Is It a Great Story?

Northern Michigan summer after Kristin was born
judging one’s own story

Dutifully as any writer worth her salt ought to do, I regularly read reams of advice on how to become a better writer. Recently, I got zapped with this statement by Maggie Langrick, publisher at Wonderwell Press, in her guest post On Jane Friedman’s newsletter.

All this goes with the caveat, of course, that nothing will help if it’s not a good book. Foremost, your narrative must “tell a great story rich in insight, color, drama, sparkling dialogue, and satisfying character development.” https://janefriedman.com/crafting-memoir-with-a-message-blending-story-with-self-help/

combating the inner imposter syndrome

That last sentence of Langrick’s post immediately set off the live wire response of my inner imposter syndrome. That’s the part of me that hesitates to call myself a writer at all, let alone be willing to claim that my book could have all the sterling characteristics Langrick claims it must. Is my memoir all those things? I want to answer with a resounding “yes,” but hesitate. So, let’s apply the criteria to my memoir.

My initial interest in the post was to discover if, indeed, I could position the memoir as a narrative that blends the story with self-help. Before I could analyze this aspect of the book, however, the first imperative would be to begin where Langrick ended-with the caveat.

penetrating the inner nature

To be “rich in insight” a creative work needs to shed light on the inner nature of our life experience, offer discernment into underlying truths of relationships and events, and provide an understanding of the motivational forces behind people’s actions, thoughts, or behavior. At its core, insight is deep self-knowledge. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/insight

The memoir abounds with such moments of insight. As our family grows and contends with increasing challenges, our emotional and psychological motivations become increasingly complex, as do the barriers thrown in our way by the medical, educational, and governmental structures of our society.

all five senses of the rainbow

Color in writing is both about actual visual color (description in terms of hue, lightness, and saturation) but more broadly refers to all the elements that an author uses to help the reader visualize the characters, the place, and the event all at once. The best writers do this by crafting descriptions that call on all five senses. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/types-of-writing/

My memoir could, perhaps, be richer. All five senses are engaged as well as many interior emotions throughout the book, but the narrative rarely relies on in-depth description of a given moment. Cumulatively, however, I’m willing to say, the story is rich in color.  The book takes readers on a rollercoaster ride of wins and losses by bringing them along on the family’s journey. They hear lullabies and sobs, see sweet toddler smiles and contorted seizures, feel a husband’s strong arms and a son’s limp body, smell crisp sea breezes and old cigarettes, and taste the sweetness of a child’s kiss and the copper bitterness of her blood.

all the world’s a stage

Ah, drama! The first concept that springs to mind when we hear that word is actors on a stage of some sort, be it live theater or a movie or TV set. So, what can it mean for a memoir to have drama? It goes back to a rule that writers hear all the time, “Show don’t tell.” Like a dramatist, a memoirist can use dramatic techniques to increase the emotional, intellectual, and moral engagement between the audience and the narrative.  https://litdevices.com/drama

Several techniques or devices combine to add drama to any narrative, and memoir is no exception. The story needs to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Relatable, complex characters interact directly with one another through engaging dialogue and physical action. Essential to the dramatic element, conflict must fuel the narrative. And most importantly, the story’s power lies not only in its ability to entertain but also in its capacity to engage with issues that resonate deeply with the human condition.https://englishliterature.education/articles/guides/what-is-drama-what-is-drama-in-literature-features-types-details-students-must-know/

tragedy and triumph

In my memoir, drama and dialogue are interdependent. Both the character’s actions and their words bear witness to the story’s tragedy and its triumph. Almost immediately, the young couple’s happy complacence shatters and years of struggle ensue. We hear them try to map a path through previously unimagined challenges, making decisions no parent should ever have to make. We see them take risks for the sake of their family, but also to protect their own sanity. And we see them stagger through mazes of institutional bureaucracies in their fight to make a good life for their children. Their path may be uniquely convoluted, but their goal with which any parent can resonate.

the developing self

Finally, the essence of memoir demands that the author experiences a transformation. The reader expects all the characters to develop over the course of the narrative, but this is most important for the first-person narrator. The memoirist cannot simply relate a chronology of life events, no matter how unusual or interesting. She needs to share with her readers how her experience changed her. What has she learned? How does she understand life differently? Are there profound truths she now knows that she might not have known if the circumstances of her life had been different?

