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Deborah Henry: Author Struggles with Letting Go

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An essay by guest-blogger Deborah Henry, author of The Whipping Club (See end of post for book give-away!)

I remember taking pictures of my daughter waiting for the Kindergarten bus and then my tears as she stepped on and waved goodbye... I cried hard again this fall when we waved goodbye and my baby walked away to the sound of bagpipes on her faraway college campus. And then I cried again recently, but this time, the tears surprised me.

Writers live in two separate worlds—the earthly world and the writerly world, and though both worlds are distinct and deeply felt, they fluctuate between peaceful and chaotic coexistence.

These two worlds—the earthly and the writerly—my real children, my real husband—and their schedules—and my fictitious children and their fictitious parents, I try to separate from one another. The only danger is listening to certain songs on my way to school pick-up lines or to sports events when my mind's eye sees my characters, particularly my fictitious son, Adrian.

Adrian was an infant when my real children were little ones. I remember the angst of his mother, Marian McKeever, who delivered him out of wedlock. I remember his birth and the trauma of having him ripped in the middle of the night without more than a few hours notice, from her arms. He had a terrible time with a farmer family and was brusquely returned to the Mother Baby Home, sore-bottomed, red with rage. I heard his infant cries for milk, and even then, felt his hunger pains which plague him still.

I heard his screams the day his pleas were denied and he was delivered to his new home, an orphanage not far from his parents' home, in secret. I felt the cold dampness of his cot. I felt the early years of loneliness. I felt the pee running down his legs and the harsh humiliations for this offense.

There were times of tentative joy, too. After his fate was revealed, there was the reunion of mother and child. There was the thrill in his eyes and on his face as he ate eggs and rashers with his newfound and, already, deeply loved family. There was hope for all of them. I desperately wanted their world to arrange itself perfectly. I wanted a happy ending for this family and especially for this lost son that I had brought into the world.

It was not to be. At least not yet. The book has ended. The story has been told and even I am not quite sure, though I hope for the best, what the future holds for my fictitious Adrian and the Ellis family. Unless there is a sequel, I will never be sure.

Now that the work is complete, I am in my earthly world full time. I'm thinking about why I wrote this in the first place, and who benefits, and the distressing part that no one can prepare you for has begun: Relinquishing the characters you created to the earthly world. I'm a bundle of nerves, with mixed and anxious feelings in my gut.

What do I do? I get a massage. Massages relax me. Sometimes, massages make me blissful. Always, I leave more serene and joyous—more peaceful. This time, I retreat heavyhearted, heaving with sobs, at times crying uncontrollably.

The last thing I expect at what seems to be a typical one-hour massage is to leave in tears. The sadness crept far below the surface. I felt that rare, deep down heaving reserved for mourning someone special and important and deeply loved.

Everything started innocently. I shut my eyes, ready for a little relaxation. I do not talk too much to the masseuse. Quiet and comfortable, the masseuse senses me delving into private space.

About mid-way, she stops, rests her hand on my shoulder, waits for me to open my eyes. I gaze at her before she taps my arm.

"I feel tears behind your eyes," she says. "If you need to cry, please feel free to let whatever I sense is in there, out."

Cry right now? Really? No way I'm going to be able to muster up wet eyes.

And then, an image emerges. The same, cinematic image I experience while listening to music in the car. I feel bad for Adrian, like a mother. I am not his mother. Marian McKeever is his mother. I am attached and weary and sad. He is real to me. I feel a terrible loss inside my gut and I give over to the emotion. It isn't for myself or my family that I feel waves of sorrow. Or perhaps, yes. It is. It is for another part of my life, part of my family that lives in my writer's world.

We know our characters as well as we know earthly people. We know, often, more about them than the real people in our lives. We know when they sneak around. We know their secret lusts and cravings. We know when they hurt. We know what they're thinking. If they walked into the room, we would hug them—with all their faults and foibles. They are family.

Adrian and his parents, particularly his mother, did everything she could to convince Sister Agnes, Adrian's legal guardian at the orphanage, that she should relinquish rights to him, that she should let him come back to the mother who never wanted to give him away, to the woman who had made a misstep in her youth and was still trying to make things right. Adrian was sent to an industrial school instead. He was beaten. I knew his fear and loathing for the place. I prayed that his escape would be successful.

Slowly, in the distance and fog, I envision Adrian, this twelve year old boy whom I love, too. I see him leaving. I begin to heave. No shame. No pride. I'm through with that. And I trust this masseuse. Most of all, the profound love I have for my character Adrian overwhelms and overcomes any self-consciousness about crying on a massage table. Naked. In front of a stranger.

Love for a child trumps everything. A faded post-it note taped to my computer says: What is the one thing you couldn't withstand? The one thing you couldn't live with? What makes you cry? At this stage in my writing life, "To be unable to protect my children" is the answer.

And I failed. I lost Adrian and his dreamlike story to the earthly world. I am no longer able to protect him. He is a part of me but he is also moving away. I feel the separation and it hurts. So hard to let him go. The whistle blows. A light blinks in the hazy darkness. His figure grows smaller and smaller.

There is heartache in my chest. Every bit as real, dare I say it? Can this be true? As deep as saying goodbye to my earthly daughter—that final, loving smile she sends before she turns around, saunters away, her arms around her friends, on the campus green? That last glance of hers that makes me sad?

She will come home. My fictitious Adrian will not return. In normal circumstances, I will be able to protect her. I can talk her through difficulties. Jump on a plane. Reach out and hold her. Adrian will be tossed around, live in harsh conditions, know continual hunger.

My daughter will grow up and fend for herself. Adrian will remain twelve years old. As I write this, something hidden behind the words overwhelms and the tears tumble down again. I will never again hear that deep cackle of his as he imitates Sister Agnes. I will never watch Marian run her hands through his cropped hair, never be able to feel his soothing heart as his mother reassures that the hard times will pass away.

Am I saying goodbye for good to someone whom I've known and loved since birth? Is he a part of myself? Am I saying goodbye to my novel, The Whipping Club? Am I letting go? Finally? Am I letting go of my little character, my little boy? Am I letting him go, to make his own way in the world, however harsh?

A writer's tale. A writer's tears. Requiem for a Character. Requiem for a Son.

I whisper I love you, Adrian, as he floats away. Forever, I will have tears behind my eyes for this first loss, this first realized dream.

The Whipping Club is Deborah Henry's first novel. She lives in Fairfield, Connecticut with her husband and their three children.

To win a free copy of THE WHIPPING CLUB, please send an email by March 15, 2012 to: DeborahHenry88@gmail.com. Winners will be notified by March 25, 2012 and are responsible for sending their mailing addresses to the author. 100 books will be given away.

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