Ta-da!! The Contest-Winning Essay, with Q&A

YARN is so pleased to bring you the final, revised and edited version of “Eyes Like Mine,” the winner of our Family Gatherings Essay Contest with Figment!  Jackie Lewis is one heck of a writer—fearless in her words, and in her writing process.  We really hope you—especially if you are an aspiring writer, or a teacher—will take a look at her original essay, still on Figment, because we think it shows how awesome a writer Jackie is, and by extension it shows what it takes to get an excellent draft (a prize-winning draft!!) ready for publication in a literary magazine.

We know you’re going to love it as much as we do!

 

Eyes Like Mine
By Jackie Lewis

They say the sense of hearing is the last thing you lose before you die.  Touch fades away, taking with it the gentleness of kiss upon forehead, grasp upon hand.  I slept there, perhaps not really asleep at all, while they waited by the bed.  The room was painted a cold shade of gray—or perhaps the walls were really white, the gray little more than sorrow floating like a dutiful cloud in the room that would be my last.

Image courtesy of Giant Gingko (flickr.com)

The hearing had not left me, and neither had the sight.  But the touch was gone.  Their hands were wrapped around mine, their eyes asking questions that I could not answer.  What was it that they wanted from me?  They didn’t say.  In fact, they did not speak at all.

I noticed her right away when she came into the room, her blonde hair shimmering down like angel’s wings.  Like the others around my bed, she did not speak.  I did not feel her touch upon my hand, but her very presence made the muscles in my shoulders tense. She was young, perhaps fourteen, and the blue in her eyes seemed heavy—as if the color had been forged from molten metal.  She placed a guitar case beside a wooden chair, then sat quietly and began to fumble through the pages of a small notebook.  I watched for a moment, waiting for her to speak, but instead I heard a note that seemed afraid to travel up and down the scales.  It was not music, though it had both tone and tempo.  And I knew that it somehow belonged to me:

Beep.     Beep.     Beep.

The sound rang out, slowly at first.  Then faster and faster it came, surrounding me in the room and speeding up as if somehow it knew that I was listening.

Beep.   Beep.   Beep.  Beep.  Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.Beep.Beep.Beep.

My eyelids parted as if they were shutters being opened after a long, angry storm, but there was no calm in the gray cloud that had settled about the room.  It felt as though the heaviness in the air surrounding us had been formed from our unspoken questions.  “Who are you?” we seemed to ask one another, though neither of us spoke the words aloud.

I knew that something was there between the girl and I—a kinship, perhaps?  Were we two souls destined to meet in this moment?  Or had we met sometime before, sometime long ago when we were different people?   I could sense that we were both searching for someone, though I could not remember whom.  Did she know why we were here?  And would she share her secret?

All at once, her eyes began to dart around the room.  Her stare caught and held other eyes of steel, and then I noticed their heads nodding.  The girl rocked slowly in her chair, forward and back again, and her eyebrows arched as if she had yet another silent question to ask.  There were suddenly deep breaths surrounding me.  I felt as if I were a stalled aircraft floating on silver clouds, and all at once her eyes began to melt.  Our tears fell together, as if somehow we were both a part of something much larger than the room.  And for a brief instant, I almost knew her.

“Daddy, what should we sing to him?” she asked the man beside my bed.

His eyes were a brilliant blue; his soft, blonde hair curled slightly at the nape of his neck.  “I don’t know, Tiffany,” said the man.  He raised his hands to his face, covering his eyes.  And in the second before fingertips hid emotion, I saw the steel within.  His eyes were blue like… mine.  Mine.  My eyes are blue.  Blue eyes like hers—blue like his.

The sound of his voice startled me as I tried to connect the pieces that had all but disappeared.  My mind stuttered and stammered, as if it were an old tractor’s engine being brought back to life after too long a winter.  I looked down onto the bed below me, careful to move only my eyes until at last I saw my own hands.  They were the hands of a giant.  The skin hung loosely as if it had been stretched and draped over muscle and tendon; age spots numbered the years that had somehow escaped from my grasp.

