March 23: A Memoir

Today is my mother’s birthday.

She should have been ninety-six years old today. She should have lived that long; she had the genes. Her mother, my grandmother, lived to be ninety-seven. Mother would have lived to see seven precious great-grandchildren, some of them now almost grown up themselves. But she didn’t live. She died of uterine cancer in 1985, when she was only sixty-five, so young by today’s standards. Had she gone to the doctor sooner, it’s possible that she might still be here, but she ignored the signs that something was wrong. She was too busy taking care of my grandmother, who had had a stroke that fall, to take care of herself. The way she’d neglected herself to look after my father.

In February 1982, my father had died of a heart attack and the bottom dropped out of my mother’s world. They were married forty-seven years. She was eighteen and he was thirty-two when they married–an unlikely pair, but they adored each other. A couple of months after his death, Mother hemorrhaged, and her cancer was diagnosed. She underwent horrible treatments: radium implants in her uterus that kept her in bed for a week in the hospital, unable to move, then surgery, then more radiation. And after, she suffered from various complaints, strange swellings and numbness, odd neurological symptoms nobody seemed to be able to explain, weight loss. But she persevered. I can see her now, doggedly walking the block of broken sidewalk in front of her house, back and forth, back and forth, to get in her “mile” for the day.

The thing is, she lost the will to live. I asked her once, when she seemed particularly down, “Why aren’t we enough?” By we, I meant me, and my sons; why weren’t we enough to make her want to live? She had no answer.

I read a piece this morning in The Washington Post about depression and suicide. I don’t believe my mother ever contemplated suicide. She would have believed that suicide was wrong, sinful. But I know she suffered from depression, and periodically, when she felt “low,” she would go to her local doctor for a B-12 shot to pick her up.

motherme 1
Mother and me

When I look at photos of her now–her pretty blond hair, her blue eyes, her smile–I think about how those photos belie her real nature. She was often sad and insecure, even though she was smart and beautiful. When she was dying, the nurses in the hospital talked about how beautiful she still was. But she had a complicated and difficult relationship with her own mother, and much of her insecurity must have sprung from that. I remember one day when my grandmother made a cutting remark to Mother and stalked out of the room. My mother stood with her back to me, bracing her hands on the kitchen counter. She was already sick by then, but it wasn’t the sickness that spoke when she said, “Why is it that nothing I do is ever good enough?”

I don’t remember what I said to her. I was too furious with my grandmother and if I recall correctly, I followed her to her bedroom and told her so.

Today I’m remembering the complex dance of three generations of women, our lives bound together by blood and place. Long after my mother’s death, and my grandmother’s–she outlived my mother nine years–I  still feel my mother’s presence. Sometimes when I laugh, I’m startled because for a second, it’s my mother’s laugh I hear. Because she did laugh. She grew roses. She entertained her garden club. She was active in her church. And she loved my father and me and my sons so very much.

One last memory: when she was getting sicker and could no longer drive, she would get a friend to drive her to meet me half the distance between our towns so that my two younger boys could spend a few days with her. I wonder how they spent that time together. I’ve never asked them. They were old enough to understand that she was ill, but they went anyway, willingly. I think she was determined to spend time with them so they would remember her, and they do. They loved her.

As do I.

The Five Stages, Or Facing Up to the Re-write

Hi there.

After completing the October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge, I’ve been absent from this space for a while. I wrote twenty-five posts during the challenge, many of which were emotionally grueling. (Here’s a sample post, just about in the middle: Age Twelve: The Great Void.) I’m glad I finished, although I wish I’d done what a friend of mine did. She’s stretching her memoir posts (way to go, Lara!) out over a number of weeks. Smart blogger, that one.

Anyway, I’m back, and I hope maybe you missed me a bit.

I’ve been busy re-writing–for what I hope is the final time–a 300 page novel. The bones of the novel are strong, I think, but there is this one subplot, you see, that needed to be fleshed out. And flesh I did, for several hours every day for a week.

“Child Crying And Lying On Grass” by imagerymajestic
Image courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

It occurred to me during this process that facing up to a major re-write is a little like Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief. Let me explain:

First, Denial: There’s nothing wrong with this character. (Substitute subplot, setting, dialogue, structure . . .) It’s certainly not bad. Maybe it’ll squeak by if I’m lucky enough to have someone read it. Like an agent.

Then there’s Anger: How dare my readers suggest that the book needs more work! I poured my heart, my brain, my sweat and tears into it! I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I’ve had to get stronger glasses. I’ve sacrificed two years of my life! It’s done, and nobody can tell me otherwise!

Next? Bargaining: If I move this one scene about the preacher, then the problem with the flashback within the flashback within the flashback will surely go away. That’s fair, right?

Ah, Depression: “I can’t do this. I’ll never pick up a pen again. I’m worthless and stupid. Why did I ever think I could write a book? I can’t even put a decent sentence together. I can’t even spell. I don’t know a cliche from a bon mot.” Destroy the files. Shred the backup CDs. Go to bed with a bottle of wine and a good book. Somebody else’s book, of course.

Finally? Acceptance. I will go on. I’ll never be the same (poor little bruised writer-ego), but the work has to be done.

I would add a stage of my own, one I experienced over the last few weeks, and that’s Determination: I will tackle the problem, and over time, I’ll solve it. I’ll have a eureka in the middle of the night. I’ll dream the answer. I’ll write it over and over again until I get it right. Whatever it takes, I’ll get it done because it’s necessary. It’s what a writer does.

From helplessness to empowerment: yes, that’s the ticket!

Obviously, dealing with a re-write is nothing like dealing with real grief. We all know that. But in the moment, when all seems lost and the book (or story or poem or memoir) seems impossible to save, haven’t we all felt these emotions? Those who grieve eventually get on with life, and we’ll get on with the book. Won’t we!

How do you cope when you get discouraged with your writing? What or whom do you rely on to find the energy and the will to press on?