I picked a spot in the circle—an orange plastic chair with an attached desk, LIFE SUCKS carved into the wood top. How apropos, I thought. Taking off my jacket, I shook a wilted, yellowed leaf from the sleeve and smiled at a few people who caught my eye. Then I sat awkwardly waiting for class to begin.
The sun had already set that September evening of 1999, leaving the bare-walled, brightly lit classroom chilled. Most of the other students chatted easily, and I overheard snippets of conversations.
What’s a query letter? It was my first writing class ever, and I felt like a freshman in a Ph.D. seminar. My circle-mates had probably been writing for decades; I was 41 and had only recently begun to flex my writing muscle.
Several talkative women entered together. The tallest—auburn-haired and coral-lipped—sat with authority near the door. “I’m Marion, and this is Writing Memoir,” she announced. After some opening remarks, Marion asked us to introduce ourselves and tell about our writing. My heart began to pound. I had anticipated the round-robin, but I didn’t know what to say. I knew my tale would elicit people’s sympathy, which was not my intent. Or maybe it was? I knew it would get their attention. Was that what I wanted?
At the time, I couldn’t say with conviction why I thought my story was worth telling. I just knew it was. Motherhood was tougher than I expected, but isn’t that every mom’s refrain? The real drama was my son’s physical, cognitive, and emotional deterioration, starting when he was eight. During that time, I drove our medical mystery bus while my husband, Mike, our pediatrician, and my family gave backseat driver advice to take the everything is normal detour and the preadolescence growing pains roundabout. I didn’t have a map for where we were going, but I had my gut, and my gut said something’s wrong.
But I wasn’t strong enough to resist their collective pooh-poohing of my concerns. I was outnumbered. I was weak. When I pushed the collective to get them to listen, they pushed back, and I backed down. It was a pattern imprinted from a very young age.
I had never learned to stand up for myself, so I didn’t know how to stand up for my son.
After nearly three years, it became clear my gut was right. Mike finally joined me at the wheel, and we drove down multiple dead-ends with names like Tourette Syndrome and Muscular Dystrophy and Schizoid Personality Disorder. Then, we crashed. Everyone survived, and I was determined to log the journey.
Perched on the edge of my orange seat, I listened as each student gave their spiel, the annoying tzzz of the fluorescent lights magnifying my own nervous anticipation. I don’t mind public speaking, but the weight of my disclosure made me lightheaded. Finally, it was my turn.
“I’m Karen, and I’ve never written before,” I began. “I’m writing about, I mean, I’m going to write about…” I paused, grabbing my knees under the desk. “Well, when my son Matthew was 11, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.”
Heat surged through my body. I grasped my hands to my belly to hide their trembling.
“That was two years ago,” I added. “He’s over the worst of it, but it’s been a pretty rough ride.”
Looking around, I saw brows knitted together, hands over mouths, eyes expressing concern. Marion commended me for my courage in showing up. By the end of class, my trembling stopped, my heart slowed, my face cooled, and I went home to write. I started on yellow legal pads with scalpel-sharp pencils, then transcribed the pages into my computer. For class every week, I prepared a 500-word excerpt, hoping to get a turn to read.
Marion never praised my actual writing. She congratulated me on spilling a jumble of words onto paper and having the guts to read it aloud, shaking with emotion as I did. It quickly became apparent to me that telling a story well on paper was painstaking work. “Vomit draft,” Marion called a first draft. “Shitty first draft,” Anne Lamott called it, I later discovered. Mine was more like a norovirus draft. I began to doubt my ability to write anything worthwhile. And a whole book? What was I thinking?
I continued to write for another year, as much as our dual-career, two-child family allowed, while we navigated our “new normal” life the best we could. But our best wasn’t good enough, and I realized something had to give. Before the Writing Memoir session of January 2001 began, I had made a life decision about my career and my writing. Again, I chose a seat in the circle. Watching puddles form under the chairs as bodies and boots thawed, I waited expectantly for Marion to start the round of introductions. When my turn came, I described my memoir, then added, “I’m going to quit my job in June to finish it.”
