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The best memoir I read in 2013 --- and refreshingly un-literary
on January 7, 2014
In 2004, in a club in Tallahassee, 24-year-old Artis Chester met 23-year-old Miles Henderson. He was thin and wiry, handsome "with blue eyes that reminded me of the Gulf in winter." She was, she says, "not the kind of girl that men pick up." But he was, to her delight, employed -- he'd stayed in school in Colorado only until his ski lift ticket expired. They danced. She let him kiss her. And she revised her opinion. "I am that kind of girl."
Nine months before he deployed to Iraq, Miles dreamed of his death. He shared his dream with Artis: "Our helicopter crashed. We floated above the helicopter while it burned to the ground." But although she took the dream as a warning, she knew how to neutralize it: "If I loved him well enough, he would come home."
On July 1, 2006, they got married.
Three weeks later, Miles deployed to Iraq.
Four months and five days later, Miles died in a helicopter crash.
"Everything will be okay." Those are her first words when two soldiers come to tell her of her husband's death. But it won't be okay. It may never be. Eight years later, she is still, to use the official Army term, an "unremarried widow."
Artis Henderson's book is easily the best memoir I read last year. It's one of those books you pick up and don't put down until you're done. And, believe me, you are done. Henderson underwrites every scene, and, because her writing is so clean and controlled, each sentence tightens her grip on your heart. When she releases you, expect to be blinded by tears.
But loss is not the only takeaway. Miles is so decent, their marriage is so promising and Artis is so compelling that "Unremarried Widow" has an unexpected effect -- it's a completely fulfilling, exhilarating reading experience.
Artis Henderson said she was willing to answer a few questions. Mine were tough, and one of them -- the last -- was outright brutal. She never flinched or dissembled.
JK: The "grief memoir" is now a publishing commodity. I responded to yours because it seemed different -- it doesn't have literary pretensions. I read it as if it were a letter you wrote to me, just to me. Did you have a memoir you used as a model? How did you decide on a form that seems un-crafted?
AH: I'm glad to hear the book doesn't have literary pretensions. I think it's because I don't have any. I'm pretty insecure about my literary pedigree. I don't have an MFA, I didn't study literature in college. Growing up, I loved to read--but I liked books and authors that were more popular than literary: Stephen King, James Clavell, Jean M. Auel.
The form of the book was more intuitive than deliberate. At the very beginning, when the proposal sold but I hadn't started to write -- when I was in a general panic -- I asked a mentor where to begin. "Just tell the story," he said. And that's what I did.
JK: When you were five years old, your father -- a former commercial pilot -- took you for a ride in his Piper Cub. It crashed. He died. It took doctors six weeks to repair your spine. Months of recovery followed. Two decades later, you met an Army helicopter pilot. If I had been in that situation, I like to think I'd run the other way. You married Miles. How was his risky job not an issue for you?
AH: You wouldn't have run the other way.
I've met many guys in my life, plenty of nice guys, lots of smart guys. I've met men who will listen, who will talk, who will make me laugh. But there was something about Miles, an ease, a genuineness, an unquestionable self-assurance, that let me know he was worth looking past his risky job.
JK: As Miles is about to board the bus with his unit, you write: "Fear filled me then, hot and raw, and swept through my body, leaving me shaken and hollowed." Did you expect that he would be killed?
AH: No. Other than the moment before Miles boarded the bus, I never thought for a second that he would be killed. It was inconceivable to me, largely because of my father. I had this idea that my family had paid its dues in tragedy and that it was too improbable for both my father and my husband to die in avian crashes. When the soldiers came to notify me, other than disbelief, I was sure it must have been an IED blast or a sniper shot.
JK: You write that you were "all hurt." You "wail." You say: "It would have hurt less if I had been cleaved in two." And more like that, much more. What was it like to type those sentences?
AH: It was a rough experience to write the book. I wept a lot. When I was near the end, my mother made a comment in passing about me having a nervous breakdown. I thought she was joking, but when I looked at her I could tell she was serious. I think I may have lost my mind in a sort of low-grade way during the writing. Or maybe I lost my mind when Miles died, and writing the book was my way of putting it back together.
JK: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has described five stages of grief. What's your experience?
AH: I think she got it right, even when we can't see it for ourselves. I remember saying about a year in that I had skipped the anger stage, and my mother just looked at me. Two or three years later, I realized that I had been angry all the time. Not at Miles, but at everyone else.
JK: After Miles dies, there's knocking in your house at night. The microwave turns on by itself. The lights go dim. Your thoughts?
AH: What can I say? I was haunted. One thing I left out of the book -- when Jimmy Hyde came for a visit, the microwave went crazy. I finally had to unplug it. When Miles's mother came for a visit, too. I let go of a lot of rational thoughts after Miles died.
JK: On the first anniversary of your marriage, you remove your ring. This, it strikes me, is the bottom. You begged for help, chanted a wordless prayer, felt "pure grief." And then?
AH: And then, God damn it, I had to get on with living my life. I kept thinking I would strike some unbelievably low point and the heavens would open up and Miles would come back. Or I would be taken away. This was the moment when I realized that was never going to happen.
JK: After his death, you wrote to Miles: "I'm afraid I didn't love you enough to save you." What would "loving you enough" have involved?
AH: I wish I knew. On some deep and hurtful level I try not to examine too often, I still believe his death was a personal failure. If only I had done something -- what? -- I could have saved him.
JK: Are you still unremarried? If so, could you describe your current interest -- or lack of -- in being a wife again?
AH: I haven't remarried. Being a wife takes certain life compromises, and I'm not sure if I still have that in me. For a while after Miles died I fantasized about remarrying and starting a family. Now I wonder if perhaps that just isn't in my cards.
JK: You mention that you opposed the Iraq War. But you don't go on to say what I would have: "The war was a fraud. At the ultimate level, George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are responsible for my husband's death. My husband died for nothing." Is that what you think? If so, why didn't you say that in the book?
AH: This is an important -- and difficult -- question. If I say the war was for nothing, then I dismiss the sacrifices of the men and women who fought and those who died. Miles didn't think the war was based on deceit. Most of the soldiers I've talked to didn't, either. In fact, many of them were strong Bush supporters. Some have said to me that we can never know the complex reasons for going to war and that there were benefits to the Iraq conflict that most of us will never see. I have to believe this. Because if I don't, if I let myself say that the war was a mistake, that my husband's death served no purpose, that men who had no real concept of combat sent soldiers to fight and die for a cause they could barely define, then I would carry nothing but hate in my heart.