The wonderful thing about Thanksgiving—apart from the delicious food and time with family—is having a few days off to reflect on the things I’m thankful for. Often, it’s not until I deviate from the breakneck pace of my everyday schedule that the gifts in my life crystallize and come into focus and I’m able to slow down enough to remember not to take them for granted—to savor each one and appreciate it, as if holding a Hershey’s Kiss in the hollow of my cheek and letting it slowly melt.
My father died six weeks ago in early October. He had been battling cancer valiantly for four years, and so, while it wasn’t unexpected, it was sudden—it seemed as if he was at home picking up my lunchtime phone call one day, and gone the next. My heart is heavy with grief and I keep trying to swallow the lump in my throat that emerges every time I think about him. I feel like I’ve spent the past month in a daze, my sadness hanging on me like an invisible backpack filled with rocks—unseen by the casual passerby, but felt acutely and constantly, deep within my muscles and bones.
In the days that followed my father’s death, two friends, who had each dealt with their own devastating losses in the past year, gave me books that had helped them during their grieving processes. One, titled Good Grief, and the other, Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief, were thrust in my hands almost like a life ring tossed to the flailing arms of someone who’s just fallen overboard. These books had acted as floatation devices for my friends as they sunk into their own bottomless chasms of grief, and they wanted the wisdom from the pages to help me float as well.
Books have also served as a way to grapple with my own painful reality. I have found myself unwittingly drawn to novels that in some way revolve around a death. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You focuses on a family reeling after daughter Lydia is found dead; Lauren Fox’s Days of Awe introduces us to main character Isabel, whose life is turned upside down after the surprising death of her best friend. Madeleine, the little girl at the center of Marie-Helene Bertino’s novel 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas has just lost her mother. Even Yochi Dreazen’s The Invisible Front, a nonfiction exploration of suicide and PTSD in the military, brought the subjects of loss and grieving to the forefront of my mind. It seems almost counterintuitive that I would seek out books that confront the subject of death, but in so many ways, they helped me to feel less alone. To grieve alongside these characters, to process my father’s passing as they processed their own thoughts, to allow the author’s words to tap into feelings I didn’t even know I was feeling—provided me a sense of relief, of belonging, of comfort.
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And when I couldn’t read about one more death, I used books as a way to retreat into an entirely new life and setting. I let myself be scared of the possibly haunted mansion in Gillian Flynn’s new short story The Grownup; I became completely absorbed in Isabel Allende’s sweeping work of historical fiction The Japanese Lover; I LOLed for a solid twenty minutes while reading Mindy Kaling’s new book, relieved that even in my grief, laughter hadn’t left me entirely. Each of these books provided me with a much-needed escape from the thoughts swirling in my own head and I’m so thankful to them for giving me that little piece of relief.
I’m also thankful for readers—those friends who have suggested books that may resonate with me, asking, “Have you read Megan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye? I think it may help.” Or when, on a recent Thursday, I posed a question to the librarians all across the country during the #AskALibrarian Twitter chat, asking for recommendations for books about the grieving process—besides Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I was overwhelmed by the response. People whom I’d never met started suggesting recommended reading to accompany my grief. Among them: YA novel Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin, Dan Marshall’s recently released memoir Home Is Burning, the children’s book My Father’s Arms Are A Boat by Erik Stein Lunde, Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell, Helen McDonald’s H Is For Hawk and Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. This simple experience buoyed me and helped me feel connected to others that have walked this path before me and filled my TBR pile with books that will act as roadmaps for me as I navigate this next chapter in my life.
I am thankful that my two wonderful parents imbued a love of reading in my brother and me. My dad, especially, was a voracious reader—always carrying around a John LeCarre mystery, or soaking in knowledge from a nonfiction book on some obscure topic, later telling us about what he’d learned at the dinner table. So when I pore over the pages of a delicious novel, I know he’s smiling down on me and I can practically hear the low rumble of his voice asking me what the plot is about. He also was incredibly proud of my career, so when I’m focused on editing a piece for Read It Forward, or interviewing an author, I know he’s delighted; I’m exactly where he’d want me to be, doing exactly what he’d want me to be doing.
Through all of this recent sadness, a bright spot for me has been the Read It Forward community. I’m thankful for my coworkers, the RIF editorial team, for their unwavering support and love. But most of all, I’m thankful for all of you. Your love of literature has inspired me to turn to books as a way to dig myself out of the depths of grief. Your passion and excitement about reading is infectious and it truly reminds me that life is good—I’m breathing air into my lungs, I get to feel the crisp wind on my face and warm sunshine on my back, I am surrounded by a loving family and I get to read—and really, what else is there?