The first story I remember writing was in collaboration with my mom. I was sandwiched between two massive metal plates, Mom sitting in a chair to the side of my head, as my entire body was scanned for any cancerous blights on my bones. Patients must be still during the procedure in order to get clear results — a monumental task for a five-year-old. I have no measure of time during that point in my life, but I was the cream in a metal Oreo for what felt like decades in kid-years.
To distract my busy mind from the procedure, Mom and I wrote a story. I can’t remember what it was about, or if she even kept it, but I do know it starred Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, my favorite characters. Throughout the long procedure, she dutifully played the role of scribe, letting my imagination take me out of the present and adventure in worlds unseen. At times, I would get excited about the way my plot was developing, and she would patiently remind me to stay still. When it was over, a copy of my skeleton was projected on the wall, and tremendous news followed. The cancer cells remained attached to the kidney they hijacked, a huge step in my remission and recovery.
Memories of my cancer treatments are hazy and gray and seem more like a dream than reality. Most of the broken pieces of the timeline have been filled in with the tales other people told me. The thing I knew for certain was that my mom was the bravest person in the world. She was younger then than I am now, but was more mature than I could ever hope to be. No matter how frightened she was, she was unflappable, and never opened a window into her distress. I could always count on the safety of her lap and the armor of her embrace. She didn’t show her agony, the tears she shed, or the kind of anger that rips out of your chest. When I ask her how she did it, she gives the same answer every time. I did it because I had to.
Moms do that. When it’s hard. When it’s scary. They stand guard and let life beat them up to protect the ones they love.
In September, I endured a tragedy that rocked me from my foundation. I was on vacation at the time, hundreds of miles from home, and Mom would’ve moved heaven and earth to get to me. I wanted her protection, but I didn’t want her to hurt like I hurt, reversing the roles we normally found ourselves in. She endured every grieving meltdown, my sobbing phone calls, and my devastation. She was braver than I could ever hope to be, the same way she was when I was a child. She often encouraged me to write my feelings, but the words were never there, as if my mourning had stolen them.
When the dazed cloudiness of my loss faded away, the words came back. Like every other day, I could barely lift my broken body out of bed, and I envisioned my pain as something tangible. I gave it color and shape and definition, and a story came to me, setting me free within the contours of my mind. I created a pain collector, whose job was to accompany someone experiencing a traumatic experience and collect the aftermath. My collector attended a trauma in progress, forced to climb onto the counter to avoid the red hot pain that poured out of the woman. The sharp shards of cooled pain were too much for the collector to gather, her bag too heavy to haul as she dragged the grieving woman’s pain away.
Like the story written during the bone scan, I forgot, for a moment, the shattering agony of my heart as I shoved all my feelings outside my body and onto the white wall of my Word document. I wish I could say that I polished the story into a best-seller, but it met an unfortunate end. I dropped my laptop by accident and broke my USB and hadn’t backed it up. The pain collector, and all the ugliness in it, was gone. And maybe it was better that way, so I couldn’t reread it and torment myself. In any case, writing served its purpose, which was to rid me of the fear and grief that crippled me. Inside those black shapes, I found healing.
I am fortunate to have a mother who taught me how to be brave when staring down life’s monsters. A woman who taught me to use my words as my weapon and my shield. Thank you, Mom for holding my hand through uncharted territory, giving me the gift of a lifelong obsession with reading and writing, and always being the wonderful, strong person you are.