Writing the Road of Loss, from Grief to Growth

My mother died suddenly of acute bronchial pneumonia in June 2008. I was nineteen. We didn’t have the best relationship; sometimes I’d ignore her constant calls for weeks. Our last conversation, the day before her death, was about bacon.

I was drunk when I faced the funeral arrangements, the cremation, and the weeks of grief that followed. That summer, Into the Wild was playing at the Super Cinemas in Toledo, Ohio. I must have went to see that movie five times. There was something about the freedom the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, found from indulging in wanderlust that connected with me.

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In my downward spiral, I’d believed the only way I could cope with death was to hike from Pennsylvania to the East Coast. I’d convinced one of my two best friends to accompany me on said hike, and the other best friend to drop us off on the side of a Pennsylvania freeway. The experience was intended to sober me up and help me embrace the inevitability of death. My friend and I hiked, hitched rides, spent time with strangers and family, and made the best of our journey. Though we were gone but a few weeks, I returned to Toledo with equal amounts of credit card debt and spiritual growth. When I look back on the trip, I find it miraculous that no real trouble had befallen us; we’d romanticized the idea of traveling like beatniks without considering the real dangers of being on the road. I swear there must have been someone watching over us.

In a way, running from my home and its ghosts enabled me to walk the path of self-discovery. I thought about all the fights I’d had with my mom. I thought about what it meant to be a motherless son. I thought about how she might tell me to live if she were still alive. I’m no expert on the stages of grief, but complete detachment permitted me to put everything back into perspective.

In 2010, I tried to write about the trip in a creative nonfiction independent study with the late poet Rane Arroyo at the University of Toledo. Rane guided me to find poetry in the specific details of my adventure, and to understand how my mother’s death shaped my identity. He helped me to translate my lived experience into language and understand the themes of my own life. My writing had just started to take shape when there was another unexpected loss: Rane died of cerebral hemorrhage. I stopped writing about the trip and mourned the loss of my friend and mentor.

It wasn’t until June 2016, eight years after my mother’s death, that I tried to write about the trip again. Recently enrolled in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles, I decided to try writing a fictional version of the trip while working with the writer Alma Luz Villanueva. As any great instructor would, Alma encouraged me to write deeply and honestly about the story I needed to tell. Enough time had elapsed that I felt I could reinvestigate that time period for writing purposes. Between the trip and the MFA Program, I never went on another daring adventure. I did, however, move to Los Angeles where I let go of fiction to focus on filmmaking and acting. As I immersed myself back into prose and literature, Alma stressed the pursuit of the fictive dream (to enter the world of the story and inhabit its characters). To do this, Alma recommended taking my characters with me into my dreams, to contemplate their existence subconsciously. Embodying my characters on this level required me to retrace the steps of my trip via piles of scraps, journal entries, and Google Earth.

I’d kept a journal during the trip, notating our routes, distances traveled per day, and encounters with people. I’d written in a notebook and typed notes onto Facebook whenever I had access to a computer. Later, when recreating the experience with prose, I’d relied on my notes to capture the essence of my internal state. At the time of writing, years later, I had become a completely new person. A little less naive, I’d like to believe, and a smidge wiser. With that said, I also became more hardened, less sentimental and nostalgic than my younger self. When I revisited this material it became easier for me to dream with my characters and re-envision the pain I had felt as a young man.

When working on the story as a creative nonfiction piece with Rane, I’d felt obligated to keep the details factual. Writing the story as fiction taught me that I could still aspire for truth without the arduous relaying of facts. Untethered from history, I could exploit themes such as displacement with invented elements inside the narrative. I called the story A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here and, after several revisions, I felt like the story was finally out of my body and on the page. I submitted it to literary journals and was surprised when notified from a small press that they wanted to publish it as a chapbook. I’d poured raw emotion into the story. I’d spent months composing and revising. I’d spent years thinking about it. The time had come to turn off my critical mind and allow the story to take life.

Since the book’s publication, I have done readings in Los Angeles, and each time it feels like there is a part of me still walking the roads of Pennsylvania back in 2008. Although not all of my writing is based on personal experience, A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here is the most autobiographical. I don’t disclose this when I read to an audience; I prefer to introduce it as a work of fiction, a completely made up story. But I think that no matter what story is being told, the audience wants to believe there is some personal connection to the writer. In my case, writing from my heart allowed me to grow, and sharing my work with the world helped me move on.

We carry our loved ones in our hearts, and when they’re taken away it feels we are left fractured. But we move on. We have to. Writing A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here, in all of its incarnations, helped me come to terms with the absence of my mother over nearly a decade of grief. I’d carried the story around with me, in the back of my mind, wondering if it was worth the energy to tell. I’ve learned that when a story keeps coming back, there’s often no other choice but to write it, get it out for good, purge it from the soul.

A Myriad of Roads That Lead to Here is available here.