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Excerpts from the Ether: Fearful Symmetry

Welcome to Excerpts from the Ether. Every Saturday I’m going to be excerpting a letter from a reader (with their permission, of course) and featuring them here on my blog.

Something that has always stood out to me about grief is how lonely it is. When you’re going through the loss of a loved one, it can be a very isolating experience. No one around you quite understands what you’re feeling. My main intention behind writing and publishing The Rules of Inheritance was to put my experience out into the world so that others would feel a little less alone in their own journeys. Over the last several weeks since the book was published, I’ve received some incredible letters from readers and I’m so humbled to share some of them here.

In this particular letter the writer shares an essay that she wrote about her father and I am devastated by how beautifully honest it is. I’m sure you will be too.

February 15, 2012

Dear Claire,

Your book touched me so deeply.  I lost my father to cancer ten years ago one week after my first child was born, and reading about your experience of loss helped me to process my own.

Here’s the biggest thing:  the WAY you write is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.  I’ve been trying to write, to BE a writer, for so long, but I could never find a way to express myself that felt right, that felt like something worthy of sharing with other people.  But as I read your book I found myself thinking, I could tell my story like this too.

Fearful Symmetry

I am twenty nine years old.  I am standing in a hospital room and I am watching my father.  Other people are standing around me, and we are waiting.  I am watching his chest go up and down, up and down.  I have been watching him breathe for countless hours, and I will watch the same thing for many hours more.  He has been unconscious since last night, and the doctors have retreated with an unspoken finality. There is no doctoring left to do, and now they are just waiting, too.

I am mesmerized by the brutal rhythm of his lungs.  With breathing the only thing left he can do, his lungs seem to have expanded into huge machines with a life force of their own.  With each breath his chest lurches up with a whoosh of air, and then crashes down as the air rattles out forcefully.  The rest of his body is shrunken and withered, but his lungs seem so strong.  In a little corner of my mind a tiny voice defiantly insists that he is too strong to die.

After each breath there is a pause, and I feel the room go still as we all wait to see if another one will come.  We are all rising and falling along with my father’s breaths, the cycle of agony repeated minute by minute as the days wear on.  I am caught in this wave, dashed into the rocks again and again.

It takes two days for my father to die, just as it took two days for my first child to be born one week ago.  I am struck by the similarities; the days of exhaustion and waiting and rhythmic pain.  I’ll later look back and marvel at the symmetry of it – ten days bookended by two days of struggle for my son to come into the world, and two days of struggle for my father to leave it.

It is Friday, and I have gone against doctor’s orders and driven myself to the hospital to see my father. It has only been three days since Nathan was born, and I am still exhausted from the days of laboring with no sleep and little food.  My feet and legs are still swollen, and they throb and buckle as I walk through the hospital corridors. I hold on to whatever I can to steady myself.  As I walk, I start to feel the gelatinous weakness of my legs rising up through the rest of my body and I am suddenly reeling with exhaustion and grief.  I hold onto a railing as I shake with sobs and try to keep standing.  I realize that I have lost control of my bodily functions as my childbirth- weakened bladder releases its contents.  I am grateful that there is no one around to see me like this.  In a few minutes I have calmed myself down enough to find a bathroom and clean myself up the best I can.

–Ellen Holliday, Baton Rouge


  1. Wow, what gorgeous writing. Thanks for sharing Ellen (and Claire).

    Comment by June on March 17, 2012 at 1:47 pm

  2. Wow – I agree!! Amazing …. Claire, your book is touching so many. You continue to ‘do your parents proud’!


    Comment by beth davis on March 18, 2012 at 8:20 am

  3. Glad you appreciated it as much as I did, June!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on March 19, 2012 at 9:07 am

  4. Aw, thanks Beth!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on March 19, 2012 at 9:08 am

  5. The letter is a touching and generous gift. Thank you for sharing, Ellen and Claire.

    Comment by Kathi on March 19, 2012 at 3:29 pm

  6. I loved this letter!! Thank you for sharing!

    Comment by Vanessa on March 19, 2012 at 10:25 pm

  7. You’re welcome Vanessa!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on March 24, 2012 at 9:10 am

  8. You’re welcome Kathi.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on March 24, 2012 at 9:10 am

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