“Should we sing ‘I’ll fly away’?” the girl asked.  There was strength in her words, softness in her voice.

“I can’t,” said the man with eyes like mine.  Through clenched lips he forced a smile, and as he reached toward me, I noticed the calluses and oil stains.  These hands were accustomed to labor.  They were thick and muscular—the type of hands that could rebuild a tractor’s engine, or work the land from dawn till dusk.  His hands were like his eyes: strong, intense, and never idle. His features seemed tense until he shook his head slightly.  I concentrated on his face for a moment, and noticed that it was rounded despite the strong, sharp line of his jaw.  His leathery skin flushed with a deep redness that traveled down his neck, where it disappeared behind the collar of his flannel shirt.  His cheekbones were high, and his forehead was broad.  His top lip was thin and almost disappeared before it reached the corners of his mouth.

“Dad, do you want us to sing to you?” the man asked.  He bent at his waist and leaned in closer.  His breath smelled of peppermint; his voice was gritty and coarse.  I shifted in my bed, the gray of the room closing in on me as if it had been waiting the whole time to swallow me up.  I looked down the bed as if somehow it could save me.  My arms were long and unfamiliar—as if they, too, knew of tractor and of field.

“Grandpa, we’re here,” said the girl with angel’s wings.  The man with eyes like mine began to sob softly, as if he had never cried before and was suddenly learning how.  I looked at the girl again, and noticed the eyes once more.  She wore a dress of pink satin, the hem cutting off sharply just above her knee.  Her skin was pale, and her lips were a shade of red that was much too dark, and as she smiled, I saw a flash of metal in her mouth.  It covered her teeth, blocking out the whiteness of a smile from long ago, and suddenly I wondered if she was really human at all.

Image courtesy of Subnet 24 (flickr.com)

She slid her arms along polished wood, until at last her fingers came to rest upon the long, metal strings.  Slowly her fingers moved, and something that could be heard, but not seen, began to drift around the room.  Her red lips shifted, then parted, and at last she began to sing.  The sound of her voice twirled itself around the bedposts and spilled out of the room through the open door.

Some glad morning, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.
To a hand on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.

She stopped singing, and a voice that sounded as if it had been formed from honey and embers whispered in my ear.  “We’re here to sing you out, Grandpa.  It’s okay to go to the other side.  Don’t be afraid.  We love you.”

The voices joined together again, and this time there were so many that I looked around the room.

I will meet you in the morning.
Just inside the Eastern Gate.

The eyes were blue, and blue, and brown, and black; their hair came in delicate shades of gold and copper, and silky gray.  The music came to me during that moment, flooding my soul with warmth as her delicate, soprano voice eased into the chorus.  Cupping the neck of the guitar, she slid her thin fingers across metal strings that came alive beneath her hands.  And as they sang, their voices seemed to pour my memories onto the gray cloud until, at last, the sorrow lifted for a moment and I was allowed to see what it was once like to be me.  The harmonies were still there, hidden away deep inside as if they had been waiting for this moment to return to me.  I had lost the images and sounds of my childhood, then lost the memory of my own flesh and blood.  The grandchildren had disappeared one by one, and then the great-grandchildren slipped away from my memory as if they were lightening bugs being released from glass jars.

What a glad thought, some wonderful morning.
I shall hear Gabriel’s trumpet sound.
When I wake up!  To sleep no more…

I did not recognize the loss of those memories when they fled from me, and upon my unfamiliar deathbed I did not know the faces, nor the people.  But I almost knew the eyes like mine.  And I did, indeed, know the voices.

I’ve got a mansion.  Just over the hilltop.
In that bright land where, we’ll never grow old.

They sang the songs of my youth, the music I had long ago taught to young children who had grown more than distant in my memory.  The girl with eyes like mine sat at my bedside, her hands cradling the guitar.  But she cried no more from that moment forward.  Instead, she settled into the music as if she were stretching out in bed after a long day of work.  And as her lips parted, my eyes turned toward the ceiling.

