her reminded me why I love this profession and how important it is for us to have a relationship with literature. Sometimes, books are the only guides we have when life gets tough.

Ultimately, this is a story of hope and of appreciating life despite extremely difficult circumstances. I recommend this memoir to all, especially if you've ever suffered a loss and/or if you have a passion for literature. Death is certainly not a fun subject to read and talk about, but it's important for us to have a dialogue about it because it is inevitable. I am thankful to have read this book, even though it led to a lot of tears, because while the center theme is about struggling to rebuild after a tragic death, it also teaches a great deal about the preciousness of life. And that is certainly something we should never ever forget.

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