I was walking home from school one day in 1979. I stopped to sit on the stoop of an abandoned building that we called “the Castle” because it was big and sort of baroque, which made it ominous. It was empty and boarded up but some kids were brave enough to go inside at night. Not me.
I sat there and I thought about all that had happened in the last year. My mother died. I had trouble getting along with her as she got sicker, so when she died I had a lot of feelings of regret and guilt built into my grief. I tried harder with my father and sister Sally, but mostly felt alienated from them both. I was fifteen.
As I sat there reflecting, it occurred to me that I ought to write something. A short story or maybe even a book. That idea, just the notion of writing about what I was going through lifted me up.
Even though I remember that moment clearly, I don’t remember deciding not to write the story. I probably just put it off until it seemed like a useless idea. Maybe I felt I wasn’t a writer.
It was not until I had a book under my belt at age forty-six that I finally decided it was time to write the book that I had thought about that day. I would finally write a book about my mother. She was the central figure in my life and I knew I had to do it before I could write another book. I wanted to write about losing her. The period when we weren’t getting along. I wanted to write about what it was like during her illness, because that was the part of her life, and mine, that I had never revisited. It was a black hole in my memory banks. I wanted to try and write about how she handled it. How we all handled it. And what happened to our relationships.
As I started writing the stories for the book, I focused on what I remembered, which was vague at best. I remembered moments. I remembered feelings. I recalled an edgeless vacuum of communication, explanation or understanding between all of us. I remember feeling there was a lot that no one was talking about, or that I was being left out of discussions. But I was complicit in the game of denial we all played. It was our habit to put a lid on conversations about feelings, and my own adolescent strategy for avoiding discomfort was distraction. I immersed myself in a busy social life and tried and true methods of numbing my emotions. For a young person, my way of coping was normal. But now in middle age, I felt ready to go back to that time and give myself a chance to really look at it, and feel it.
Sometime after I started on the stories for the book, I realized I needed facts to hold the pieces in place. I remembered I had my mother’s journal, which covers the period between her diagnosis and her death. My father had it typed up and gave each of us four kids a copy. I read it right away and I remember being deeply disappointed not to find much in it about me. She only mentions each of us a handful of times. Instead it is page after page of mostly technical information about what was happening to her medically and physically. I read it again in college, and at least once or twice more after that. As I grew up I got more out of reading it, but it still seemed sorely lacking in clues about what she went through emotionally, which was the information I craved.
As I thumbed through it again I realized it held all the details and timeline I needed for my book. I had to read it carefully to line up my foggy memories with the specifics of her condition. But as I reread it, not expecting to find anything but the familiar unemotional accounting of facts, I began to see that she was in there after all. I could almost feel her. It was in the gaps, and from the way she would lead up to something important or painful, and then drop it. In a simple statement like “Sally is startled by the markings” I could sense the complexity of her navigating not only the changes in her body but her children’s reactions as well.
Perhaps it’s because I am willing to see her for who she was that I can feel her coming through the words. Until now, every reading of it had been tainted by my own need for her to see me. It hit me that I had in my hands the key to understanding this seminal period of my life, and I was ready. I could begin to imagine what it was like for her to see her own life fading. I could find compassion, and that shifted everything. I decided to write from her perspective, as well as my own.
The hardest part about that decision is that I have to keep giving myself permission to write from her point of view. The question that comes up is How dare I speak for her when she is not here to correct me? How can I presume to know what she was thinking or what her reasons were for making the choices she made?
I just keep going back to her words. In them I see who she was, and what she was trying to share with the world. On the first page she writes:
Preface (Why am I writing this)
Writers write about their experiences. When a writer finds he has cancer he writes a book about it. I am not a writer but ever since I discovered that I had breast cancer four years ago, I have written what I labeled “The Diary of a Cancer Patient” which included medical information as well as my personal reactions. Not very entertaining set down, but all there. There is an attempt to sort out that mass of material into some coherent form for myself and anyone else who is curious enough for his own reasons to want to read yet another personal account of the mystery of cancer.
It turns out I am that person, curious enough for my own reasons to read “yet another personal account.” It is easy to discount personal writing as a frivolous undertaking. But even though the motivation for such writing may be personal, the outcome is not. People find it, just as I found my mother’s diary, and it means something to them. All the ways in which human beings inflict and experience pain is in our stories and in the telling of them we work to heal those wounds. Reading those stories works too.
Writing this book, through the eyes of who my mother and I both were all those years ago, has required me to use my imagination, but more importantly, to trust my gut. I am still me and she is still my mother. A lot of her is in me. I mother like she did. I walk like she did. I even look a lot like she did.
So it turns out I could not have written this as a teenager. I had to be a mother and reach her age to have any understanding of what she was up against. Not being a cancer patient, my understanding is still limited, but regardless of that fortunate shortcoming, here I am, in a collaboration with my mother, getting to know her through me. Or me through her. Or both.
My answer to the question -How dare I- is simple: This story is not about Sue Faison. It’s about who she was to me. It’s about our relationship and how it evolved during her lifetime and continues to evolve decades after her death. In other words, it’s about me. And that’s enough.