Writing Out the Storm
Reading and Writing Your Way Through Serious Illness or Injury
By Barbara Abercrombie
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 Barbara Abercrombie
All rights reserved.
I'm in a waiting room surrounded by other women. A Muzak version of "People Will Say We're in Love" is playing. A woman in her late seventies sitting across from me with two friends is humming along with the music. A younger woman sitting next to me, wearing a scarf that covers her bald head, is writing Valentine cards. The walls of the waiting room are painted lavender. Sunlight spills through the open windows, and there's the smell of grass being mowed. It's oddly pleasant and peaceful here in this room filled with women of all ages, even though nobody's here for a good time.
The older woman's name is called, and when she's gone her two friends discuss her cooking. Apparently she's an excellent cook but doesn't have a grip on meatballs. Too dry, is the verdict. Somebody else they know puts two eggs in for one pound of meat. "It's gotta be soft like sausage soft," says one friend. "You have to work and work the meat. Put in seasonings. I only like Sylvia's meatballs."
I write all this down in a very small notebook. If I keep writing, I won't have to think about why I'm here.
My name is finally called. I'm here every year for an annual mammogram, I know the drill; no perfume or deodorant, sweater and bra off, jonny gown on and open in the front, my breast kneaded into position (those meatballs come to mind), then flattened rather alarmingly under a transparent vise. I hold my breath as the machine whirs.
Afterward I point out the lump next to my left nipple to the technician. I'm expecting a shrug, perhaps recognition of my hypochondria. Or even praise for being so alert, such a good girl for coming in right away to have it checked, even though this tiny lump that R. found yesterday is absolutely nothing. Instead the technician's face is serious as she feels the lump. Then she puts a little tag on it, kind of a breast Post-it, and schedules me for an immediate ultrasound exam.
I want to say: Look, I'm getting married in six months, I teach two courses and have a lot of students, I'm writing a novel. A major medical problem is not part of the plan. I really don't have time for this.
But of course I must have the ultrasound exam, and as I wait for it, sitting in another room still wearing the jonny gown top with the Post-it on my breast, I think how quickly life can swerve. Suddenly I'm being treated like a patient. I ran four miles this morning, I spent last weekend making love to my fiancé in Palm Springs, I'm teaching a three-hour class tonight. I'm not somebody who sits around in a damn jonny gown, a body part tagged, waiting for doctors. But I do wait, and I do have the exam. And then a doctor I've never met before tells me I need to see a breast surgeon right away to have the lump surgically removed and biopsied.
Something happens, and then the world spins on a new axis.
I am standing outside a shopping mall on a shimmering fall day in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, the name of the town portentous. I bend down to pick up my child, but the bending never finishes, breaks instead into spitting lights of pain that spread over a pool of half-consciousness. A tearing is felt — almost heard — within the thickness of flesh, moving in seconds across the base of the spine. The body instantly announces: This is an important event, this is an event you will never forget. I can't get up. The asphalt is icy. Somehow I am wedged into a car. The emergency room regrets not knowing what to do.
— Suzanne E. Berger, Horizontal Woman
Smith sees I'm awake and tells me help is on the way. He speaks calmly, even cheerily. His look, as he sits on his rock with his cane drawn across his lap, is one of pleasant commiseration: Ain't the two of us just had the shittiest luck? it says. He and Bullet left the campground where they were staying, he later tells an investigator, because he wanted "some of those Marzes-bars they have up to the store." When I hear this little detail some weeks later, it occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels. It's almost funny.
— Stephen King, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft
The doctors' faces were a professional grim. ... As they examined me the doctors exchanged, with their eyes, their verification of swollen lymph nodes in my neck. They talked their serious talk in the hall, and I could hear them when my children's chattering permitted me. I could hear the word tumor.
I was full of plans for the future, like a tree of leaves. They fell off the branches at once, not blowing away, but laid at the root.
— Laurel Lee, Walking Through the Fire, A Hospital Journal
Whether you call it writing in a journal or keeping a notebook, buy yourself a beautiful book with blank pages, or buy a spiral notebook at the supermarket for $1.98. Or start a new file in your computer. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Just begin.
Start with the words something happens. See where they lead. Maybe you'll write about an accident or the start of an illness, the moment when your life spun on a new axis, when your plans began to fall like leaves. Or maybe you'll start with the description of a waiting room, the details of the moment, what you see and smell, hear and touch.
