Perplexity of Responding to Condolences

Kristy and Johnny's niches at Notre Dame
bottled-up feelings

Several days a week a story from Narratively, an online magazine with the mission to “publish untold human stories that surprise, delight and captivate readers,” appears in my email box. Most days, I skim through the offering and move on to other emails. Last week, however, one of their stories stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t get past it because it spoke so directly to feelings I had bottled up for such a long time.

responding to sympathy

The story, Jill Deasy’s “The AfterDeath,” had originally been published in Creative Fiction’s 73rd issue. The piece had won the Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest in 2019 and earned a spot on the Best American Essays Notable list. 

Drawn to the story by the words, “Reeling from the loss of their 7-year-old,” I avidly read to the end because Jill so accurately articulated an aspect of grief, that I still struggle with today, seventeen years after Johnny died and nine years after we lost Kristy. Much of what she had to say about coping with the loss of her son resonated with me. What struck the most familiar chord, however, was the struggle to respond to the reaction of others when they learn of your unbelievable tragedy.

cardboard words

In the immediate aftermath of their death, the usual limpid replies to the standard condolences worked: “Thank you for your kindness.” “It means a lot that you are here.” “I know you’ll miss him, too.”

These are cardboard words, borrowed from Hallmark, because their death had left us without accurate words to express how we felt. The deepest part of us knew condolences were totally useless. Way more emotional than usual, the logical part of our brains struggled to make sense of things. We were simply too distracted to consider how to respond well to sympathy. But to point that out to those who offered it would not have made us any less distraught. Instead, it would surely have made the comforters feel worse when they already felt inadequate.

fragile facade

So, I put up a brave front, smiled a lot, gave a lot of hugs, and wrote a hundred thank-you notes. After Johnny died, life went on. Kristy still needed care. My teaching obligations remained in place. Behind that façade, however, I slowly disintegrated for three years until I totally fell apart. At which point I descended into a bleak, black year of fear, anxiety, and depression. That God and the angels here on earth pulled me out of that hole still feels like a miracle. Every day, I rejoice I am no longer afraid to live within my own skin, that most of the time I can believe I did the best I could for my children.

extended condolences

But I have not yet escaped the trap of needing to respond to condolences, and I am no better at it now than I was in the bitter months following the death of first my son, then my daughter. These condolences still come because we left behind our home of fifty years and moved across the country. Here in Portland, we have made many new friends. With new friends come fresh revelations. Inevitably comes the question, “How many children do you have?”

I’ve been tempted to lie and say, “Two grown daughters, one lives here in Portland, the other one lives in Boston.” But that would be a betrayal of all that Kristy and Johnny brought to our lives even though it would mean I wouldn’t have to face the awkwardness that always follows the words, “We had four children; two of them have passed away.” These are the moments when Jilly Deasy’s story most profoundly resonates with me. She writes,

rare & foreign experience

I wondered how she would react to our story. I never knew what to expect. Sometimes, people would break down and pull me into their arms. Others would stand silent and face the floor, speechless. And there were some who smiled too much. Each encounter reflected my new reality — that around here, my loss was rare, an experience foreign to others. There was no rehearsed etiquette, no guidelines for acknowledging such misfortune. My presence triggered floundering reactions, and I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious in the face of other people’s discomfort.

What Jill and I know is that although we cannot measure grief or compare ours to that of anyone else, many people hold losing a child to be a deeper loss than many others. For this reason, telling someone for the first time that two of your children have died leaves them tongue-tied. Whatever can they say? Most often, because they don’t know me that well and never knew my children, they mumbled, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

what’s enough?

I can see they know it’s not enough, but I feel awful for putting a new acquaintance in a place of feeling inadequate. I murmur, “Thank you,” when I want to say, “Please, no, it’s okay. Let’s just not talk about it.” But many feel compelled to ask, “What happened?” Then, the conversation takes a turn down a dark road with me finally insisting, “They were wonderful children. We were lucky to have them as long as we did.”

It’s harder if they respond with a story of a similar loss in their own family. Now, I’m the one who doesn’t know what to say, and I believe I really should. I’ve been there after all. I ought to have the vocabulary to comfort them. But I don’t because grief is so individual, you can’t get inside another’s mourning.

reciprocal condolence

I take some comfort in realizing that no one escapes a time of grief. So, even though I might not articulate my gratitude at the moment, I know I can show my thanks by being there when others lose someone that they care for.

It is important for everyone to understand that sympathy is still valued, even if it may be inadequate. At the time Kristy died, I felt less alone in my grief and found better ways to cope. David Kessler, Author, of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief”, suggests a “Rule of 3: Support them three daysthree weeks, and three months after the funeral.”

ongoing witness

What Dr. Kessler means, I believe, is that support needs to be ongoing because grief is. The words and gestures that support us are different at distinct moments in our grieving. Right now, what helps me process my loss best is the hours my writing groups and my writing coach are giving me as I create a memoir to witness the lives of my children.

A last summer at Belden

“For no soul can ever be replaced, and death claims a beauty and a magnificence that will always be missed.”
― Jocelyn Soriano, In Your Hour Of Grief: When Mourning the Death of a Loved One

 a

Where Do I Begin?

