I’m becoming a connoisseur of memoir. Not just any memoir. Memoir about pain, trial, tribulation, and grief. The funny thing is, I’m starting to think any memoir ever written began with grief. Grief over the loss of innocence, the loss of a dream, of life, of an expectation, of a part of life you or others took for granted. Cancer, dysfunctional families, terminal illness, accidents, disabilities, paralysis, death of a spouse or a parent... or a child. Always something that turned your life on it’s ear, often as quickly as it takes to complete a single breath.
It’s the camaraderie I think that I appreciate the most. The thought I could sit with these people and have a real conversation that would have been impossible 6 months ago. I like being able to see myself in bits and pieces of their story. Exact feelings or experiences validated or said in such a better way than I would have. The stupid things! Things I wouldn’t have thought were important enough to write, but when they did, feel triumphant that my pettiness or my needs are maybe, in fact, perfectly legitimate survival mechanisms, or allowed indulgences - or indeed, important. Here’s the latest one, found on page 93-95 of The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan. “Still needing a boost, I send out an e-mail, tinkering with every sentence...I hit send and then sit there with my tea, waiting. After a few automatic replies from people who are out of the office or on vacation, I see e-mails from [Jenny, Sarah, Lacie, Mom]. Within an hour, my in-box is fat with e-mails, which is exactly what I wanted.” Oh, god bless her for admitting the selfishness that is wanting to know that other people are out there and willing to take a few minutes out of their crazy lives to find some sweet softness and encouragement to give to yours. Someone to join in with whatever soap box or trial you happen to have on the docket that day.
The book goes on with “In the middle of the list, I see something from my cousin Kathy... Last summer, her twenty-year-old son was killed in a car crash...It’s been more than a year since Aaron died, and although I have left messages and sent e-mails, Kathy has stayed underground, which I can’t begrudge her. But there’s her name, right there. In a couple unpunctuated lines, she says I am now one of them, “the people who are aware of other.” She says Tony, her husband, thinks of it as a subculture. So now I’m on the inside.” One of them. On the inside. It’s true, that feeling that now you are different from much of the rest of the world. A subset. You come to realize that there are more people in it than you imagined, and you feel like horrible person that you never noticed, really noticed, before. I suppose it’s like any other shared experience, where you feel bonded despite any other factors that would otherwise preclude a meaningful conversation or relationship. But oh, the beautiful side of people who have shared unthinkable pain. The kind you pray never happens to you. The kind you hear of and think “Oh, that’s terrible, I can’t imagine.” (Then, being glad you don’t have to, breathe a little deeper, shake it off and resume reading your magazine or planning lunch the next day. Certainly I used to be one of them.) But those of the unthinkable...we, I can no longer exclude myself... we get an expression and body language that another member immediately recognizes as the secret password when such pain is mentioned. It’s weird. I’m learning you can almost tell how recent their event has been, or how similar to your own depending on the nuances of the password.
Friday I attended a traumatic brain injury conference with Lee Woodruff as the keynote speaker. If you ever get a chance to hear her, take it. Take it and then run find a quiet place where you can open it and pore over the details, soak it up. She’s amazing. It’s been 4 years since her husband Bob was injured in a roadside bomb while reporting for ABC in Iraq, the left 1/2 of his skull blown to bits. During the course of her talk, we all laughed, we all cried - Lee included, and we the audience were left richer people than we were found an hour before. Her experience and approach is universal in that it addresses probably any hardship life might throw your way. She’s a fervent believer that there are no reasons for things. That life is random, that stuff just happens, to good people, to bad people, and it doesn’t have anything to do with God or karma or punishment or reward or revenge. An attitude I haven’t gotten to myself yet, but would like to. She also admitted to still crouching against the wall waiting for the other shoe a little, as do most who have some post-traumatic stress going on. Check. She said if you have no sense of humor, it’s as bad as having no faith. Which might explain my compulsive need to look for funny online, on TV, in movie choices, etc. I haven’t yet found a way to bring humor to our particular situation the way I did to infertility, or the way the Woodruff family referred to Bob as “Half-Head”, and don’t know that I ever will. But I can recognize that funny still exists and look for it. Lee Woodruff’s gift is her accessibility, her humanity, and the feeling that you would be her friend if you just had 5 minutes with her. I haven’t read them myself yet, but would recommend her books In An Instant and Perfectly Imperfect.