Hardest Lessons Learned | I Will Leave You Never | Ann Putnam

Reading: The Hardest Lessons Learned

Losing a Spouse

The Hardest Lessons Learned

Writing – and rewriting – through grief allowed me to see light in the darkest times

By Ann Putnam

I began I Will Leave You Never when everyone I loved was still alive. I finished it after I had lost four of them — loved ones I did not think I could live without. Yet it’s the way of anyone’s life eventually, this saying goodbye. I Will Leave You Never is the story of such leave-taking, given over to the greater truth of art. Thinking about it, I try to reckon with how these things took me apart and then put me back together, as my writing grew and deepened. How I came to write and re-write I Will Leave You Never — yet hold it fast through the losses of my life, and other works that too often took its place.

Zoe’s Bear
I Will Leave You Never began as a story about a bear in the mountains, called “Zoe’s Bear.” I began it on the drive home from Glacier National Park where we’d taken the children, not knowing a grizzly bear had just killed three people. The experience of the bear was far more real to me than to them. They thought it was a grand adventure and loved wearing bear bells tied to their shoes. The terror of that bear has never left me, nor the sense that I would never be big enough or brave enough to protect my children from it wherever it was. But it began my thinking about motherhood and mortality, safety and peril — and thus the urgency of writing a novel about it, which, as it turned out, has no actual bear in it at all. 

But then “Zoe’s Bear” became another story, then another yet again, my constant companion over the miles and years, whether on my desk or buried and seemingly forgotten in the bottom of a drawer. But throughout the revisions, it retained the shadow of the bear as a metaphor for mortality in various forms, both strange and familiar. I wrote it at my desk at home, on planes, in emergency rooms, doctor’s offices, PTA meetings, gymnastic and track meets, traffic lights. It took days, months, years, and went through many iterations, before it finally became, with much starting and stopping, I Will Leave You Never.

As I was working on the first draft of the book that would at long last become I Will Leave You Never, I began writing a memoir in notes and scribblings here and there, about my mother and father and my father’s dashing identical twin and their journey into old age and death, though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time. 

Safe as Houses
I toggled between the two as Zoe’s Bear became Safe as Houses, and the bear, the threat from without, becomes not a bear at all, but a serial arsonist setting fires near where my protagonist and her family live next to tinder dry woods in a strange season of Pacific Northwest drought. A frightening stranger moves into the house at the bottom of their hill. She wonders if he could be the arsonist, and watches over the woods at night, wondering if the arsonist is out there somewhere just beyond her sight. Then one night, in a dream, she sees a house deep in the woods, bathed in the silvery blue light of moon on snow. And a little boy looking out his upstairs bedroom window. She knows in her dream that this is the arsonist as a child. She wants to take his cold hands in hers, so that he will never grow into the arsonist as a man. And if she can do that, she could protect her family from him and his tormented future. 

My beloved uncle has died and soon my father is dying as well, identical to the end. Now I’m writing furiously about the days and months of losing them, and racing against all sorts of things. The memoir is both harder and easier than the fiction I was trying to write about loss and the way we both embrace and run from it. Safe as Houses is sitting in a drawer because by now, I know there is nowhere safe. Then my mother dies.

But I can wait no more. I go back to the fiction. I write and write until it becomes Incantation, where the threat from without becomes the threat from within, when Jay, my protagonist’s husband, is diagnosed with cancer. I don’t know why it’s taking this turn, except that it’s the turn my life is taking. My husband also has cancer. They say it’s treatable, even curable. I’m terrified to keep on writing, terrified to stop. The husband in the novel cannot die because my own husband can’t either. So I’ve written hope into an ending which I can control. My heart, my life, my children deserve a happy ending. I write an ending that is an incantation — words spoken against unspeakable things.

My memoir is going to be published! Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye will be in the world. While I am giving it a final proofread, my husband dies. My own true love has died. He promised he would never leave me. And yet he does. My novel goes into the proverbial bottom drawer, possibly forever. I can barely finish proofing my memoir. I write a postscript which is a love letter to him whom I have loved my whole life. 

I Will Leave You Never
I write other things, while the most urgent work I have ever done lies deep in the bottom drawer, waiting for courage I do not have. Then one day I write this in a notebook: “You can learn to love anything, even terrible things, if you can learn what they are teaching you.” I try to believe it.

Finally, I take Incantation out of the drawer and lay it across my desk. The pages don’t burn my fingers like I’d thought. There is another, deeper lesson waiting for me, if I can only find it.

I re-title it I Will Leave You Never and re-write it right up to the last chapter. I have written what I didn’t think I could ever write, but it has cost me everything. My writer self is gone for good. I’m self-dramatizing, of course. Because after some time has passed, and I’ve given myself a good shake, I ask: Who stops just before the end? But I still don’t know whether Jay lives or dies, or whether the man at the bottom of the hill is really the arsonist or just a strange and troubled man. 

And then I do.

The truth of it comes gradually and then the sum of it all at once. The most terrible things are the ones you learn the most from. When death has lain like a stone upon your heart and turned your breath so ragged you feel you might die from want of it, you manage a deep intake of breath that comes so smooth and silvery, you know you will live. 

Can you know the depth of love, the very deepest gift of love while you still have it? Maybe life is full of such ordinary light, you can only catch the depth of love out of the corner of your eye. 

And then it happens. Saving Grace. You didn’t earn it. But there it is. An ending so right, so perfect, so full of grief transformed into the purest moment of joy you can say in truth, “I will leave you never,” and in truth he can say it back to you. 

And what did I learn? How pure love becomes when it is distilled through such suffering and loss — a blue flame that flickers and pulses in the deepest heart. Turned to the light just so, the beauty and laughter of the telling transcend the darkness of the tale. 

Ann Putnam is an internationally known Hemingway scholar who has made more than six trips to Cuba as part of the Ernest Hemingway International Colloquium. Her novel Cuban Quartermoon came, in part, from those trips, as well as a residency at Hedgebrook Writer’s Colony. She has bred Alaskan Malamutes, which appear prominently in I Will Leave You Never. She currently lives in Gig Harbor, Washington.



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