Kristy's Kinderkarten

 

a colleague’s question

“I wondered,” suggested a writing colleague, who read my memoir manuscript for the first time, “whether you should have started with the moment of crisis? You know when you heard the scream from Kristy’s bedroom?”

Her question resonated for me as I read a recent post by memoirist and memoir-writing mentor Marion Roach Smith, “How to Write a Difficult Family Story.” Roach Smith encourages writers to begin with a line that reader will “fall into.” Called “the hook,” by writers, this is a device that catches the reader’s interest so powerfully with the first few sentences they feel compelled to keep reading.

where does the hook belong?

Often the hook places the protagonist in a terrible situation, sometimes even at the point when they have run out of resources. The intention: make the reader immediately say, “How are they ever going to deal with that diagnosis?” or “Can they escape those people?” If the writer can entice the reader into asking such a question, then maybe they’ll keep reading because they need to know how the protagonist overcomes the “invincible foe.” This is an important factor to keep in mind. Victory may come as a change in perspective, attitude, or emotions, but there is almost always an assumption of victory-of some kind. Or the reader will feel cheated.

another way

There is, however, another way to use “the hook.” It’s trickier to make work, but it’s the one I used for the portion of my memoir this colleague had read. That device begins with the best of it, showing the high point in the protagonist’s life. Then the story plummets into struggle, often into a situation much worse than the main characters could have imagined. This isn’t what the reader expected to happen to these people. Yet, the question remains the same, “How are they going to handle this?”

A risk & a reward

There is both a risk and a reward with this second approach. The writer risks boring the reader with what seems a mundane narrative at the beginning-ordinary people leading ordinary lives, no drama. His, her, their job becomes rendering these characters engrossing and charming enough that the reader waits to see what’s coming. Then comes the reward. When the disaster occurs, the reader is fully engaged with the main characters. They know them and can feel with them. Thes reader cannot bear to be left behind. In their hearts, they hold these people and have a stake in what happens. Of course, they’ll stay until the end.

The second approach is the road less traveled, but it‘s the one I’ve chosen. When the memoir comes out, I hope you’ll walk along with me.

Daddy's Birthday

Still Saying Goodbye

still in our hearts

Two days ago, we celebrated the ninth anniversary of the passing of our oldest child, Kristy. Celebration may seem an odd word to choose. Yet, there are two reasons it is entirely appropriate. First, by the time she left us, Kristy deserved to be in a better place than this one. Second, we had been exceedingly fortunate to have shared forty-five years of life with her. There had been so many times we feared she wouldn’t reach her next birthday.

The following is the story of one of those times.

Deep heart wishes

On her fourth birthday, Kristy sat on a booster seat at our round oak table in the dining “L” of our new little house. Surrounded by her sisters, aunts, cousins, and uncles, under pink and white crepe paper streamers, amidst purple balloons, she drew in her breath and blew out four candles with one breath. “I wish for a kitty,” she announced.  No one had the heart to tell her you shouldn’t tell your wish.

But I kept my wish silent. For the past year, living with Kristy was a rollercoaster ride of increased hopes as her vocabulary increased, she learned to ride a tricycle, and she engaged readily in play with her little sisters, and deepened fears as her seizures happened more and more frequently. Not a single month went by without Kristy suddenly going into convulsions. They were no longer connected with fevers or illnesses of any kind, but random–and occasionally dangerous.

without warning

The most recent one had occurred while she was rocking her lullaby doll in her little green chair. Her arms flew outward, and the doll sailed across the room. Kristy’s head jerked back so quickly that I barely had time to unlatch Betsy from my breast. I lay her in the middle of the rug, grateful that she didn’t crawl yet. Her immediate shriek pierced my ears and my heart, but I had to ignore her.

By this time, Kristy’s back had arched, her legs and arms were spasming, and she had fallen face forward onto the floor. Carrie was already at her side, looking frightened, but patting her back–and she was only two years old! With shaking hands, I slipped a couch pillow under Kristy’s head, turned her to her side, and gently held her arms and legs so that they wouldn’t crash into the dining room chairs. Almost as quickly as it had begun, the seizure was over, but I sweated like a marathon runner.

worse than ever

As Kristy’s muscles relaxed, I slid my arms under her to lift so I could move her onto the couch. She screamed in pain. That shocked me. Usually, after a seizure, Kristy was a limp, unresponsive rag. I couldn’t see any injuries. Nothing was bleeding. But each time I tried to move her, she screeched. Behind me, Betsy’s cries subsided to whimpers. I glanced over my shoulder. Across the room, Carrie sat with her back to the fireplace, legs straight in front of her, and the baby in her arms. She had thrust her tiny thumb in Betsy’s mouth. My heart went out to her. Two years old and already shouldering responsibilities!

I needed help. The best possible answer was my neighbor Dee, a nurse at nearby Grant Hospital. I lay Kristy back down and moved into the kitchen. My hands were so slippery I could barely hold on to the phone, but I managed to dial Dee‘s number. “I need you over here now,” I blurted out, and hurried back to Kristy.

band of two angels

Two minutes later, when Dee flung open my front door, her ten-year-old daughter Evie was right behind her. “Kristy’s hurt,” I told them. Dee scrunched down beside my little girl and studied her. I went to Carrie, scooped up the now sleeping Betsy, and pressed my lips against Carrie’s dark curls, drinking in their soothing scent.

