“Death steals everything but our stories.” – Jim Harrison (“Larson’s Holstein Bull”)
She was first diagnosed with metastatic cancer in 2014, but N., one of my former writing group members recently died after a valiant struggle less than two months ago. Her struggle was a valiant one amidst considerable odds, but she began, in the months after her diagnosis, collecting poems and quotations that, as she put it, “uplifted me.” A year or so later, N. joined one of my “Writing through Cancer” workshops. She. embraced the expressive writing approach and continued to explore and deepen her writing, studying with author Natalie Goldberg and poetry with haiku masters. She also a two year study of teacher training in mindfulness meditation training with Jack Kornfield, even as she was weakening and hospitalized for infections. In short, N. was a person a who inspired not only me, but many of the people who knew her.
I believe the greatest teachers in my life have been the men and women in my writing groups, like Nan, who have shared their experiences of living with metastatic cancer over the years. While I have mourned their deaths, even years later, their memories are vivid in my mind. The writing they shared was as powerful as any found in published memoirs and poetry collections—even more so for me, for they are the living legacies of who they were, what they experienced and what they endured.
“I will tell you something about stories. They aren’t just entertainment. They are all we have to fight off illness and death. You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories. (Leslie Silko, Ceremony)
N. was such an inspiration. She was, I knew, intent on writing a book before she died. We had exchanged emails about the possibilities—and challenges—a year before her death. Her plans crystallized in Spring of this year: it would be a book to give to her partner, family, close friends, and teachers before she passed. And, at the end of July, I was delighted to receive her gift of the book in the mail. Entitled Legacy of Love: Gifts I Received on the Path of Life, it is a beautiful book: professionally bound, illustrated with her partner’s nature photographs, and filled with the reminiscences, stories and learnings from her life and cancer experience. Quotations, meditations, prayers, and poetry that she found meaningful are interspersed among the stories of her life’s journey. Writing prompts she’d experienced in the writing groups and other workshops are followed with her written reflections and haiku.
It was a deeply moving experience for me to read N.’s book; I lingered over the pages, remembering her presence, the enduring love and support of her partner she’d often written about, and her deeply moving prose. I immediately wrote to her, expressing my gratitude for such an intimate gift of her life. In the weeks that followed, I returned to it again and again—and a week or so ago, I was moved to write her again to express my gratitude. But unlike before, I heard nothing in return from N. I contacted her partner and learned she had died, apparently within a day or two just after I had received her book. My sorrow was softened because I felt Nan’s presence so vividly between its pages.
My story is myself: and I am my story. This is all you will know of me; it is all I will know of you. This is all that will survive us: the stories of who we are. — Christina Baldwin, Story Catcher
Her death saddened me, yes, as the deaths of others have who have been part of my writing groups. Yet I was reminded again of how fortunate I am to witness and experience the many gifts of poetry and stories written and shared in the workshops I have led for so many years. I still hear their voices and remember their faces as I read and re-read some of their stories or poems—ones that frequently took my breath away with its power and depth, ones that still bring tears to my eyes with its honesty and poignancy, writing that was lyrical, poetic, profound—the stories of their illness experiences, of their lives. Writing I have wished more than once could have been shared with their doctors to illuminate the patients’medical experiences: the good, the difficult, and the sometimes cold and impersonal.
Their stories, yours, mine—it’s what we carry with us on this trip we take…we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.
—Advice to a medical student by William Carlos Williams, physician and poet
Patient stories have begun to be recognized as important to the medical experience, thanks to the work of Rita Charon, who created the term, “narrative medicine,” a medical practice that uses patient stories in clinical practice, research, and education as a way to promote healing. Storytelling, as several researchers suggest, is a powerful tool for patients and healthcare providers alike. It provides the patients with a way to give voice to the experience of illness and, in turn, to begin to confront their illness, questions of care and mortality.
Stories offer insight, understanding, and new perspectives. They educate us and they feed our imaginations. They help us see other ways of doing things that might free us from self-reproach or shame. Hearing and telling stories is comforting and bonds people together….Being able to narrate a coherent story is a healing experience.2,3… stories keep us connected to each other; they reassure us that we are not alone.—Miriam Divinsky, MD, Can Fam Physician. 2007 Feb; 53(2): 203–205.
Illness, unexpected tragedy or hardship may be the triggering event in our lives that ignites the desire to write, but what I experience with every writing group in the weeks together, is that other stories begin to be written — stories of love, loss, family, childhood, life’s joys and sorrows. These are the stories of the experiences that make us unique, that make us human. Writing and telling our stories offer a way to understand and make sense our lives. In sharing them, our lives are affirmed, our legacies articulated. Our stories say: “This is my life. This is what I have experienced. This is important to me. It is what has shaped me into the person I am.”
But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story—and there are so many, and so many—stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, and death. — Virginia Woolf
As I write now, I instinctively reach out and touch N.’s book—her stories and poetry; her life captured in its pages, her willingness to look death in the face, to ask herself the hard questions, to give us glimpses of what she suffered, feared, learned and loved and ultimately how she prepared herself for death, just as others faced with the prospect of mortality have written and expressed, sharing their lives, their fears and courage, so honestly and poignantly. It is an extraordinary gift, a way to remember, a gift from the heart.
Poetry, stories: it’s what I carry with me…and, I hope, what I can leave behind to say, “This was my life. This is what mattered to me.” (N., 2021)
- What are the stories you want to tell? The ones about you, your life, what matters most?
- Has your illness broken you open? Offered new insights or ways of seeing your situation?
- What has had the most impact on your life? Try this three part exploration:
- Who were you? (Look to your past)
- Who are you now?
- Who are you becoming? (What are you learning about yourself now?)
- Use a line from a poem, essay or story that you love. Begin with that line and then keep writing—wherever it takes you. Here are a few you might try:
- “Starting here, what do you want to remember?”
- “Before you know what kindness is, you must lose things…”
- “It is in the small things we see it.”
- “Let the hard things in life break you.”
- “I am falling in love with my imperfections.”
- “But my heart is always propped up in a field on its tripod…”