Be careful what you promise
In last week’s blog post, I promised that this week I would “bring you up to date on how far I’ve gotten so far with the memoir, examples of advice I’ve received, and the quandaries I face as I move forward.” The sentence makes me chuckle because, of course, I couldn’t possibly do all that in one short blog post. Instead, I can share what I consider to be one of the important pieces of advice I found about writing a memoir: “Begin by asking yourself a lot of questions.”
don’t do this
This is not what I did. Rather, I just plunged in and started telling a story about a young couple who longed for a child but struggled with fertility issues. Then page after page I recounted the days and years of their life as a family. No wonder my writing colleagues felt lost as they tried to find a theme and to keep up with dozens of characters. The manuscript was a roller-coaster ride up the peaks and down the valleys of our life. Readers had to hang on for dear life because it never paused. I didn’t take time to reflect on the challenges or the joys for very long at all. And I kept how I might be feeling about what was happening completely to myself. Did I even know then or now how I felt? I didn’t stop to find out.
After eighteen months of writing and submitting sections of the “memoir” to writing workshops for review and always hearing the same critique, I finally realized there was something fundamentally wrong. Kristy’s story remained as compelling as ever, but I had not yet imbued it with its true power.
now and then
I put aside writing narrative and took up asking myself questions. Many different guides to writing memoirs offered a myriad of possible questions I could ask myself. I read several of these. The one that struck me right between the eyes was, “What do I know now that I didn’t know then?”
What I now know is the Kristy never had a chance. The neurological disorder that eventually destroyed her resided deep inside her infant’s brain from the day she was born. As best I can understand and explain it, the force behind this disorder was a genetic anomaly. It was not carried on a gene she inherited from her father or from me. Rather shortly after conception genetic mutation, a so-called “de nova variant” caused her developmental trajectory to be unevenly and unpredictably stunted.
I did not know any of this until Kristin was thirty-eight years old and most of the damage to her body and mind had already happened. During those thirty-eight years, my husband and I sought the best medical care we could for Kristy. We never let go of our hope that someday a medication would come along that could control her irretractable seizures. We firmly believed that if Kristy could stop seizing, she could regain some of her lost abilities and even start learning new ones. That dream dimmed greatly as the years went by but never disappeared entirely – until 2007.
not a real answer
That year, genetic testing became available for her. The tests revealed the root cause of Kristy’s seizures and disabilities and why her brain had slowly atrophied. (Brain atrophy is a wasting away of brain cells, or more accurately, the loss of brain neurons and the connections between them that are essential for functioning properly.) EEG exams performed when she was young showed no damage, but the older she became the more these pockets of atrophy appeared. By the time the doctors could give us this genetic analysis, Kristy was as helpless as an infant, dependent on others for all her needs. The diagnosis was, therefore, not a shock, but finally an answer.
Now when I ask again, “What do I know now that I didn’t know then?”, the question deepens into, “Would I have wanted to know then, what I know now?” My only honest answer is “No.” Although it was hard to have our hopes dashed year after year, I wouldn’t want to give up the joy our beautiful, happy little girl brought us through the first twenty-five years of her life. If we had known how ultimately devastating the disorder would be, fears and forebodings would have tainted all those good times. And we would have been helpless to stop the inevitable. It was by far better to live each day, each year, as it came to us without any knowledge of its heartbreaking end.
through a mirror darkly
As I write the memoir, I will have to hold up a double mirror to my own inner thoughts, reflections, and feelings. My readers need to fully understand all the optimism I held onto as a young mother, all the joy I got from being Kristy’s mom. Yet, the story must also carry my awareness of its tragic end.