Archive for October, 2012

The Look Challenge

October 18, 2012
A panoramic of a snow topped Mt Diablo as take...

A panoramic of a snow topped Mt Diablo as taken from Walnut Creek (Panoramic made from a 14 image stitch) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The premise is simple: find a passage in your manuscript or book that contains the word “look,” post it on your blog, and tag five other blogging writers to do the same. Seems to me like a great way to introduce readers to other writers, so I’m all in.”

I received this invitation/challenge from my friend Madeline Sharples. Madeline’s book, Leaving the Hall Light On, is the tender and harrowing tale of her son Paul’s bipolar disorder and ultimate suicide. But more than that, it is the story of a woman’s courageous fight to not only survive but thrive after a life-shattering loss. To learn more, visit http://madeline40.blogspot.com

To meet the challenge, I randomly opened my book Swimming with Maya to page 210 and found this passage:

“Sprawling over a broad ridge, Oakmont Memorial Park has a direct view of Mt. Diablo. As I kneel above my daughter’s grave, I look at the jagged face of the mountain. It towers above the suburban valleys east of San Francisco, its saw-toothed outline a sharp, cobalt blue. Almost four thousand feet tall, and many miles around, this place was considered sacred by the native peoples who once lived at its base. I regard it with awe. To me, it is a temple of the gods, of doom, of wild horses – a mysterious place that swallowed my daughter in one sudden gulp.”

This passage leads from the narrator kneeling above her daughter’s grave at the cemetery to a fateful meeting with the man who received Maya’s donated heart, his wife, and their two children. Meeting Fernando and his family changed the course of my grief and my life. So in a way, the passage where I describe looking at Mt. Diablo leads to looking in a much larger sense. Looking at and examining the outcome of my decision to donate Maya’s organs and tissues at the moment she was declared brain dead.

I’ve written extensively about this in Swimming with Maya, and more recently in the Creative Nonfiction anthology, At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die, edited by Lee Gutkind. Organ donation and transplantation are miraculous and complicated. Instinctively, I was using “look” in the descriptive passage as a metaphor for the meeting to come when I would look into the eyes of the man whose chest held my daughter’s beating heart.

When Fernando drew me into an embrace, with my head resting against his chest, I heard the strong whomp. whomp of Maya’s heart. I was looking for my daughter that day. And I found her, but not in a way I could touch directly. Maya’s 19-year-old heart was keeping Fernando alive but as I held him I realized in a new, deeper way that Maya herself was never coming back. It was searing, heartrending, and inspiring. I found what I was looking for but not quite.

Because we are visual beings, we are always looking. But do we really see? In what ways does looking and seeing inform your writing and your life? Post a comment and let me know.

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Can Cancer be Funny?

October 8, 2012

Hell, yes! Tig Notaro, interviewed today by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” proves you can laugh and cry instantaneously. In a now famous stand-up routine she delivered at an LA theater Largo, in early August just days after her breast cancer diagnosis, Notaro broke her cancer news in the opening lines of her monologue.

“Hi, welcome. Hello. I’ve got cancer. How’re you doing? I’ve got cancer.”

Audible gasps, uncomfortable titters, and downright belly laughs filled the room.  One woman broke into tears and Tig, not missing a beat, just kept saying. “It will be OK. You’ll be OK.”

It’s hard to explain why this is side splitting. You really have to listen to it. Its not so much what she says, but how she says it. Without a trace of complaint or self-pity. Notaro just puts it out there with vulnerability laced with irony in a way that makes you laugh and cry almost in the same moment.

And not just the fact that she has cancer – in both breasts. But that in the last four months she got a hideous bacterial disease, C Dif, that ravaged her intestines, then a week after she got out of the hospital her mother died. Completely unexpectedly and tragically. Then her girlfriend broke up with her. And three months later – boom – she has cancer.

She riffs on how God never gives us more than we can handle, one of the funniest parts of the bit, musing, “Really? God is insane.”

Louis CK, a friend and supporter of Tig’s, put the monologue on his website and you can do download it for $5. Best five dollars I ever spent.

Happily, Tig told Terry Gross that she only has a seven percent chance of a recurrence following her double mastectomy at Sloan Kettering hospital. She’s moving on with her life and her career, now more famous than ever because she took a huge risk and broke her cancer news onstage in real time to a group of (mostly) strangers.

I love so many things about this: humor in the face of death, resilience, trusting the creative process, being vulnerable and in the moment with a roomful of people you don’t know. Mostly I just love the way Tig talked straight to me on the download, just the way she talked straight to the people at Largo that night. And I love Louis CK for making this monologue available on his site and promoting his friend’s work.

Maybe our culture is really maturing in its attitudes about death. You think? When we can laugh about cancer, I say that’s progress. Swimming with Maya has little snippets of humor woven in, but it’s not what you’d call a funny book. Next time out, I’d like to to make readers laugh and wince at the same time.

Kudos to Tig Notaro. Long may she wave!

Maya’s 40th Birthday

October 4, 2012

Maya had a vibrant smile, a ready laugh, and spark of mischief in her deep brown eyes. She challenged life as well as loved it – and she was the same with me, racing from hugs to arguments. If she had lived, today would have been her 40th birthday. She lived life fast and fully. Maya left this world six months shy of turning 20 years old, still a teenager, always and forever a daredevil.

Life accretes slowly, wearing away our rough edges year by year. I’ll never know what kinds of life lessons might have changed Maya, yet I believe nothing fate threw at her could have eradicated her vivacious humor or penchant for risk – only death accomplished that.

This birthday brings up the “what ifs” in torrents. Who would Maya be now?

When I turned 40, I had an unruly teenager about to turn 16 and a more placid and easygoing 8-year-old.  Two daughters anchored my life, but I’ve remained husbandless for the last two decades. Would Maya have a family? Would she be happily married? An actress, as she (and I) had planned? Or, would she have derailed along the way?

Maya was focused and ambitious, but with a self-destructive streak. She was kind and generous but could also be selfish and cutting, her razor sharp wit used as a weapon to demolish her opponent. Fiercely loved by her family and friends, she had been abandoned by her biological father following our divorce, a loss she never got over. Always popular and the life of the party, she constantly sought to prove that she was worthy of the attention she won with her beauty and her brains.

It was this need to prove herself – to test every limit and take every dare –that led to the accident that took her life. She rode a horse bareback with no proper equipment and was unlucky enough to be thrown and land directly on her head in a field in the foothills of Mt. Diablo, so far from help that a fatal coma resulted.

But what if she had landed on her rump or shoulder, and gotten up and walked away that April afternoon? Would the close call have tempered her daredevil ways?

As her mother, I live with the echoes of these unanswered questions.

Of course, I want to believe that at 40 she’d be a happy, productive woman, living the life she dreamed was possible, using her prodigious artistic and intellectual gifts. But I’m not sure her life journey would have been smooth, given her character. What I do know, is that her sister Meghan and I would have stood with her, and that our extended network of kin would have been a bulwark in the tough times. Maya was resilient, but she turned the old saying on its head: What could have made her stronger killed her instead.

Every year on October 4, I celebrate my amazing daughter. Today, I’ll go to the cemetery, place new flowers, and polish her headstone as usual. I’ll wish her a special Happy 40th Birthday and wonder extra hard what it would be like if she was here to drink a toast to her brief, wondrous life.


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