Today, I’m pleased to interview Laura B. Hayden, who is here to discuss her new book Staying Alive: A Love Story.
Laura B. Hayden is a mother, widow, teacher, and writer. She has taught English both at the high school and college levels. Laura’s writing can be found on technorati.com. Her print work has appeared in The Hartford Courant, Northeast magazine, the Journal Inquirer, Connecticut Parent, Hartford Woman, and Imprint publications. She is a graduate of the Western Connecticut State University MFA in Creative and Professional Writing program. In 1995 her essay, “Saved by the Belle” took first place in the First Annual Mark Twain Days Essay Contest on American Politics & Government, judged by Russell Baker, Garry Trudeau, and Joyce Chadwick-Joshua. Last year “Nesting,” an essay from her memoir, received an honorable mention from Connecticut Review, a journal published by the Connecticut State University system. Laura is available for readings at support groups, hospital forums, church groups, schools, bookstores, and libraries in the Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York areas. Staying Alive: A Love Story is about her search for meaning after the untimely death of her 49-year-old husband.
Welcome, Laura. Thank you for the opportunity to join me today. I understand Staying Alive: A Love Story is a memoir about your life and coping with your husband’s death. To begin, will you tell us a little about your husband, Larry, and how you lost him?
Larry and I went to high school together, but we did not date until almost ten years after graduation. He said he saw me voting, and that gave him the idea to call. That would have been the 1976 Gerry Ford/Jimmy Carter election. By January, Carter was inaugurated, and I was in love.
At the time, I had been a high school teacher for almost ten years and Larry was making a career change. At his new work at the Connecticut Labor Department, Larry understood the pain his unemployment clients felt after losing their jobs in the ’80s recession. He had once stood in an unemployment line himself, a recipient of benefits. In a few years he led the department’s team that went directly to job sites — to companies like Hamilton Standard, Pratt & Whitney, Pitney Bowes — employers that once offered their workers a lifetime of security. He assisted the jobless clients even before they left their workplace for the last time, when they were still caught up in the shock of their job loss. On weekends, on his own time, he began an unemployment support group at our church.
What would you say was your initial response to your husband’s passing?
I was in shock. Pre-op, the doctors joked about how young and strong Larry was as compared to the typical by-pass patient. His operation was meant to prevent heart issues. He never had an attack. He was home recuperating from surgery performed two weeks earlier when a blood clot dislodged from his lower leg where an artery had been removed. (The artery, replanted, became a bypass route for clogged vessels near his heart.) As shocked as I was, I knew I had to focus on our children’s needs, help them through the wake, funeral, and eventual return to school.
What made you decide to write a book about your journey following his loss, and at what point in the grieving process did you decide to do it?
I taught writing and had freelanced in regional publications for years. About ten years after Larry’s death, I enrolled in an MFA in Writing program at Western Connecticut State University. I tried to write about my life — five, ten years — after losing Larry, but those pieces always reverted back to his passing. Then I tried to write about our lives together before losing him, and those pieces always led up to the loss. I realized, if I was going to write — it was, in one way or another, going to be about Larry’s death. As a writing teacher, I knew how writing forces a person to dig deep, and as difficult as it would be to excavate through the decade that followed Larry’s death, I knew the digging would be good for me.
What made you choose the title Staying Alive over something more general like “How to Grieve” or “Grieving a Loved One” that would be more like a self-help title?
Staying Alive: A Love Story is just that — a story. My story. It is not meant to tell someone how to grieve. I have no business doing that. As a narrative, it is meant to show how I grieved, show how my children grieved, and show how we still grieve today. It’s the story of survivors, how we stayed alive without Larry, and how we have kept him present in our lives.
Where does the subtitle “A Love Story” fit in?
That’s easy. The book speaks to the love Larry and I shared, our love for our children, and the ability to love oneself and others again after deep loss.
Does that love story continue even after Larry’s death, and if so, how?
Of course it does. If anything, losing Larry deepened my understanding of our love that, I have to admit, I took for granted before he died. It continues through recollections of our lives together and, in my case, the aspects of Larry I see manifest in our children.
You mentioned earlier how many times you tried to write about your relationship before you realized writing about Larry’s loss was the focus of your topic. Once you had your focus and started writing about his loss, did you gain any new insights or feel any surprises through the writing process?
For me and many writers who take the risk of handling difficult material, writing leads to reflection and discovery. Even if I thought I knew how an essay would end, I was often surprised at the mental twists and turns that would get me to that point, or possibly a different point.
Besides losing your husband, you describe other losses in the book. How did those losses factor into your life at this time?
My father died seven years before Larry died. Larry’s father died just seven months before Larry. As I say in the book, I think over time we get filled with our losses. I know I did. When my mother died, just months before I finished the book, I felt the need to include how the absence of all these people I loved shaped my thoughts every day.
How old were your children when you lost your husband, and what role did they play in your grieving and “staying alive”?