It was then that I called her name, a name I had long forgotten.  My eyes were opened wide.  My lips curled up slightly at the corners; my shoulders lifted as if they had grown weightless.  The sound of memories floated around the room, and quiet voices gathered at my feet.  The songs, of love, and hope, and joy, seemed to warm the air and lift me ever upward.  And at last, I called her name before the remainder of my senses faded.

“Momma,” I said, my eyes fastened to the ceiling.  The gray of the room seemed to drift away, and in place of the gray there was a certain fabric upon the air.  It was made not from cotton, or even material at all; it folded and creased, as if the threads had been formed from light.

The girl’s voice waivered slightly at my bedside, and then returned again.  She sang in harmony with the others, until I called my mother’s name once more.  And then, with eyes like mine that dared not cry, the girl at my bedside disappeared.  All at once, I knew the girl, the blonde hair, the room.  My sight and hearing failed me then, but not before I understood the eyes of molten metal, the young woman at my bedside.  For hers were eyes like mine.

They say the sense of hearing is the last thing you lose before you die.  Touch fades away, taking with it the gentleness of kiss upon forehead, grasp upon hand.  I wonder if one day the girl at my bedside will sleep like me, in a bed that she no longer knows.  And I wonder if she will know them, the young ones in her midst— the people who have sprung from her womb, the eyes of steel, the voices of honey and embers, the harmonies that call out to her memories.

Image courtesy of Denis Todorut (flickr.com)

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found.

With eyes like mine, I see.

 

(Q&A to follow, beneath Jackie’s bio.)

 

Jacquelyn Lewis is the Regional Editor and Publisher of The Minute Magazine, a Louisiana publication that focuses on living life to the fullest.  Her articles have won many awards, including “Best Investigative Reporting” and “Best Community Service” through the Louisiana Press Association.  She is a US Air Force Veteran, a graduate of Southern Arkansas University, and is on the Board of Directors of Cultural Crossroads, a 501(C)-3 dedicated to preserving and encouraging the arts and the culture of Webster Parish, Louisiana.

During her years in the US Air Force, Jackie joined the elite Little Rock Air Force Base Honor Guard, a team dedicated to performing military rights at funerals in the state of Arkansas and in the city of Memphis, Tennessee. The experience of being face to face with grieving families on an almost daily basis profoundly affected Jackie, and she began writing to find her own sense of comfort. Consequently, her first article was published in Little Rock Air Force Base’s publication, The Drop Zone, and thus began her lifelong love affair with writing.

Jackie lives in Minden, Louisiana, in a historic home with her husband Shaun and two sons, Miles and Preston.  In 2007, she was appointed to the City of Minden’s Residential Historic Preservation Study Committee, and she is a strong advocate for historic preservation.  Jackie (and her husband Shaun) are currently restoring a late 1880’s Louisiana Dogtrot home in rural northern Louisiana, and she documents the restoration of The House at Sugar Creek on her blog at www.jackie-lewis.blogspot.com.

 


Q&A with Jackie Lewis and YARN’s Editor Kerri Majors:

YARN: This is such an “anonymous” essay, with no proper names and the like.  Can you tell us a little about the important people in the essay, and their relationship to you?

JL: Sure!  While writing the essay, I had to close my eyes and remember the day that my Grandfather died. In writing “Eyes Like Mine,” I had to travel through time.  The fourteen-year-old girl with blonde hair shimmering down like angel’s wings is now a twenty-six-year-old woman.  My baby sister has changed quite a bit since the day we sat by our grandfather’s bed and “sang him out,” as we call it in my family.  I really had to reach back into my memories to pull out details such as the braces on my sister’s teeth.

There are certain snapshots in my mind that I hope to remember forever, and I tried to recreate those snapshots within this essay.  It was my father’s hands that hid the tears from my view as my grandfather was dying beside him.  Our family knew that it was time for Papaw to go. But when someone that you love is dying, it’s difficult to give them permission to leave.  We knew that Papaw was far from comfortable in his hospital bed.  But comforting him in that moment wasn’t as simple as fluffing a pillow or adding another blanket to the pile.  Papaw was terrified of something, whether that something be death, or the unfamiliarity of the room, or the teary eyes of the people surrounding him.  As my sister and I sang, he relaxed.  And I guess in a way, we did, too.

