a story about a pen

letting go

I do not have a recipe for you today, though I will have one for you soon. First, I must tell you a story about a pen. I wasn’t planning on telling any pen stories, because who tells stories about pens? But then I started writing, and this is what needed to come out. A story about a pen.

Or maybe it’s just a story about loss.

*   *   *   *   *

I lost my favorite pen two days ago. When I left my clinic the evening before, I had left it there, on accident. I knew that it was there; I realized it as soon as I walked out of the building to head to my office, in another building. I stopped walking when I thought of it. I paused on the sidewalk, and patients who were leaving their various appointments had to walk around me.

My pen, I thought. I should go back for it.

But…no. Who goes back for a pen? That would be ridiculous. I would not go back into the building, up the stairs, through the clinic space and into the doctors’ workroom…just for a pen. I would have gone back for my wallet, or my ID badge, but not for a silly pen. So I did not go back.

I had left my favorite pen in my white coat pocket; the upper left one, along with a couple of other black-ink pens, the same pocket I keep my iPhone and reading glasses in when I’m seeing patients in clinic. And if it wasn’t there, I could swear I left it right on the desk, nestled up next to the keyboard.

My pen is a black fountain pen, a Pilot Vanishing Point with a blue ink cartridge inside. It’s an expensive pen, the most expensive pen I own, and certainly the most expensive pen I’ve ever brought to work. The point on the pen is very fine, and writing with it is addictive. The pen’s nib glides across paper without a hitch, leaving a smooth line of ink in its wake. It feels good in my hand, and it makes me want to write.

The following morning, after first attending a 7:30 a.m. conference, I walked over to my clinic. When I arrived at my desk, I leaned over the desk chair to put my bag on the floor, and I noticed that there were only two pens in my coat pocket, neither of which was my favorite pen. I tried not to panic. I followed my usual routine – I removed my cell phone and my reading glasses from my bag and placed them on the desk. I draped the lanyard holding my ID badge around my neck, while I waited for my computer to wake up. I lifted the keyboard to check underneath. No pen. I looked behind the computer monitor, and I pushed the rolling chair back from the desk and looked underneath, but no pen.

It was gone. My pen must have been stolen, right out of my coat, or right off my desk. Maybe the janitorial staff did it? A sense of loss overcame me. My pen was gone, and I had been so careless as to bring it to work, to think that I could use it in a crowded clinic, with doctors and staff in and out all day long, without losing it.

I realized then exactly how important that pen had become to me.

Half and hour later, or maybe less, my nurse, Eric, appeared at my side, as he often does, to see if I needed anything. I probably should have told him about the patient who needed to be called about some test results, or about the upcoming chemotherapy plan on that other patient, or an update on another patient who’d developed a recurrence.

Instead, I said, “I lost my pen.” I tried to keep the panic out of my voice.

I described my pen to him, and how it was really no big deal (it was), but I’d really love it if someone turned found it and turned it in. He remembered it. He had seen it, when I left the pen lying on my desk at some point, and he’d used it to sign something. He remarked on how nice the pen wrote.

Eric turned to leave the room, promising to let me know if it turned up, and I turned back to my computer screen. A patient’s record was on the screen, but in my head I was berating myself for being so stupid, for bringing that pen to work. I mean, really. Who needs a nice writing pen when the clinic uses an electronic medical record? I couldn’t believe I’d been so dumb.

“Is this it?” my nurse asked, turning back to me from the doorway. He was holding up a distinctive black pen – my pen! – that he’d just picked up off another desk near the workroom door.

I did not hug Eric, but I wanted to and I should have.

*   *   *   *   *

A couple of weeks ago, which was about a month after my father died of the stroke, I had a night of fitful dreams. This was not uncommon then. Nor is it uncommon now.

But that night, my father was there, in his hospital bed, in the nursing home right next to the hospital in which I work. Even though he was completely disabled in my dream, just as he was at the end, he was fully aware – of his condition, of his impending death, of me, and of my grief at losing him slowly (or maybe not so slowly) to dementia. In life, he had not had that awareness. In life, he had denied his dementia thoroughly and adamantly. But the father who returned to me in my dream was completely aware. In that dream, he and I both knew what was coming.

In my dream, I knew that he and I would go through his death again, and it would be just as hard to lose him a second time, if not harder. There was a sense of urgency, of time passing at triple speed, of time running out.