“Quit your job?” Marion repeated with a double take, her long auburn hair swishing from one shoulder to the other. I could guess what she was thinking. In spite of her encouragement of my efforts, I sucked. She probably thought I was nuts. But really, I wasn’t quitting my job to write my memoir. I misspoke. I was quitting because Matthew was flailing at recovery, and our family was floundering from the stress. My mental health had tanked, and my physical health was shot. Either I quit my job, or I would get cancer or have a heart attack within the year. I knew that to be true as much as I knew that my eyes were blue and Matthew’s were brown.
Free of my nine-to-five obligations, I got serious about writing. My yellow tablets gave way almost completely to the computer. I joined several writers’ groups and attended a writing retreat. Often, after working on or sharing my story, I made a beeline to a candy bar, or two or three, or went off on my own to sob. My story was a deep well of anguish. Dipping into it with my writing, I hauled up the pain like a rusty bucket dangling from a rope, then ladled it out word by word, page by page. The well never ran dry, refilled daily by Matthew’s tediously slow stumbling and bumbling back to some semblance of who he was before the tumor.
For two years, I dipped and ladled. When I had about 300 pages of a reasonable first draft, I stopped, leaving the bucket suspended in midair, the rope dangerously frayed. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I had myriad reasons to avoid writing—laundry, stripping wallpaper, cleaning toilets—anything was better than the dankness of the well. Parenting a child with early Alzheimer’s-like symptoms leaves little energy for anything else, I discovered, so I shifted my priority from recreating what had been, to nurturing what could be. I focused on being a mom while the rusty bucket mossed over.
Had I not become a stay-at-home mom, focused on my child’s recovery, I’m convinced Matthew would not have graduated from high school. But he did, and then he graduated from college, and then moved out on his own. He struggled, though—with short term memory, with problem solving, with keeping a job. Often his calls began, “Mom and Dad, can I come over tonight to talk about something?” and Mike and I wondered if he had gotten fired again or just quit. I thought we might have to support him financially for life, so I went back to work and climbed a few low rungs of the corporate ladder, never writing anything more creative than a resume.
Then I had another unexpected career sabbatical two years ago, when ongoing health problems of my own forced me to leave my job. As that decision became inevitable, I thought about the book. Would I go back to it? Could I try my hand at writing again? Matthew was 30. Almost 20 years had passed since his diagnosis. Did I have it in me to finish our story? Almost as soon as those questions triggered neurons in my brain to send their signals, I knew the answer was “yes.”
My dangling rope frayed a bit more as I brushed the moss from the bucket, but it held firm. When I first wrote, 20 years before, I didn’t know what the future held. This time, as I write, Matthew has a steady job with benefits and retirement, a girlfriend, a bright future. We were told after his surgery that his cognitive ability at the five-year mark was the best we could hope for, but every time I talk with him now, I’m convinced he’s smarter than the last time. Without a doubt, he’s smarter than me.
It’s a good place to write from, so I do. I take writing classes, submit essays to publications, enter contests, join social media writers’ groups, read memoirs and more memoirs. I now refer to my “manuscript,” I can say I’ve been published, and I know how to write a query letter.
Practicing my craft has enlightened me to the true story I have to tell. It’s not about the brain tumor. The how and what and when of that was mostly written years ago. The real story is about me—who I was as a woman on this difficult journey of motherhood. I’m not always proud of that woman. I am shamed by her weakness when her child needed her to be strong. It’s a hard truth to own, a truth I hadn’t recognized when I first started writing. Then it took a few more years and a dozen more drafts to discover and own my other truth: As flawed as I was, in spite of my weakness, I never gave up on my son. Pushed to the limits of what I was capable of as a mother, I pushed back simply by not quitting. I didn’t quit on myself, I didn’t quit on Matthew. And because of that, we both survived. Because of that, we thrive.
It’s easy for the strong to survive. It’s expected. It makes a good story, but the ending is predictable. When the weak survive, as I did, it’s a story worth telling.
And so I do.