With more than 70 titles to her name, Marissa Moss has published a wealth of picture books and middle-grade and young adult novels. Her 30-volume “Amelia’s Notebook” series has alone sold more than 5 million copies. But after her husband of 17 years succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — more commonly known as ALS — in 2002, Moss tried something new. Writing a memoir helped manage overwhelming loss.
The result is a 184-page work of non-fiction geared toward adults. Released this month, “Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love” details Moss’s intensely personal chronicle of losing her husband. With a career and three young sons, Moss did not identify with the image of the stoic caregiver as the condition of her spouse, an art history professor at UC Berkeley, rapidly declined.
“I started writing a memoir about what had happened to our family two weeks after my husband died,” Moss says. “I’m hoping other people won’t feel as isolated as I did, as much of a failure.”
With refreshing candor, “Last Things” explores unspoken taboos.
“We’re told that major illness deepens us, makes us grateful for our lives,” Moss writes. “But for me, ALS doesn’t work that way. I’m not a bigger, nobler person and neither is [my husband] Harvey.”
Her husband becomes increasingly ill in the wake of their son’s bar mitzvah — a tragic turning point in his condition and their celebration as a family. He seems to resent Moss’s attempts to help him or come closer to him. And she, in turn, resents him. The illness soon impacted the entire family.
“It’s rotting away at all of us,” writes Moss. “First it killed our marriage. Now it’s destroying our family. And then Harvey will die. What will be left of us?”
Despite Moss’s remarkable track record as an author, the book was not an easy sell.
“Many agents and editors felt it was too dark or sad,” Moss writes in the acknowledgments.
It is indeed both of those things. It is also a testimony to the humanity of a caregiver who reveals her complex, authentic emotions and helps show others a way through the unknown. To share more about Moss’s experience addressing loss through comics, The Times of Israel conducted this extensive interview with the celebrated author.
How did “Last Things” come about?
A writer friend had invited me to take her personal essay class, thinking it would help me deal with the turmoil of catastrophic illness. She didn’t know — nor did I — that my husband would die so quickly, in fact, two weeks before the class started.
I went anyway and instead of writing about what was happening, I wrote about what had happened, trying to sort out the chaos we’d gone through.
How did writing the memoir help you address your grief?
Those first versions of the memoir helped me understand what had happened. Because when you’re in the midst of such a fast-moving, desperate situation, all you can do is react. You’re in survival mode, incapable of reflecting or really grasping what’s happening. I needed to write the memoir to grasp and then grieve.
What support might your book offer others?
The narrative our culture gives us for grappling with serious illness and dying is that it’s transformative, uplifting, that people grow closer, not further apart. The reality was so different, I felt like something was wrong with me. Why didn’t caregiving ennoble me, the way Hollywood says it does?
In fact, dealing with serious illness is hard work, emotionally, physically, mentally. And most of us — especially women — will be care-givers at one point in our lives. I hope others feel understood and seen when the read the book.
What has surprised you most about the book?
I’ve been most moved by own sons’ responses to the book. They only read it once it had been accepted for publication and I told them I wouldn’t go through with it or use their real names if they didn’t want me to. They’ve all been wonderfully supportive, but most important, for them, it gave them a way to better understand what had happened. At the time they were 6, 10, and 14, and each boy was only aware of his own personal experience. It was important for them to see what it was like for their brothers, for me, for their father.
What other feedback have you received?
I’ve gotten some very moving responses from people who have been in similar situations and from ones who haven’t. I’ve been deeply touched by what people have said… the responses from readers who’ve found the story powerful, important in their own lives.
What do you love about the book?
I love how much of the story is told through the images. The pacing, characterizations, mood, all come out in pictures. For me, that’s an especially powerful way to tell stories. This was the most I’d drawn in years and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But now I look at the art and it does exactly what I wanted it to — that’s rare for an author or illustrator.
How has the book touched others who knew and loved your husband?
I already mentioned what the book has meant for my sons. It’s also been incredibly important for Harvey’s family and friends. They’ve all reached out to let me know how much they appreciate knowing better what happened to him, how for them, this book keeps a bit of him alive.
How does a graphic novel serve this material in ways narrative prose doesn’t?
I tried for a decade to make the story work in narrative prose, but it was too sad, too claustrophobic. It wasn’t until I decided to use words and pictures, the way I normally work on children’s books, that the story opened up. With the art, there’s more air and light in the book. The personalities of my husband and sons are more vivid. Even the settings are clearer.
How else has writing this book proved valuable?
For me, it was a way to reconnect with my husband again, to try once more to understand what had happened to him. And it was an attempt for me to forgive myself for all the many mistakes I made in handling an impossible situation.
Early in the book, “Last Things” touches on your family’s Jewish life, including your late husband’s identifying strongly as the son of a Holocaust survivor and your son Simon’s bar mitzvah. How does this speak to your Jewish identity?
Growing up, we went to a Conservative shul, but moved around a lot since my father was an aerospace engineer, so there wasn’t any continuity at Hebrew school. I consider myself a Conservative Jew, as do our sons. Elias, the middle boy, made aliyah and was a lone soldier. He passed the tough tests to be accepted into the elite Sayeret Makal unit — one of the few non-native Israelis to be chosen — but he “fell” into Oketz and worked with the attack dog unit. He suffered multi-organ failure from heat stroke, so I was there with him in Israel during the last Gaza War and got to witness the effectiveness of the Iron Dome — and the tensions of having missiles lobbed at you.
‘What I read in The New York Times was not at all what I saw happening around me’
Elias recovered completely and is now graduating from SAIS, the School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. While at school, he led two trips to Israel with fellow grad students with the mission of giving these future influencers of international relations a more informed sense of the very complex issues facing Israel.
Elias’ friend, a paratrooper, died in the war and we went to the funeral together — just heartbreaking. The whole thing was surreal since what I read about the events in The New York Times was not at all what I saw happening around me. I think Americans have no idea of how besieged Israel feels. If Mexico lobbed missiles at us the way Gaza does, the US would have carpeted them with bombs.
How does “Last Things” differ from your previous work?
This is my only adult book, my only memoir, my only graphic novel. It’s unique in every way.
How have you addressed sadness, grief or loss in your other books?
No other book has been as personal. While Harvey was dying, I was finishing two books. One was “Amelia’s School Survival Guide,” where I get to be funny, which in some ways was a good escape from the real survival guide I was living. The other book was “Max’s Logbook” (what would become “Max Disaster”), about a boy whose family is coming apart. Max uses inventions and experiments to try to keep his parents together. I couldn’t write about a father dying, but I could write about one moving out in a divorce and how the family survives in a new configuration.
Is a film based on this story in the works?
Nothing so far, but you never know.
What is next for you?
Right now, I’m working with Amazon to turn “Amelia’s Notebook” into an animated series. Something completely different from what I’ve done before!