(Trigger Warning: Cancer, death, pregnancy, abortion, eating disorder, mental illness)
At times my mother will tell me she can sense the coming rain or snow in her body. I never understood it, but I always believed her. I started to feel the earth’s pain inside me too, not long after my father’s death.
On bitter-cold days I felt it, stark as an earring penetrating frostbitten cartilage, icy metal under my skin.
The earth was as tense as my body. I wanted to tell her that sometimes it feels good to open your body to the cold, to let yourself shiver, the warmth leaving your body in seismic waves.
The pain itself starts somewhere between my left buttock and thigh, then travels lower and lower along my sciatic nerve, like a dressmaker’s soft yellow tape measuring a seam. The muscles in my left leg buzz like power lines. When I stand up from the toilet in the mornings, I feel lightning in my blood as I try to straighten out my spine. I curl and crumble like a slap bracelet around a wrist. I breathe in hisses through my teeth.
I silence the scream on the inhale.
Most things do not have only one catalyst. Most things do not make sense. I told myself a story about the root of my pain. The story went like this:
It was sometime in early May. I was home to visit my father. It would be the last time I’d ever see him.
He couldn’t take the stairs anymore, so he used the tiny coat-closet-turned-bathroom in the corner of the kitchen. There was no light in there, only a toilet and some shelves, coated with dark dust, tainted by the coal stove. At some point between the toilet and the living room, where his hospital bed was, he decided he was too weak to walk, and laid down on the dull yellow linoleum.
He couldn’t stand up on his own. After a few failed attempts to lift his body from the floor—he was so small then, yet I felt my back and hamstrings strain with the weight of him—I took off my flannel shirt and placed it beneath his balding head like a makeshift pillow.
His hair and beard were trimmed short then. I still remembered the first time I visited him in the hospital in February. How shocking it had been to see him so thin with a long gray beard. He had always been a round, hard man with a belly like a bowling ball, decorated with dark blue veins.
He looked up at me from the floor, his skin the same shade as the linoleum. We had the same golden Lithuanian skin. The same way mine had gone yellow as a smoker’s teeth when I started starving my body in high school, his skin had also turned sallow. His eyes looked so green. He was looking right at me, but I don’t think he saw me. His pupils were dilated. Come to think of it, he might’ve been strung out.
“I’m scared, Beck.”
I told myself that this pain—always there, sometimes crippling, like grief—took root that night. I realize now that perhaps it didn’t, but linking it to my father made me feel connected with him. His ghost nestled just below my left buttock like a cyst, like a tumor, shooting pain through me.
A new ghost nestled inside of me, deep in my guts. It didn’t have a name. I never wanted to call it human. I called it “tadpole” because that’s how it felt—like my womb was a bloated plastic bag from a pet store with some squirming thing inside.
At first it had been like getting butterflies, but more aimless and foreboding, like moths slamming against the single-bulb porch light.
Then there was pain, there was bile, there was the time I made my sister pull over outside of town so I could lean from her passenger side window and dry heave, a jagged and ugly sound in the small town silence.
I had taken the test already. My water had spurted out haphazardly, stung the dry skin on my hands. I’d glanced at it and seen that one line, that negative, that flatline, and buried it in the garbage. Now I can picture it seething there with its little blue crucifix.
The second time I took the test, there it was—that slow crisscross, like airplane contrails in a cloudless sky, crossing paths before they bloat and fade. Positive.
I couldn’t get an appointment until two weeks after. Those two weeks dripped by like the end of June always does. I reveled in the times I forgot it was there, that little teeming thing—part me, part someone else, part fish with its eerie unblinking eyes and insatiable appetite.
The morning sickness came and went like a fickle lover, appearing unexpected and twisting up my insides like a dishrag, wrung out through my mouth. The vomit always came out clear and yellow like the inside of an egg.
I had never felt so alone and so reminded of the sin in my gut. I found a robin’s egg on the sidewalk, cracked open. My stomach turned.
Like god, the body works in mysterious ways. My body had become a host to this parasite. I was exhausted. I lost weight. When my boyfriend ran his hands along my back and told me I was looking a little too thin, I reveled in the deliciousness of those words.
He scowled at the way my face would contort when we’d watch television, when I’d compare my body to every other body I saw: teenage girls in cropped shirts, women whose waists didn’t fill their lovers’ forearms. The ways my eating disorder manifested already exhausted him, but his annoyance seemed magnified during those weeks. He always made sure I ate and the child in me that I’d starved into silence basked in the cheeseburger and soft serve ice cream glory of summertime. It tasted like being a kid again.
The tadpole was curled up in me like some almost-frog, with useless little limbs and a comically long tongue that snapped out and caught calories like flies.
When the time came, the nurse asked me if I wanted to know anything about the ultrasound, but I couldn’t bear to look at it. The infant in miniature like a Barbie baby. I had a pregnant Barbie doll when I was a child. Her smooth, tan belly collapsed in like a button, creating a crawl space for that terrifying plastic baby, and there was a round, new belly to snap into place with the baby rattling inside.