“What do you think?” I asked Dee. By now, Kristy was struggling to get up, but when she put her left hand on the floor to brace herself, she screamed again.

“Could be a broken collarbone,” Dee said. “We need to get her to the hospital. Evie, get me a clean diaper.”

Her daughter sped up the spiral staircase and down again in seconds. Dee formed a makeshift sling for Kristy’s little arm. “Jule, wrap her in a blanket. Evie, you stay here with the babies. I’ll bring the car upfront.” And she was gone.

yet another hospital run

Five minutes later, Dee dropped us at the emergency entrance of Children’s Memorial just two blocks from our home. X-rays confirmed my friend’s speculation. Kristy came home with her arm supported by a shoulder immobilizer, a combination of a sling and a strap around her waist to brace the injured arm. One of Kristy’s strongest traits had shone with full brilliance at the hospital. Although only four years old, she had listened to instructions attentively. She accepted the immobilizer without complaint and after that, she complied with the whole regime the doctor had set up for us.

time to heal

For the first week, I put a pack of frozen peas over her collarbone for twenty minutes every couple of hours. During that time, I would sit on the couch, slip Kristy onto my lap, and read a picture book aloud. Carrie crawled up beside us. I tried to coordinate these sessions with Betsy’s infrequent naps. Sometimes I would enlist Evie to come over and take Betsy for a walk in her stroller so I could spend the time with Kristy. The immobilizer remained in place for a month, but it didn’t always ease Kristy’s pain. Reluctantly, I added children’s Tylenol to the phenobarbital she was already taking.

reprise emergency

At the end of the month, I walked Kristy back to the hospital. We cut through the brick alley behind our townhouse complex on our way. Halfway there, she cried out, flipped backwards, and went into convulsions. I caught her going down, but her head hit the edge of a brick hard enough to bleed. I balled up the cloth of my skirt and held it against the minor wound.

For twenty minutes, we sat in the deserted alley. The sharp bricks cut into my legs as I prayed that help would come, but my angels slept that morning. When Kristy was fully awake, we continued our walk to the hospital. She came home without the immobilizer, but with four stitches on her forehead.

move on through the maze

There were times between such incidents that I just wanted to curl up on the couch, drink coffee, and read a good romance – anything to escape the reality I had somehow constructed for myself. But instead, every day I threw myself into the myriad of other responsibilities that were mine as the mother of three small girls. Romance could wait.

How to Stay Married

Just Married
which anniversary is this?

Over the last couple of weeks, when invitations to various events came our way for December 19, I would reply, “Sorry, can’t be there; it’s our anniversary.”

Each time the response is “Which one?”

“Fifty-ninth,” I tell them.

The reactions differ from “Wow,” to “Wonderful,” to “Amazing,” but the most frequent is a question, “What’s your secret? How did you keep your marriage going strong for so many years?”

It’s not a new question. A newlywed couple asked us that exact question on our fifteenth anniversary!

the secret to staying married

Over the years, I’ve pondered the query and tried to answer it honestly. Maybe I needed the answer for myself as much as for my listeners. For the first twenty years, I usually replied, “Make time just for each other every single day.” This was a promise we made to one another around the fifth month of our life together because I realized one evening that I hadn’t “seen” Jay for two days. Sure, we had slept in the same bed, but I was asleep by the time he got home at night, and I left for work before he woke in the morning. Both of us worked and were in school. Our only free time was Sunday. Even then, most of the hours after morning Mass, we spent studying-he was in a corner of the living room with his law school buddies and me curled up in our bed.

every marriage depends on compromise

On the night of my ah-ha moment, Jay found me in the living room, wide awake at eleven o’clock. When he quietly shut the door behind him and saw me, he was startled. “Are you okay?”

“No.” I said. “We need to talk.”

Seeing how upset I was, he sat on the couch beside me, wrapped his arm across my shoulders, and hugged me. And I cried. In between sobs, I told him how lonely I was. “We spent more time together when we were dating than we do now,“ I said. “Is our marriage old hat already?”

He gave me a deep kiss and murmured, “I doubt it.”

“Okay then,” I said, “We need to spend more time together.”

“But Yulsey, we have impossible schedules. How are we going to do that?”

“I’ve been thinking,” I told him. “Although our days are crazy, we could have breakfast together. But…” I hesitated.

He nodded. “I’d have to get up before you leave for work.”

“Right. Could you do that? I’ll get up early and make really nice breakfasts.”

His response was, “When you look at me with those deep blue eyes of yours, I’d agree to anything.”

good marriages must be flexible

It often took some complicated juggling as we graduated school, took on new jobs, had four children, and moved several times, but breakfast remained sacred for us right until our twenty-fifth anniversary. By then we had added a once-a-week date night.

Then the children grew up. They moved out of our family home. Our job stresses lessened. We had more time for vacations and weekends away. The breakfast and date night rituals gradually drifted away. Now we are retired and spend much more time together than away from each other. Our love story has come full circle because now we can have all the time we want with one another.