Ray Bradbury says the words he'd post in red letters ten feet high to encourage creativity are: WORK. RELAXATION. DON'T THINK.
If you keep your pen moving so fast you can't think, you'll begin to move out of your own way and connect to a deeper part of yourself. You'll start writing about things you didn't even know that you knew or remembered. Trust the deep well of memory and knowledge and feeling you have. Write so fast, you won't hear that voice in your head carping that this is too boring to write about, too sentimental, too personal. The details of your life are valuable. Relax. Don't think. Keep writing.
THIS IS ONLY A TEST
The morning of the biopsy, R. and I have a long-standing appointment with the priest who's going to marry us. We discuss details of the service — our vows, the music, flowers, lighting the chapel with candles. We reserve the church for the evening of August 15, six months from now. I don't mention to the priest that we're going on to the hospital after this meeting, that I'm having a biopsy. It's like a very peculiar dream I'm having. Surgery in two hours. Even our wedding now seems to be an event we're only dreaming about.
Originally I'd thought of our eloping to Paris; I liked the sound of that. When I asked R. what he thought of this plan he said fine, but he wanted the kids to come, too. We have five children between us, all grown, all of whom have spouses or partners. Taking ten extra people to Paris seemed a little pricey to me and no longer terribly romantic.
When we became engaged last November, I grew nervous about our happiness. Were we too happy, too lucky? We both had work that we loved, healthy children, our own houses and enough money, and we were not only in love with each other but best friends; we'd known each other for twenty-eight years. I worried about paying off the gods; things were on such a roll for us that the gods might get jealous. R. said we had already paid them off — our first marriages falling apart and painful divorces, my mother's long illness and her death a year ago.
Then a few weeks later I lost the emerald out of my engagement ring. When I looked down at my hand and saw the empty space, it was like looking in the mirror and discovering a tooth missing. Though I searched everywhere, I couldn't find it and finally, with mixed feelings, I told R. that the gods had been paid off.
Now on this warm, sunny February morning, we stop in the chapel before driving to the hospital. I've come here for eight o'clock Communion on Sundays off and on through the years, and last year we had a small family memorial service in the chapel for my mother. I don't think of myself as religious, but I love the Episcopal Church, the ritual, the language, the music, and I love this small stone chapel. I believe that there is something here, something beyond the material world, a spiritual mystery I can't figure out.
I have this strange sense of fate — if I have cancer, I have it, and prayers not to have it seem a little late. Is this lack of faith, or simply being realistic? Twenty-five years ago I was with my mother-in-law, who was the same age as I am now, when she died of cancer. Though I still come to church on occasion, I lost the comfort of an easy faith when she died, the belief that all would turn out for the best if you prayed hard enough. On my knees now in a pew, I pray for the only thing that seems reasonable: courage.
But surely the gods can't be this jealous, life can't be this ironic. After all these years she finally gets her act together and then boom — the big C. No, this is just a biopsy I'm having, this is just a test.
You notice the swell of one of your breasts, and notice it again weeks later. When you direct his hand to it, his eyebrows slant into worry. He says, "You even swell swell," but he is the one who insists you call your gynecologist in the morning.
She sends you to a surgeon, who doesn't like what he feels. A few mornings later, the surgeon does the biopsy. The pathology lab will have your results in a week.
Meanwhile, your boyfriend reads Dr. Love's book and reports that the odds of getting cancer at your age are almost one in three thousand. He says, "You're not the one."
You keep telling yourself, "This is only a test," but that week of waiting for the results is an unrelieved high-pitched tone. Then you are told that it is a real emergency.
Too late, you realize that your body was perfect — every healthy body is.
— Melissa Bank, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing
... a small lump no one is worried about is biopsied, just to see. There are precancerous changes in the cells and we move the activity up a notch. I enter a time of winter darkness, taxis whisking me and my slides around New York into the Persian-rug-spread waiting rooms of Park Avenue brownstones and up and down the glass and marble corridors of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital. The doctors agree: why not? It becomes obvious that they have no real answers for this: they cannot cure, they can merely catch it in time. A week before the surgery, I suddenly panic. I cannot do this. I am too young, I am wearing blue jeans, I have a Bloomingdale's charge card.
