April 30

From the desk of John W. Evans: Stay for the Dragons

JohnWEvansI’m not a Game of Thrones fan, but the show came to mind the other day when I was talking about my memoir, Young Widower, with a friend who had just read it. We ran into each other in the baby aisle at the grocery store. I was comparing mashable fruits. He was picking up diapers and formula. We nearly missed each other. As I like to do when I’m running errands, I was plugged into my iPhone, catching up on old podcasts. I looked up to say hello just as a talking head summarized the immense appeal of the HBO series: “Come for the nudity. Stay for the dragons.”

It’s a particular challenge to describe Young Widower without at least touching on a whole range of difficult contexts and explanations. I’ve run into this problem at book readings, in email exchanges with editors and agents, and even while following Facebook posts about the book by well-intentioned in-laws. Someone who knows me as a husband and father replies to a link to an excerpt from the book. They are so sorry, by god, they had no idea. A brown bear. Rural Romania. What the hell were we thinking, hiking in the middle of the night? (We got stuck on the mountaintop with a lost hostel reservation.) How does a person ever get over seeing such a thing? (He doesn’t.) Wait—you were married before? (Yes.) Did your wife now know your wife then? (Yes.) Man, that must be strange being married again. I’ll bet you never expected that to happen. (Well, yes. And, no.)

EvansYoung Widower is a quiet and thoughtful memoir of grief, but it has at its heart a sensational fact. My first wife, Katie, died under those heartbreaking and graphic circumstances, which continue to resonate in my own life, but to nowhere near the scale or pitch they did during the year following her death. Beyond the attack itself, Young Widower spends far more time with the events of our ambitious life together—Peace Corps volunteers in Bangladesh, teachers in Chicago, graduate students in Miami, public-health work in Romania—my own fragile sense of a recovery, and the year of living with Katie’s family in Indiana after her death. And yet, for all of the reflection that Young Widower undertakes, from its intimate portrait of affection and marriage, to my guilt and self-incriminations at not having saved her, to the affections and frustrations of trying to grieve with other people, readers seem drawn to the book first because of that violent occasion. “Come for the bear attack,” I might mimic the talking head. “But, please, —stay for the honesty, heartbreak, candor, messiness, love, sorrow, and absence, as well as the arbitrariness of a natural world that, for us at least, seemed to lacked all reason.”

Then, there’s the simple fact of consideration. Is it polite to summarize the book or Katie’s memory in such broad strokes? Is it disingenuous to leave out one part (bear) or the other (sorrow)? In a sense, it’s easier to speak in generalities and implications; to diminish the very particular and wrenching heart of the book, if only to spare others the shock and that awful litany of apologies and sympathy that my description instantly obliges them to offer. I’ve tried, “It’s a memoir of a hard time in my life” and “… of a different life.” I’ve even considered, “It’s a book about loss and grief, what brings us together and tears us apart.” That last one is pretty maudlin, even disingenuous, but it would look good on a movie poster. I could imagine a podcaster saying it.

The University of Nebraska Press has made a beautiful edition of Young Widower. The design is free of all the explicit things I asked the staff to please leave out: bears, blood, bodies, mountains. The cover features a porch and a simple wooden chair with a jagged hole in the spindle. I like to think that porch could be the one I sat out on nights in Indiana, or the one to which we arrived with Katie’s body the night she died, or even the porches where we stood together looking out at our various cities. I appreciate the freedom and care the editors allowed me in bringing Young Widower to press the way I’d written it. A few weeks before it was published, a teacher and friend who had seen me through most of the process asked how it was going. I told him I was done with all of the edits and relieved to be free of the migraines, waking dreams, panic attacks, and all other manner of unwelcome feelings that had come with each round of revising, editing, and revisiting. The book was now my horcrux, I told him. Yes, he said, but other people can pick it up and carry it for you.

I suppose that readers, like friends, fall pretty easily into one of two camps: those who get it, and those who don’t. I haven’t read any of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy novels, but from what I’ve heard they’re pretty good. In the grocery store I didn’t have to say anything to my friend. He was reading Young Widower. He had no idea about Katie. He was so sorry for my loss. It was about what anyone I’ve met and gotten to know in the seven years since Katie died has said when he or she learns about that other life. I feel sorry for those strangers who stop into a bookstore on their walk across the city, with no thought except to take a load off and get away from their busy lives. It’s a fine balance between sharing one’s story and imposing one’s misery on others. We all carry a portion of misery and hardship at least enough for ourselves. And if we’re blessed not to, then all the better that we let it come to us, before it comes for us. It’s probably too much to put on the placard, “Come for the bear attack. Stay for the truth we’re all hoping desperately to avoid for all long as humanly possible.” It’s neither pithy nor entertaining but, like the memoir, it’s the truth.

-John W. Evans

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