As a reader and editor for River Teeth, one of my major biases was dying mom stories. Writers think just because their loved one has died or might die or is dying, they ought to write about her. It’s sad. It’s hard. It’s life changing. So we write dying mom stories.
The trouble with the vast majority of dying mom stories is that, too often, they are only about mom dying. To sum it up, “This happened, and I hated it.” Dying mom is a Big Deal, but without plunging the depths, without any kind of evidence of movement in the narrator (writer, person, life of writer), there is nothing for the reader here, except maybe pity. “That’s sad for her,” we might think of the writer, and feel nothing except distance.
The nonfiction story, after all, isn’t really about dying mom. It’s about the writer and how she did or did not deal with dying mom. Consider Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter. The situation in both books is mom dying, but the story in neither book is really mom’s death. The story is how Cheryl’s mom’s death sent a 7.0 earthquake through her life with unpredictable aftershocks that eventually propelled her onto the PCT to deal with and begin to recover the pieces of herself and her mom that had been wrecked by her mom’s death. In Hampl’s book, the story begins by Patricia’s dying mom’s bedside as she’s trying to write an obituary and launches from there into an excavation of her past and her relationship with her parents in order to figure out who she is in relation to her mom and her dad.
Both memoirs attempt to answer a Big Question (as Jill Christman says), and that Big Question for all essayists and memoirists is a pursuit to know thyself (as Steven Harvey and Greek philosophers say), not record for friends and family an extended account of mom dying, however unique or unusual that death is. The fact is, everyone dies, and it doesn’t matter what happened… it only matters what large sense the writer makes of what happened (as Vivian Gornick says). There has to be progression from “This happened, and I hated it,” to “and here’s what I made of it.”
All throughout December, I battled against the waves of sadness, 24 days of writing through my mom’s cancer treatments and the advent season to remind myself of how God has been with me, is with me, and will continue to be with me. By the time my mom completed her second cycle of treatment and left the hospital on the 19th, part of me felt through with all of the lament. Enough already, I said to myself, no one wants to hear anymore of your dying mom story. I don’t want to hear anymore of my dying mom laments–I sought out my God in the midst of those treatments and he was there, revealing himself and proving himself faithful with peace and hope, daily. I needed that. I needed to cry out and to be heard, and to be held.
We have to go through the valleys of the shadow of death to find the hope and acceptance on the other side.
The trouble is that this treatment is not the end. We won’t know until February whether it did anything. Even if by the greatest miracle of science and God she hears the word cured, there will be more scans. There will be more tests to check and check again, forever. There will always be the What If. There will always be the very real fact that my mom will die, one day. We have to go on living, living fully, not fearfully.
So how now, brown cow, shall we go on?
The sports talk radio hosts in Cleveland talk about the city and its teams as the Factory of Sadness. Every decision and season, the teams and their fans manufacture more reasons to be depressed.
We can do that, too. We can wait in fear for test results and life expectancies and statistics. We can worry over what the future holds and how long that future will last. We can worry and worry and wait and worry, blind to all of the life happening around us.
Or we can choose happiness and hope. We can take “This happened, and I hate it,” and turn it into “here’s what I am making of it.” The last few days I’ve watched a couple talks on what makes us happy. The research shows that 1.) strong relationships 2.) staying active and creative in that activity and 3.) feeling part of a higher purpose not only make us happy, they bolster our abilities to cope when times are tough, when we are physically or emotionally ill. When these things are absent and we are lonely or bored or selfish or lazy, we actually hurt more. We feel more pain.
I don’t want to be lonely, or bored, or selfish, or lazy. I want to connect, to engage, to be energized, to broaden my view, to serve others, to live fully.
These are the founding principles of my 2016 resolutions – not to weigh less or earn more or score more acceptances from publishers, although I’ll gladly take those things too. I want to direct my energies into the Factory of Happiness. Here are the things I know bring joy for me, because they have always brought me joy, cup overflowing joy, brought to tears joy, and I know by doing them in 2016 I can shut down production in my Factory of Sadness and live fully, every moment.
- Dance, sing, take walks, plant flowers, play board games, and be present with my family.
- Leave my phone in my bedroom from the time I get home from work until the time I go to sleep, and be present with my family.
- Read 24 books (two a month – I nailed last year’s goal of 12 by discovering audiobooks).
- Invest in the lives of our church members and develop relationships there by participating in studies, hosting meals, or eating donuts.
- Blog once a week, sometimes about the assembly line in the Factory of Happiness and sometimes to tell you about the good books I’m reading and other times to lament, because I would be foolish to think there won’t be reasons for lament ever again now that I’ve done that for 19 days or so.
- Stop saying “We should do that someday” and just do it. Go for hikes. Take trips. Build snowmen. Go sledding. Go swimming. Go camping. Kick fallen leaves. Skip stones. Go to the beach. Go into the world. Get off my behind and go, and be present with my family.
The waves of sadness have subsided. The grief over this new reality is real but it does not need to be permanent. We do not need to be overcome by sadness. We can choose to find joy. We can manufacture happiness by the choices we make, the people we choose to say yes to and those we choose to say no to; we can conjure something beautiful and meaningful from the dust of our dying mom stories.
We can write the better story later by living the better story now.
Here is to a flourishing Factory of Happiness in 2016.
Here is the TEDtalk about happiness I recently watched:
And the documentary, available on Netflix, is called Happy.