The twilight marriage

This doesn’t mean we can’t drift into routines where our daily paths don’t cross very often. Jay’s continuing vivid interest in politics has him watching several newscasts every day and reading TIME religiously. Our garden also occupies hours of his day even in the winter. (Don’t ask me what he finds so engrossing out there!) This computer of mine keeps me glued to my desk as I pursue writing for hours a day as I yearned to do in those years when I taught and cared for our children. We no longer share breakfast every morning, but we always meet for lunch.

Best of all, every night is date night now. At 5:30, we put away the day’s tasks and join each other in the living room for an evening cocktail and an hour’s chat about all sorts of things. Then we savor an uninterrupted dinner. Although much of our conversation becomes nostalgic as we recall the crazy, chaotic, glory years of raising of wondrous children.

good marriages depend on grace

Our secret remains-Spend as much time as you can together. In our heart of hearts, we know this has been possible for us because a loving God has gloriously graced us.

Giving Thanks for Work and Its Lessons

wishing can be tricky

A new board game, bought by my family, challenges players to answer random questions picked from a stack quickly. If they cannot answer, they lose their card. Sounds simple, right? Still, some questions left us stumped, including for my granddaughter, “A genie has appeared and will grant you three wishes. What do you choose?”

The first thing that makes that difficult to answer is most of us have over three wishes. Then, the query trips us by making us hover between sheerly personal wishes and hopes for all humanity. Finally, of course, the player is on the spot with people who know them eager for answers. The proper point of the game is not winning but getting to know one another more deeply.

Despite some hesitation, my granddaughter provided a balanced list of three things. Her wishes were an end to poverty and hunger, a billion dollars for her parents, and never having to work.

never working! Good or bad?

The last one threw me for a loop. It isn’t anything I would have ever thought to wish for. Nor, as I ponder the prospect, does it seem appealing.

Just the opposite. As Thanksgiving Day approaches and we all reflect upon those gifts for which we are most thankful for, at the top of my list is WORK.

thanks for work

From my first job to my retirement, work provided personal growth and a sense of identity. Throughout high school, I babysit our neighbors, four children, 3 little girls and an infant son. I gained valuable insight into the psyche of small children that would serve me well throughout my life. I learned as well that we fail children all the time, but if we have forgiven their small foibles, they will forgive us our major ones. They taught me to say with honesty, “I’m sorry” and “It’s okay.”

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” – Helen Keller

scrubbing thankfully

Also in high school, I took a job covering a local doctor’s office on weekday evenings when the staff had left for the day. The tasks included cleaning blood off the surgery floor and accepting money for doctor bills after hours. Switching from “cleaner” to “receptionist” defined multi-tasking for me long before I heard that term.

Visualize wringing a smelly rag, washing your hands, and cheerfully calculating a client’s bill, despite their questioning. It was nitty-gritty work for which no one ever thanked me. I left when my shift finished and received the check for $5/week in the mail. I found, however, that I could be my own cheering squad and take pride in minor tasks accomplished well. Praise, I discovered, however gratifying, isn’t necessary. You can develop your own sense of self-worth.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

unnoticed, unthanked

This awareness came to my rescue through several other work situations. Throughout college, I served in the college dorm to earn tuition, room, and board. No tips, of course, I had to be my best judge of how well a mealtime went and not depend on the generosity or the stinginess of those I served. Wait staff bears the complaints of diners for mishaps, real or imaginary, of other members of a dining room staff. Being gracious enough to accept the slurs with an apology and without pointing fingers is as much a part of being “good” as being adept at balancing plates.

thanking appraisal

That same principle worked for me in other positions. In my roles as a caseworker, teacher, and professor, I was regularly evaluated. Others judged my work by systematic standards or personal reactions. I didn’t ignore these assessments, but I took them with “a grain of salt,” i.e. I improved their flavor with reminders of how hard I had worked and what I knew had gone well.

defining work

Work has been a Ying/yang experience–without defining me, it has helped me define myself. I am who I am for many reasons, but my working for a living has been a major contribution to the ultimate definition.

For that reason, this year I choose to be thankful for WORK.

Of course I also say “I am a woman; I am a wife; I am a mother.” Those roles are the heart of my being. But I am better at all of them because I am also a WORKER. Thus, although the paychecks stopped a decade ago, I still “work.” I write and I need all the confidence I gained in those other roles to keep my writer self going.

“The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it.” – John Ruskin

John Ruskin was a Victorian writer, philosopher, and art critic. 

Gratitude Quotes for Workers

person typing on laptop
Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Crafting Relatability

Johnny's First Communion with Grandpa and Grandma
make it relatable

As I’m sure you all know by now, if I am attempting to find a press for my memoir. I dream of sending you a copy and begging you to urge your friends to buy one of their own.

Right now, as I sat at my desk and forge yet another query letter, my attempt feels more like “wish” than an effort. I’m following the rules, jumping the hoops, but as yet I haven’t been able to grab the “prize.” But authors Jane Friedman and Deborah Williams have recently published posts that encourage me to keep going.

what is relatability?

