Happy Endings

Life is a lemon; make lemonade

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.

There Is Only One Story

I grew up in LaGrange, a near west suburb of Chicago. Until I left home for college, then returned for a year after graduate school before moving to the near north side, my bedroom was the same: a dormer the shape of a house a child might draw, with peaked ceiling and two small windows like eyes facing east. The 10- x 10-foot square offered two options for where a single bed would fit, headboard against the north wall, or headboard against the west.

As I settled my body from play or work, I was hypnotized by the headlights from Ogden Avenue that strobed the south wall. They were my lullaby, my bedtime story, my last memory before sleep. I wondered where these cars and trucks were going into the night. I counted the seconds between flashes, holding my breath in-between. I listened for the crescendo and fading of vehicles as they passed. I blinked against the staccato of light that interrupted my sleep, yet I’m not sure it wasn’t what finally helped me fall asleep.

The street sign on the corner by my house read “Ogden Ave.,” named after Chicago’s first mayor, William Butler Ogden. The 1909 plan for the city recommended a network of diagonal streets extending out like spokes, but only Ogden Avenue was completed, following the route of the Southwestern Plank Road. While it is known as Ogden Avenue locally, if you drive its steady line west from Berwyn to Aurora, the Mississippi River, and beyond, you see signs for US 34.

If you turn left from Malden and continue west, 1,122 miles later brings you to the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, elevation 12,183 feet, making it the highest paved through highway in the U.S. The west terminus for US 34 is in Granby, Colorado, at US 40. Its eastern origin, in Berwyn, Illinois, connects to historic US 66.

All those years in my small bedroom, feeling my own smallness, I lay along this vast connector and vital crossroad. The strobe of headlights on the wall played the single cinematic history of human experience again and again. Here was a region where people came, settled, and built; a city people passed through on their way to greater adventure and opportunity; a land where war gave way to prosperity, then depression, recovery, and waves of immigrants; where people in search of something else mostly found themselves; a place where every minute of every day someone turns onto US 34 or any highway or byway, not knowing when their journey will end.

 

The Angel in My House

I haven’t written in a while, I know, but I’ve been busy. Busy committing murder.

Before you call 911, let me explain. I have come to the last section of the memoir I’ve been working on. Each preceding section opens with a revisiting of Chris’s death. I had played this idea out five times and thought I had quite picked it clean. Would there be any meat left if I went back to the scene once more?

In a writing “moment” (i.e., a long stretch when little writing occurs and mostly I stare out the window and watch my neighbor mow), it came to me. Thank goodness for the serendipitous occurrence! Another death scene needed to be talked about, and this time it was a death I had to orchestrate.

I’m talking about silence. The silence that I grew up believing was a sign of obedience and respect. The silence I practiced when I became an editor of other people’s writing, not a writer myself. The silence I lived into in some of the roles I assumed as an adult. The silence I wore in relationships.

Flash back to 1931, when Virginia Woolf gave a speech on professions for women to the National Society for Women’s Service. In it she spoke of the “angel in the house” (a phrase borrowed from a poem that celebrates domestic bliss). This angel represented “the selfless, sacrificial woman in the 19th century.” Woolf described her angel:

“She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught, she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all, she was pure.”

A Victorian sensibility? Perhaps, but one that persisted well into the 20th century, when Betty Friedan renamed it the feminine mystique. Woolf could have been describing my mother, or most women of her generation.

Fast forward to 2015. The angel in my house hovers over me as I write. My angel is exceedingly polite and soft-spoken, not wanting to interrupt the more important conversations around her. My angel gently whispers, “Are you sure you have anything worth saying?” Her seductive voice calls me to things large and small, none important, really, but there just the same. Any protests I might offer my angel flicks away like a mosquito.

The angel in my house is silence. I need to kill the silence that has convinced me that speaking doesn’t matter. It does. It matters immensely, not because I have insights any more profound than the rest of the world, but because if I speak, then I am. Killing the angel is about claiming my place in the world, whatever that looks like.