I don’t know how it comes up or how we talk about it in a way that we both understand, but for some reason, I get it in my head that I want her to know something about me. I need to communicate this thing that explains me, that explains us, that explains our presence, how we ended up here out of all the places in the world that we could be tonight. I say what I think might be correct: Mi sposo, morto. She gasps, reaches a hand to touch mine, and I work out a way to tell her more about it.
I point to my heart.
Michael Dubruiel, a popular Catholic author and speaker, died of a heart attack on February 2, 2009—only months after he and his wife, Amy Welborn, had relocated to Birmingham Alabama. In her new memoir, Wish You Were Here: Travels Through Loss and Hope, Welborn chronicles her somewhat spontaneous trip to Sicily with their young sons and teenage daughter in the aftermath of her husband’s sudden passing. A poignant meditation on grief and faith, the book is also filled with vivid descriptions of the culture and beauty of Sicily.
Welborn has long enjoyed a substantial following through her previous publications—nineteen books in all—and her online writing. Wish You Were Here is a uniquely personal and deeply moving portrait of her own family life, one with appeal to a wide variety of readers. We were fortunate to talk with Amy more about how the book came to be and how her family looks back on that time in their lives.
Dorian Speed: In the book, you interweave a chronological narrative of your trip to Sicily with memories of your husband, as well as describing the months after his death. Did you think of these events while you were at the specific locations, or did you collect them and then decide how they might correspond with experiences during your visit?
Amy Welborn: I journaled extensively during both periods. I have been a diarist and a journal-keeper my entire life, albeit not with absolute fidelity. In times of crisis, though . . . yes, I journal. I think I filled four or five notebooks in the months after Mike died. Then, of course, I journaled throughout the trip, every night for at least an hour and half. There was, of course, nothing else to do! And then when I returned and started working on the book, I made a chart. I’ll be honest. I made a chart. I went through all the journal entries from both periods, marked entries and even sentences that I thought were suitable, then made a list of each, on either side of this chart. Then I contemplated that chart for a while, and started to see connections. There were some connections that were inherent in the experiences: the last full chapter, of course, and the recurrence of “yes” – that was all tied together in that moment for me. And I’m sure, at some level, as we traveled through Sicily, I was associating our experiences with things that had happened before. But much of it came in post-trip reflection.
DS: This theme of “life among the ruins” runs throughout the book—at times during your travels, you are seeking out specific historical sites, but sometimes you happen upon them after setting out with a different plan for your day. I’m wondering if you found any analogies to your time of mourning your husband—if there were specific memories and incidents you deliberately revisited in hopes of gaining new insight into them, or if it was more a matter of working through these memories as they happened upon you.
AW: Oh, it’s very random. For the most part. I think the journey through Sicily, in which experience and reflection is occasioned by both the planned and the accidental, is very much evocative of the grief process (such as it is) as well. There are big rituals and moments that you know are coming: a visit to a grave, dates of birthdays, anniversaries and the date of death. There are the small rituals in specific moments that you might create – touching a shirt that still hangs in the closet, glimpsing at a photo on a dresser before you go to sleep. But of deeper impact are those unexpected moments where you turn a corner and…oh…I forgot. We were in this neighborhood looking at a house the week before he died. Or: well, here I am at my son’s basketball game, and all of a sudden I am hit by grief and regret: why isn’t he here to see this?
DS: Some of your previous books have been explicitly catechetical in nature, while this work is more personal and narrative. Still, you talk about aspects of your faith that might be unfamiliar to those from other religious traditions. How did you look at that in terms of the larger work—the inclusion of specific aspects of Catholic belief?
AW: There was a bit of tension and some questions about that, to be sure. In my initial drafts I mentioned all of those things: relics, the Eucharist, praying for the dead, purgatory—without much, if any explanation. It was felt that more explanation was needed, and I resisted—we came to a middle ground, I think. I wanted the book to have a wide appeal, but at the same time, I didn’t want it to become either didactic, with too much explanation, or bland, by taking out the particular Catholic matter—the last would have been impossible, anyway.
