Flash Diagnosis: Illness as Craft
September 9, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Sarah Fawn Montgomery
When my father became ill, time stopped, and with it, the words.
It was not that I was unfamiliar with writing with and through and perhaps because of pain—much of my writing centers on disability, my most recent book, Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, scrawled during anxiety attacks, OCD compulsions, and PTSD flashbacks.
I am well familiar with writing with pain, hunched over the keyboard with a muscle spasm, trying to finish a page before fatigue sets in. Sometimes I take time away from writing when I’m in pain, a practice disabled writers must accept despite the loud proclamation of “write every day” that comes from abled writers and writing programs. I write by hand when I cannot stare at a screen because of chronic migraines, or in bed when chronic infection takes a month, then six, to heal. I do not keep track of hours or words or any of the other writing milestones simply unavailable to disabled writers. I do not write to escape illness, rather I look to disability to guide my practice and craft. Disability and illness are essential to my writing—they shape my work as they shape my life.
But when my father was diagnosed with cancer—hugging me goodbye at the airport on Father’s Day, given a grave warning from physicians the next—I could not write. Perhaps it wasn’t the words that went, but rather the time, the sense that I had space stretched in front of me to make stories, space to live in the past of memoir rather than the present, which was painful and fleeting.
I was nearly finished with a book manuscript, but suddenly I could not conceive of a project that spanned many years when the narrative of my life compressed into the moment of diagnosis. The book was about my father and our complicated relationship, and I could not make myself finish writing, complete, end, and final words that sent me hazy and uncertain.
While my experience as a disabled writer means I am more prepared than most to create when pain is the only given, my experience with chronic illness has never involved such proximity to death. I am unsure how to create while witnessing its opposite, how to build worlds when my own is crumbling.
As before, I turn to diagnosis to lead my craft. My father’s illness means we exist in brief. Our conversations are short because he does not have energy, because he is grieving and does not want to talk. Our moments of joy—a procedure, the promise of a new treatment—are quick before the next disaster reveals itself on a CAT scan.
So I write in brief. It is hard to conceive of a far-reaching future, so I focus on single moments. It is hard to focus on a work that might outlast my father, so I write what I can accomplish while he is here. I am overwhelmed by grief and fear and the medical responsibility I have assumed as a medical proxy and the oldest daughter of eight, so I focus on what I can control—a few paragraphs, a short burst of memory.
Time does not operate the way it did before, so neither does my writing. I spend 16 hours flying from one side of the country to the next, moving backwards against the sun as though I am a time traveler. When I look at what I have written those many hours, it is less than 1,000 words; I have started and stopped a dozen pieces. Writing feels like duty and distraction, a task calling me away from the important work of caregiving, yet one whose pleasure and control I am desperate for.
I lose hours each day on hold to hospitals and physicians, am constantly living in another time zone. My father takes hours to eat the calories he used to consume in minutes. He stops eating altogether, convinced he would rather end the narrative himself than see how the story plays out on its own. My mother and I repeat ourselves over and over on the phone, spiraling, meandering like we are told to do when writing essays. We search for new ways to craft this narrative, though nothing provides the resolution we hope.
When I feel distracted, pulled in a dozen directions—phone calls and medical paperwork and treatment follow-ups and sorrowful calls with my mother and cheerful attempts to console my father—I remember that I am still living. I do not need to write this story now or at all. I do not need to write like I used to, can instead condense memory, search for the moments that give meaning to my life. I write as I exist—in flash, in short bursts, emotion and time compressed—the way a memory can come from nowhere and send you reeling.
Now my writing mirrors my living—it is brief and urgent, sharp and vital. I write flash because it is the only way I know to process the story of my life coming to an end. I write flash because it is the only way I can light up the dark.
It feels wrong, in many ways, to think of writing when I am grieving so, when living in the present rather than ruminating on the past is essential. But I write to make sense of the world, to understand how the man who made his living building the fences that bordered and controlled the world feels to watch his own borders and control slip away. I write to remember his easy grin when he sped up his work truck, fence posts and chain-link rattling in the bed, rushing down dusty California backroads to give me a tickle-belly, Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio and sunshine splayed across the dash.
I write to remember the sweet smell of sawdust on my father’s work boots, his strong calloused hands over my own as we placed our palms in wet cement to make ourselves last forever.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. She recently edited a special “Experiences of Disability” issue of Brevity. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery