I first met writer Laura B. Hayden in graduate school at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, CT. She was in the same classroom as me for the same reason as me: we were both grad students, interested in pursuing creative nonfiction writing, and we had found ourselves in a writing workshop in which participants would critique the writing of each of their peers. This meant that each of the works we had sent to the instructor well before class were ready to be put under fire – and, we hoped, so were we.
The piece Laura had submitted was one of my favorites. It was a beautiful little essay in which she and her family are in California on vacation and how, as they gaze out at the vast ocean, they notice a trio of dolphins making their way parallel along the shoreline. Laura and her family soon realize that what they are seeing are two healthy dolphins escorting the third, dead, in a mournful procession.
It’s a beautiful, albeit heart wrenching image, and the essay strips more and more beauty away until we learn that, four months after that sighting on the California shore, Laura and her two young children, Emily and Connor, escort their own man of the family, Larry, to his grave.Staying Alive: A Love Storyis Laura’s memoir about suddenly losing her husband as a result of complications following quadruple bypass surgery. He was young – too young, with kids not yet in their teens and whole decades of promises ahead of him – and his death came just months after his own father’s. Laura shares a story of loss, but also this is a memoir about seeing death from another side: life after losing a loved one. Laura chooses to rise above it, to function and continue to raise her children in as happy an environment as she can solo, but she admits she doesn’t do it without losing hope some days, without screaming into open, empty air to Larry, ” Where the hell are you when I need you most”(84)?
Since I met Laura when one of the earliest chapters of her book was in the sculpting process, I feel a special attachment to her work and of course was thrilled when she found a publisher for it. We have with our own respective graduate school bodies of work – a memoir for her, a collection of essays for me – navigated the waters of the publishing industry together, firing off queries and enduring rejections and encountering hopeful, encouraging words that in the end, added up to nothing. We have spun frustrations and questions off of each other (okay, me to her more so than the other way around). We have cheered on each other’s accomplishments, marked each other’s work with a red pen, shared stories over glasses of wine at graduate school residencies. Laura even babysat our son, Will, one night in Connecticut while my husband and I went out to celebrate our four-year anniversary, which happened to fall on a night during the two weeks out of the year I had to be on campus.
So when her book came out by Signalman Publishing this past fall, you bet I got a copy. Thanks to Laura herself, it showed up packed in cardboard on my doorstep. I started reading it almost right away, eager to encounter those dolphins again and new chapters I had perhaps never seen in the making.
Turns out there was a lot I hadn’t seen before. The story itself prevails, marching the pages along more than poetic images and language. And perhaps that’s as it should be. Yet there are, admittedly, points where I feel the story itself is too hurried or cut-and-dry, parts that lack the beauty of language that Laura is so capable of. I also fear in the cover material her work is compared to too many other great writers – “like Annie Dillard, Hayden draws on the rhythms and rituals of the natural world,” “with the precise objectivity reminiscent of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, Hayden recounts the day her husband died and the rituals and obsessions of the bereaved,” “Hayden also manages to be seriously droll – in an Anne Lamott way” – to make her own stand out as a voice that is unique and fresh
But the theme of her work is still strong – for me, the idea that life for the Hayden family was and forever will be “rough around the edges” (64), the idea that while Larry’s memory is forever preserved as that fun-loving 40-something-year-old father and husband, Laura’s hair continues to grey, her mind weakens, and her body fails (65). So, too, are the poignant ties to nature, although I would prefer to say in a Laura Hayden sort of way and not drag Annie Dillard into it.
Staying Alive: A Love Story is about surviving, about what it means to live happily ever after this side of heaven, about the reality that triumph can still exist with bad, hopeless days. Laura’s own clear and biting truth is this: “Writing about the obsession comes from me finally admitting that the day Larry died would spill into part of every day I would live for the rest of my life. And in so doing, I became aware that my father’s death (before Larry died) and my mother’s death (after) have become part of my every day as well. I think, as we get older, we get filled with our losses” (116). She realizes that “no more than a hairline and no less than an eternity” separate her from the man she loves.
The story of publishing this memoir is Laura’s own to tell. But I can say, as a cheerleader on the sidelines, I watched her persevere through one rejection after another, until finally, something broke through. Laura has a crowd of supporters around her through our graduate school program at Western Connecticut State. But I hope, and I trust, she has found an even larger circle of support in those – widows and children who have lost parents and creative nonfiction writers and voracious readers – who have since found her work and can appreciate the beauty, the heartache, and the honesty within it.