a different me

No doubt most parents begin the parenting journey rather naïve about what lies ahead, but I’d be willing to say that the young woman who blithely receives the news of her first pregnancy at the beginning of my memoir becomes wiser, more caring, more determined, and unbelievably resilient as the story moves forward. She is, indeed, transformed. https://julewardwrites.com/committed-relationships/take-a-break-from-real-life-go-to-college

This essay also transformed me. I’ve moved from a writer overwhelmed by Langrick’s criteria for a good book to one who feels certain her memoir stands the test. Now I’m ready to tackle , Langrick’s central question, “Is it crafted as a memoir with a message?”

“It’s always painful when you’re writing memoirs because you’ve got to go through the dark places, but it gives you a chance to find out the person you really are, not the person you thought you were.” ~ Neil Simon

Interview with Charles Flowers, bookpage.com. October 1999

Memories Make the Heart Sing

Gramma Peggy reads to Johnny and Kristy at Devil's Lake
My Heart Sings

Today is Mother’s Day, a special day for hundreds of families, one that is marked by celebrations and memories. For almost five decades, Mother’s Day was a three-way celebration in our family because two of our children, Kristin and Johnny, had birthdays, May 11 and May 14, that, if they didn’t fall on Mother’s Day itself, came close to it.

three celebrations

So today, even more than most days, memories of Kristin and Johnny flood my consciousness and make my heart sing. Yes, as we attempted to provide the best life possible for those two extraordinary people, we encountered many struggles and challenges. However, their charm filled the struggle with joy and laughter. Today I’d like to share with you the funny and lovable facets of Kristin and Johnny’s personalities that are my most vivid memories of them.

heart filled with love

From infancy, Kristy was incredibly affectionate. There wasn’t anyone she wasn’t ready to love. No one was a stranger to her. So apt was she to cuddle up with any friendly human, so we had to guard her carefully. For her family, however, she had a deeper abiding love. She welcomed each new sibling into the family with great joy and extended that fondness to all babies. Her grandmothers were special favorites of hers. It was easy to motivate her into action by saying, “We’re going to see Gramma.”

an original flower child

Kristin was the original flower child. She loved every flower that ever grew, even those the rest of us might call weeds. Any walk with Kristy went at the pace of flower-picking-or smelling or picking up litter. It took patience to teach her to leave cigarette butts where they lay.

Kristy helps Mom write.
Kristy helps Mom write.
my good girl

She learned at a young age that other people’s gardens were not hers to plunder. And Kristy was not anything if not a good girl. In fact, she took pride in this. If scolded, she would give you a distressed look, saying, “I’m a good girl.” It distressed her to think she might have made you unhappy and immediately wanted to make it okay. Fortunately, she always had her stuffed, pink, wind-up lullaby doll. In any tough circumstance, “Lullaby,” as she called her, could always soothe Kristy.

purple, chocolate & crunchy

Passionate describes her best. Kristy never simply liked something. She LOVED it. She was so fond of purple that she preferred that every article of clothing in her wardrobe be some hue of that rich, deep color. To say that chocolate was her favorite flavor is a vast understatement. Kristy’s ideal world would comprise all foods being concocted from some form of chocolate. She did, however, make the exception for potato chips and pretzels. “Oh,” she would exclaim as she bit into one, “It’s crunchy!” as though crunch were the ultimate gourmet criterion.

a natural artist

Everyone who knew Kristy knew that her deepest passion of all was for art.Kristy is her Aunt Beth's flower girl. From the time she could first hold on to a crayon at age nine months until the debilitating course of her disorder took its full toll, she spent hours of everyday painting, coloring, or drawing. Hers were true abstracts, expressions of her thoughts, feelings, and impressions of the world untutored by art lessons. At one point, her paintings papered an entire three-story staircase in our home.

