The book was mom’s idea.
She called me one night as I was fixing dinner.
“I have this idea,” she said, in that tone of her voice that is on the verge of laughter, full of mirth.
“Oh yeah? Is it legal?” I joked.
Yes, I remember now. I was standing at the stove, stirring tomatoes in olive oil and garlic and basil, and she called me and I walked away from the pan, phone to my ear. The sauce burned.
“I want to write a book,” she said. “And I want you to help me.”
I sputtered and laughed. I was a college grad freshly hatched from the nest. I was a newlywed learning the ropes. I had two part-time jobs, a blog that no one read, and exactly zero experience in the publishing industry. Write a book? Sure! Why not?
But for all our laughter and mirth and joking, I knew this time she meant it.
How many times had we said it before, in passing, an elbow to the other’s rib every time the hard news came along or we told someone about the whole long thing? Fourteen years is a long time to live with something like cancer and not feel compelled to write it all down.
My mom maybe only ever said why me? once in her life, the day that she was first diagnosed in 1997. She was standing in the bathroom at Red Lobster because they were out to try and celebrate her and dad’s fifteenth wedding anniversary, despite having heard the worst at the doctor’s office that morning. Grandma says she gripped the counter and looked in the mirror and cried.
“Why me?” in the quietest, hardest whisper. And it never left her lips again.
But those words feel forever on my lips. It all just feels a little unfair some days, like I’m wearing one of those crappy souvenir tshirts, but mine reads, My mom died of cancer and all I got was this book idea, give or take an expletive.
I’ve known for pretty much my whole life that I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think this book would be book numero uno, the story that would make me a published author.
I journaled my heart out that night after she told me her bright idea, praying that she would have the words and energy to write her part, that I would have discernment to know what to do with them once she gave them to me, that we would find people who would help us bring this book to life, and that maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have to finish the damn book all alone after she was gone.
The next morning, I called her on my commute to work.
“Well?” she asked.
“Just write it out. All of it. And then give me all the files and we’ll worry about the rest once you’re done.”
“Okay,” she said. “I can do that.”
And that is how, three years later, I have 15 chapters of my mom’s life story sitting on my kitchen table, her voice still speaking to me long after she expelled her last breath.
We were sitting together with our pastor at the funeral home before the first wake began. He had asked us what we remembered about her, what things about her mattered most to us.
“She always told me never to be bitter,” Jacob said quietly, and the rest of us nodded.
This is what I remember now, sifting through pages of her story. She allowed herself to feel the bitterness of her diagnosis, to ask the inevitable and necessary question, why me?, but she didn’t dwell in that bitterness forever. She traded it for a better question, a life giving one:
“Why not me?”
I read this post last week from memoirist Dani Shapiro, “On Memoir.” Her thoughts on memoir are razor-sharp, but this part hit me hard :
“What is the job of the memoirist? Is it to tell all? Or is it to carve a story out of memory?”
Similar to my thoughts on ethical storytelling that I wrote for Prodigal Mag two weeks ago, Shapiro addresses the idea of truthfulness, and asserts that Truth isn’t necessarily facts and timelines, but narrative.
“We writers who mine our personal veins, who find the stories in our own lives and dive deep, searching for the ways to make order out of chaos, are not doing so because we want to be reality TV stars, or because we’re exhibitionists, or narcissists. We are not publishing our journals, or imagining ourselves to be so important that people are actually interested in the details of our lives. No. We are taking those details and lining them up, amazed, astonished, rapt the way a child might be, building blocks to form a tower. We are attempting to make sense out of what we can — to reach out a hand to the reader across a rough sea of isolation and separateness and offer up something that has shape, integrity, even beauty and symmetry.”
And so maybe as I write this book I can trade all my bitterness and why me? questions for the beauty of why not me? and reach across the isolation and grief of loss to you who feel it, too.
When was ask ourselves “why not me?” our experiences aren’t just our own anymore. Lots of people get cancer. Lots of people experience pain, loss, grief. Everyone dies. And everyone asks questions about these experiences, and about faith and love. Both questions need to be asked, and truth be told we may never find the answers to either one, but it’s learning to ask the latter that brings hope and healing and community.
So this book won’t be a tell-all, but a story carved out of memory, a hand-in-hand account of learning to live well.
Thank you for being so supportive about my book announcement. Without all of you, dear readers, this wouldn’t even be happening. Xoxo.