Friday, January 8, 2010

The Dreaded Scene

By Kim

In my last post I wrote about the ghosts of Christmas past. Originally I included the tale of another spirit, but her story didn’t match the tone of the rest of what I had to say, and so I left it out. Like most toddlers, my Great Aunt Penelope is rather persistent. In fact, she is Writer’s Block personified. I doubt she will release her grip until I acknowledge her.

Perhaps it’s best to let Penelope’s mother explain why I dread writing chapter 26 of The Oak Lovers.

In December [1910] little Penelope developed a cold, then the croup. The doctor said it was nothing serious. She was obviously not well at all, however, and I slept on a cot by her crib. The last night she was restless. I was heavy and tired, and dozed for a bit and dreamed. I thought I had wakened and saw the window wide open, the window frame free. Penelope was not in her crib. I went to the window and saw her walking in her nightgown in the snow that covered the porch roof outside the window. I quickly went to her and picked her up in my arms and wrapped her up warmly She looked up at me and smiled. Then I wakened. Penelope was sleeping quietly beside me. I felt a glow of happiness and thought, “the doctor is right after all. She will be better in the morning.” But she was not, and that evening she died in my arms…She was beautiful and rare. I loved her very much and always with a touch of fear. She seemed too lovely to be true, like a dream from which one prays not to waken. We had her for only two years and eight months, but for even that I am grateful.

From the memoir of Madonna Ahrens, written in about 1945

The first time I read these words, my oldest daughter, Sasha, was exactly two years and eight months old. I reacted how any mother would; I rushed into my child’s room to make sure she hadn’t stopped breathing in her sleep. I plucked her from her crib, rocked her, and wept into her hair, imagining how horrific such a loss would be. Even if I were nine months pregnant at the time, as Madonna was, I’m not sure I could ever recover.

I suspect Madonna got through the loss by keeping Penelope’s memory alive, something her husband, landscape painter Carl Ahrens, would likely have encouraged. At least a dozen photographs of Penelope survive, some in historical frames. Newspaper articles from as late as 1917 mention her along with the Ahrens’ other, still living, children. My grandmother, Chloris, born in 1912, spoke of Penelope as she did her other siblings, as if she had grown up with her. I remember a photograph of Penelope in my own dining room when I was small, which is more than I could say for Aunt Sigrid and Uncle Laird. While I knew she had died shortly after the photograph was taken, I always found the image comforting. It hangs in my home now.

She is alive again in my book now, a happy, beautiful child, cherished by both parents, and my own maternal instinct screams at me that as a novelist I have the power to give her a different fate. As much as I want to protect her, it would change the whole family dynamic if I spared her, not to mention that it would go against my desire to tell the truth as much as possible. So, I must kill my darling. I’ve killed characters before, even ones I love, but never a child, and never someone who once existed outside of my own imagination. What makes this deed even more heart-wrenching is that I see whispers of Penelope in my four-year-old daughter, Ashlyn.

The connection between the two girls was especially frightening a couple of months ago, when Ashlyn had the Swine Flu. After the fever broke, she had a week or so of a horrendous croupy cough and temporarily had to go on breathing treatments. The doctor assured me she would be fine and that there was no need to bring her to the ER unless she appeared to be in respiratory distress. Thankfully I didn’t have to experience that particular terror. I did, however, end up rushing her to the hospital about a week before Christmas. My parents and I took both girls to a local park, and the children were anxious to explore a path down by a nearby stream. Sasha, now eight, began running down a steep hill, Ashlyn close on her heels. My mother and I were both poised to yell ‘stop’ when Ashlyn fell. We could tell she landed on her knee, and she cried, but there was no outright screaming. My dad lifted her pant leg, expecting to see a scrape or abrasion that he could kiss better. Instead, we found a long gash, the skin nearly peeled away from her kneecap. Had I had my wits about me I’d have realized the wound, while awful to look at, was nothing serious. My wits were nowhere to be found. For a breathless moment I waited for blood to spurt, and feared we would lose her before reaching the hospital. I’ll never forget that feeling of helplessness.

I’ve already discussed how difficult it is for me to emotionally distance myself while I’m working on a chapter. While I realize my own child will barely even have a scar from the thirteen stitches it took to close the wound, writing about Penelope will require me to channel that feeling I had in the park, to psychologically dwell there until I finish the chapter. It is fitting, perhaps, that I’ve felt the weight of this burden throughout the holiday, and that I would prepare to write this scene so close to the anniversary of her death.