YARN: One of the things we discussed when judging the contest was whether or not this qualified at creative *non-fiction*.  Obviously, we decided it did :-), but we were wondering how and why you decided to write the essay from the dying man’s perspective, and how you reasoned that it was still non-fiction, still an essay and not a short story.

JL: I know exactly what you’re talking about, because I felt the presence of this question as I wrote the essay.  But in the end, I really felt that “Eyes Like Mine” was a very creative non-fiction piece.  In actuality, the narrator’s perspective is my own.  I sat at my grandfather’s bedside and wondered what he was thinking, what he was feeling, and worried that my life would pass by so quickly that I, too, would soon be lying in a bed surrounded by a family that I no longer recognized.  So do I feel that “Eyes Like Mine” is creative non-fiction, as opposed to fiction?   Absolutely.  I can only imagine that other people have been in my shoes, at their loved one’s deathbed, wondering if Alzheimer’s Disease had stolen every last memory and left only worry behind.  Without memories, there can only be a series of instinctual emotions.  I watched Papaw’s non-verbal communication and saw fear, worry, horror, and surprise.  But I also saw something else, in the moment that he called out for his mother.  I saw happiness.  It was such a surprise to see and feel his happiness in a moment of my own profound grief.  As he crossed over, I remember being consumed by so many different emotions that I couldn’t express a single one through tears.

I chose to write “Eyes Like Mine” using my grandfather’s perspective because I wanted to verbalize my feelings and emotions.  I am an invisible character in the story, in that his thoughts are really my thoughts.  His confusion is my greatest fear.  And his eyes are my eyes, too.  But I also chose to write this essay from Papaw’s perspective because I wanted to make readers understand that we’ve got to find a cure for this horrible disease. It is my hope that this essay reaches our future scientists and doctors and to make young adults understand that their future jobs are very important.  Maybe “Eyes Like Mine” will encourage adults to push a little bit harder, too.  Though one of the main characters in “Eyes Like Mine” is a fourteen year old girl, I feel that this piece can really help those people working in the field of Alzheimer’s research feel the importance of their jobs a little more than they did before. We’ve got to end the cycle of Alzheimer’s and save future generations from enduring the torture that my family knows all too well.  Hopefully this will inspire young adults to enter into medical research.  Without the advancement of medicine, Alzheimer’s will continue to steal away our memories. And without our memories, we lose everything.

YARN: How many drafts did you write before posting to Figment?  What does your drafting process consist of?

JL: My process is a far cry from a formal checklist with bullet points.  To prepare to write my essay, I basically sat down and asked myself the question, “What is the normal, gut instinct for most people when they hear the words family gathering?  What will everyone else write about?”  I wrote my answers down on a piece of paper and then challenged myself to stay away from those topics.  I wanted to write something different, something meaningful to both me and to my family.  I went for a walk and asked myself the question, “What makes my family different from other families that I know?”  The answer came immediately.  I thought of my family’s ability to use music in both life and death.  Then I challenged myself again and asked, “Okay.  What now?  How much of yourself are you really willing to give away?”  The answer surprised me.

I wrote the essay rather quickly and edited it twice.  The first draft was based on emotion.  I allowed the prose to flow easily, and didn’t censor myself.  Then I abandoned the manuscript for a few days.  I waited until the emotions were gone, and edited for typos and grammar.  I returned to the second draft a day later and prepared to feel the emotions again.  On my final edit pre-submission, I allowed myself to look for hidden meaning and experiment with meter.  I read the essay aloud and allowed myself to tweak the tempo, pace, and timing of the sentences and paragraphs.  When I was satisfied with the final product, I forced a few friends and family members to listen to the essay.  I knew that it was special because their reactions were all somewhere between devastated and relieved.  I wanted the overwhelming theme of the essay to be the presence of two major emotions: sorrow and joy.  People rarely have the chance to experience both emotions at the same time.  But those are the moments that we never forget—unless something like Alzheimer’s takes the memory from us.  Once I saw my friends’ reactions, I knew that it was time to submit.