A good memoir, they claim, must have the same elemental attribute that an excellent novel possesses. It has to be relatable. That might seem like a nebulous, hard-to-define quality. Writing is as much craft as art. There are concrete tools that writers can employ to engage the reader. Used wisely, they make a reader exclaim, “I really get this!” When readers sync with a writer this way, they literally immerse themselves in your story.

you are not alone

Someone reads a book and a gut feeling tells them, “I get this,” or “I can totally relate to this.” That doesn’t mean their life experiences mirror those of the author. Rather, the language dives deep inside and touches them, their sensibilities. They feel both known and not alone. The author’s background and situation need not mirror ours for this to happen. Our worlds can seem to belong to alternative universes. Yet, we understand their language; we sense their anger, despair, joy, satisfaction.

I’ve never lived in the desert or been a successful career woman. Yet when in The Glass Castle, Jeannet Walls spots her mother rummaging in a dumpster, it spurs up unsettling emotions. that resembled my own complicated relationship with my mother. Her moment raised for me issues I had, like Walls, buried and tried to forget.

Half of a Yellow Sun depicts Biafra’s passionate struggle for freedom. It’s an important and heartbreaking moment in history. The reader, however, is bound to the page, not by the grand sweep of political turmoil, but by the evocative way in which the author invites us into the lives of unforgettable individuals.

Readers may weep for these characters. At the same moment, they feel less alone in their own uphill battles.

I bring relatability to my memoir by incorporating my senses to recount my family’s fight against a hidden foe. I “zoom in” to watch my granddaughter sewing a rage doll for her dying aunt. I bend down with the priest, who tries to explain death to a six-year old.  Can reader put themselves in a corner of the room as we experience each setback? Do they want to beg the doctors for better answers? Do they wish they could offer some solace when my child dies? Then, I have achieved my goal.

Provide Visual Cues

Life itself is always in motion-whether this is inner turmoil, outside chaos or daily routines. Even in the quietest moments, there are subtle movements that convey the mood. For my memoir, doctors’ offices and hospital rooms set the stage for many strategic moments in our narrative. Kristy and Johnny’s reactions and responses add a unique pace to the memoir, even in formal settings. Throughout the memoir, I strive to make their shining stars sparkle even in times of utter darkness.

Vulnerability, the Powerful Tipping Point

As authors, we have to ask ourselves how much of the “Narrative I” are we willing to reveal. But if we are holding back, we lose our readers. I learned to find the level of disclosure that felt comfortable -and push it back to the “edge of what seems possible,” and go for it. That tipping point is where we find the connections that make writing its most powerful. That’s what I’ve done. At least, more than I thought I could at the beginning. I’ve been as honest as possible about the moments that overwhelmed me and despair raged with hope. Making myself vulnerable, open to critique and judgement reveals my humanity, makes me one of you. That’s relatability.

I truly believe I’ve written a relatable memoir. I hope you can read it.

Krsity on the way to school with Martha

Like, But Different From

writers are like, but different from actors

Writers are like, but different from, actors. Just like actors, writers can suffer stage fright. Actors rehearse their parts to perfection. They don carefully chosen costumes and make-up. Yet, at when they are about to step onto the set, that seemingly authentic rendering of reality, it all swims away from them. They can neither move nor speak. Writers freeze in front of our computers at the moment when we need to hit send and speed a query letter to an agent or publisher.

my memoir-like, but different from other memoirs

Is this book ready for a professional review? It doesn’t matter that we spent hours, days, weeks, months crafting this piece. Gone is the reassurance of writing workshop colleagues. In vain do we remind ourselves how many times we’ve edited and reedited the work. May it could be better. Or worse, was it ever any good at all? We might think our work is ready, but we worry if our query letter is persuasive.. Have we piqued an acquisition editor’s interest? Did we pick up on the right cues from what the publisher says they are looking for?

what publishers want

And what is it publishers are looking for, anyway? It’s like, but different from what they say in submission forms. Here’s what they say they are seeking. They hope their books will capture the imagination and share arresting elements on lived experience. They aim to print books that are both engaging and consequential of the highest literary merit and relevance. These books must be enlightening and inspirational. The key to all these elements, editors agree, is quality, the individual author’s ability to tell a good story.

Publishers seek books that are creative, engaging, well-written, relevant, enlightening, inspiring, and commercially viable. How does an author convince the acquisitions editor of this potential? Look for the answer in the phrase on submission forms: “Include additional information like the target audience or comparable books.”

like a best seller, but different

That brings us to the rather cryptic title of this Blog Post, “Like, But Different From.” What the publisher wants to know is what book or books like yours have sold well? Why would it be likely to draw the same audience? At the same time, they expect you to show that your book is also different from these other narratives in important ways. You need to argue that you bring something new to the argument or add to the ongoing story-not simply repeat what has already been said.

This principal is like one taught by Marian Roach Smith in her Memoir Project. My memoir’s theme must be a universal, one that resonates with many other people. My personal story is one example of that universal. When I took Marian’s class, she helped me see the theme of my memoir in this way:

What did I endure (suffer) so that I could endure (triumph)?

ying/yang of endure

I worked tirelessly to find solutions for Kristin and Johnny’s physical and mental disorders in both the health and education sectors.. I suffered because it never seemed to bring any change and things just kept getting worse.

I succeeded by being strong and achieving goals as a parent and more, thanks to my ability to give Johnny and Kristy the best chance at a good life.

an example of the universal

Like other mothers’ memoirs, my book explores the experience of raising children with disabilities and the self-discovery that comes with it.

