Raquel Gomes writes inspired by her daughter Gabi, who died at the age of 14 from complications from Loeys-Dietz Syndrome, a rare genetic disease. Raquel has a Ph.D. in international development from MIT and is working towards her master’s in writing from the Johns Hopkins University. Her work is forthcoming in Ars Medica.
Raquel’s essay “A Love Story in Eleven Scenes” appears in our Summer 2020 issue. I caught up with her (full disclosure: we’re in the same program at Johns Hopkins) about the piece and her writing process.
What made you decide to tell the story in scenes like this?
In hindsight, I think my decision was partly out of an interest in experimenting with a list essay, a form that I was exploring at a workshop at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda. I appreciated the possibility of tightly crafted snippets of prose woven together, providing the reader a picture that was larger than the sum of its parts. My decision was also partly out of a lingering fear of boring the reader with unnecessary detail. If I could tell our story in a series of vivid scenes, why not?
The eleven scenes span an incredibly challenging time in your life—what role has writing played for you, during and since?
The first eight scenes were actually throughout the happiest period of my life, when I had the privilege of being Gabi’s mom. But yes, with Gabi went the life that I cherished. Before, most of my writing was professional—by the time Gabi died, I had been working for a decade in international development as a researcher or policy analyst. I only dabbled in journaling and wrote an occasional essay. After losing Gabi, writing has moored me. Even when writing about unthinkable loss, by the time I’m revising, my mind is simply immersed in sentence structures and word choice, an always-soothing trance.
I write in the hopes of speaking to other grieving parents, but also others who may find some hope in a story about a parent living—and sometimes even joyfully—despite unthinkable loss.
What other writing projects are you working on?
I’ve been working on a memoir about loss and what comes after, offering a love story, a medical saga, and a journey of self-discovery. Emily Rapp says it beautifully in her opening lines to The Still Point of the Turning World: “This is a love story, which, like all good love stories, is a story of loss.” Mine is a love story between a parent and child, and between two divorced parents who are better friends than spouses. Together we raised Gabi, who embodied gentleness and wit. Unfortunately, she was born with Loeys-Dietz Syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder that researchers first identified in 2005, when Gabi was nearly three years old. We learned about the syndrome right along with the doctors, who always stressed that “everything is manageable.” They were wrong. Then when we lost Gabi, I thought I’d lose my mind. Instead, I turned to grief retreats and yearly long-distance hikes in northern Spain.
Loss is universal, of course. I write in the hopes of speaking to other grieving parents, but also others who may find some hope in a story about a parent living—and sometimes even joyfully—despite unthinkable loss.
Many people are finding it a challenge to be creative and write right now, with the pandemic, the social injustice, and everything else happening. Are you finding that at all? How are you making space to be creative?
I’ve always had this uncanny ability of focusing. The epitome perhaps best reflected in how I finished writing my doctorate dissertation during Gabi’s first two years. Nothing else exists when I’m engaging with words on my screen. Great for writing. And for the soul, too.
Seeing the back-and-forth between you and Carlos in this essay makes me think that you’re a planner. What does your writing process look like?
My best hours are early mornings, so I’m generally up by 5:30 to get an hour of reading and an hour of writing before work. I then write during at least two weeknights and, best of all, during weekends, with precious stretches of uninterrupted times.
A cup of good coffee within reach (or tea if it’s after 2pm).
Specific goals for every sitting: going for that first draft, revisiting a structure, tightening a paragraph or two.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
Perhaps Anne Lamott’s advice about embracing lousy first drafts as a start. Just write, get your ideas on paper, and then make them worth someone’s time.