YARN: And we went through two rounds of edits between the original draft and this published final version.  The first required quite a bit of cutting and some moving around (a very painful process to some writers!!), and I was so impressed by your willingness to take a step back and see that it would improve your piece.  Can you give writers any advice on how and why you were willing to do that? (Also, interested readers can see the original version of the essay on Figment.)

JL: You were a wonderful editor from the start.  You established credibility right away when I received your suggested edits.  I realized that you weren’t just editing for typos, but also looking for symbolism, and even character and setting flaws.  It’s easy for me to picture the room where “Eyes Like Mine” takes place, because it’s there in my memory.  But as an editor, you questioned aspects of the setting that were inside of my head and not necessarily written down on paper.

The second round of edits were much more difficult than the first.  I have certain words in this essay that are virtually stapled and glued to the paper.  In my mind, they are unmovable, like heavy pieces of furniture that can never be rearranged.  But the words that really mattered to me, such as STEEL, COBALT, and ANGEL’S WINGS, were never really on the chopping block.  I didn’t feel like you were trying to steal away pieces of my writing.  I felt as though you really wanted the best for both me and my essay.

It probably helps that I’m not the type of writer that allows herself to get bent out of shape over the deletion of a comma or an apostrophe. As a journalist and magazine editor, I know full well that typos happen.  Words are fickle creatures, and sometimes they need to be guided a bit.  To be perfectly honest, I’m relieved to have a second set of eyes scanning my work, just so long as the edited essay is accomplishing the goal that I set before I began writing.  The point of writing, in my opinion, is emotional in nature.  If rearranging sentences, expounding on certain settings or characteristics, or removing redundant phrases makes the EMOTION of the essay easier to tap into, then it’s well worth the trouble.   Believe it or not, I actually enjoy criticism as long as it’s done from an honest, helpful perspective.  As a writer, it’s almost impossible to know what other people feel and think when they read your work.  A good editor, however, can easily point out high points and low points in the manuscript they’re editing, and take away any fear the writer has of being misinterpreted.

YARN: How was writing this piece different—and/or similar—to anything else you write?  What are you working on now?  Has writing and revising this essay changed anything about the way you are writing now?

JL: I’m a journalist by trade.  And believe me, there is an enormous difference between investigative journalism and creative non-fiction.  For me, it’s literally the difference between night and day.  By day, I write articles and conduct interviews.  But at night, after the children are in bed and hubby’s asleep, my alter-ego comes out of hiding.  When the moon rises, so does my inner author.  I love to abandon reality and escape to my imaginary world, where people have character arcs and society begs to be challenged.

I definitely learned a lot about myself through the process of editing “Eyes Like Mine” with you, Kerri.  In fact, it was much easier than I thought it would be.  I actually gained a lot of confidence during the edits, because I realized that the editing process didn’t affect me in the way I thought it would.  Before we began the revisions, I assumed that I might feel a bit self-conscious.  It’s one thing to have an article edited by a coworker before heading to newsprint, but it’s another thing to hand over an essay that’s so emotionally charged.  I thought that I would be more resistant to change, but in actuality I found that I welcomed the suggestions.  I didn’t take the revisions personally at all.  In fact, I kinda liked the process.

So what am I working on right now?  Oh, where to begin.  I’m a journalist by trade, so I’m always working on an article.  But I’m also working on the oh-so-dreaded-yet-necessary side of writing that drives my inner author up the wall: the all important query letter.  I’ve finished writing a Literary Fiction / Women’s Fiction manuscript, and I’m completing a third read-through and the all important last-minute tweaks before sending said query letter to literary agents.  And while I wait for responses from my queries, I’ll spend my time raising my boys, working on the 1880’s Louisiana Dog-trot home that my husband and I are restoring, and gathering additional research for a work of non-fiction that I will begin this spring.

YARN: Thanks once again for submitting your wonderful, highly creative essay to the contest, Jackie.  It’s been such a pleasure working with you on it!

Thanks again to Susan Beth Pfeffer for helping us judge the contest, and to all the awesome folks at Figment for making this contest a reality!

 

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