Madeleine Dubus On Hearing Her Father’s Voice Again
Finding a Way to Mourn a Father Beloved by the Literary World
Sun streams through the slats in the window shades, and with these hints toward spring I am reminded of the passage of time, how it is at once both fast and slow, and how, no matter what pain we’re feeling, there are always these things—little beings, light—that hum in the background of our crises, reminding us that we’re part of something, that we exist.
Shortly after my twelfth birthday my father died. He was the acclaimed short-story writer Andre Dubus, best known for writing the lives and struggles of people living in the New England towns around where I grew up. When he died, his obituary ran in The New York Times, NPR dedicated an episode of Fresh Air to his memory, and I vividly remember lying in the examining chair at my orthodontist, as he told me how he read of my father’s death in one of Time magazines that littered the waiting room. So to others, even before he died, my father was this magical, untouchable person, but to me he was my dad, the guy who would bring me Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups when he picked me up from school; and along with my mom, he was the center of my world.
Without him, I no longer existed. He stopped living and I followed suit. I was merely a body, boney and pale, unable to understand the world around me. Snow fell, then melted. Grass grew; birds came back. Kids at school were happy about stuff, and laughed. And I was an observer, aware that these things were happening, could somehow still occur.
The years after he died were so deeply devoted to depression I can only recall small images. Immediately after his death, lasagnas and fruit baskets filled our kitchen, the pale pink sequin butterflies sewn to the gray cardigan I wore to his funeral—my aunt telling me butterflies signified hope. And later, eating cornbread soaked with warm milk and sugar while staying inside to watch television meant for children much younger than myself. My mother would ask me to take walks to get fresh air, color in my cheeks.
Gradually and mysteriously something shifted, and I could find pleasure in the sun against my face, in crocuses and tulips budding, in birds living in the trees around me. I wore colors again, something I had stopped doing when he died, out of necessity, out of acquiescence to my grief. Some weight in me had alleviated, not all of it, but enough so I could be a person again, enough so I could figure out what life as the new version of myself would be. I had emerged a person defined by pain.
In the years after my father’s death, I swung between ignoring his absence in my life and studying old photos and reading his books daily. I got used to unemotionally telling people about my loss, then wincing at their awkward and embarrassed reactions, as if hearing myself confess this pain would somehow lessen its hold. I built up my defenses with each comment and line of inquiry when a fan of my father’s recognized my name, and felt the need to ask personal questions about his death, my half-siblings, and his relationship with my mother (which was full of much love and mutual respect). My half-brother Andre Dubus III gained notoriety as a writer, so instead of saying “Yes, that’s my dad,” I had to specify, “No, that’s my half-brother. My dad is the dead one.” I grew numb, disassociating from the man the public knew, but knowing each of these interactions sharpened my pain.
Eventually, I learned that my pain was not something to disconnect from, to rid myself of; rather it was something I needed to care for, protect, and let speak.
As Jeanne DuPrau wrote:
To accept my pain means holding it in my arms, like a package handed to me, my proper burden to be carried. The package may be heavy as lead, or burning hot, or stuck through with razors, but I must concede that it is my package, simply because it has arrived in my life.
I love this image of pain being a package to hold carefully. No matter how our pain feels (heavy, hot, sharp), it is still ours to carry, and lay down, and pick up again. It is something to be trusted, simply because it has arrived in our lives. We need no other reason.
This year, feeling rather settled into my loss, content with the pain I carry, I received an incredible gift. My mother began to send me digital files of tapes my father sent her while she was studying in Paris, about a year after they got together. One by one, I’d receive an email from her—“Tape 1 Side A,” “Tape 1 Side B”—and download the file, upload it to my iPhone and then hit “play.” My father’s voice, at once familiar and foreign, with a stronger southern accent than I remembered, would fill the headphones. And unlike the only other documentation I have of his voice, a poorly filmed reading he did in the early 90s, I was hearing him speak as himself, the man who was my dad, not the writer.
The first tape begins with the sound of cars on a highway, a country song enters on the car’s cassette player then stops. The voice recorder is handled, then slow, long breaths layer over the traffic. Finally, his voice. “I couldn’t touch you today,” he says. My father is in tears. He has just left my mother at the airport and will not see her for at least four months. “I don’t know why it took so long for me to learn, but when I was writing Adultery, I learned that grief is physical. It’s in the body.”
And with those words he was with me, along with my pain, and the great relief of being so close to him, to feel him nearby.
These tapes came to me when I was a having particularly difficult time writing. I had recently moved from Brooklyn to Little Rock, started teaching my first college course, and felt overwhelmed by the simplest of tasks. But instead of forcing words to come that did not want to come, I decided to focus on creating ritual in my life. When I do not have that daily ritual, that awareness and respect of something’s importance, be it running, cooking, reading, or cleaning, I cannot be in the state of mind to write. Writing is a ritual, not a job. It is something sacred that I protect.
Writing has always been that sacred act to me, most likely because I grew up seeing my parents’ writing rituals. Writing is a private, difficult practice. One that needed quiet and early mornings, finely bound notebooks stacked on my father’s desk, and black ink pens that stained my mother’s sheets after her mornings writing longhand in her pajamas. I don’t think I chose to write; it was more of an instinct. A calling that I ignored as long as I could, fearful to try and fail in the shadow of my father. And yet, writing is also what brings me closest to him, allows me to communicate with him in some invisible way.
So with these tapes saved into my phone, under the artist “Dad,” in between Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and Daniel Johnston, I would go out for a run and listen to my dad talk. Often in the tapes, in between talking to the dog and making coffee, he would talk about running—a vital ritual for him before the accident that left him in a wheelchair six months before I was born. In pictures of him standing, he looked like a stranger to me. And in many ways he was. After his accident he was redefined by pain, a new version of himself, finding a way to live again.