I imagined my 8 or 9-week old fetus looked like that. I imagined it had eyes that still had not grown eyelids, so it would be staring at me, still as a doll.
Tadpole, I reminded myself.
I left the clinic with instruction to swallow some pills, to push other pills up inside of me, wait for the poison to spread.
When the bleeding started, my entire torso felt ravaged, torn apart by something rabid. My womb was on fire. The pain was white hot and I knew this was death, secondhand. I laid down on the bathroom tiles.
This pain was unlike anything I’d ever felt—not like a bee sting, or a blow to the stomach—this was pain without an end in sight, horizonless. I was killing it, or it was killing me.
Vicodin stolen from my boyfriend’s father’s armoire lulled me to sleep.
I woke up to blood. When I undressed in the bathroom I stained the toilet seat and left drops on the tile. It came out steadily, reminding me of the way my mother would leave her sink running in the winter so the pipes wouldn’t freeze. That thin, steady stream of water.
As I showered off the blood, a clump the size of a silver dollar fell out of me, slapped the pink porcelain and slipped down the drain. Just like that, it was gone. Out with the bath water.
It occurred to me then that it was the fourth of July.
The thought came to me from nowhere that my father—dead for one year and two months then—would be disappointed in me if he knew about the abortion. I lit a cigarette, felt the blood pooling beneath me like a shadow, like a trapdoor. I didn’t apologize, not even silently.
Dad used to say you couldn’t trust anything that bleeds for seven days and doesn’t die. Now, I’ve bled for more.
At times, I feel defined by the pains I feel. At times, I try too hard to connect my physical and mental pains. The cutting of the fate string, the becoming of a muse. The dryrotted elastic of the sciatic nerve.
I am tension embodied. Perhaps I am feeling the storms building beyond my window. Perhaps my grief manifests itself physically each time I cannot cry at the thought of my father.
Or perhaps not.
Afterword: On Writing Through Grief
In the past 19 months of my life, I have become familiar with the hierarchy of sorrow, as well as with the flatness of language, as I struggled to wrangle my emotions into the confines of poetry.
When trauma seeps into your life, you become familiar with the complexities of unhappiness. Tragedy does not hurt less when you are already sad. Depression is not suitable practice for grieving.
19 months ago, I lost my father to lung cancer. Since then, I have lost other parts of myself. I have lost friends, I have lost love. I still do not understand my grief. My grief has never been linear and has never been defined by a single tragedy. I untangle it only through writing about it.
Something else I have realized over the past 19 months is that grief itself means more than one thing. By definition, grief is a deep sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death. Related words include pain, heartbreak, and woe. I look at these words and I realize that grief takes many forms and is less ambiguous than it lets on.
Often, we feel compelled to downplay our emotions, to remind ourselves that someone, somewhere has it worse than we do. Who is to say that heartbreak is a less valid form of grief?
Writing through pain can be difficult but I believe it to be necessary. There are some emotions we may never want to revisit even if we are meant to.
Once, as a teenager, I came across a piece of advice in a book that stuck with me: to allow myself to feel emotions fully so that I may someday let them go. I find that my only true catharsis is through writing. I also find that letting go should not always be the end goal.
My first attempts to write through my father’s death were clumsy and unpolished—most of those poems never made it past the Notes App on my phone. It was only when I realized I have been writing through grief my entire life—from early, tender heartaches to searing betrayals—that I understood my mistake: I was forcing myself to do something that would eventually come naturally.
Later on, I tried to articulate my grief into prose, experimenting with creative nonfiction. The experience was freeing in a way—I felt no pressure to be poetic. I felt no struggle for the right word. I just wrote what was true. Sometimes, the truth comes out lyrically. Sometimes it’s clunky and off key. Sometimes it’s bad writing.
Either way, it is necessary.
Here are some tips and exercises for writing through painful experiences:
Write about an experience with grief, yours or someone else’s, that may be perceived as “trivial.”
Try switching from your primary form. For example, if you usually write formal poetry, try writing in free verse. You don’t know what you’re capable of until you try it.
Think about the concept of death. Where do you see death in the world around you? Can death mean different things to different people? (i.e. death of a season, death of a past self, death of the bug you stepped on yesterday, etc.) Explore “small” deaths versus “large” ones.
Be gentle with yourself. Writing through pain and through trauma is difficult and should be done with patience and understanding toward yourself. Just because you are a writer does not mean you are obligated to put these words on the page. Take your time and know your limits. Return when/if you can.
Rebecca Kokitus is a writer and poet currently residing outside Philadelphia. She primarily writes about her connection with nature, her experiences with mental illness, and also on subjects such as trauma, love, sex, spirituality and femininity. Born and raised in rural Pennsylvania, she has always felt spiritually connected to the Appalachian woodlands, which sparked her interest in magick. She is a crystal collector, tea witch, moon worshipper and flower child who can probably be found picking up every acorn and leaf she finds. In her free time she enjoys reading and writing poetry, spending time in nature, going to concerts, and exploring abandoned places. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @rxbxcca_anna, and you can read more of her writing on her website.