It differs from many other narratives in that there is no eventual triumph over disability and disease. The triumph is not so much in the actual win, but in finding a community that takes care of Johnny and Kristy with us.. The book also tells a bit, but not enough, of the untold story of Misericordia, a place where angels truly live on earth.

 

Rainbow over Misericordia

 

What Am I Trying to Ignore?

Stuffed monkey covers eyes
“What am I trying to ignore?”

This is a question that Jane Friedman threw out on her blog, Electronic Speed, two years ago. (jf@janefriedman.com, Sat, Nov. 27, 2021) I wasn’t ready to deal with it, but knew I’d need to confront it before my memoir would ever make it into publication.

being overwhelmed?

Some close friends have read brief parts of the memoir. They sometimes say I I ignore how totally overwhelmed I felt as I coped with the challenges presented by two children with complex disabilities.

I ask, do I leave that reality out of the memoir or did I ignore it at the time? If I had let those challenges overwhelm me, could I have coped? If I couldn’t have coped, what would have happened to my children? Sometimes every parent asks themselves some version of that question.

not talented enough?

A more nagging concern is the fear that I’m ignoring, that I can not really pull off a successful memoir. It’s hard not to suspect my beloved husband, who tells me over and over how beautiful my writing is. After all, he is prejudiced in my favor-unlike the readers in my critique groups who minutely question details such as sentence construction, overuse of adverbs, improper period spacing, etc. But then I tell myself, their job is not to tell me what work is great. It’s letting me know how to improve. That only results from constructive critique.

story is too sad!

There’s the nagging doubt about the deep tragedy of our story. As a friend said, “It’s all so sad. I’m not sure people want to read about that.” She makes a good point, but readers will take on a tough narrative if it’s interestingly written. Nothing is all sweetness and light. Nor is parenting children with challenges all doom and gloom. I include plenty of light moments, like this one:

not always

One of the striking differences, I claim, between Kristy and Johnny is how much she loved to create works of art and how he refused to so much as pick up a crayon. Thus, one Friday afternoon upon entering Johnny’s apartment at Misericordia, I got the surprise of my life. There on the wall next to the TV hung a bright abstract, multi-colored, three-by-three framed painting, signed “John Ward.”

“Johnny couldn’t have painted that,” I challenged his caretaker.

“Oh, but he did.” She said, but giggled as she spoke.

“How did you possibly motivate him to paint anything, let alone such a complex piece?” I asked.

“Well, we wanted to hang a work of art by each guy in the apartment. All the other men were excited to take part, but every time we gave Johnny a paintbrush, he threw it on the ground. Then Sara got her brilliant idea. She spread an enormous piece of paper right where the brushes were landing. She handed him one brush after another, each with a different color. One by one they hit the floor, splashing colors in every direction. You can see the result is lively and almost looks purposeful.”

Staring at my son’s “creation,” I laughed so hard my sides were splitting. That was Johnny. Life was never dull with him around.

The above vignette is just one of the many charming stories the memoir includes. It’s not a simple tragedy, but also a triumph of love and joy over the worst that life can throw at us. https://julewardwrites.com/committed-relationships/the-notion-of-fixes-and-cures

no end to questions

But other questions mount up. Is it too long? Are the chapters balanced enough? I’ve revised it nine times. How can that not be enough?

So, what is the awful TRUTH that I’m really trying to ignore?

Friedman writes that what we are trying to ignore is usually a problem that won’t go away until we do something about it.

the truth

For me, it’s acknowledging that I’m finished writing. It’s time to work on moving the manuscript toward publication. Just thinking about the process daunts me. There are many avenues to publication, but despite the many paths, few debut authors actually find their books on the bookstore shelves.

Dwelling on that reality makes me hesitate to try. Why put so much energy into something that is sure to fail? Yet truer yet is that if I never work toward publication, if I ignore even that slim chance, then failure is certain rather than possible.

“Resolving the problems I am most afraid to confront is where progress lies. It’s insanely hard psychologically, but worth it.”

https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/Jane+Friedman+What+are+you+ignoring/FMfcgzGllChzgDxQDRVbDSKsVqtbGdNq

Woman and old memoir

A Time Eclipse

answering a critique

One of the joys and burdens being a writer are working with writing groups. Without their support, I couldn’t go on, but sometimes their questions feel like barbed arrows.

A critique I receive is, “There isn’t a sense of time and place, of era and world in your memoir. Readers want to be grounded somewhere and they need details that you, as protagonist sense and know, to do that for them.”

If I tie this aspect of reality to my memoir, it will have to be in retrospect and through research, because in some odd sense I didn’t truly live “through” those times in history.

one shattering moment
Riot and fire
Photo by Florian Olivo

In the world, but not of the world. This is how I can best describe my life in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The instability of the times did sometimes impact me directly. Like the moment when Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot through the neck on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

I was high above the skies of Wisconsin, flying home to Chicago from a visit to my family in St. Paul, Minnesota. As I stepped off the plane at Midway Airport, I searched in vain for my twenty-seven-year-old, red-headed husband. Instead, a burly, Chicago policeman approached me, “Mrs. Ward?”