Art is the way into our pain, and the lives of others. It is through stranger’s faces, through the characters and voices that come to me, that I can explore pain. Writing resolves nothing. Writing creates more to think about, more to struggle with; it keeps building.
I turn now to something my father said in one of his tapes:
You think artists—writers write for that old cliché reason that people give? The intellectual likes to say that writers write to put order in the universe, but we know that the stories we read tear the universe apart and ask all kinds of questions, make people feel sad and fucked up.
If I make my mother cry after reading her one of my stories, I know I’ve done a good job. Is that fucked up? I want to feel everything there is to feel and make everyone else feel it too. Writing should reach far enough into the universe to make things messier and more difficult.
But the difficulties, the pain, the experience of feeling “fucked up” does not exist in art without the presence or hint at hope. And hope here doesn’t have to mean happiness, but progress, continuing on after tragedy; walking the dog, simply being aware of life around us, other hearts beating, the universe. As always—outside my window—birds sing, fog settles, mountains appear and reappear with the seasons. We are so small.
Life is painful, and that’s okay. It should be something to write about, to celebrate even. I turn again to a tape from my father, as he relays a conversation he had with a friend of his and a student:
[A friend] and I started talking about pain, as we tend to do, and [the student] said she didn’t believe people have to go through pain, which I thought was strange… she went on about how she didn’t believe in pain, that people could go through life without suffering. I said “well then I’m very interested to see how you’re going to respond to my literature course and as writer yourself in my workshop” [aside of pouring a glass of milk, taking a gulp, talking about how good the milk is, and then talking to the dog for a bit] but anyway I said to her I would carve on stone right now that all art comes from pain. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the artist suffered it, but at least the artist observed it and felt it and had to deal with it somehow. Even if an artist paints a beautiful sunset, I say that sunset is coming out of pain because that sunset is existing beautifully in a world which is filled with pain, and it is a celebration, that painting of that sunset, in the midst of and shining off of pain.
Great fiction cannot exist without pain and empathy. Pain is the driving force of the writer, the characters, but the empathy toward other people, our inspiration, our writing, and our characters is what elevates the writing, what connects to the reader and creates a complete, moving work of art.
As the poet Jamaal May said, writers have to possess “the ache of that reach [to feel other’s pain].” What a beautiful way to put it—empathy is such an ache. And so is the desire of a writer to connect with the pain of others. We have to be brave to feel the pain of others, to feel our own, and then find words for it. It’s exploration, not resolution. There’s a common misconception that writing is somehow a purifying act, that by writing we cleanse ourselves of pain. To a small extent this is true: managing to articulate pain, whether in memoir or fiction, softens it within us. But it does not cure us of our pain. Writing stories about pain should never be motivated by doing one’s self a favor, but to honor our pain or honor the pain of another person, by giving it its own story.
I turn one last time to my father’s words, for despite the void he left behind, he continues to teach and to father me. In his essay “Witness” from Meditations from a Moveable Chair, a collection of essays and his final book, he writes about meeting the woman who witnessed the accident that left him in a wheelchair over a decade earlier:
But I was calm that night, and Friday, and Saturday. On Sunday, we had a family dinner with three of my grown children, their spouses, the oldest son’s two small children, and Cadence and Madeleine. That morning, the sky was blue, and I was on my bed, doing leg lifts. When I swung my leg and stump for the fiftieth time, I began quietly to cry. Then I stopped. I made the bed, dressed, ate yogurt and strawberries, showered, dressed on my bed. The tears were gone and would not come back, but my soul was gray and cool, the pieces of it were tossed as by a breeze that had become a strong wind and could become a storm. I drove to the girls’ house. They live on the corner of the street, and when I turned onto it, I saw the woman in her yard. She was doing some kind of work, her back was to me, and I looked away from her, at the girls’ house, and I phoned them to say, “I’m here.”
At my house, we cooked on the grill, and I sat on the deck, my face warmed by the sun, and talked with my children and enjoyed the afternoon. I looked up at my two sons and told them of suddenly crying while doing leg lifts, of being fragile now, and as I talked to them I made a decision I never make, a decision about writing, because my decisions usually gestate for months, often more than a year, before I try to write anything: I told them I would start writing this on Monday, because meeting the woman, shaking her hand, hearing her voice, seeing her sons, especially the youngest one, and shaking her husband’s hand, hearing his witness—She called me that night—had so possessed me that I might as well plunge into it, write it, not to rid myself of it, because writing does not rid me of anything, but just to go there, to wherever the woman had taken me, to go there and find the music for it, and see if in that place there was any light.
Next day, I woke to a wind that brought sorrow and fear and rain, while beyond the glass doors in front of my desk the sky was blue, and the leaves were red and yellow, and I wrote. For ten days, I woke and lived with this storm, and with the rain were demons that always come on a bad wind; loneliness, mortality, legs. Then it was gone, as any storm. They stop. The healing tincture of time, a surgeon told me in the hospital. On the eleventh day, I woke with a calm soul, and said a prayer of thanks. While I wrote this, the red and yellow leaves fell, then the brown ones, and the nights became colder, and some days too, most of them now in late November, and I did not find the music. Everything I have written here seems flat: the horns dissonant, the drums lagging, the piano choppy. Today the light came: I’m here.
This final section from the essay guides me as a writer and person daily. It is exactly what pain becoming art should be, and perhaps more importantly, expresses a writer’s purpose in writing pain—not to rid ourselves, but to put music to it, to look for light. We may fail at both, but that’s okay; we still exist, the leaves fall and come back, storms pass, we’re here.