A few months ago, I wrote in a blog post that I was finally working on writing my memoir. Like, for real this time.

“I’ve started working on my memoir again, for real. I’ve set myself a strict rule of writing for at least one hour and 500 words per day. It’s a modest goal, to be sure, but in the past five days I’ve written 3801 words. For the first time in a while, I feel truly confident in my ability to complete this book.”

-Heather Mason (pretentiously quoting herself), February 2021

This wasn’t the first time I had made such a pronouncement so I wouldn’t blame you for not believing me. I’m not even sure I believed myself.

But here we are, a little less than four months later, and I’ve been keeping my word. I sit down every day at 9:00 a.m. and write for an hour. At the end of each hour I add the number of words I wrote that day — I committed to at least 500, and I’ve achieved that goal virtually every day — to a crude Google spreadsheet.

Each row of the spreadsheet is a chapter, following the story outline I created last year. Each time I complete a chapter, I highlight that row in yellow and move to the next line of the spreadsheet.

I can hardly believe I’m typing this, but according to my spreadsheet I have drafted 23.5 of the 25 chapters in my outline. My manuscript is more than 94,000 words — 70,000 of which I’ve written since February.

Disclaimer: I’m pretty sure my manuscript is shit. I’m not just saying this in an insincere effort to sound self-deprecating. I seriously think most of the writing is not good. I’ve made a specific point of not going back and re-reading what I write each day, because if I did so I would realize how terrible the writing is — uninspired and disjointed, boring, with terrible dialogue — and then I would pluck my eyebrows out and collapse to the floor in a puddle of tears.

But thanks to Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird and my new writing guru (thanks for the recommendation, Carla), I now know that the first draft of a story is always shitty. First drafts are meant to be shitty, in fact, and that’s why they are called “first drafts”. I just have to deal with that fact and get the thing done. I need to get the story down, in all its boring and uninspired glory, and worry about the rest later.

I’m doing it. I’m going to get this shitty draft done within the next month. And then I’ll re-read it, and tear my eyebrows out and collapse into a puddle of tears, and then I’ll pick myself up again and start editing.

In celebration of my nearly complete shitty draft, I’m sharing an excerpt below. This is one of the parts of the draft that I feel sort of okay about, mainly because it’s about an incident that is still fairly clear in my memory. (The hardest part about writing a memoir, I have learned, is that I can’t remember anything because I have a remarkably shitty memory. I’m still trying to figure out how to solve this issue.)

Those of you who follow me on Patreon have read this excerpt already. (Each week I share a brief memoir snippet — basically whichever section I wrote that week that I think is the least shitty — with my Patreon followers. It’s a way to thank them for supporting me and also to keep myself honest.)

Note the story below includes a description of a dead body.

Memoir Excerpt: The Morgue (December 2011)

Three days after Jon died, we went to the mortuary at Helen Joseph Hospital. “Mortuary” is too polite a word though. Really, it was the morgue.

For legal reasons, someone had to go to Helen Joseph to identify Jon. S, Jon’s sister, invited me along but I don’t think she expected me to accept. 

I never considered not going. I felt desperate to connect with Jon in some way, any way — to feel like I was saying a real goodbye. I hoped seeing his body, even in a morgue, would comfort me or at least help me comprehend he was gone.

There were seven of us and we drove to Helen Joseph, the big public hospital on Perth Road, in two cars. Maybe I drove one of the cars. Someone else must have been in the car with me. But I can’t remember.

Helen Joseph is only a couple of miles from Melville but feels like a different country. It’s the type of hospital no one goes to — as a patient, staff member, or visitor — unless they have no other choice. Yet Helen Joseph is always overflowing with people. The outside is a maze of dirt parking lots and ambiguous signs and security guards pointing in various directions. The inside is the same, but darker. I’m not sure how we found the morgue.

The word “mortuary” was frosted into the glass above the door. We stepped into a drab little office. The manager, Mr. Van Dyk, stood up from behind a desk and greeted us without smiling. 

Mr. Van Dyk was tall, pasty white, with greasy brown hair and 1970s clothes — exactly as I would have imagined a morgue manager to look. I felt certain he’d been sitting at that desk since well before the end of apartheid. S exchanged niceties with Mr. Van Dyk and explained why we had come. Mr. Van Dyk disappeared behind an interior door.

I expected a big room filled with cadavers, each hidden inside a sliding metal cupboard, like I’d seen on TV. In reality, the place where we went to see Jon was just a hallway. Mr. Van Dyk rolled the body out from somewhere else and it sat on a gurney, alone, with no other bodies around. 

We waited around the corner, single file, leaning against the wall. J, Jon’s mother, went to see the body first. S went with her I think. I don’t remember how we decided the order. I don’t remember how anyone else reacted. But I think I went last. 

I walked around the corner, approached the gurney, and stood a few inches away. Mr. Van Dyk looked on from a distance. I guess he wasn’t allowed to leave us alone. 

I could tell it was Jon’s body, barely. It was wrapped in thick, semi-opaque plastic and I could only see his face. His head was swollen and his lips were bluish. There was dried blood under his nose. 

I wanted to feel like I was with Jon. I wanted to feel him — to force myself to make some kind of connection. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

I couldn’t bring myself to touch his face. I reached out and lightly touched my fingers to the plastic, about where his shoulder would be. It felt like touching a frozen chicken that had been thawing in the fridge. I recoiled.

I stood there, shaking, and cried, trying to think of something meaningful. I didn’t want to feel like I’d come to this horrible place for nothing. I closed my eyes, wracked my brain, and thought of one word: Believe.

I doubt I stood there for longer than two minutes. 

T, Jon’s brother, told me the night before that he thought Jon’s soul left his body ten days before he died. I found that idea hard to think about. I didn’t want to believe he’d already been gone so long. 

But I know I wasn’t with Jon in the morgue. I would find him later, far away from Helen Joseph and the thick plastic and Mr. Van Dyk.

Jon's Land Rover in Swaziland
Jon’s Land Rover on a mountain in Swaziland, 2009.
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