Before we jump into Kathryn's wisdom, I wanted to let you know - the winner of Laurie Schnebly Campbell's class is....Olderwriter! We'll be in touch, Eveyln!
Turning Whine Into Gold
"Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to."
I was thinking about this provocative sentence last week, when I was summoned from worlds born of my imagination—the writing I was doing at my summer home in northern New York—back to the realm of cold, hard fact in Pennsylvania.
My 84-year-old mother, who has dementia and for whom I serve as power of attorney, had fallen and hit her head. While in the ER getting checked out for her head—which was just as hard and intact as ever—she complained of belly pain and so they did a full body scan.
They found two lung masses, inflamed colon, rectal bleeding, enlarged liver, elevated white blood count, low red count—she hadn’t fallen, she had passed out. Dementia had protected her from accumulating the story her body had to share; my mother just kept acclimating to her symptoms until they dropped her.
Within 24 hours my sisters and I converged. How had this happened? In June her physician had given her a clean bill of health. In July we spent a week with her up at the lake.
We’d know soon enough. No better place than a modern hospital to get the facts.
- How did she get colitis?
- What is the nature of these masses?
- Are they related to the cough that the assisted living nurses said was of no travel concern?
- Should I reschedule the removal of the skin cancer lesion on her knee?
But facts require invasive biopsies. And once we brought hospice into the picture, the nurse pulled out the IV and the doctor released her. What? We don’t want her dying from something curable while battling lung cancer! The lack of facts left us dizzy.
Story: truer than fact?
After discharge, back at assisted living, I asked the hospice intake nurse, Chris, for some sense of how this might go down. Doing so wasn’t fair. Chris only had the same facts the doctor had. But she trusted her observations, experience, creative language, and the intuition derived from all of the above to tell us this:
Your mother’s body has provided a playground for metastatic disease. It probably started in the lining of her lungs. From there cancer cells sloughed off and went to her colon, where they can hide for some time within the organ’s numerous folds. The rectal bleeding caused the loss of red blood cells that she needs to deliver oxygen to her body. Can she still make those? Probably not. And her breathing is severely compromised; I can find no evidence of air entering or leaving her lower left lobe. Your mother will not rebound from this hospital visit; she will get weaker. The enlarged liver suggests the cancer has already taken up residence within it, and since it is the only organ that can regenerate its cells, cancer will have a heyday there and things will progress quickly. There is no point in fighting the skin cancer since more and more research is linking skin cancers to those of internal organs. She has a full system disease and it is shutting her down. We will order her a wheelchair—if she ever walks to the dining room again, we’ll want to make sure she can get back. Ignore the discharge nurse’s advice on low-fiber diet. If your mother will eat at all, let her eat what she wants. If she won’t eat, that’s fine. At this point her body is not absorbing the nutrients; she is feeding the cancer. We’ll order oxygen because she is winded from just brushing her teeth. If she can still get enough air into her lungs to do so, she may start coughing up—
My sister, who had been in the bathroom getting my mother ready for bed, rushed into the room and begged us to excuse the interruption. “My mother just coughed something up for the first time. Gray, with black flecks.”
“That’s old blood,” Chris said, her prognosis already coming true.
What my sisters and I thought we’d needed to orient us to my mother’s new reality wasn’t facts, after all. Even if we’d had them, we’d struggle to string them together in a meaningful way.
What we now had was something that’s even better than a happy ending. Thanks to a hospice nurse and her story, we live again in a world that makes sense.
So how important is story? Let me go back to Lisa Cron, and attach the lines that preceded and followed my initial quote:
"Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not."
So, dear WITS followers, how important is story? Do you have one to share that influenced you, as a writer?
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.
Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.