In the book I refer to Emily, 13 at the time, and Conor, 11, as tow lines that pulled me from the undertow of grief. Thank goodness I had their needs to focus on. I remember when a friend who had lost her husband said to me, “I don’t know how you got through that time, with two children to take care of.” Her children were grown and on their own when her husband died. I replied that I didn’t know how I would have gotten through those toughest days without focusing on their needs. This gave me a purpose I might not have felt if I were alone.
Besides focusing on your children’s basic needs — food, clothing, etc. — what kinds of emotional needs did they have as they grieved, and do you think you all grieved differently? How did their grieving influence or maybe help yours?
We three were hurting and trying to help each other at the same time. Yet, an unfortunate aspect of a surviving parent trying to get his or her children through their grief is that the parent, also, is grieving. A few months after Larry died, I asked Emily and Conor to visit a child psychologist — and I know they agreed to as a gift to me. And yes, each of us grieved very differently. I have an essay about each of them in the memoir. Emily’s is titled, “Backlash,” and Conor’s “Slow Motion.” That should give you an idea of their differences.
In your book, you state, “At that moment I realize there is no more than a hairline and no less than an eternity between him and me.” Will you explain for us what you mean by that statement?
Sure. It’s the paradox of grief I experience over and over. I feel so physically separated from Larry — that’s the eternity that seems to exist between losing him and the chance of ever seeing him again — and yet, I experience triggers that bring his presence back so strongly: the sight of a cardinal, the lyrics of a song, an expression on Emily or Conor’s face. These bring me right back to a time and place when he was right there by my side.
Laura, your book is not completely all seriousness. You show a sense of humor in it also. Will you share with us one of the humorous moments in the book by quoting or describing it?
I’m so glad you picked up on the humor. Larry was a funny guy. Laugh out loud funny. I couldn’t truly recreate him for the reader without recreating that side of him — like when Conor asks him, “Who’s you favorite painter?” and Larry answers. “Sherwin Williams.” Then Conor follows up with, “Who’s your favorite impressionist,” and with a straight face Larry says, “Rich Little.” I’m laughing right now, recalling that.
Why did you feel it important to include humor in the book — did you rely on humor at all in your grieving process?
I hoped sharing amusing family stories would give the reader a sense of the fun repartee that was part of our daily lives. How could readers relate to our sorrow if they couldn’t relate to our joy? As far as humor being important in our grieving process, I talk in the book about how important it was for the New York-based TV show “Saturday Night Live” to start broadcasting again, just a few weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center. Mayor Guiliani opened the show by paying tribute to the lives lost on September 11th and acknowledging the members of the New York Fire and Police Department as heroes. Paul Simon sang “The Boxer,” with its “fighter still remains” line, and then the show returned to its trademark comedy. It was a way of saying NYC, though still hurting, was going to be okay.
How much time has now passed since your husband’s death, and do you still think of yourself as a widow today — do you have thoughts or feelings about that term, “widow”?
My family and I just attended a 13th Anniversary Mass for Larry today. That seems like a long time. Our children have graduated from college and grad school. Emily is recently married. By definition I am a widow, a woman who has lost her husband. I check that box on forms. By choice, I feel the children and I are survivors, not victims of his death. I feel like a woman with dear family and friends. And I feel like a writer.
If you could have just a few minutes now to speak to Larry, what would you tell him?
Hmmm. I’d tell him exactly what my son said in a toast at his sister’s wedding in October. We love him. We miss him. We are going to be okay. Then I’d ask if he thought my jokes in “Not Ready For Prime Time Humours,” one of the last essays in the book, were funny.
How do you hope readers will respond to your book?
On a personal level, I hope they will experience the joy in our lives as well as the sadness. On a cultural level, I hope they will understand how complex grief is. Research is revealing, more and more, that grief cannot be fully explained in the simple stages of the 1969 Kubler-Ross model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). This model was originally intended to be a paradigm for the person facing death, not the one left behind. I hope those who have suffered deep loss will find some comfort in the book, and those who have not suffered deep loss will better understand its effect on those who have.
You said you now define yourself as a writer. Do you have plans to write any more books, and if so, what will they be about?
I’ve started using material from my Mommy of the Bride blog in a novel. And there are a number of essays I’m moving along in.
Thank you for the opportunity to interview you today, Laura. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information our readers can find there about Staying Alive: A Love Story?
Readers can visit www.laurabhayden.com to order Staying Alive: A Love Story. (The book and ebook are also available on Amazon and bn.com). My website also links to my absolutely fun-to-write Mommy of the Bride blog (www.mommyofthebride.blogspot.com). In addition, reading dates and a contact email address are available on the website. Thank you, Tyler, for your time and thorough questions.
Thank you, Laura, for the interview. I wish you much success with Staying Alive: A Love Story both in terms of sales and the influence it can have in helping others.