As her sister Betsy said at Kristy’s memorial, what Kristy would wish for the rest of us is that we would see the world as the beautiful place it was for her.

laughing at nightmares

Memories of Johnny have an equally gleeful, but utterly different, tone to them. For one thing, Johnny had no interest what so ever in being a “good boy.” He simply wanted to go on whatever adventure come into his mind at a given moment, even if it meant totally abandoning what you expected of him. If scolded, he laughed. It had been a great joke for him. He also regularly laughed out loud in his sleep. I always speculated that he was having nightmares, but they didn’t frighten him. Rather, he found hilarious whatever monsters peopled Johnny climbs constructionthose dreams.

no, you, broph!

Johnny also like to pretend he was some other being like one of those monsters. And if he was Grover for an hour, he only responded to “Grover” not to his own name, although sometimes he’d help you out by saying, “Not Johnny-Grover.” He had lots of fun with the name game. His middle name was Brophy after a paternal great-grandfather, so his Uncle Mike often called him by his middle name. Johnny would turn on him and say, “Me not Broph, you Broph.,” and then the two of them collapsed into laughter. It went on for years. One time I visited his kindergarten class with him, and a janitor walked through the class. The man resembled Mike and Johnny called out, “Hey, Broph!”

Maria! Maria! Maria!

Johnny was a preschooler when I cared for a little girl after school named Maria. When Johnny’s dad came home, Jay would sing from the front door, “Maria, I just met a girl named Maria, and suddenly it’s the most beautiful sound in the world.” Then Johnny would take up the chant, “Maria, Maria, Maria.” In fact, it is how he always greeted that little girl (now an actress on Broadway in her own right.)

their private world

I never knew the origin of another name game he had going with a young woman who lived with us while she attended De Paul University. But Johnny would come home from school and call her “You goose,” and she giggled and retorted, “No, you’re the goose,” and he’d come right back at her. They created their own private world. He had a way of doing that because his smile, along with the twinkle in his eyes, lit up a relationship.

no ketchup!

Johnny loved to eat and ate just about everything. I didn’t even know that he liked fish because I never cooked it at home. Then at a restaurant one evening, I ordered a shrimp cocktail, and he got a gleam in his eyes and said, “Fish!” He ate the whole thing. And he’ll be forever famous for eating the entire platter of taramosalata at his friend Sean’s thirtieth birthday party. What he didn’t like was ketchup. He wouldn’t even start the meal if it was on the table. His disdain for ketchup stretched to all red sauces so that, as much as he loved salads, he

Johnny with his banks
Johnny loved piggy banks.

wouldn’t eat one if it had French dressing.

pizza pie

He loved pizza, which he called “pie.” And here again his natural charm stood him in good stead. He had once gone with us to Due’s Pizzeria and shown such utter delight in his meal that from then on whenever Jay and I ate there if we didn’t have Johnny with us, our favorite waitstaff, Mickey, sent home a free pizza for Johnny. Like I said, he had a way with people.

let him eat cake!

A culminating example happened when I wasn’t home. Normally, Johnny didn’t like sweets and never ate dessert. Yet, one afternoon, out of the clear blue, he sat himself down at the breakfast room table and declared, “Chocolate cake.” His sister Carrie and her friend Loren were the only ones home.

They couldn’t find cake or the makings for one in the house. So Loren entertained Johnny while Carrie went to the store. When she returned, the two of them baked and frosted a chocolate cake. Johnny remained patiently at the breakfast room table the whole time. Finally, they put an enormous piece in front of him. He gobbled it down, asked for milk, and went off to play. He may have had another piece. I don’t know. You’ll have to check with Carrie on that.

With these vignettes, I gift you, dear readers, and wish you a

Very Happy Mother’s Day.

Baby Johnny at the beach
Always that sunshine smile
Kristy in a bubble bath
Don’t drink the soap.

Forever Family–Misericordia

Johnny surrounded by his books
missing chicago family

As much as Jay and I have enjoyed many facets of our life in Portland, Oregon, Chicago still tugs at our hearts. Of course, we miss that special city with its spectacular stretch of Lake Michigan beaches, vibrant culture, and stimulating diversity. Mostly, however, it’s people our hearts cry out for.

