I read Lydia Netzer’s novel Shine Shine Shine when I was very pregnant with my second child. Sleeping had become problematic, so I tore through the story—about a willful woman named Sunny and her genius, astronaut husband, who’s lost in space when Sunny gives birth to their second child. The birth scene was wild, and brought up all the feelings I had about childbirth. But what stayed with me, and what I’ve thought of often since reading the book, is the death scene. Sunny’s mother dies of cancer, in the middle of a dream:
Her legs carried her like the wind, over the gravel road and then onto the railroad ties… She felt no pain, she felt only suffocation. She felt her blood, incapable of doing its job. She felt her mind shutting her off. Don’t tell the feet, she thought. Let them keep running. At last she turned the corner and saw the bridge, its dark brown trapezoid rising against the bright blue sky.
“Sunny,” she tried to cry, but there was no air. Her lungs were finished… Her chest contracted. Her cells struggled. She hung on the nearest beam, clung to it, thrusting her head out over the water… Sunny was there, poised. The mother tried to gasp out a warning, gasp out a final endearment. Sunny, I love you. But there was no air, and there was no blood, and the blackness came down from on top of her head and shut her down. In the reverie, she hung there, her body limp and crumpled against a beam. In reality, she died there, in the hospital bed, and went into the dark. Her brain stopped working and that was it, just at the wrong moment. One minute there were electrochemical processes inside the skull. The next minute there were not. No one shared it, no one eased it to its end, and no one could have prevented it. It just happened. A death happened at 3:12 in the morning. A private death between a mother and herself, before she could finish her one last dream. This is what it means to die: You do not finish.
That scene got to me. It wasn’t just my hormonal weepiness, or my powerful feelings about motherhood. It was something else—the idea that you don’t finish. I would think of this when my grandfather died a few years later. He was a Baptist preacher who believed in God and Heaven and I loved him, so I wanted (for his sake) all of it to be true. But I didn’t believe it, even with motherhood softening all my edges. In that grief, I’d started to write again, and for the first time I wrote fantasy. It offered a way to build afterlives I could believe in. This is why I wanted to ask Lydia a very long, run-on question about that death scene:
How did this scene come to you; what of your own experience (if anything) brought you to it; did it begin with a particular image or idea that stuck with you, or was it a feeling that you poured the writing into?
“My mother died in 2003 between the Battle of Baghdad and the capture of Saddam Hussein. She was a big fan of cable news, and that summer when she was too tired and sick to watch she would ask me to just tell her what was going on. As I sat with her, not knowing how close she was coming to death, I realized that while I was recounting the day’s events overseas, she wasn’t really listening to my words. She was kind of drifting in and out of sleep. When she died, one of the first horrible things that occurred to me was that she would never find out what happened to Saddam Hussein—if he was captured and how.
She would never find out the ending to so many stories. Who would win the next election? Who kidnapped Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing? I was pregnant when my mother died, and she would never know my second child, that she is a beautiful girl, or see her smile or listen to her play the viola.
A few weeks after my mother died, someone said to me that I should be comforted because she was looking down on me from heaven. I hope I smiled and was polite, but the reality is that I never felt that. Not even for a single minute. I never felt her presence after her last day—it was as if she was erased from the universe forever. That was a horrible adjustment for me, because I had always reported things to my mother in long phone calls. It felt like nothing that happened was real because she didn’t know about it and I had no way of letting her know.
Those are selfish feelings. Writing this into my novel, I tried to inhabit the other side of this death: the mother who was leaving her child and would never find out if the child would truly be okay. She didn’t trust. How could she trust? She didn’t know. How could she know? She tried her very best down to her last breath to protect and love her child, and give her daughter everything. And then there came a time when she couldn’t give any more, and she couldn’t know how it all turned out, and she died. What that feels like I can only imagine.”
You can order Shine Shine Shine and Lydia Netzer’s other novels at Binnacle Books.