It was 1995. Home with three young daughters, I joined a weekly women’s writing group led by Amherst Writers & Artists founder Pat Schneider. A fledgling poet, I read my poems aloud for the first time. Yet to be discovered was the arduous journey from silence to freedom that this process of writing and sharing my words would initiate.
Atop a small wooden desk in a bedroom alcove sat my teal-blue iMac. I often migrated there at night, intending to edit a poem or submit one to a literary journal for publication. Exhausted by the day’s routines, often my eyelids sagged just minutes into the task at hand; yielding to fatigue, I often shut down the computer and crawled into bed.
That winter a local family tragedy jolted our community. The adolescent son of a well-known family succumbed to an overdose. He’d purchased an opioid from a college student the afternoon he died. Since his bedroom was located in the family home’s basement, it wasn’t until the following morning when his parents and younger sister puzzled over his absence from the breakfast table upstairs, that his death was discovered. Sent downstairs to fetch her brother, his teenage sister discovered his lifeless body.
I paid a condolence call days later. Sitting in the family’s living room, I spotted a Christmas tree tucked into a corner by a bay window; it was decorated with baubles and tinsel.
The next day I wrote the first draft of my poem Death in the Family. The following week I submitted it to my writing group for critique. It’s almost there, Pat whispered as she returned her marked-up copy into my hands. Some weeks later, after hours of revision, I sent it off to a contest.
Much to my astonishment, this poem received 1st place in the National Writers Association Poetry Contest. I’d never even entered a poetry contest before. In addition to a congratulatory letter, I received a check for $100. Strange though it sounds, I dreaded making this good news public, especially to my spouse, who’d frequently chided my efforts to publish my poetry at all.
At my writing group the following week, with clammy palms and my face twitching, I revealed my good fortune to my fellow writers. Beaming, Pat asked me to read the poem aloud. As I opened my notebook, my body squirmed in the oversized upholstered chair. Reading the first line, my voice wobbled, but soon my pace slowed as my voice settled into a new rhythm. Word by word my tone deepened as the verses led up to the dénouement–the Christmas tree ignored by the window. All these decades later, whenever and wherever I read Death in the Family aloud, my body remembers the roiling in my gut at the sight of those brightly-colored ornaments dangling so uselessly from each bough
Death in the Family
We whisper upon entering this house of death
where we have come to offer words
of condolence and regret
In a corner the father sits crumpled in sorrow
His wife stands dazed by his side
Their daughter, no longer a sister, curls on the couch like a newborn kitten
By her side, her aged grandfather silently strokes her feet
The Christmas tree, with striped candy canes dangling generously
from each bough, stands ignored by the window