07 October 2014

'Rare Bird,' by Anna Whiston-Donaldson: A brave and bright memoir of love and loss

Say what you will about the Internet -- its often suffocating avalanche of cat videos, celebrity sludge and infinite lists of what you simply must eat, read, watch or do -- sometimes it can lead you, purely by chance, to an exceptional person. Which makes it all worth it.

Like the time I was perusing the news a few weeks back and read an article in the Washington Post about a local woman with a sad story who has just published a book. It is about the loss of her son and how she struggled to move on. So I think: hmm.. this is a big part the book I'm writing. Interesting. Before the accident that took her son, she had been writing a blog about her kids, her marriage and -- thrift store finds! Which, some of you may know, my house is full of. So of course I click on her blog and am immediately taken by her keen eye, her lively writing style and most of all her sense of humor.

A few days later, I notice in the Literary Calendar section of the Sunday Post that she is having a signing and talk at a local bookstore. I think I was the first one to buy a book, arriving early because I was sure there would be a crowd. There was. Family, friends, former students, blog followers, fellow bloggers, former classmates, neighbors, and that special group of persons who had also suffered the loss of a loved one -- 99 percent of whom were women. I did feel slightly out of place, but I also felt at home. Here was a women who had walked through the fire, was still finding her way, and had produced a remarkable account of that journey, Rare Bird. The line of fans waiting to have their copies of the book signed was long. I waited until it shrank. I told Anna that my youngest had the same name, and was attending the same college that she had: James Madison University. She smiled and signed my book, "To Tony, Soar!"

There were a number of reasons I was eager to read Rare Bird. There was, of course, the subject of love and loss and moving on, which is at the center of No Truer Hearts. It is a process we all go through, so it is universal. But just as every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, the experience of grieving and recovery is unique to each individual. The other thing I was keen on seeing was how Anna Whiston-Donaldson would do what I would have to do: take the reader to a very frightening and sad place. No one wants to wallow in terror and depression, so writing about death and suffering is not easy. Some people refuse to read or watch things that darken their hearts. But Anna tells a story of both heartache as well as hope. Of slogging through numb, gray days but of being uplifted, of healing, of learning to smile again.

Beverly's story has many similarities. Anna talks about things that happen before and after her son Jack's death that seem to give meaning, shed light, offer hope. There are Bible verses, dreams, comments, signs, visions, ways in which she feels that God is making his presence felt. The questions of religion and the afterlife come into play in Beverly's story as well. In her life, too, there have been dreams and visions and various portents pointing to more than everyday existence. The questions of the Here and the Beyond were ones she struggled with to the very end.

Rare Bird has taken me on a rewarding journey. My guide was an author whose honesty, open heart and keen observations made vivid the people in her life, their feelings, their quirks, their triumphs as well as their failings. By laying bare the nightmare she endured, the nightmare of any parent, she took me to a terrible place, eyes wide open. In the days and months and years that followed, though, I got to experience the gradual way she came back from the abyss, with the help of family, friends, strangers around the world, and her God. Anna's unique journey, in the end, is about finding a way to just survive the loss of her son and then to get him back. Forever.

When someone does exceptional things in the aftermath of losing a loved one, you realize that the person who was lost had to be exceptional to elicit such a response. In Rare Bird, Anna takes us on her odyssey of healing, which is a great gift in itself. But she also paints a loving portrait of her Jack, which is yet another gift. Beverly did what she did because of the Sean she lost. And her story, too, is about rising out of the darkness and finding Sean again, and sharing his legacy with the world in a number of ways.

The world is too, too full of people not worth spending even a minute with. (We all have our list..) It's nice to get to know a few -- like Anna and Jack, like Beverly and Sean -- whose lives in one way or another inspire us, shine a light and warm our hearts, and are worth keeping in our memories for a long, long time.

1 comment:

Lady Jennie said...

Beautiful review, and your book sounds fascinating as well. I think writing about grief IS hard without wallowing, but not impossible.

Signed, a friend of Anna's (and a fellow grief/faith author that hopefully has not wallowed).