So here I sit unable to start my next chapter. From those of you who managed to push through and successfully write a dreaded scene, I’d appreciate any advice and encouragement you can give me...


  1. Not being a writer, I can't give you any suggestions on how to work through this. The thing I can tell you is try to focus on the joy she brought to those who loved her. Her life was short but think about how much happiness your children gave you in the first 2 1/2 years of their lives.

  2. Take a step back and indulge in private writing, the sort that is never shared. There, it's okay to be overwrought, cynical, hurt and angry, unbelieving, funny, or to express any other acceptable or unacceptable emotion. Put all these writings away and let them mellow. At a time when you feel calm and new, take them out and look at them. You'll find the germ of the manner in which you want to write of this difficult time.

    And remember, not all this has to be done today.

    Carol Woods

  3. Great advice, Lorna and Carol.

    The thing that helps (some) is that since I am writing a "true life novel" and I HAVE the raw material describing exactly what happened, I don't have to make much up on my own. I just have to use that as a frame and make it my own.

    That doesn't mean it will be easy. Part of my problem is that I'm still not "alone" to write. Hubby is home until Monday. At the moment he's crunching saltine crackers into his soup behind me and laughing at something on his computer. Ugh!

  4. Kim, I think you are trying to force this piece of writing to your own time line and you could, perhaps write about something else to do with the family, your feelings for your own daughters and what would happen to those feelings should they suddenly die. It may unlock a way of imagining how Madonna felt losing her child and lead you through to her soul. How did Carl react to her death? You write so well and I am sure the answer will suddenly come to you. Maxine

  5. Hi Maxine,

    Madonna never mentioned how Carl reacted other than he was "miserable" but more concerned for her (Madonna's) welfare than anything else. I imagine he helped a great deal with Sigrid (born three weeks after Penelope died) and in one photograph I have he holds Sigrid in a protective way, close against his chest. It was an uncharacteristic pose.

    I can imagine how Madonna felt - it's just very painful to go there and dwell in it. As for me, I'm not sure I'd survive such a loss. I hope I never have to find out.

    I do have a couple scenes I can write that lead up to the event, and intend to start those next week.

  6. I so enjoy reading your blog, and I am awarding you the "Happy 101" award. Please visit my genea-blog, Mississippi Memories, to pick up your award.

  7. I could not advise you on this subject. I have never been a mother and I have never experienced that sort of dread for anyone except my husband, but that was incredibly intense and I can't imagine anything worse. I am glad you can't distance yourself emotionally from the characters. You seem capable of expressing your emotions thoroughly, even when you are experiencing them.

    This just makes it more difficult to wait for this book to be completed. I admire Madonna's resilience so much. She was able to go through that with gratitude instead of bitterness, and that is inspiring.

    That is what I love novels. There is so much to glean from them and analyze-history, culture, psychology, theology, life lessons, etc. The author usually allows for the reader to connect those dots whereas non-fiction is useful, but it is not as layered and complex and the things are described in a specific way. Non-fiction is indispensable, but it is typically very linear. This will be the first novel I have read in which the characters actually existed. Can't wait! Katrina

  8. Hi Katrina,

    Thank you for your wonderful comments. It is always inspiring to hear that someone is anxiously awaiting reading the book. I can't say this past week was overly productive, but I do have family in town and a sick child. (Thankfully not sick like Penelope!)

    I admire Madonna's resiliance as well, though as I read her memoirs I kept in mind that she wrote it ten years after Carl's death and 35 years after Penelope's. While she suffered great loss, she also had a great deal of time to come to terms with that loss. Had she written this section earlier, I wonder if her tone would have differed.

    Her faith was a great help to her. (She converted to Catholicism in the early 1940's.)

  9. As your first reader, I'm amazed over how your story has developed since your above last comment. As of yet you haven't reached your "dreaded scene", but it's coming, and I've no doubt it'll end up among your best.

  10. Very true, Deborah (Mom). Chapter 26 just turned out to be a glorious argument because Madonna decided to take over for a bit. I had so much fun writing that chapter that Joan suggested I work in some more shouting matches earlier, so I'm doing that.


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