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
On the first page of her book Wired for Story, Lisa Cron says:
"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.
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?
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy.
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.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Thank you for beng willing to share your mother's story with us. I wish comfort for her and strength for you and yoir sisters and the rest of the family during this time.
I went through this with my mom. Hospice brought sanity to doctors who refuse to quit even after it's torture. My deepest sympathies.
I remember meeting another mother in my daughter's preschool who worked as a nurse on the cancer ward of the local children's hospital. I asked her if she found it hard. She said the children were so brave, and so aware of what was happening. Often, they were the strong ones, wise enough to know how much their parents were suffering. When the end neared, they would send their parents home, and they'd die alone, understanding that seeing them go would be unbearable.
Wow Lecia. Just wow. Thanks for sharing this.
Prayers of strength for you and your family. I experienced a similar journey with my mother nearly 26 years ago. Knowing what was happening and what was to come did not make the journey easier because she was only 57-I felt her story wasn't complete.
As to your question, though, story is important because it allows us to make sense of our world, no matter the circumstances. The past story informs my writing when I allow it.
As someone turning 59 next month I can connect emotionally to what you're saying, Barb. I don't want to believe my story is over either. But philosophically I know we don't get to choose. A realm of story exists between what we want to accept and what we know is true. Since my Dad died precipitously, I appreciate this opportunity to help my mother bring her story to a close.
Your comment that a realm of story exists between what we know and what we accept rings true for me. Yes, this year I am 57, the same age as my mother was. That idea of mortality has been present in my thoughts all year. I think it was interfering with my writing but now I've decided that I'm pushing forward and I intend my story to last until I'm 80!
I hope your mother's journey is a peaceful one.
We have owned/operated Adagio AFH for 8 years and the stories of our people have given me poems and words of comfort for family caregivers. We could not work without Hospice. The Story that we don't think to write is that of Our Dying. Five Wishes is a pamphlet available to initiate this discussion. What tools do we develop to deal with the inevitable losses of our lives? Do we think we are going to live tomorrow as we are living today? This is not depressing; it is reality and what a Story.
I agree. Thank you for sharing this informed perspective.
Five Wishes is a wonderful tool for companioning folks at the end of life. It helps those who are aware to explore how they want to live those final months and days. It also relieves the burden of family members trying to figure out what their loved one would have wanted.
Kathryn - first, best to you, and your mom.
I think everything big that happens to us influences our writing. I find that the good stuff comes out in my voice, and the bad stuff, in the plots. Don't know if anyone else is like that.
Reminds me of a couple of quotes:
I often think that a good definition of story might be, “It’s about the things you can’t say out loud.” Lisa Cron
“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” Natalie Goldberg
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Flannery O'Connor
Wishing you peace.
Interesting about plot and voice, Laura. Probably a good idea for WF that this is not reversed!
Thank you for sharing this with us, Kathryn. I am sorry you and your mother are on this particular journey together but grateful that you are aware of the time you have left with her. That time is the gift.
The more I think about my writing, and the more I write, I begin to understand how everything in my life fires my plots and my characters. The "big stuff" brings plot and characters while the little things, like a beautiful butterfly hovering just out of reach for several minutes, give me scenes.
Laura, you made me laugh with the survived childhood...quote. No wonder I can write fight scenes easily!
Fae--it's thanks to my mother's constant criticism that I take rejection so well, lol! But dementia changed all of that and she has been a joy these past four years.
Kathryn, dementia did that to my grandmother as well and my family was super thankful for it, especially her kids. 🙂
Laura, that is fascinating about what influences your voice and plots. I never thought about it that way, but it's absolutely true. And it would make a great blog post...just sayin. 🙂
May you and your family find peace, strength, and whatever else you need to get through this time.
I've lost a grandfather, both parents, a close friend, and nearly my wife to cancer. It's felt at times as if it was a sniper stalking everyone I cared about. In the case of my stepfather - my hero and role model - when the doctor diagnosed him, he asked how much time he had left, and the doctor estimated 6-12 months; he was gone a week later. Mom was able to fight it for longer. With both of them, being able to spend every minute I could with them was a gift that gave my brother and me a lot of comfort.
A friend gave me a copy of a book about the experiences of the dying and their families titled 'Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communication of the Dying," by hospice nurses Maggie Calanan and Patricia Kelley. That book was a great help and comfort, too.
My thoughts are with you and your family.
Thanks JR. Good point that the story we were given makes sense, but offered no concrete timeline. Thanks for sharing.
Sending hugs, Kathryn. I've been through this and will surely go through it again. May peace be upon you all.
Thanks Normandie. Still very much hoping to get to Albuquerque and get some hugs for real.
You've had your share. It sucks. I hope that after you bring whatever you can to ease your mother's passage, you'll find a way to shake your fist at God, kick some walls, and curse the injustice that the gift of life comes tethered to an elastic band---after which you'll write your brains out as your mom takes up house in your heart and happily resides there the rest of your days.
