Several years ago I wrote an article about how writing literally saved my life after my fiancé was killed and I felt as if life wasn’t worth living. I never published the piece, but I hand it out when I speak to grief support groups, hoping that my experience with recovery will inspire others who are struggling. And now, I hope that by sharing it here, it will find it’s way to those in need…
“Writing to Save My Life”
Sonya G. Elliott
I wouldn’t have thought it could happen. Getting hit by a train and losing my fiancé just days before our wedding for one, but actually recovering from such a thing seems altogether unbelievable, even a miracle. And, of course, the fact that I survived was a miracle to my family and friends, but for me it was a death sentence that left me alone and struggling to go on with life. Had it not been for my journal, my writing, I may never have found my way.
I had played basketball for the Eastern Washington University Screamin’ Eagles from 1984 to 1988, then after graduating I moved to Seattle where I began working as a fashion model. Not the typical career choice for an athlete and honor student, but I had been a walking contradiction since I was a child, when I sat alone in the tall grass picking clovers and then quietly pushed myself to a stand and began walking for the first time. In high school I was the jock that sang solos in choir and did my homework. (I thought of myself as a well-rounded person, my classmates called me a nerd.) When I met Mark, I was still living a life of contradiction. I’d spend afternoons sashaying down the runway with my long blond hair piled high upon my head, then I’d rush home to scour the dark lining from my eyes and the red from my lips, and hurry to the nearest open gym to play basketball.
When I first saw Mark, I was running my fingers impatiently over my soft leather basketball waiting to play in the next game at Shoreline community center.My stomach fluttered as I watched him move swiftly around his defender with a hesitation dribble, and take the ball to the hoop. Laying the ball gently against the backboard, he made a quick pivot as the ball dropped through the net and then sprinted down on defense. A smile flickered on his lips. I held the ball tight in my hands. My mind was no longer on basketball.
I hadn’t really noticed a man since my boyfriend and I broke up three months earlier. But Mark, with his strong build, thick dark hair and smiling emerald eyes, had an unguarded confidence that demanded my full attention. As he glided effortlessly up and down the court, he hypnotized me with his command of the game. When I stepped onto the court to play against him, Mark was wearing a white cotton t-shirt with a blue Nike across the chest, and on his face he was wearing a broad smile.
“I’ve got her,” he said, bringing his lips together and looking me in the eye.
Playing basketball against a man tells me more about him than any date. I got to know the real Mark that afternoon. He didn’t give me a break. He took me to the hoop, crashed the boards, and stole my passes. He used his body to move me out of the way and get loose balls, and then he’d flash me a smile. Mark captured my heart with his intensity and teamwork each time down the court and my admiration was deepened by the chance to be near him. His unmistakable masculine scent was enhanced by the warmth of his body and became permanently ingrained in my mind as we moved on the court together. I craved it like chocolate. I wished the game would never end.
When it did, Mark asked me to dinner and a Sonics game. Three months later we were engaged to be married. Basketball had been my life; now there was something better to live for, Mark. Inseparable, Mark and I mapped out our future. Our wedding, our home, our family and our life together. On our way home from our last wedding shower, eight months after our first date, the car that Mark and I were driving was hit by a train.
GAUBINGER IN INTENSIVE CARE
Gaubinger, Former University High School and Eastern Washington basketball player, remains in intensive care at Deaconess Medical Center with injuries sustained Sunday in a car-train accident near Ritzville.
Gaubinger, 25, was a passenger in a car driven by her fiancé, Mark Overholt, that was struck by a Burlington Northern train at a crossing on Snyder Road. She was thrown through the rear window and suffered multiple fractures and a punctured lung. She underwent six hours of surgery on Sunday.
Overholt, 25, died from internal injures at the site of the crash.
The article from the Spokesman Review detailed the obvious; what it couldn’t tell was the real story. By the time my parents rolled me out of the hospital in a wheelchair two weeks later, my broken body and mind had withered away. I couldn’t walk, let alone play basketball or strut down a runway. All I could do was cry and think of Mark. Mark and the future we had lost. The home, the children, the life we had foreseen was gone. I was a 25-year-old unofficial widow, drowning in sorrow. I had no reason to live.
But I lived. As much as I hated it, as each day passed, I lived. However, I lived with my parents, not my husband. I slept in a hospital bed in my parents’ living room. They cared for me, fed me, and bathed me. They wheeled me from room to room. The home’s circular path – dining room, kitchen, living room, bathroom, where I once chased my brother and dogs – now became my path of grief. While traveling this path of grief, my tears wore their own salty paths. Without my wanting or knowing, with the drop of each tear, my journey of recovery began.