My throat constricted with fear.  I didn’t yet know of the assassination but could sense deep unrest within the airport crowd. Had something terrible happened to Jay? Although his job as an Assistant State’s Attorney in the Cook Criminal Courts sometimes took him into dangerous neighborhoods, I never  worried about him.  I had spent hours of my life in those same neighborhoods as a caseworker for the Cook County Department of Child and Family Services. I knew safety in any urban space was a relative illusion.  Yet, here was this policeman, I glanced at his badge, Officer Andrews, asking for me.

He sensed my unease. “Your husband is fine, but I’m here to see that you get home safe.  He has to remain on duty tonight.”

That was really strange. Jay often worked late into the evening, but never all night. “Why, what’s happened?”

“Dr. King has been assassinated.  The westside of the city is rioting — fires, shooting, and looting. It’s a real bad scene. The trains are shut down. It’s not safe for taxis to come to the airport. My partner and I are here to see you home.”

skirting the turbulence

I numbly followed him to baggage claim. Our route from Midway to my Rogers Park apartment circled the city. We rode west to the suburbs, then north, back east, and finally south into Rogers Park. Because I didn’t have a key with me, the officer had to break into my place – just one of many ironies on a night when people were killing one another in anger over the death of the disciple of non-violence.

Chicago would never be the same again. The curtain that had hidden the deep resentments of its oppressed citizens had ripped away. American culture fell apart at the seams. Traditional meanings of personhood, humanity, and civility no longer held but appeared greatly flawed. I had been a civil rights activist since I was fifteen and participated in my first sit-in. Now those dreams seemed to be going up in flames, but I couldn’t stay to fight the fire.

At that moment of my life, the intensity of a deeply personal struggle overshadowed all concerns outside our family.

barren?

Jay and I had been married for four years. I was twenty-six years old, ancient by the standards of a time whose cry was “Never trust anyone over thirty.” We had been trying to conceive a child for three years, but I remained “barren” – the word I gave myself. No medical tests gave us any answers as to why this should be true. Still, like clockwork, my detested menstrual cycle arrived every month. We decided to apply for adoption and were turned down.  You’re too young, the agency worker told us, “Give it time.” Would I never be a mother?

The turmoil that arrived in the spring of 1968 made working as a social worker among the marginalized people of the city much harder than it had been.  And it had never been easy. My gynecologist speculated that perhaps the stress of my job contributed to my infertility. I loved my work but my yearning to become a mother overwhelmed all my other goals. Every time I heard the lullaby, “Hush, Little Baby,” I ended up in tears. I handed in my resignation at work – and lost my best black friend, my desk mate.  “I thought you were made of tougher stuff,” she said.  We never spoke again.

lady in waiting

Within a month sitting at home hoping to conceive became as stressful as any job.   I applied for a position as a secretary to Building Construction magazine, a job I figured wouldn’t carry the stress of casework. I got the job and soon after moved up to associate editor, work I would have killed for when I first left college.  My lifelong ambition to be a journalist, however, had been swept away by the tsunami of my drive to become a mother. I treated the position as a stopgap measure, not a stepping stone.

Reading, researching and writing about the field of architecture, my workdays flowed in a calm remote from the continuing storms that tore the world as I had known it from stem to stern. Mass protests in Prague signaled the beginning of the end of Soviet control of Eastern Europe. The Tet Offensive by the North Vietnam forces made it increasingly clear that our nation was in a fight it couldn’t win. On June fifth, just when it looked like Bobby Kennedy might bring the Kennedy magic back to the White House, he was gunned down in a hotel kitchen.

riot in the park

Then in August Jay, my husband once again responded to the call of duty.  This time the turmoil arose when hundreds of students and other young Americans traveled to Chicago and massed outside the Democratic Convention Headquarters. Their intention – disrupt the convention process to protest the country’s on-going involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Determined to keep law and order, the Chicago police force sent officers to disperse the protesters.  Those who would refuse to go would be arrested. Jay would be there to monitor the legal process.

As I could see on my television screen, nothing that formal or settled could have happened. The students pushed back and broke away, storming the city streets.  The police officers reacted by clubbing the protesters.  I curled up in a tight ball and prayed that Jay would get home safe. After several months of concentrating my whole being into remaining calm and relaxed, I collapsed emotionally, unable any longer to ignore the world falling apart. Jay came home, safe and sound, with some fascinating tales to tell, but I felt as battered as any protestor.

Like the phoenix

Yet, that was the month that after four fruitless years, I finally conceived. When my period didn’t arrive as it should in September, I put it down to the stress of the times, but by October I began to have hope.  I made an appointment with my gynecologist and didn’t tell Jay.  I didn’t want him to suffer the intense disappointment that would go with getting his expectations raised.

The doctor confirmed my suspicions.  He had no idea why now after all these months my reproductive system had clicked into proper order. Nonetheless, deep inside, under my heart, a new life blossomed.  Very few moments in my life have matched the joy I felt at that moment or the continued euphoria I experienced as I share the news first with Jay then with our parents. The only one I wasn’t too happy about telling was my boss, the editor at Building Construction. I loved my job, but I strongly believed that I’d be happiest being a full-time mother.

living a dream

When Kristin was born the following May, we were living in an apartment in the far flung southwest suburb of Palos Hills. It was a grassy, pleasant environment, but very isolating for me because Jay needed the one car we could afford to drive to work.  Still, I was so wrapped up in the wondrous adventure of caring for Kristin that I barely noticed how alone I was. A beautifully delicate little baby girl, she had round blue eyes that took up half the space on her heart-shaped face.  She needed to nurse about every two hours, which I would later learn is natural for many newborns, and I found meeting her needs filled my days.