Lanny I adore your comment for its machismo, it's tenderness, and it sheer Lanny-ness. Thank you for it, my friend.
This hits so close to home for me, Kathryn, as my 81-year old mother is fighting the good fight right now. Thank you for voicing this for those of us who have yet to find the words to work through the pain. My heart goes out to you and your family and I am sending strength and light your way.
Ah, Jess, same to you.
So sorry to hear, Kathryn (my mother's name BTW). I went through this with her years ago. She was much younger. And it's hard. Really hard. But it's amazing when you realize just how much you can handle. Sending good thoughts.
Thanks Densie. xo
Kathryn, After all the reading above, I was wanting to say something inspirational to you. Something that wouldn't sound trite and greeting card-like. But sometimes the words need to take a seat, wait until it's their turn. Please take care of yourself. My heart is with you and your family.
Thanks so much Alice.
Thanks for sharing your courageous story, Kathryn. Many of us have been through this journey, in some form or another, with either one or both parents. I've been caring for my dad who had a stroke two years ago, and who has a host of other medical problems, and I'm always required to draw from some place within me that I didn't know was there. But that strength is there, within all of us. It's interesting you mention "story" -- my blog is called "Stories for the Journey" and I wouldn't share this here, but my post this evening is about my mother and an illness she had many years ago. If you would allow me to share it here in the hopes it might touch or help someone, I'd love to do that. The photo of you kissing your mom touched me deeply. My prayers and healing thoughts go to your dear mother, your family ... and you. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2015/08/24/it-will-be-all-right/
It will be all right"--beautiful, Marielena. Thanks for the link and for sharing your story. How very lucky you were to have such a nurturing soul in your life! But no matter the relationship, you only have one Mom, and one chance to be the daughter you want to be as she leaves this world. I am glad to have had a long farewell, through five years of dementia and now this.
This part of your mother's story, and yours, is a blessed chapter. Best wishes as you live it out.
I agree Susan, thank you.
I'm so sorry to hear this, Kathryn, but it sounds like you are making the best of your time together. What a gift to you, your mom, and sister. And yes, it seems most of our story ideas come from a thread of true-life pain.
Without pain there could never BE a story, right? I'm in it for the whole ride.
Kathryn, I send my prayers for you, your mom, and your family. When my mom spent the last month of her life in the hospital battling leukemia, she and I never talked about the end. I don't know whether the doctor told her that she was not going to survive, but I couldn't tell her; and if she did know, she couldn't tell me. So we sat together never mentioning the "elephant in the hospital room." I wish we'd had our voices during that time; we could have shared the load rather than struggling separately to shoulder the silence.
Oh Nancy (my sister's name who I lost to cancer), my mom died very young, and I had the same problem you did...I had so many things to tell her, and couldn't voice one of them. It's one of the biggest regrets of my life.
My dad, oddly enough, helped me through this. He and my mom had divorced years before, and frankly, we were surprised when he wanted to come out after she died. He sat at the kitchen table, and told us, "Don't feel guilty." We looked at each other, shocked. How could he know? (we didn't even know our other siblings felt that!)
Of course, it was because he'd felt the same, with his parents. Death is hard for, and on, everyone. You can only handle what you can handle, when you handle it.
And honestly, think of what you wanted to tell your mom - didn't she know it already?
Love this thread, Nancy and Laura. I have the complete opposite situation. I am deeply philosophical and there is no subject I won't tackle. But my mom has dementia and there are just so many times in a day you can tell her before you feel you're bludgeoning her with Truth. Plus, she has never been introspective or philosophical anyway--even if she had full faculties she would tell us to stop it already. In any scenario, what meaning there is to be found is for me alone. But she does seem to be thriving on the extra attention!
Cruel that opposite irony, Kathryn. for a conversation, you need a speaker and a listener. Missing either, leaves a massive hole, doesn't it?
Yup. Why I'm a writer!
Beautiful words. Blessings on your mom.
I'm so sorry to hear about your mum. Wishing you and your family comfort and peace at this difficult.
As to stories, I think they help us make sense of the insensible, the unpredictability of other people and of ourselves. They're like a map, we understand the key, we know the general rules and how things usually work, and so we can find our way.
All the best.
Thanks Wendy. Neat analogy to a road map. I always wanted to be the keeper of the map on our family road trips, planning our way and intuiting the journey. Like my dad. Come to think of it I never recall my mom consulting a map. An interesting clue to character I missed!
All too familiar with tough conversations with hospital personnel. My mom spread her wings in May 2008. It's the most frustrating thing to watch a parent go through such difficult times. As evident through these responses above mine and the FB comments, you are truly loved. Let that encourage you to be strong during the storms.
Story allows me to go places above, beyond, below, and within. It is the direction the mind needs to follow the characters on their journey. I think of Freefire by CJ Box and how his story helped distract me after my mom lost her cancer battle. It's writing like that, in his unique way of using story, that gave me my emotional escape that summer.
Ooh, I'll have to check out Freefire. Thanks Uriah!