I spent most days in Dad’s La-Z-Boy watching vivid memories of Mark play over and over in my mind. My mom was unsure of what to say or do to help make things better for me. When she asked if she could help, “No” was my reply. Then a day came when she didn’t ask. Instead she pulled out a small book, with blue and white floral fabric for the cover, and rested it gently in my lap. It was a journal.
“I hope you’ll try writing in it,” she said cautiously. “Remember, the counselor thought it might be a good idea.”
I looked at the journal. Skeptical. Unsure if I could write at all, but more so, unsure if I dared follow the feelings deep in my heart. I set the journal aside.
“Thanks Mom,” I said, with no intent of ever dirtying the journal’s soft white pages.I was still hoping this was all a nightmare, that I might awake one day and have my life with Mark again.
More than a month after the accident, after Mark had died, and after getting rid of the contraption in the dining room that doubled as my bed, I moved to my old high school bedroom. The first night that my dad wheeled me in to go to bed, I noticed the floral journal across the room and asked dad to wheel me to the desk and get me a pen. Dad returned with a blue Bic and gave me a goodnight kiss. The scent of pine followed him out the door and when the door was closed, I reached for the pen. Gripping the pen awkwardly with my weakened hand, I was barely able to hold the journal in place while dragging the pen across the page with my broken limb. But once I began to write, all the pain I’d held inside flooded the pages. I wrote the obvious. I wrote the unthinkable. And as tears streamed down my face, I wrote to save my life.
The truth was out. It was in writing. Mark was dead and my life was over. How could I live without him? That was a question that couldn’t be answered, couldn’t be faced; instead it was the writing and the motion of life itself that kept me moving moment by moment, day by day, in the direction of change. Swimming through a pool of vivid memories that flooded my mind, I lived in the past, as my life moved forward. But I wasn’t ready to let go of the memories, to let go of Mark. I couldn’t say goodbye. Instead, as day turned to night and I was wheeled to my childhood desk, I grabbed my pen and left my heart on the page. I wrote of the pain in my heart and I wrote to Mark to keep him a part of my life.
Days became weeks. My wheelchair, left in the corner for long excursions, was replaced by a quad-cane. I walked to my desk under my own power. I continued to write. The pain in my heart wouldn’t stop, nor would my crying. I wrote about my pain. Then I wrote about Mark. I started a list that had everything about Mark that I could remember. The list grew quickly, but it seemed stale and empty. My words couldn’t emulate the vibrancy that was so much a part of each story found on the list. But once I realized this list was the only way each beautiful moment with Mark could be remembered and forever replayed in my mind, I made myself continue to write.
In time I exchanged the quad cane for a cane. I moved more quickly and with less pain. My scars faded. And with that shift came a new reality that I struggled with daily. How would I live without Mark? No longer did I write, I cannot live without Mark, but instead asked, how will I live without Mark? A subtle shift, gone unseen by me at the time, but a shift all the same, that kept me moving forward. As I wrote of the pain, and allowed that part of me to escape, new words hit the pages that began to fill the emptiness in my heart with hope.
I said goodbye to my cane and my parents. I found a job as an apartment manager which allowed me to live alone. I modeled for clients who were willing to work around my scars. Life had possibilities. Not of happiness, of course, that was out of the question, but of living. And part of living now was writing. When I wrote, the pages were still left wet with tears. Each time I set down my journal, the writing had pushed me forward and pushed me to live.
I began dribbling a basketball. My arm hung by my side like a stroke victim’s but I dribbled the ball. It was like being seven again. An awkward seven learning a new skill, and with that “new skill” came feeling of accomplishment. I wrote in my journal, I will play basketball again. Life continued to move forward.
I filled a second journal quickly. People were surprised by how well I was coping but my journal held the truth, the pain and the loneliness. All the things I didn’t dare let go in public for fear the tears would never stop. I was walking the road of grief and it was hard.
Eight months after the accident, a friend of Mark’s invited me to watch his high school baseball team play. “You’ve gotta see this one kid. He looks just like Mark,” he said. I went to the game. I wasn’t sure how well I could handle seeing someone that looked like Mark, but I took a chance. And when I saw the right fielder flash Mark’s smile, it was like seeing just a small piece of Mark, and it was worth it.
