Monday, May 25, 2020

Sheryl St. Germain on Risk, Grief, Healing, and Recovery amidst a Cancelled Book Tour

I started planning an eight-week book tour for Fifty Miles in early 2019. With the help and generosity of friends and colleagues, I’d managed to put together a tour for 2020 that would span nine cities and seven states. Fifty Miles is a memoir about addiction, grief and healing that focuses on my son Gray, who died in 2014 of a heroin overdose, and my own struggles with substance abuse and recovery. I knew it was going to be difficult to read from it, night after night, but it felt important to spread some compassionate and what I hoped would be read as thoughtful lyricism about those we love who fall into the river of addiction. In conversation with a fellow poet, Ed Hirsch, who lost his own young son to drugs and wrote a poetry book inspired by him, Ed said to me that we can’t market books like these, rather we have to hope that they will fall into the hands of those that need them. I hoped this book tour might help find those hands.

The tour started with a book launch in early spring in Pittsburgh, my current home, and a reading at nearby Wilkes-Barre, home of Etruscan. I then flew to New York City for another reading. A close friend of my son, the artist, Morgan Everhart, came to this reading, which made it especially meaningful. We had used a painting she did inspired by Gray on the cover of a book of my poems that had come out in 2018, The Small Door of Your Death (Autumn House).

On March 1 we left for the first (driving) leg of the tour, with my generous husband Teake driving. We knew about the virus, but none of my events had been cancelled yet, and we hadn’t yet realized how bad it was going to get. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs was still planning to hold its conference in San Antonio, where I was scheduled to do a signing with Etruscan for Fifty Miles, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad. Two days later we were in Dallas, and things had quickly worsened. I had a reading at a bookstore there, and spent a few days with old friends and former students. I lived for 13 years in Dallas and spent my first teaching years there. I was moved to see some of the very first students I taught in the audience at the reading.  Meanwhile, more disturbing information was coming forward about COVID-19 and its danger to the elderly. We were headed to San Antonio to do the signing, then our plan was to drive to New Orleans where we had just placed my mother in an assisted living facility. We planned to spend a couple weeks in New Orleans helping my mother, selling her house and hosting an estate sale before I participated in the annual Tennessee Williams Festival.

But as we readied to leave Dallas for San Antonio, I began to have second thoughts. What if I picked something up at the conference and brought it to my mother? I decided the risk was too great, and with sadness informed Etruscan that I was going to skip AWP. Instead, we headed straight to Louisiana.

We had lots of time in the car, while driving, to listen to NPR and catch up on what was happening with the virus. Although there weren’t many cases in New Orleans yet, I began to think about how quickly it might spread there. Having been born and raised in New Orleans, I knew how important huge festivals like Mardi Gras were, but also that there were lots of spring festivals where there would be large gatherings of people. And I knew how my community there loved to drink and party and be in large crowds. As of this date Louisiana is one of the three hot spots for the virus in the U.S. with 9,150 cases and 310 deaths as of this writing, the majority of which are in the New Orleans area.

We arrived in New Orleans March 8. We sold my mother’s house on March 11, and the family went out to eat lunch—raw oysters, gumbo and po-boys—with my mother at our favorite restaurant. Meanwhile, emails from Georgia, Illinois, Iowa and Maryland slowly trickled in saying that all of my events had been cancelled.

A couple of days after we closed on the house, my mother’s assisted living facility went on lock down. We were not going to be able to see her for the forseeable future. We would learn later that a resident and staff member both tested positive for the virus, and the former would die. We hosted a two-day estate sale that weekend for my mother’s possessions, which included thousands of books and old records. I wore gloves and tried to be as careful as possible during the sale, but there were times when 40 or so people seemed crammed into my mother’s tiny house. I gave away a few copies of Fifty Miles to a few special people who took books and were interested in learning about my mother because her book collection was so vast and rich.

During the estate sale I received a communication from the organizers of the Tennessee Williams Festival that they were cancelling the festival. Meanwhile the number of confirmed cases in New Orleans was increasing drastically, and I was worried about our getting stick and being stuck in New Orleans, unable to see my mother, and in an old, tiny house with almost no furniture, still lots of books, but also heaps of rat and roach poison sprinkled everywhere. We packed up what we could, including all the copies of Fifty Miles I had hoped to sell, and started the two-day drive home. The first night on the road my husband developed a cough and 101 fever. We pushed through the next day, sharing driving. We both fell ill with flu-like symptoms for two weeks, but tested negative for COVID-19, and are feeling better now.

What started as a journey to spread the word about the epidemic of drug overdoses, inspired by personal experience and my son’s death, morphed into a journey dominated by the fear of the growing epidemic of a new virus strain. For now, my words of grief, healing and recovery are muted by a currently more aggressive disease. I’m grateful to Etruscan, and all the friends and colleagues who were willing to help try to get this book into the hands of those that need it, and hopeful that in the future this virus will lessen its grip on us and the book will fall into more hands of those that need it.

If you’re interested in learning more about Fifty Miles, take a look at this recent piece published in D Magazine.

(This brief essay was originally published in the Spring 2020 Etruscan Press newsletter; we're reprinting it here because it feels timely, and because it ties in to a conversation we'll be publishing shortly with Sheryl St. Germain. —Editors) 

Sheryl St. Germain has published six poetry books, three essay collections, and co-edited two anthologies.  Her latest collection of essays, Fifty Miles, appeared in January 2020 with Etruscan Press. She lives in Pittsburgh where she is co-founder of the Words Without Walls program. In addition to numerous awards for her work, including two NEA grants, in 2018 she was the recipient of The Louisiana Writer Award, presented annually by the Louisiana Center for the Book.

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