“You’re going like this, Ellen,” Dean Woodard said, clenching her fists and shaking them at the ceiling. “The universe can’t give you anything when your hands are shut tight.”
She unfurled her fingers slowly, letting her body relax, and fixed her gaze on me. I felt my shoulders, neck, and finally hands start to release as well, and I knew she was right. Screaming at the universe is no way to get on its good side.
My mother had passed away three months earlier, and I was in the midst of the first of many life crises to come. I had spent the night before sobbing on my best friend’s couch, admitting for the first time that I did not want to return to my hometown, Atlanta, after graduation. It was March, and we’d be free, Yale-degree-holding adults in just two months. But the thought of returning to the town where my mother had breathed her last breaths made me feel like I was breathing my last ones as well. I had committed to Teach for America, though, just before my mother had passed. I had told them I’d be there, and, more importantly, I had told my mama the same.
“She wants you to be happy, Ellen,” Dean Woodard warned as I started to give the litany of excuses for why I was doomed to return to Atlanta. We were technically meeting to discuss my writing. The universe had done me a solid that final semester of college, whispering to me months before to sign up for an independent writing tutorial with Dean. My proposal had proclaimed that I’d be writing a story based on my childhood. When I got back to campus after the Christmas that took my mother, though, I knew the focus of my writing had to be on her.
For the first few weeks, I wrote about her sickness, her death, all of the horror I had so recently been through. I wrote it and rewrote it, again and again, trying to figure out what had happened, to figure out how it possibly was that my best friend was no longer living.
Dean read, and listened, and applauded my bravery. And then she gave me a challenge.
“I never had the pleasure of meeting Mommy, Ellen.” She paused, giving me that moment of sinking that still comes when I realize that people desperately important to me will never know my mama.
“I want you to introduce me to her,” she said finally. “Let me see her. Let me hear her voice.”
She paused again and then asked, “What do you think she’d say if she read what you’ve written so far?”
I stared at the nubby carpeting of her Swing Space office. “She’d be sad. She’d hate that I’m so sad.”
Dean held me with her eyes and said softly, “What you’ve written is incredibly powerful, Ellen. And you needed to write it. But you’ve been writing about her cancer and her death. I want you to write about her life.”
I nodded, my throat so tight it felt closed.
“Your mommy was not her cancer,” she went on. “She wasn’t her death, and if I can tell anything from how you talk about her, she’d be annoyed and angry if she knew that’s what you were writing about her.”
A smile crept across my cheeks for the first time all day, and my held breath finally released with laughter. “No, you’re right,” I said. “She’d be totally pissed.”
“Your mommy wasn’t how she died,” Dean added. “She was how she lived. Show me that. Show me how she lived.”
I spent the rest of the semester trying to tackle the challenge. I got in my mental spaceship and went back to my childhood, listening for my mother’s voice, watching for her facial expressions, drinking in the feel of her arms around me, her fingers in my hair, her palms on my back. I cried and longed and put as much of it as I could on paper, but she still felt so far away.
“This week,” Dean said one dreary day in February, “I want you to write about a slam-down, scream-out fight that you and Mommy had.”
I stared at her, eyebrows crunched, my breakfast gathering at the bottom of my throat.
“It’s okay. It’s real. You wouldn’t be so close, you wouldn’t miss her so much if you never fought. I need to see it. It’s part of your story; it’s part of her story.”
She was right, of course. I went home that night and vomited the cruelest words I ever hurled towards my mother on the page. And then there she was, soothing me and disarming me, just like she did during the fight a decade before. I wrote our fights, and I wrote our laughter, and I wrote as much as I could remember of her, terrified that each day she was slipping further and further away.
During those months, Dean taught me how to write, but more importantly, she taught me that what matters, for characters and for real people too, is how to live. Sometimes you’re going to scream at the people you love most in this world just because you can. And that doesn’t make you bad; it makes you human. So you write it; you tell the truth, and you learn to do it better and better. And then you revise. You learn to be less cruel and more honest. You tell the stories you’re ashamed of because, without them, your future chapters wouldn’t exist. But you go on from your darkness. The story doesn’t end there.
As I sit here now, four and half years later, trying to capture in writing the woman who taught me how to capture those I love in writing, I want to clinch my fists and shake them at the sky. I want to curse the universe for taking her away from us so unexpectedly. But I know that’s not what Dean would want. She’d tell me to take a breath and let my hands fall open. She’d remind me that there’s so much good to receive but that I can’t get it if my hands are tightly closed.
On that day in March of 2009 when she told me to open up my hands, I was missing my mother so much that I was paralyzed. My hands tightly clenched, I wasn’t just unsure what I wanted out of my future, I was unsure if I wanted a future at all. I still couldn’t imagine one without my mother at its center.
“You know, Ellen. You did it,” she said.
I lifted my eyes from my lap and searched her face for her meaning. “I did… what?”
“You showed me Mommy. You did it. I know her now. I can see her. I can hear her. She’s here in your words.”
I knew I should be happy, but instead my throat clenched closed like my hands, and the tears that had been drifting softly across my face now raged.
“But she’s not! She’s still not here, not for me.”
We were quiet for a long time. “I just don’t understand why,” I whispered finally, for the thousandth time that year.
“You know what I think?” she said, smiling through her own tears now. “Heaven must really have needed her. It just couldn’t wait. There was work there that only Louise could do, so they had to call her in early. She was that kind of person. There wasn’t anyone else who could do the job.”
I smiled and my tears slowed. She held my gaze and lifted up her hands. Then she slowly opened them, and I mirrored her, still crying softly but feeling for the first time in a long time that I might just have a future after all. That maybe the universe did have something good for me.
Tears roll down my face now just like they did that day, but I am going to open up my hands. Because I know what happened. Heaven must really have needed Dean Woodard. There was work up there that only she could do, and so they had to call her in early. And those of us who feel lost and alone in a world without her must follow her advice. We must open our hands and trust that the universe will fill them. After all, Dean Woodard’s up there now, and you know she’s sending all kinds of gifts down to her babies.