DS: Something I personally enjoyed about the book is that it’s not presented as a neat, orderly journey through the stages of grieving—it reads as a much more honest account of how you and your children dealt with such a tremendous loss. When you look back upon those first few months, does it seem like there was a “process” you went through emotionally?
AW: Well, it’s not neat, is it? Nothing about it is neat or orderly, and that’s one of the reasons I like one particular word in the subtitle: “through.” It’s not to hope from loss. It’s through them —and you thread back and forth through them all the time. In those first months, I don’t know if I could call what happened a “process.” It’s the result of life moving on and some discipline in your thoughts, emotions, and spiritual life. Time passes, and that does its work. But it doesn’t do all the work, and being able to get up every day and try to work towards peace isn’t automatic. I could only do it—process it—by placing every moment in a spiritual context. In the context of Passion and Resurrection, and the suffering, loss and limitations that are part of the human condition on earth and were taken up in Christ.
DS: Your humor shows up in subtle ways throughout the book, like the man with the cart and “miserable-looking donkey” who “plays accordion and sings songs you think you should hear in Italy. Or the Olive Garden, at least.” Early in your travels, you ask “What does it mean if I edge up on joy while doing something in a place I wouldn’t be if he were still alive?” And we also get a picture of your husband’s personality—telling stories, sharing your amusement at particular situations. Do you see his sense of humor in your children?
AW: I do. You raise an interesting point there, indirectly. Both boys have his sense of humor, Michael more so—he is a gifted mimic, like his father was, and he’s generally just more off-the-wall. He’s a character, and Mike was a character. Joseph has his sense of humor, but what he also has—that his little brother doesn’t seem to have—is his father’s penchant for planning and gift for process. Whenever we travel, it comes out very strongly: Joseph is fascinated by things like subway and train schedules and maps. Mike was a great travel planner, and I think as Joseph gets older, I’ll be handing over more of that kind of responsibility to him. But I have to be careful, you know, as we all do with our children, to take them as they are, for who they are, and not be looking at them, trying to see reflections of a deceased parent (or grandparent) . . . or even ourselves.
DS: As someone who knew very little about Sicily before reading your book, I spent a good bit of time searching online for images to go with the beautiful places you visited. And of course you have posted some terrific photographs on your own website, too. What was it that drew you to Sicily? Are you ready to go back? Do you keep in touch with any of your hosts from your travels?
AW: Sicily was far away and someplace I’d never been and never thought of going. So in a way, it was sort of like “going to” death in this sense. Although I did think about it, fearfully, it was not someplace I took seriously about traveling to—death, that is. It was also someplace that Mike would never, ever have traveled to. I could not imagine it being part of a family journey in the hypothetical land of “If Mike were still alive.” It seemed very far away from life with him, as well, and I suppose I hoped that if I went to Sicily, I wouldn’t be as burdened with the loss.
Didn’t work, of course, since, as I write in the book, even seeing a crucifix made of lava rock festooned with glitter in a souvenir shop on Mount Etna can make you miss your husband just as much as driving by the YMCA where he died back home. I would love to go back to Sicily, but it is not in the cards right now. I’ve kept in touch a bit with the owner of the agriturismo—we’re Facebook friends, of course.
DS: The image of the “little volcanoes” recurs throughout the book—there’s this great scene where Joseph is posing for a photograph holding up this gigantic volcanic rock. Why did that make such a strong impression upon you?
AW: This made an impression on me because he, being 7 when his father died, was most profoundly affected by his death. He hurt the most, the deepest, and misses him the most. I have fearfully envisioned him travelling through his life with this heavy, heavy burden, and seeing him playfully lift those large lava rocks on Mount Etna gave me hope that with God’s grace, he will find peace, and it won’t weigh him down as I fear.
DS: When your children talk about the trip, what do they especially remember?
AW: They remember Mount Etna and the agriturismo most of all, and they also remember the temples in Agrigento. But the volcano and those dogs on the farm have really endured in their memories!
DS: Are you all suffering from gelato withdrawal now, or have you found acceptable sources in Birmingham?
AW: There is no gelato like real Italian gelato, and while Birmingham has its Vulcan—whose forge Mount Etna was supposed to be—we can’t get him to deliver us good gelato yet.