As a young couple bringing up four kids, we had an extended family, an engaged community of neighbors and an inspirational faith community, St. Clement’s Parish. We miss all of those people. But, perhaps, most of all, we miss be part of Misericordia, the amazing “second home” where the loving caretakers and administrators devoted themselves to the well-being our two children with special needs, Kristy and Johnny.

misericordia family

In the other families whose children also called Misericordia “home,” we found a community of compassion and understanding unlike any other. If we still lived in Chicago, we know we would continue to work with the folks at Misericordia as they continue to make life worth living for vulnerable children and adults.

Today I appeal to you to join me in that work. Here is a link that allows you to contribute to Misericordia’s Candy Days fundraiser.

First, however, I’ve invited Barb Quaintance, editor of the Mis Newsletter, to share with her story about other families who have lost their beautiful children who were once residents at Misericordia, but continue to find meaning in working with Mis.

misericordia alumni families     by Barb Quaintance

It’s a group no one wants to become a member of. But it’s a group that is a very important part of the Misericordia community–and is very meaningful to its members. The Misericordia Alumni Families (MAF) is a group of parents, guardians and siblings whose Misericordia loved one has passed away. (You’ll see them listed in the Misericordia directory with a heart next to their names.) Formed in 2014 by four families–the Tesmers (who lost Julie), the Scouffas’ (who lost Mary), the Hoynes (who lost Jeff) and the Gibbs (who lost Bryan)–the goals of the MAF are:

alumni family mission
  • To give Misericordia our support in helping our special home continue to provide excellent, quality care to those in need.
  • To help our members keep friendships formed over the years, as well as make new friends who are equally committed to Misericordia.

Sister Rosemary was the one who first suggested the term ‘alumni’ for the group, since she calls the residents who pass ‘graduates’ of Misericordia. The name resonated with the founders and the Misericordia Alumni Families was born.

condolences and invitation

When a family loses a resident, the MAF contacts them to offer their sympathies but also to inquire if and how the family would like to be involved with Misericordia in the future. Some do not want to stay involved, but many others choose to stay connected; e.g. continue to receive MisBiz and emails from Misericordia leadership or participate in Candy Days. Still others–families of about 70 residents who have passed–become more active members of the MAF.

masses, meals, and much more

The Misericordia Alumni Families support Misericordia in several ways. One, they are involved in planning the memorial mass, which remembers those Misericordia residents who have passed away.. Two, they staff funeral mass luncheons and work together in the Bakery during the holidays. And they have also supported the Benefit by organizing the photo booth. (The idea of creating memories through the photo booth seems particularly appropriate for the MAF since they keep memories of their loved ones alive.) And they get together several times a year to socialize and remember their loved ones.

Besides the volunteer activities done as a group, families also volunteer on their own. Many continue to volunteer in the bakery, for staff appreciation days, Sunday brunches, Family Fest, the Benefit and during the Christmas season. Not only does the volunteering help alumni families stay connected to Misericordia and the friends made over many years, but Misericordia values its connection to the alumni community.

our extended family

When I asked the Tesmers if it’s hard to be involved in Misericordia when Julie is no longer there, they said no. What would have been harder, they said, would be to have lost Julie and all the wonderful connections and friends they had at Misericordia. Asked the same question, Sherry Scouffas also said no and added: “Where else would you find so much love?”

The gratitude for Misericordia that the Tesmers and Scouffas’ feel is palpable and a big part of what the Misericordia Alumni Families is all about. The larger Misericordia community is so very lucky to count the MAF as part of our extended family.

jule’s afterword

As I mentioned earlier in this post, I’m raising money for MISERICORDIA FOUNDATION by participating in Misericordia Candy Days 2024. I would like to ask you to support the cause and make a donation to my personal fundraising page:
As you know, our children Kristy and Johnny spent many wonderful years as residents of Misericordia before being called back home to God and the angels. During those years, they not only lived a life truly worth living but had a great time doing it. And John and I and their sisters Betsy and Carrie could share in many fun times at Mis as well.

Misericordia is as much a family as a community and we are proud to continue our support of such a special place so that other vulnerable children and adults can receive the same loving, knowledgeable care that Kristy and Johnny were fortunate enough to receive.

Just click on the link below and it will lead you to my personal fundraising page:

https://secure.frontstream.com/misericordiacandydays2024/participant/JuleWard

Kristy with I Love You balloon
Kristy loves you!

 

 

 

 

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