I had just left the Hopkins Center for the Arts, where the PenPals author lecture series kicked off its 19th season with Judy Blume. Blume was the first writer of teen novels to tackle racism, divorce, bullying, menstruation, and teen sex—topics that would likely not have been discussed in the 1970s between parents and their children.
While waiting at a stoplight, I glanced at the e-mails that had come in while I was at the event. At the top, the first to catch my eye, was a note from a woman I’ve worked with on and off over the years. In the subject line: “Big health news.” The first sentence slapped me with the news: her husband was just diagnosed with a brain tumor.
There it was again. That moment when the world tilts off its axis and life will never be the same. My first instinct was to put my hands up to stop this awful pain from seizing my heart. I didn’t want to go back to that terrifying place, where all the rules have suddenly changed and the future is unimaginable.
“I like to give my readers a happy ending,” Blume said. As I walked to my car, her words rocked through me. Yes, fiction addresses real issues, real situations. But nonfiction demands a deeper, direct truth-telling that yields a more modulated outcome.
A few e-mails down was one from CaringBride, indicating a new journal entry. A writer friend’s husband had a massive stroke in 2010. Their daughter posted this entry on osteoporosis, a disease that her father had inherited but that inactivity following his stroke had contributed more to through bone loss and abnormally low Vitamin D levels. A setback that sunlight, massive doses of vitamins, and an annual Reclast infusion would counter.
When I saw a third e-mail, also from CaringBridge, I almost deleted it. What now? I thought. Would I be able to concentrate on driving with all this “health news” breaking in? But once a story is underway, I need to know what happens. I opened it. Thankfully, it was a celebratory report from a friend who has lived with metastatic breast cancer for almost 7 years and just learned she is in complete remission.
All of this—brain tumor, bone disease on the heels of a stroke, a future once unimagined—in an eternal minute. My heart had just run a sprint, my mind, a marathon, as life and death and everything in between flashed before me.
Once I got onto the highway, I sped home. I wanted to leave the Hopkins of happy endings, hurry past Fairview Hospital-Southdale, shake off the prescient words a father offered the night before at a fundraiser for children’s cancer research and treatment. “Tomorrow, another family will sit across from an oncologist and learn that their child has cancer.” Where are the happy endings of Blume’s fiction? Where are the happy endings we write for our ourselves and those we love, regardless what lands in our inbox?
I wore a suit to the fundraiser that I salvaged from Chris’s step-grandmother’s closet after she died some years ago. I love the polish of its midnight blue silk, more that it was free. But my most beloved item from Big Al, as she was known because she was just shy of 5 feet, is a small, worn needlepoint pillow on which she stitched this proverb: “LIFE IS A LEMON. MAKE LEMONADE.” Words—simple as they are—that offer a more honest telling, a more bearable ending.