Sometimes a book discusses tragedy with grace and courage. "Wish You Were Here" is just such a book. Ellyn von Huben reviews Amy Welborn's newest work, which explores her courageous endeavor to cope with suffering.
The written word is conducive to a certain intimacy; we read with the feeling that we have been given something of an open door into, not only the mind, but the life of the writer. The immediacy of the written word on internet blogs is even more of a direct line, with the potential for instant updates and the casual dispensing of random thoughts.
When I read a blog over a period of time, I begin to feel a real connection with the writer. Being party to day-to-day joys and aggravations, sharing in casual photos, and hearing news long before it would be published in any Christmas newsletter forges a uniquely 21st Century bond—a bond with a certain sense of personal investment. I start to feel that I know these people who are offering these slices of their lives.
One of the first bloggers I followed with regularity was Amy Welborn. Her blog (which continues to this day) touched on all the things I was interested in: Church news, spiritual matters, family life. Because of this attachment, I, along with a large number of readers, was so shocked and saddened when I read of the unexpected death of her husband Michael Dubruiel in February, 2009. In fact, we heard of his death in a distinctly modern way. Casually checking in to her blog on the day of Michael’s death, there was not the usual Church discussions or family chat. Instead I found simply a picture of Michael, with the words “Michael Dubruiel 1958 to 2009” written underneath. Stunning.
Amy was open to sharing her struggles in the days and weeks following Michael’s death. People around the world mourned and prayed along with Amy and her family. It was with this sense of investment that I felt free to respond (though not online) to her announced plans to pack up her high school-aged daughter and two very young sons and take off for a Sicilian adventure just a few months after her husband’s death: “Is she out of her mind?”
Perhaps some commenters may have politely voiced such reservations, but I tend to keep my more strident opinions to myself. But I felt entitled to have them, having been brought into their family circle through years of reading. It turns out she was not technically out of her mind, and my misgivings were misplaced.
And now we are blessed to share “Wish You Were Here” —Amy’s latest book. This is set at a precarious intersection of travelogue and grief memoir, and the author weaves the two strands of thought together to make a work of beauty. There were the dry days close to Michael’s death when she felt she had little to say, and it was all “at its essence, to be about death to me. I felt that all I had to say to anyone, of any age, in any context, was of variation of “Hey, you know what? Memento mori, sucker!” over and over, at the end of every chapter. That could get boring.” But now she has given us a memento mori infused with life, faith and good humor.
I consider myself adventurous, but my terms pale in comparison to the author’s. I will do anything to avoid driving into Chicago. But this grieving woman packed up her children, headed to a country she had never visited before, rented a car (!), and took off to explore. My admiration is beyond words.
Amy talks about the frequency of which she is asked “How are the children doing?” It's almost always followed by “What are you going to do now?” Even for someone ‘spiritually prepared’ for such a situation, it is difficult. And she shows us that to know that God alone suffices is not a platitude, but truth. But this voyage of truth is not easy. “'Help me' is my main prayer these days, and some days, it’s all I’ve got.”
This is not always an easy read. Though my children are all safely out of their ‘delicate’ years, my mind turns back to some precarious moments in my past and I wonder if I could have handled this burden with such grace and courage. There was the time, so long ago that my repressed memory can’t retrieve the year, that my husband came oh-so close to bleeding to death during surgery. There was the occasional moment when I entertained the thought of what I would do if he didn’t make it, but those thoughts were quickly quashed. This book shows the other side of the "what if?" (And I thought I was such a courageous mother, with my husband alive, albeit in ICU, to bundle up my six children, dig out the van from a foot of snow, and drive them about five miles to Sunday Mass—with a broken windshield wiper. Welborn’s adventures really put mine to shame.)
I’ve found this to be a lovely spiritual memoir, a guidebook to loss as well as an introduction to Sicily. (Plus being a wise tutorial for travel with children, whether the journey is through grief or across the globe.) Death is something to be kept before us, but the Christian life is to be lived.
“Wish You Were Here” offers salve and direction for any hurting soul, for those dealing with death or any suffering over how things might have been different. “As much pain as it give us, as confusing as it can be, if my life could be changed into what I’d like it to be, would it still be my life? Would I even recognize it?”
Ellyn von Huben is a writer and a contributor to the Word on Fire blog.