Near the end of the game, an opposing batter swung at a pitch and sent a foul tip flying up behind the catcher. The catcher whipped his mask off and spun around in search of the ball. I stared in surprise. The catcher looked just like Jason. I had met Jason in college. We were both athletes and ran into one another frequently in the corridors of the athletic pavilion. We had been close friends in college but I hadn’t seen him in years.
I thought of Jason. And because of it, I suffered. Thinking of another man weighed on my soul. And then there came a moment when I did the unthinkable, a moment when there was a lull in my guilt, and I called Jason. Talking to him was like talking to my best friend. Weeks passed, we spoke on the phone often, until I agreed to meet for lunch. I kept Jason a secret, afraid of what family and friends might think. But slowly, without pressure or promise, our relationship grew. And as I worked through my grief and guilt, and filled more pages of my journal with writing and tears, we became a couple.
Something I believed could never happen, did happen. I had met a man who was so warm and caring that I began to hope I might find love again. And as I made journal entries, happy times that I shared with Jason appeared on the pages mixed with painful memories of Mark. When I struggled with the guilt, guilt that I had survived, guilt that I was beginning to enjoy my life again, and guilt for having feelings for another man, I turned to writing even more. And as I soaked more pages of my journal with tears, my heavy heart lifted until I began dreaming of a future, a future with Jason.
The night Jason and I entered the cemetery, hand in hand, moonlight broke through the darkness just enough so that we could read the flat tombstones that led like a garden path to Mark’s grave. We walked in silence, and then came to a stop at the spot where Mark lay deep in the ground. Tears filled my lower lids. My grip on Jason’s hand tightened. Then I knelt to the ground and placed roses in Mark’s vase. Jason knelt down next to me, and we stayed that way for a long time before we moved on to our backs. Lying side by side on Mark’s grave, our hands intertwined, we gazed into the star-filled sky.
“What was Mark like?” Jason asked. I took a long deep breath and then let it escape, unsure of how I should answer. Then I gave a lengthy answer no new boyfriend or lover would want to hear. An uncensored description of the man I had loved so dearly and, after this night, a man to whom I would finally have to say good-bye. Jason asked about Mark until the night grew cold and the closeness of our bodies could no longer keep us warm. The stories spilled out, one by one, finally giving way to my pent-up sorrow. Jason pulled me in against his chest and held me while I cried. Though my relationship with Jason may have come too soon and at a time that was difficult for us both, I had found another man that loved me, and now I needed to slowly let go of the past and find a way to return that love.
It was my writing that allowed me to do that. I had waded through layers of sadness and guilt each time I wrote, forging a road to happiness and to a new life with Jason. On November 8th, 1993, I wrote in my journal, and with my writing, I spoke to Mark.
It wasn’t until just now, when I wrote the date, that I realized that two years ago Mark and I were to be married. It came as a shock to look at the date and think back to a time that seems so far away, yet in a breath feels like yesterday. Tears come to my eyes as I think of Mark and all I’ve been through.
I see more than ever that my life has changed. It will never be the same, but once again I’m sharing my life and my love with someone very special. I love Jason, and I don’t want to lose what we have together. On this day, a day that was supposed to be so special 2 years ago, it is good to know in my heart that I want to be married to Jason and I am not afraid. I love you, Jason! Life is so worth living, especially when you have someone to share it with.
Mark, I will always love you, you hold a special place in my heart. Thanks for all your strength.
It was on that day, over twenty-five years ago, that I realized the strength of the written word. The words that filled my journals guided me toward living, to a point in my life where I was strong enough to move forward, to marry Jason, to have children, and to live a life filled with love and hope. I have never forgotten Mark, but I have learned to let go, to remember the energy with which Mark lived his life, and to use it as an example for how to live mine. I am forever grateful for the short time I had with Mark, the life I now have with Jason and my family, and the written word that helped me find my way.
Grieving is hard.
Journaling was an important piece of my recovery, but there are many things that can help you find your way through the hard times. If you are struggling, take care of yourself and allow yourself time to cry, but also get out of the house from time to time and do things that you enjoy, or used to enjoy, because just trying them can make a difference. Write down your thoughts, take time to breathe, ask for help, and again, don’t forget to cry when you need to and even when you don’t. Be good to yourself, as with many things in life, grieving is a journey, so keep moving forward one step at a time, and you will find your way.
Has writing helped you during your lifetime? What other things have helped when you’re struggling?