Five years ago, I created a series of writing exercises to help people reimagine themselves as the heroes of their own life stories. My inspiration was a series of observations made during my years as an English major and a student of biblical texts. Not only did I notice that people inevitably project their own life experiences on to what they read, but also that they seemingly had an easier time empathizing with characters’ struggles than their own. I was simply giving them permission and tools to step out of their own stories and check out the landscape.
My premise could be summarized as follows:
1) Our lives are unfolding stories;
2) We are potentially our own best and worst interpreters of what happens to us;
3) How we tell our story matters because it influences how we feel;
4) How we feel about our stories influences how they unfold;
5) As in stories, tension between the protagonist (us) and the antagonists (our obstacles) is fertile ground for character development; and
6) Writing in the third person voice can help us be more objective about our lives.
While it sounds simple enough, it wasn’t until my vibrant 72-year-old father developed aggressive cancer and died this past February, that I actually had to consider whether I walked my own talk.
My father’s unexpected death was the third cancer fatality in my small, immediate family in seven years. My beloved 61-year-old mother died of ovarian cancer in 2005 after an 11-year battle. My father was her primary caregiver. Several months after my mother’s death, my father met Vicki, a 50-something physical trainer my father, brother and I grew to love. In the summer of 2009, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a year later, also at 61.
Neither of my parents got a chance to see their two children married or dote on grandchildren. Only my father was able to witness the promise of his children’s budding careers after years of struggles. And when Vicki died, Marissa, her 21-year-old daughter and only child, was suddenly orphaned.
For many, the story of my family reads like a tragedy, and that’s without even mentioning my father’s amputated leg in 1986, or my mother’s loss of her right eye in a freak art school accident before I was born. “That’s tzurus (Yiddish for trouble) you don’t need,” my uncle remarked when he learned of my father’s second cancer diagnosis, the first of which cost him the leg.
Which is why my somewhat Polyannish-premise was tested when I found myself facing the death of the man I always dreamed would walk me down the isle or attend one of my book readings. Did I truly believe that I had the power to transform my tragedies into triumphs simply by choosing to put a positive spin on my own story?
My answer surprised me: “yes,” though it requires some reading between the lines. My relationship with my father was never an easy one. When we were younger, we butted heads. He could be bossy, judgmental, and self-righteous. “Benevolent despot,” was how one friend described him. Nothing I ever did was good enough, or so I thought. He was more interested in sharing his opinions than soliciting mine. I challenged him, and made my mother my confidante. When I graduated college, I moved to San Francisco, putting several cities and mountain ranges between us.
My father and I grew closer after my mother passed. I had already moved back to New York, and we found ourselves spending more time together. We had dinner, went biking, saw shows…and talked. He had found love again and seemed genuinely happy with Vicki. I was older, had done my own personal growth work and had come to appreciate my father’s positive attributes while accepting his rougher edges without taking them personally.
But it wasn’t until my father suddenly became ill, that I would be forced to put my love to the test. Seven years ago, I had spent three heart-wrenching months at my mother’s bedside in hospice care. http://www.aish.com/sp/so/48923857.html Vicki’s death had come quicker, though her cancer had been no less merciless.
When I fast forward and step outside my story, I see myself curled up on the couch in my father’s hospital room while the hospice admitting nurse explains that he will need 24-hour supervision to receive services at home. My brother is immersed in a rigorous Master’s program at Cornell University. I have been my father’s primary health advocate for the past three months, flying back and forth between my life in New York and Florida, where he relocated just a few months prior to his diagnosis. Hiring a full-time aide is unthinkable, even if it were affordable.
So I decide to take a leave of absence – from my private practice, my friends, my community, and my frenetic but full life in Manhattan – to care for my father. It’s been 18 years since we lived under the same roof as my provider, only now I am providing care to him.
It’s hard to describe the two months that follow. They are not easy. My father is no less demanding in pain and than he is in health. I have been thrust into the role of administering his meds, fixing his meals, cleaning his house, learning to manage his finances, and holding his hand, both figuratively and literally, through waves of fear and pain. I have never been a parent, but the irony of the turned tables is not lost on me.
Despite the stress, I feel my heart softening and expanding. My father and I share many moments of tears and laughter. We come to know and appreciate each other’s minds, emotions, and strengths more deeply. Old friends and family show up to share good memories and lend support. I find myself reconnecting with long-lost relatives, and see how lucky I am to have such supportive friends and community. When my brother comes down to help, our icy relationship begins to thaw as we come to know each other as adults. Marissa visits too, and I find myself inspired by her resilience and generosity.
As the rabbi who would later perform my father’s memorial service stated, “Bernie was like an onion. The more you boil it, the sweeter it gets.” And life boiled all of us quite a bit. One evening, my father shares that he can’t believe that even in his misery, he is learning and growing. “What are you learning?” I inquire. “That people have found a way to love me and that I have found a way to love them.” That’s all he ever wanted…that’s all anyone ever wants, isn’t it?
I realize there are many ways to spin my story. Mine is but one version. But as the narrator, the protagonist, and interpreter, I exercise my right to read it as a story of love and redemption…the prodigal daughter perhaps.
While I claim the authorships rights of my story, I recognize that some stories are more susceptible to a positive spin than others. I think of Madonna Badger, the Connecticut woman who lost her parents and three children in a fire this past Christmas, and doubt I could find the silver lining in her position, though it may be possible. I see senseless tragedies in the news, and have similar questions.
I further recognize that the story of my father’s death is not over. I am only three months into grief, and I am familiar enough with its territory to know that it will take vigilance and unconditional self love, which I am still fertilizing, to steer clear of the pits of darkness and self-pity that beckon in moments of heartbreak. I am not immune to bouts of fear and skepticism. Had I been given a choice, I would have perhaps chosen another storyline for my life’s lessons. But for now, I embrace the gifts of my bittersweet fortune.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.