Why We Write: In the Presence of Living

Lise Saffran

My grandmother stopped drinking water shortly after her legs failed. Her spells of consciousness were briefer and less frequent. Each breath seemed to cause her pain. The hospice people assured me that she could still hear my voice. They told me to tell her that she could let go and I did it, thinking that if there was anything I could give her that would help her die, I did not want to hold it back. I told her that my mother would be all right. We will take care of her, I said. We will take care of each other. I turned to other subjects for relief. To the antics of my children. To books. I told her how much I liked Billy Collins, whom I had moved on to after Annie Dillard. He was funny and sneakily profound. In the tradition of the writers I loved most, he led the reader to surprising places with deceptively simple language, like a child who tries to describe what he’s seen and finally just grabs your hand and takes you to it. 

My mother stood with me in my grandmother’s bedroom and I told her about Billy Collins, not because she was a particular fan of poetry (that gene seemed to have skipped a generation) but because I was searching for something cheerful to say. On the spot, I decided to read her the poem “Dharma,” which begins, “The way the dog trots out the front door / every morning / without a hat or an umbrella, / without any money / or the keys to her doghouse / never fails to fill the saucer of my heart / with milky admiration.” Billy Collins deserves a dozen yellow roses, I thought, just for making my mother laugh. Between us lay my grandmother. I looked down and saw that her eyes were wide open, as they had not been in days, and that they were filled with tears.

The next day and for the remaining days of my grandmother’s life, I read aloud. From An American Childhood and from Sailing Alone Around the Room. One day I read a poem titled “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” which began: “I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna / or on any river for that matter / to be perfectly honest.”

I finished the poem and read another and then another.

Cleaning the apartment with my mother after my grandmother was gone, I would find several copies of Out of Africa and ask myself with reproach why I had not read to her from it. Grief and remorse sit close to each other on the scale of human emotions; they are easily confused. Only later would I realize that the thing I was feeling at that moment was loss rather than guilt. I would turn to “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills” and read on until the words began to blur. This was the compelling voice of a mature woman with a story to tell and it is not something that you can easily set aside before the end. It was clear to me then what I must have suspected before: My grandmother and I had not had that kind of time.

Those last days passed in high summer and the trees next to her back deck dropped layers of pollen-covered pods. I slipped outside whenever my brother the doctor would call from the East Coast with instructions to increase her Ativan and morphine. Each time I came back inside I brushed the layer of gold dust from the bottom of my bare feet. I watched my grandmother shrink on her hospital bed. I read aloud.

“You’re not alone,” I reassured her, after a prolonged silence. “I’m just resting my voice. I’m still here.”

“I know,” she said. She had long ago stopped accepting water or food; she had not responded in days. Her body was gaunt and her voice was parched but unbelievably, it was her own.

“Grandma?” I laced my fingers through hers, talking, talking, talking, hoping for more. More never came.

What had made me think there was a difference, I wondered then, between the love that we had for each other and the words we used, or tried to use, to express it? It was the searching for words that was so uniquely human and precious—it was the very audaciousness of trying to capture feeling into something as tangible as a poem or a story that meant so much. I returned to my imagined mothers and children, to all the characters in my head, and greeted them with renewed affection and respect. There are worse ways to spend one’s brief time than in the attempt to write something good. After all, is it so very disappointing if the amazing thing a child drags you to see is something as ordinary as a hummingbird or a snail? What matters is the taking of your hand.

Lise Saffran is the author of the novel Juno’s Daughters, published in January by Plume. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has published stories in a variety of literary journals. She lives in Missouri with her husband and two sons.


If you’d like to share your story of perseverance or offer some perspective on why you continue to write despite rejection, lack of recognition, or other challenges, e-mail us at whywewrite@pw.org. Your essay could be the next installment of Why We Write.