When the Wounds Want to Stay Healed

LABA fellow Ilana Sichel contemplates life and death and writing.

In the past half hour, I have gotten up from my desk to get cookies, decided they weren’t the right type of cookie, then got up a minute later to get another kind. I have felt a slight chill and decided that I can’t sit and work if I’m cold, so I got up to pull on a pair of long underwear I hadn’t even felt compelled to wear in the depths of winter. From there I started mulling over the vagaries of the seasons in New York, the old observation about how moving from the subway to frigid streets to sauna-dry apartments makes long johns a poor solution to any body temperature problem, except on this brisk spring day, curiously enough, at the very moment I am sitting down to write.

I return again to my desk, now toastier and only slightly less peckish, stare at this document for a moment, then pick up my phone. I begin scrolling through my conversation with a close friend whose nine-year-old nephew just succumbed to cancer. I gaze at the photos she sent me from across the world, of his healthy, impish grin, and the helplessness of his final hours. I notice I am weeping. Finally, my mind wanders to where I’ve been trying to get it all year: to my older brother, Aaron, who died of bladder cancer four years ago, at the age of 34. Finally, I can ease my mind into focus, and sit. Finally, I can write.

Writing is never easy for me. Non-writers seem to think that writing is easy for writers. Or at the very least, enjoyable. But that hasn’t been my experience. I don’t write because I want to, but because on some level, I need to. I write so I can figure out what I think, because without teasing apart my feelings, I can barely begin to understand them. When symbolized in words, I can turn my experience around and make some sense of it. When I put it in writing, I feel I have some control. But getting to that point requires entering into the raw, messy heart of the thing, and if I don’t happen to already be in it, the sheer magnitude of that emotion, whatever it is, can knock the breath out of me and make me want to run away.

Funny time, then, to join an arts fellowship centered around death. Particularly upon noticing that at some point over the last few years, this one wound, this wound to end all wounds, the one I’ve signed onto LABA to explore, is no longer bleeding. And it turns out that I haven’t been particularly inclined to pick at the scab.

I find myself wondering if maybe sense and meaning are overrated values. If maybe the most important thing is that I can live again and breathe again. That I can eat ice cream again and have sex again and laugh at dumb jokes on the subway again without getting gut-punched by the memory of dashing off the airplane and into the hospital in Los Angeles to find my brother dying in the ICU.

The procrastination and avoidance I experience in even writing this short piece is pretty extreme, even for me, even in my current deadline-filled life as a doctoral student. Writing for the LABA Journal is a task I have tried to avoid, because it is an extension of the project I have tried to avoid. Three years ago, when the wound of my brother’s death was covered by only the slightest film, I ran away to an empty house in the countryside of a foreign island in order to bleed out and try to form that blood into words. I started a memoir about losing Aaron, a process which began when he was in full health and we grew in opposite directions, and about the ways my family’s experience diverged from the enlightened ideas about death and dying that seemed to be chiding us from all sides. I wrote and I wrote every day for two months, and returned to Sicily twice the following year to keep writing.

But then, something troubling happened: I stopped craving the time and space to sink back into the muck. I no longer craved the sense I might make of it. Had I stopped grieving? I didn’t know, and I still don’t know, but I knew that I didn’t want to get back into it. I had an unfinished manuscript that at one time I believed in. And I had a community of fellow artists expecting me to work on it. So I spent these last eight months thinking about writing, but not writing. I even went to Israel to meet with old friends and teachers who had touched Aaron’s life, thinking that doing so might jolt me back into sadness, and that maybe that sadness would lead me back to productivity. But I returned home from that journey and felt that same resistance closing back in.

Five months later, it is still with me, loosening only now when refracted through my friend’s grief. Looking at my own grief is like looking back on Sodom up in flames: it will probably be lethal. Looking at my friend’s grief is like peering at myself from the side, a funhouse mirror of pain. Somehow, that I can deal with.

Part of the goal of the LABA fellowship is to make our work accessible to the community. While most do this through performance, some attempt a quieter, more introverted tack: art installations, stacks of self-published zines. I never knew what I would do to fill this part of the agreement, but lately I am thinking more about my struggle to write, and that perhaps that struggle itself contains some insight into this whole experience of death and grieving. I find myself thinking about memory, and the work and pain of remembering, the collapse between remembering and re-experiencing. In my new life as a psychologist-in-training, we consider what talking actually does. For someone with a phobia, for instance, exposure therapy habituates the patient to the feared stimulus gradually. Over time, their ability to tolerate it will increase. Talk therapy looks different, but is based on a similar idea: Talking about something is a type of exposure. We are just exposing ourselves through verbal symbols instead of the thing itself. Writing about my brother is remembering him. Writing about my brother is re-experiencing his death. It’s no wonder I don’t want to do it now that I’ve finally come to some peace.