In the dream, my father wanted me to find a fountain pen. He needed me to find a specific pen, one he had been searching for. This pen he wanted me to find was to be for me, though, not for him. He needed me to have it before he died. In that dream, I was with him at one moment, and in the next, I was in an antique shop or in a thrift shop, looking through boxes and bags and drawers of old pens. They were all fountain pens, these pens, and I knew that was the kind of pen Dad wanted me to find. In one dust-covered shoebox filled with old pens and half-filled ink bottles, I found it. I held up the pen, a black fountain pen with a shiny, silver nib – yes, this was the one Dad wanted. I needed to get it to him before time ran out.

And then I woke up.

The next day, I bought a fountain pen online. It was an impulsive decision, just like getting a new kitten. But it felt right, just like the kitten did, and in my dream, my father had wanted me to have a fountain pen.

The pen came in the mail a couple of days later. I fell in love with it immediately. Writing with it feels luxurious. The words seemed to flow more easily out of my head and onto the paper. It is heavy in my hand, with a weight that feels comfortable and comforting.

The silliest thing of all? I feel connected to my father when I write with this pen.

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10 Responses to “remembering to breathe”

  1. 1
    Janis Tester — December 22, 2016 @ 5:50 pm

    You writing is beautiful.  It is amazing how much we learn about ourselves during these most painful times.  I am going through something similar and I use meditation the way you are using barre.  I think in this last year I have done uncomfortable growing.  You are allowed to take care of yourself. You are allowed to forget all “that stuff”.  It is your right.  So when is your ballet recital? :—)

  2. 2
    Jane, The Heritage Cook — December 22, 2016 @ 5:53 pm

    A beautiful piece MJ, filled with the love in your heart. Grieving is such a personal thing. Choices you make have to be right for you. I understand your desire to keep contact with your mother, a complicated relationship certainly, but so important in our lives. You have set boundaries that will help protect you – Brava!! I hope you have a wonderful holiday with your children, husband, and friends and may the new year bring you peace and happiness!

  3. 3
    Jacqueline Church — December 22, 2016 @ 10:04 pm

    Grief takes many forms, as you know. Movement and breathing and focusing intensely can be as therapeutic as talk. But they’re not mutually exclusive and the talk therapy helped you name what the barre classes are helping you to work through.

    I just this afternoon had a little grief epiphany. My grieving of my father (not dead but lost to alcoholism) was a set of training wheels for the real-time grieving of losing my mother before my eyes to Alzheimer’s. I’m grieving in very real ways some other things that are not quite public yet, but this is not about me, I share these things because sometimes it helps to know we are not alone.

    I do love your writing and your insights. I’m really sorry for your pain and I’m very glad you found barre.

    Wishing you peace in this often ironically un-peaceful time of year.
    – Jackie

  4. 4
    Jen Schall — December 23, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    Oh, MJ… I am at a loss for words, but wanted to leave you a comment to let you know that I appreciate your writing and your honesty. I have always admired your ability to express your thoughts through your writing, which is something I struggle with (I’d much rather just take photos).

    Barre sounds wonderful, and I think it sounds like a great path for you and a great way to unwind and take care of yourself. I’ve turned to yoga quite a bit lately, both for physical healing and to clear my head and deal with stress. And, it’s been more helpful than I ever would have imagined.

    My heart goes out to you, and you’re in my thoughts. I hope you’ll keep writing because I’d love to keep reading!

    Sending my love… XO

  5. 5
    Kristen Doyle — December 23, 2016 @ 4:31 pm

    You are such a gifted writer. Know that I’m thinking of you!

  6. 6
    Frances in Texas — January 29, 2017 @ 9:51 pm

    Life can be hard, and I’m sorry there is so much pain in yours. I’m glad you are surviving and have your family to provide peace and joy and purpose.

    I wanted to send along a link to a report on barre classes which I read:
    After reading it, I admire more than ever your strength and determination to do barre!

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  8. 7
    Erica M. — March 7, 2017 @ 10:01 am

    MJ, Thanks for sharing – I can’t wait to read more of your blog!  Grief is a funny thing. It can come and go when we least expect it and it’s hardest to recognize when the loss is intangible or doesn’t come with physical artifacts. Keep breathing and keep barre-ing 🙂

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