Such a difficult time, but you're right that in the realm of medical problems, you do need a sense of story to comprehend. As I've tried off and on over the past ten years to write the story of my mother's family, the "facts" of jobs and moves and illnesses and deaths that can be gleaned from family records, immigration cards, death certificates, etc. but those are all like bits of dry onion skin you can't quite scrape all the way off to get to the layers of story beneath. And those with the most information seem to have the tightest lips--or to have already died.
My prayers go out for your family as you navigate the waters of hospice. May you and your siblings be knit closer together for the experience, and may your mother find peace amidst the chaos, both within and without.
Erin I can only imagine the challenge ahead in writing the family story! Even families get bored with reading too much detail about themselves, yet sometimes you want facts. A conundrum. I think I'd be tempted to write a story with fact-filled bios in the back.
Kathryn, I'm so sorry that your family is going through this, but so thankful that you have the whole story. So many times, it seems, doctors recommend treatment after treatment for patients, and it ends up giving false hope to loved ones. They need something to grasp onto, and that hope is often all they're given. Your hospice nurse sounds like a godsend. Knowing the facts, you'll know what to do and can emotionally prepare. Sending healing thoughts to all of you.
That's exactly how I feel, Chris.
That picture of y ou two up top is so sweet, Kathryn. Thank you for sharing your journey. It's one many of us have walked and it's both heartbreaking and fulfilling. I'm wishing you and your family love and strength while you navigate.
I was honored to be able to hold my mother's hand and spirit while she declined and (eventually) passed. That journey alongside her was a special time, and it's what helps me bear that she went at 65. It's been 11 years and I still cry when I write about it, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Dying can be a beautiful experience for those able to play a role. Thanks for sharing that, Jenny.
Not so much macho, Kathryn,as a recognition that anger is an important part of grief, and so easily repressed when the situation demands sympathy, compassion, and a cool head. My post was calculated to give the nurse (you) permission to harbor her own feelings while she was busy caring so deeply for a loved one.
Aw, thanks Lanny. But can I keep my version too?
Story is everything. Just look at what you just wrote about your Mom and how it's affected your family. That's quite a story. It helps us to be informed even though you're living through one of the most difficult times of your life. I faced a similar situation with my father when he died. He was never a complainer. We never knew how he felt or if something in a physical way bothered him. So it was a complete shock when we found out he had stage 4 lung cancer. He went quickly. Which was a blessing and a curse because we couldn't seem to wrap our heads around the reality fast enough. I wish you and yours much comfort, strength and peace during this time.
Thanks Karen for sharing your story. Yes, we find ourselves having to philosophically embrace, emotionally prepare for, and budget human and financial resources for a week or a year. Not so easy to do.
Thank you for inviting us to share the story. May you find peace even in the whirlwind.
What a brave story to share. Hugs, and God bless.
Aw, thanks Kathleen.
Kathryn... At the age of 87 my mother fell apart. She lost her interest in food and even water. In the course of the next few weeks everything broke. Her hip went and that resulted in her shattering her shoulder. Within days the meds took her mind. There was nothing I could do. As an engineer, I looked for a solution, but there was none to find. In reading your story, it reminded me of our families experience. Take comfort in knowing that you and your family were there to support your mother and step in to management her life. I believe in angels and not all angels have wings. But try as you might the time comes when your mother's future is in God's hands. Keep doing what you can and show her the love I'm sure she showed you.
Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Lee. Once I knew it was time for it, I honestly didn't have a problem embracing the hospice philosophy. Her death is not a problem requiring a solution, it is a natural process, as it was with your mother, and I'm glad to be able to play a role. The trick is knowing when to surrender, isn't it?
You and your family are in my thoughts. Hospice was a positive experience in my family and with friends, too. My youngest niece is a hospice intake nurse now. Those folks are very special. I hope you find them a wonderful support during this difficult time.
Thanks so much Gail. I'm sure I will--all of the hospice folks have been great so far.
Kathy, sorry to hear you are on this journey with your mom. So appreciate your outlook. Everyone has a story, we never know where life leads us. Praying for you and your family.
Thanks Eileen--you probably remember my mom from aerobics! Her general level of athleticism has held her in good stead for a long time.
[…] In a poignant post, Kathryn Craft shows the power of story in real life. […]
Thanks for sharing the post, Kerry!
Thank you for sharing, Kathryn. I found myself in a similar situation a year ago. We had to move my dad to a memory care facility. I was so blessed that Dad continued to recognize me up until the end. I wrote two different blogs, sharing my heart in our story. But watching Dad slip away and writing about it was hard, harder than I ever imagined. Praying God's comfort and grace for you and your family.
Thank you Penelope, and bless your dad's sweet soul. My mom "recognizes" me, but many days only as "a nice person who comes to help me out."
Hi, I wrote and published a book about my experience of emotional distress and found it a very cathartic experience (even if it did leave me feeling a little over-exposed at times). Personally, I love reading about other people's experiences of life's ups and downs - in memoir form or fictionalised. I like to be reminded that when all is said and done, we are all human.