© 2016 paulwhankins

Painful Prompts: When the Writing is for Real

Of the more challenging prompts to which one might attend is the obituary.

This writing task comes with mentor texts listed daily. In alphabetical order. The form is set but few of us have ever consulted them. We writers would wring our hands and exclaim, “I don’t know where to start or how to begin. . .”

Introductions stymie us when it is the farewell that needs to be drafted.

While there is a very short turn-around on the task, the genre asks much more than the format will generally allow.

To post all of the sentiments in the daily paper, word count comes into play. A standard obituary that lists the Who and When and Where comes with a base price. The addition of a photo comes at a premium.

I am foregoing word count.

I am adding a photo.

My mother, Dianna Priebe Hankins Dancy Springett, passed away on Monday, November 7th, 2016. I want to include all of her names as this is how I have known her in her many roles while here on earth.

Left out of a conversation around an official obituary, I will write my own. What’s the old adage? Write the story you want to read? Perhaps this is an attempt to write the obituary I need.

First, in order to address the sentiment that I have been absent and did not care, I submit the picture included with this obituary. It is the same picture in the same gold frame that has occupied the same space in the writing room for a number of years. It has always been within my line of sight when I enter that room. I think the placement of this picture was an attempt to put a frame around a relationship whose boundaries and borders were fuzzy, hazy. . .nebulous at best.

There is no need to revisit the hurts and the disappointments here. If writing has taught me anything at all, it is the gift of revision that helps us to see clearer the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the transitions between thoughts that help to affect the not knowing of the moment into the flow that will become a memory.

There are hurts to count. But there is no need to recount them here. The obituary genre is one born of grieving and fully-realized in the celebration of a life lived. If one wanted to take account, I’ve paid in every way a person might pay for the word count here, so I want to make sure that the words do count.

A life well-lived flows into other lives. My mother brought me into a world well before she realized who she was or the purpose for own life let alone the life of a small child. To say that she was ill-equipped to be a parent is more of a generalized comment on the nature of our ever being ready to be parents. For the purpose of comic relief, I would share that I was born frank breech (look that up and you will see the description of one who essentially “cannonballs” out of the chute into the awaiting world much like one might imagine the cartoon hero, Calvin, leaping into a pond). But circumstance (even born of accidents) made her a parent.

My mother had her struggles with addictions. I carry all of the difficulties that come of addiction from the DNA level to the discipline of daily living outside of the devestation and debris that alcohol and drugs can leave behind. The witness to many instances of a lack of control did not stop me from weaving down my own path in my young adulthood and they are etched in my mind as a means to avoid paving a wide path of the same in my adulthood.

For much of my childhood, my mother was absent. The court-ordered holiday and six-week custodial visit kind of parent. Many of these visits never happened. Summers would pass. Events would pass. Milestones would pass. The lines that might have carved into a doorframe were never etched there and became as ghost-like as the phone calls that never crossed a wire. Visits that did happen are marked in my mind more for the way she left than the anticipation of her having come to get me. It’s strange how the back of one you love is more familiar than the face. And the more times we see the back, it always echoes in “Please come back. Soon.” And from this I have learned that how we say goodbye to those we love (no matter the length of errand or stay) are as important as how we say “I’m home” when we, at last, return.

On the last time we said “Goodbye” face-to-face, my mother asked for a sort of “release.” You probably didn’t know this. You couldn’t have known this. We were staying at a hotel on Mother’s Day Weekend. She left early Sunday morning before sunrise. As we gathered at the table for the breakfast buffet, she never showed. I did not have to consult the desk clerk to know that she had gone already. I could clearly see her back as she would have driven out of the parking life back to the life that did not include me.

I got an email later that week. My mother, the writer, wrote out of the deepest sense of her own failings. She could not reconcile the notion of being a mother to me. That it pained her to realize that she had little part in my upbringing. The notion of Mother’s Day to her was a reminder of all that she had missed. It was a request to let go. And I honored that request.

In the past twenty-four hours, I have thought about the kind of pain that might be felt if I weren’t a part of my children’s lives for even a second now or in the future. I think this begins to frame my sense of what death might actually be like. So much a part of my heart, the absense would take me down in the instant of its realization. I know that love is, in part, accountability to the heart of the one for whom we are expressing this love. And if I am at fault, I will reconcile with every beat of my heart until a steady rhythm of love returns between us.

This is a celebration. I have. . .lost a mother.

But, in what I thought I had lost, I have discovered in a life. A happy marriage that weathers ups and downs, troubles and triumphs. Two beautiful children that know more of “I’ll be back” and believe it, wait for it, and revel in it when it comes to fruition. A home that contains more love that its frame can sometimes hold. Every picture holds a place on a shelf in my heart and they are always in my line of sight when I consider what is most important in my life. I get to work with young writers each and every day and I hope that I what I mask and what I reveal helps to inspire what might be written and what might be revised.

I have a gift for words as they have been stored for so many years that they come rushing forward quickly given a moment. I have shed my tears for now. There is a moment now that must pass. I’ve mourned for many years of my life in the absence of my natural mother. But I have been blessed to have placed in the company of others who have guided, nurtured, encouraged. . .loved. . .in ways we might need to take more time to celebrate.

I am thankful for this life. A life that I would not have if not for Dianna Priebe. If an obituary is meant to celebrate a life, I will celebrate the life that I am living. As a demonstration for what I have leared by the means of a distance education.

The picture goes back in its place. We were here. In a singular moment.

There wasn’t a moment I have not been aware of your pain. Your battle. And, now, from the same third-party source, I am aware that you have now passed. This is better than reading the news somewhere. In some local paper I do not know from a town I do not know.

This. I know:

You were my mother.

I am your son.

You were loved. . .by me.

You are my tragic hero. If I take the role as your foil, it is in an effort to be a better father.

I celebrate your life as it has served as a calibration of my own. You are my mentor text in how to love in the nearby vs. the goodbye.

Thank you for my life.


  1. Gae Polisner
    Posted November 8, 2016 at 1:07 PM | #

    This is extraordinary. I had no doubt it would be. As are you.

  2. Kevin Bailey
    Posted November 8, 2016 at 1:22 PM | #

    Paul, I have never read a more heartfelt piece. This captures a story most could never tell with such passion and respect. I hope that finding the words helps you to find a separate peace.

  3. Roxanne Henkin
    Posted November 8, 2016 at 2:03 PM | #

    Thank-you for this extraordinary obituary. Your power as a writer and your thoughtfulness as a person touched my heart. I lost my Dad a year ago on November 4th, 2015. I decided to still go to NCTE and I was so glad that I did. My NCTE friends helped ease the pain.

    I look forward to seeing you at NCTE. I’m so glad to know you!

  4. Jan Eddy
    Posted November 8, 2016 at 6:20 PM | #

    Paul … this is a beautiful, powerful read. Thank you for sharing such personal feelings in such a well written piece.

  5. Shirley Thacker
    Posted November 8, 2016 at 7:14 PM | #

    Paul. . .you took me back to our annual Winter Retreats and I can hear your voice as you read this. . . you have such a gentle sense of precise words for feelings from your heart directly to others. You have a gift. Thank you so much for sharing your most inner thoughts!

  6. Laura Purdie Salas
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:05 PM | #

    I’m not sure why I happened upon this post on the 5-month anniversary of my mom’s death, but I’m glad I did. Parents so often cause us the most pain in our lives, but they also, as you celebrated, give us life. I’ve no doubt that you’re the best thing your mom gave the world. Hugs.

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