Lindsey Kelk is the author of many novels, most recently Always the Bridesmaid published by HarperCollins in April.
When my grandmother passed away two years ago, I thought my heart would break. We had always been close: my family is from a very small village in the north of England, and I ate at grandparent’s house every day, before and after school, right up until university. As soon as I got the phone call to say she had asked for me, I went straight to JFK and got on the first flight home.
Sad, scared and exhausted, I arrived at her retirement home just in time to ride with her in the ambulance. Within hours of arriving at the hospice, she was herself, a tough, no nonsense Yorkshire woman, telling everyone how to do their job and clucking at me for flying such a long way for no good reason. When she took a turn for the better a few days later, she gave me a pep talk and told me to take care of my brother. I asked, joking, who would take care of me and was soundly assured she wasn’t worried, I had far too much of her sent me in her to ever get myself into real trouble. With that, she sent me back to New York with the instruction that I wasn’t to come back for the funeral because what was the point? She wouldn’t be there. Audrey Hardware was a painfully practical and wonderful woman.
When she passed away a few weeks later, I did fly back to England for the funeral. I’d just finished work on a novel and was relieved to have time off to grieve. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t. Every day I woke up anxious and every night I laid awake, listening to New York existing outside my window. Something was wrong, I could see everyday life going on all around me but I couldn’t join in.
Without really thinking, I grabbed my laptop and started writing. Before I knew it, I had two-thirds of a novel staring back at me.
Against the odds, it was funny. Really funny, and I loved it. I knew my grandmother would have been proud. She had a strong work ethic and the best way I could think to honor her was to put my best work out into the world.
Six months after we lost my grandmother, I got another phone call. My mother, who had been suffering from breast cancer and an unrelated heart problem for the last few years, had been admitted to hospital, seemingly with a water infection but my step dad was worried. He suggested I come and visit to lift her spirits. I arrived home on Thursday night. Friday morning, mum was much better and there was talk of sending her home the next day. On Monday she died.
At first, I didn’t feel anything. I’d battled a myriad of conflicting emotions when I lost my grandmother, but this time, I was numb. I sat silent on the sofa while my brother went back to work, and my stepfather kept himself preoccupied with all the mundane admin that comes after the most important person in your life has died. We used the same funeral director as my grandmother and I noticed he’d grown a beard in the last six months. It looked good. In the weeks after she died, I noticed a lot but said very little. It was, without a doubt, most unlike me.
As you might expect, my editor was beyond understanding. The deadline for my almost finished novel was set for a week after my mother passed and she immediately emailed to tell me to forget about it, that I would get back to the book when I was able. But me being my type A self, I was insistent that I would get it finished before Christmas. Writing had helped so much after I lost my nana, surely it would be a relief to take refuge in my alternate reality, in characters whose lives were defined by grief and such a heavy, soul dampening sadness? It turned out I was wrong, this time, there was nothing. I couldn’t write so much as a text without becoming so exhausted, I had to take a nap.
My anxiety returned, as did my insomnia. Unable to stay in my apartment, I left New York and moved to LA, something I’d been thinking of for a while but my mum and nana had kept me tethered to Brooklyn. I hadn’t wanted to be eleven hours from them in case anything happened. But then it did happen; they were gone, and I could go wherever I liked. Instead of a release, I felt displaced. The entire world had been shunted two degrees off center and no one else had noticed.
In search of an anchor, I forced myself back to my laptop. It had been two months, and my understanding editor was starting to, very delicately, enquire as to when I thought I might be ready to finish my novel.
The idea of writing a fun, funny book when I was barely able to get dressed in the morning seemed ridiculous, but after the first few terrible pages, something clicked.
Losing my mother and grandmother so closely together had taken so much from me. The idea that my new boyfriend would never meet the women who had made me who I am today, that my future children could only know them through photographs and stories, was impossible to process. My whole life I’d been Janice’s daughter and Audrey’s granddaughter. Who was I now? In six short months, I’d had my identity stripped away. The only thing I knew I could depend on was writing, everything else seemed fleeting or transient. The more pain I felt, the funnier my characters became and my writing processed my grief, translating it into something else on the page.
It felt strange to hold Always the Bridesmaid in my hands. It was the first book my mother would not read, could not go into our local bookshop and proudly tell everyone it as written by her daughter. But I don’t think I’d ever been quite so proud of something in all my life. Just the act of putting words on the screen helped me remember who I was when everything else felt wrong and finishing an actual book when breathing felt difficult enough, made me feel like a superhero. I made myself write when all I wanted to do was give up, thinking writing might help me escape myself. Instead it showed me a way back to my life, to who I was and reminded me that life is a story and everyone’s story is always changing.
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