I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling. No matter how extraordinary, at their most powerful, stories reflect the universal. They bind us together this way.
I typically prefer to sit with them quietly, with a book or with my thoughts. But Tuesday night I went about it a different way.
Katherine Conway and Roxanne Krystalli – unsurprisingly two of the most extraordinary and simultaneously universally appealing women at Fletcher – run what they call the Storytelling Forum, a monthly, intimate gathering for students to share personal stories about a given topic. Tuesday’s theme was “Grief and Loss – Stories of Healing through Life’s Difficult Moments.”
Those few words are enough to make most tune out, myself included. And I was hesitant. I imagined a room full of sullen faces – or worse, saps. The only thing on heavy rotation, a Kleenex box.
Grievers Anonymous? Sign me up.
I have a story, or fragments of one, or many. If called upon, I could say a few things, maybe even cry. But this is not why I signed up. Healing is not quite what I am looking for. My Loss story is a Love story and I have learned that both are holy.
I signed up because I was curious. Who exactly are all the other grievers with their stories or their fragments of stories? Could I guess their identity by the way they carry themselves in daylight? Were we alike somehow? Did they also nurture an attachment to lone walks – the kind that stem from impulse, from a primal urge to roam?
If I tell them that my mother died when I was twenty-four, after a long and morbid battle with cancer, would I find pity or solace in their eyes? I hoped for solace. In solace lies the power of storytelling, and solace is what I found.
I shared my story. Unplanned, I said or wanted to say:
The summer my mother died I took leave from work and moved home to see her through. It was early June and the city was stiff, the dry Southern California sun hanging low like a heat lamp on my skin.
“It’s my sabbatical,” I told her.
“Maybe you will finally learn to cook,” she said; an apology, the best way she knew how.
By then we knew it was inevitable. The options had been spent. She had been diagnosed with stomach cancer two years earlier and, once that final summer burst, it took just two months for the cancer to eat her to the bone.
I did not learn how to cook; my father cooked. Up at four in the morning, he wore an apron all day. My stepfather kept his business open and sat by my mother’s bedside every night after it closed. My mother, two fathers, grandmother, brother, his wife, and I lived in the same home for months. We sat around that bed and read – out loud – stories about people and places that we might have known and loved. I felt joy.
There were terrible moments, too. Awful, seemingly unbearable and prolonged moments of pain. Of helplessness. I held my mother often and promised to keep her safe, to make things painless. We knew that I could not keep her safe, but I would try. And what a privilege it was to try.
She held on. My mother was brave. She knew that I was the child. She needed to know that I would be safe. She held on so long that the doctor, surprised, subtly advised that I speak to her, that I let her go. She mentioned that it might seem impossible for someone in her physical state to hear those around her, but some part of her would understand. Sometimes, she said, patients with younger children hold on just a little longer. So I lay next to my mother in bed. I told her a story. The narrative of a woman who would be safe. And happy. I let her go. We fell asleep and she died in my arms.
I often think of my mother as a little girl. I see her standing against a dark, brick building wearing a white and blue checkered dress. Her thick, black hair pinned back. She smiles curiously, her eyes soft yet fixed on mine. The late afternoon sun pours down on her tiny frame.
Her white socks droop unevenly. The elastic has worn off. She’s unaware of it now, but the fact upsets her in a way that she will not be able to express until years later, decades perhaps.
As a teenager, her concern over my appearance infuriated me. She did not complain about the holes in my jeans, but she always made sure I had nice socks. It seems inconsequential to think about it now.
But the little girl watches me with a steady gaze. I am now the keeper of her stories.