On weekends, Jay and I went adventuring. Kristy did very well on car rides. Travelling through Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, we discoverded “antiquing.” The last century was so much more satisfying than the present. We returned with large and small treasures with which to furnish our home.  Kristy went along with anything and never showed a single moment of stranger anxiety. For me the nine month following Kristin’s birth were the true honeymoon period of our life.

for a while

There’s a verse in a song from Fiddler on the Roof –

  • “Now i have everything,
  • Not only everything,
  • I have a little bit more
  • Besides having everything,
  • I know what everything’s for.”

It often ran through my head in those halcyon days.  I couldn’t imagine that life could ever be better.

To say it was never again that good would be false. In the coming years, however, my life blurred the chaos of the 1970s. My stormy everyday life blurred the turbulence and tumult beyond my front door.

Kristy and Jule
Photo by John Ward

Patti wins the lottery

Children jumping for joy
another win

In my last blog post, I shared with you the story of our family’s move to 832 Belden and described it as “winning the lottery.” I invited readers to share with me any “winning the lottery” stories of their own that my post suggested.

My dear sister Patti Ward shared the following tale of dreams that come true beyond our wildest imaginations.

“I Won The Lottery!”

No monetary prize could surpass the value of the lottery I won.

I always knew where I wanted to go to college. It never occurred to me to apply anywhere else. I applied for early admission. Then, in the fall of our senior year of high school, many of my friends received their acceptance letter. But I did not.

That same year, the women-only college to which I had applied announced a merger. It would become part of the men-only university whose campus bordered theirs to the east. Because of the announcement, applications had flooded their admissions office.

Still, my faith never wavered. In April, my letter finally arrived!

You might suspect this was my lottery win… but my lottery hadn’t happened yet.

The college, anticipating the merger, had accepted more new students than they could house. And then the merger fell through. This miscalculation was my winning lottery ticket.

lucky miscalculation

Apr. 15, 2015; LeMans Hall, Saint Marys College. (Photo by Matt Cashore)

In their scramble to find room for the overflow of students, the college carved “dorm” space where none had existed before. Much to the shock of eight sets of parents, mine included, a former dance studio became the new home for eight incoming freshmen. Situated directly under the bell tower in the college’s main building, it now held four bunk beds, eight desks and 2 large walk-in closets. Like the rest of the dorm, the room was not air-conditioned. And the windows began eight feet off the ground and rose upwards towards the 24 foot ceiling. In order to reach the window to crank them open, the girls used a movable staircase. A “private” staircase led from the fourth floor to the former dance studio. The bathroom was at the bottom of the stairs and off the landing halfway up was a small room the girls used as a gathering place.

The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, but we happily settled in for the year.

“the tower”

Not only the space, but the eight girls who lived there, became known throughout the school as “The Tower.” The roommates started out as L. They came from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Kansas and Wisconsin. But by the time the school found other arrangements, we had become such fast friends, we wouldn’t accept splitting us up.

Like all first year college students, we filled that year with exciting new beginnings. We also helped one another through the traumas of the year. Sharing these joys and trials forged a bond that would last a lifetime.

Lose one, Win One

At the end of freshman year, our New Yorker returner home for good. Her Tower friends had helped her ride the storm of losing her twin sister, but now she needed to be with family. Her mates were sad to see her go, but understood.

With the beginning of the new school year, the “Tower” added my best friend from high school to our number. Once more we were eight. No longer in the Tower itself, we roomed scattered through the dorms. Our bond, however, remained as strong as ever. Being loved by this group alone would have been a lottery win.

enduring win

Who could have known it would not end there? Graduation was simply another new beginning.

Years went by. We gathered for weddings, celebrated news of births, and cried as our parents slowly left us. As we approached our 60s, we searched each other out and made a plan to meet up. What fun we had. It was as if the years had melted away. The difference now was we had more stories to tell.

Our little group of eight, now fondly referred to as The Great Eight, or Gr8 8, moved into using technology. We formed a private group chat where we could keep even closer tabs on day-to-day events. Shortly before Covid hit, we established a weekly Zoom gathering. Every Wednesday evening at 8:00 p.m. we hop online to share events of the week. It’s so familiar-like being back in the dorm room, The Tower, when we were freshmen. When one or more of us can’t make the gathering, someone sends out a recap on our group chat.

the true prize

The other girls are married with children, grandchildren, so there is always something to share. I am the only single in the group. For me, it has become a lifeline. My siblings, nieces and nephews know how important these women are to my life. They know not to call me on Wednesday at 8 pm unless it’s an emergency. Family is, of course, first in my life. But the point is these seven women ARE family to me. They are my sisters. They have been there through my triumphs, my trials, and my losses. They have supported me when I couldn’t do it for myself. Our lifelong friendship sustained me better than financial wealth ever could.

So if you want to know what it’s like to win the lottery, look at your friendships. There I found the biggest prize of all!

by Yaroslaw Sluraev