— Annette Williams Jaffee, "The Good Mother" from Living on the Margins, Women Writers on Breast Cancer
In Ethiopia, illness is an opportunity. It is something to contemplate. It invites the sick person to undertake an internal spiritual and healing journey. It provides a possibility for growth. The sick person is a seeker, a voyager, an explorer. And the word can cure. Illness can be experienced, expressed, and understood, but only in the way that one understands a mystery, for that, in part, is what illness is.
— Louise DeSalvo, Writing As a Way of Healing
Write the words: this is only a test ... and follow wherever they go. If you veer off into another topic, that's fine, just keep going.
Write about being too young for this.
In the workshop Laura writes: I'm definitely too young to have cancer — diagnosed at 44! Scared the shit out of my peers and friends who were younger ... I am too young to have cancer ... Yet when I am old, I will look back to the distant memory of the cancer I had. The year of shallow breathing and tightened throat.
Laura's husband Bob writes: This period is only a test. I'm too young, too unprepared, too busy for this stage of life. I want it over Now! I've learned plenty. I'm sure I'm a better person for this episode already ... dealing with cancer has been a pervasive part of the past year ... My intention was to back off on other pursuits, but it doesn't happen. The Patient herself sets the worst example. Care for the kids needs to be better than before to avoid the nagging fear of them having suffered. The meals, the schedule must be more perfect. There is no emotional energy left to handle it and make up for small disappointments. Also the persistent fear that this month may be the last with some version of reasonable health. If it's just a test, it's going on far too long. Somebody wake up the proctor!
Forget what you were taught in English class. You have permission to throw out all the grammar you ever learned and to make up your own spelling. Someday, if you ever think about getting published, then you can let the carping editor in your head loose on the page to make sense of your grammar and give structure to what you write. But that's the second step. And you can't get there without the first step.
A student once told me that little girls in Russia who want to join the ballet are not allowed to study technique until they're nine years old. Up until then they're encouraged to dance on their own, to have fun and feel free.
This is a wonderful analogy for writing. Don't think about technique right now. Dance. Sing. Fool around on the page.
Elizabeth writes: Writing helps me share the music of my life.
What would the sound track for your life be? Garth Brooks, a Puccini aria, heavy metal, Dave Matthews, a Mozart sonata? Write about the music of your own life.
WHAT THE DOCTOR SAID
Valentine's Day 1997. I've always thought this was one of those hyped holidays, meant to sell a lot of candy and flowers, like Mother's Day, that causes vast numbers of people who don't have a lover, or a mother or a child, to feel depressed and left out. Consumerism at its emotional worst. In spite of my bad attitude about Valentine's Day, R. has given me a present — a beautiful watch; I can hear it ticking on my wrist.
It's an overcast afternoon, the good weather of yesterday has turned gray and damp and chilly If you were writing this scene as fiction you wouldn't put in that detail; it's too obvious, a cliché.
Newsweek has a big cover story this week on breast cancer, and I read it as we wait in the kitchen for my surgeon to call with the results of the biopsy. He was quite sure that it wasn't cancer and that we'd have the results right away. But it's been twenty-four hours now.
My left breast, the breast that was biopsied yesterday, now wearing a Band-Aid, doesn't hurt so much as feel heavy and dangerous. Somewhere in a lab there's this tiny piece of me on a slide being examined under a microscope by strangers, and what they find will determine my future. Whether, in fact, I have a future.
My new watch ticks in the silence. If this were fiction, I'd make a big deal out of the ticking; I'd turn it into a metaphor. Though of course this, too, would be a pretty obvious cliché. The pages of Newsweek rustle as I turn them. R. does paperwork next to me at the kitchen table.
Finally, the phone rings.
So sorry but it's bad news, says the doctor, it's cancer and he was so sure I didn't have cancer but it is cancer and he's so sorry. His voice goes on and on as the kitchen tilts. R. holds me. I cry. I feel like I'm in a very bad movie.
He said it doesn't look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I'm glad I wouldn't want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
He said I'm real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn't catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may even have thanked him habit being so strong
— Raymond Carver, "What the Doctor Said," from A New Path to the Waterfall (Continues...)
Excerpted from Writing Out the Storm by Barbara Abercrombie. Copyright © 2002 Barbara Abercrombie. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.