May 2, 2022. My mother would have been eighty-eight today. This week just passed, between my father’s birthday on April 26 and today, is always the time when I think most of my parents. When they feel closest to me, like stars circling the planet. When their memories haunt me. This summer, they will have both been gone six years. But this past week has been a whirlwind of emotion in its own right and I’m afraid the time I wanted to set aside to be with them has evaporated.
Which has led me to think about what family means. About how much love and pain we can bear. And yet, what I can really say at this moment is guarded.
Same trail, same time, last year.
Last Sunday, April 24, I took a fall on a muddy, icy trail and fractured my left fibula above the ankle. At the time, I was still a treacherous distance from a point where I hoped medical attention might reach me and I knew from the screaming pain in my leg that I would never be able to walk all the way back up the hill to my home. Or, for that matter, drive my small standard transmission vehicle to the urgent care clinic to get it checked out. But I was still hoping on the idea of a “bad sprain,” so I called my son and asked him to come down with a trekking pole and I started to limp toward the access point.
I was inching my way down an incline thick with mud, clinging to a rope railing, when a young man came along. He was new to the city and new to the trail but he didn’t want to leave me alone. There was no place to sit without putting undue pressure on my injured leg so we waited until my son Thomas arrived and together the three of us continued down and then across a desperately slippery sheet of mud-covered ice. Soon a third helper arrived, one of the men I regularly meet and talk to on this path, and he provided extra support as we made our way up another hill and down a flight of rough steps to an open paved area. I called the emergency line and we tried to figure out how I might be reached. The normal access road is still impassable at this time of year, but a paramedic in an SUV was able to reach me on the bike trail and drive me out to where an ambulance was waiting.
Of course, there was still a long wait ahead, five hours at least, just to see a doctor at the clinic. With x-rays I had the verdict that leg was indeed broken. I was incredulous. I have some early bone loss and my diet and daily exercise have been focused on strengthening my body, but in the end it only took a rather classic fall to produce a common fracture. Common in athletes, I might add, if that is to make me feel better because I did not take up trail running until I was fifty-nine and never imagined myself even a casual “athlete.”
One week later, a little grief and depression has settled in along with the discomfort and agonizing difficulty of accomplishing absolutely anything on one leg and a pair of crutches. My injured leg can bear no weight at all for at least the rest of the month. I return to the orthopedic surgeon on June 1. I did rent a wheelchair for outings (assuming someone is available to carry it down a flight of stairs from my second floor apartment while I cautiously and gracelessly make my way down on my bottom end. I am terrified of falling on the narrow, old staircase. Chances are that could spell my end. And no cruise around the neighbourhood will replace my daily walks and runs on my beloved trail—especially as spring arrives in force.
In the meantime, I have my adult son close at hand to help out. But I’m afraid that the responsibility and fear heightened his anxiety to the point that he turned to even more alcohol than usual and we had some very difficult moments. That’s all I will say at this time, because it seems like a change may finally be on the horizon (or a bottom has been reached). It won’t be easy but I’m willing to provide as much emotional caregiving as I can along the way.
It is this situation, however, that brings me to what I really wanted to talk about. For years I have fussed with the idea of a “memoirish” project while, at the same time, memoir and autofiction has exploded into a genre of often very dubious quality with authors who seem to be able to drop boundaries and expose everything about themselves and those close to them without thinking twice. That holds no appeal to me. As a writer or as a reader. There are ideas I want to explore about living with mental illness, having a gender-different history and parenting a child with his own challenges. But my questions have always been more metaphysical than personal-detail-oriented, and I believe that my experiences, if interesting in themselves, are at once unique to me and in some sense universal to this messy business of living we all engage in. I am also aware that, even though both of my children are intrinsic to my story, they each have their own stories (or versions of my story) that I do not own.
How can one tell a “true,” yet necessarily subjective story that involves others closely and still respect their dignity and boundaries? There is a lot of anger, grief and joy in my story, like any other, but how can one write toward that emotion without exposing too much of one’s self or others? I know I keep waiting to move beyond all that before writing while knowing at the same time that writing is possibly the only way I will ever understand what I feel.
In recent years, I have published a few personal essays and poems in which I have sought to strike a chord between the raw and the abstract, but more recently I have been frozen. I only feel safe writing about the words of others. My own words about my life have remained strangely out of reach. However, of late, the desire to find them has returned.
So, on my mother’s birthday, with at least a month of down time ahead, as my son is making his own resolutions, I’m thinking it is perhaps time to open that work-in-progress file again. For my parents and my children and myself.
And maybe someone else will want to read it too.
10 thoughts on “Life keeps writing my story for me: A personal reflection on my mother’s birthday”
Just last week I read something I really liked about the problems of personal writing and memoir. It’s written by a woman rather famous for being a second-wave feminist, and when I was a younger person, that’s pretty much how I classified her. However, Vivian Gornick is a marvelous essayist about all manner of things, and the book I just read, THE SITUATION AND THE STORY, would, I think, be of use to someone contemplating memoir, and wanting to avoid the traps of bad writing that so often accompany it. You may find much to argue about with her. She’s the sort of writer who likes to argue. You don’t seem to be so, but I still think you’d get something out of the book.
Oh, it must be maddening to be forced to be still; I know you find you can think more clearly when you can be in motion. May your recovery be swift and uncomplicated.
A suggestion, if I may?
Write it only for yourself first. You know as well as I do that we write differently when there is an anticipated audience. If you write in the spirit of a personal journal of which you will be the only reader, it frees you to write everything you need to express.
There can be catharsis in that process, and it cannot be weaponised.
Then, if you want to, you can edit it for the reading of others, a select few or a wider audience.
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Most of that writing has been done, over and over. The matter is one of the coordination of all that work into a larger coherent project.
Ah, well, that will keep you busy while you are laid up!
If only we could edit our lives the way we can edit our writing…
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I would agree with Lisa very much – exploring your past for yourself initially would be the best place to begin, and that exploration could be something to pass on to those closest to you if it felt right. You could move onto shaping into something for others if you wanted too later. A good project to beging while you heal, and I hope things improve quickly Joe. x
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I have volumes of writing. There is a time when an audience—real or imagined—is needed. That is the point at which I have been stuck.
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I’m sorry about your fall, Joe, and wish you the best. And yes to the writing! From my perspective, I write for myself, without any expectation of publishing in the process of the writing. I don’t think I could do it any other way. After I’ve completed something, I let myself think about whether it’s something I want to publish. I have essays, even a novella, that I don’t intend to publish. But it was important for me to write them, to puzzle through the questions I had, to follow the threads of possibility to wherever they took me.
I know what you mean, Theresa. I am more at the stage reworking, editing stage of trying to figure out what to do with all the writing I have already done to make a coherent creative project. Some of the work has already been published in other forms—it’s the “work in progress” mentality that freezes me.
Joe – that’s rough, mate. Challenging times made all the more difficult by your fall. I do hope you make a swift recovery and you’re back on the trail soon. And as for writing (and editing) – think you know my stance but it’s worth reiterating (and encouraging): don’t think about it, dive in. Trust your instincts.
Sending positive energy your way.
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Thanks, Tristan. I spent a week feeling bored and sorry for myself (and very tired) but the creative energy is starting to flow again I think. But I sure miss getting out on the trails every day.