August 23, 2019 § 5 Comments
When your essay “The Things I’ve Lost” was published in Brevity’s Fall 2006 issue, you could not have imagined a virus was forming. Your words rested in dormancy until a Google search triggered another viral outbreak with the tingle of their presence erupting in full force at unpredictable intervals. A virus can only survive in a living organism, so I hope you will accept this as a compliment. At first, I wanted to be clever and equate the essay to a stash of bitcoin hidden in a long-abandoned desktop computer. I know nothing about virtual currency, so I returned to a metaphor I’m more comfortable with.
It has been a year since our last correspondence, and I wanted to give you an update on the continuing adventures of how I use your essay with my patients recovering from chemotherapy. I still have a supply of journals to work with available from the Child Life office. Occasionally, I help myself to the sticker collection in the storeroom closet to personalize the journal if it otherwise lacks the spark of joy that is so important. I believe in using my resources.
I start the creative writing process by introducing patients to your essay. Readers of your original work recognize that as you lose certain items and concepts, you are finding a sense of yourself, and what you value. The concept of lost things is a great conversation starter in the hospital setting since the list opens naturally with: I lost a lot of blood, I lost my hair, my fear of needles . . .
I’ve been schooled by an assertive teen who remarked “I did not lose my kidney. The surgeon took it from me in my sleep.”
I encourage my patients to start on one side of the journal with the things they lost, and then flip the journal to list the things they found. I know that this prompt is more concrete than your original design, but a virus will mutate to adapt to a new environment. Maybe it isn’t pure science, but I am certain that alchemy exists because I’ve seen what can happen when a Fortnite sticker is used to cover the UPC code on the back of a journal so it can be oriented in either direction.
Often, the list of found items begins with: I found a lump, or I found out the cancer is back. As patient’s progress through their list, they often move away from the tangible and into something with more nuance, such as: I found I am stronger than I thought.
I have noticed as people flip back and forth between Lost and Found, themes come to the surface and it is harder to put concepts into a neat category of good and bad, positive and negative. The yin-yang is stirred with a stick.
Writing gives my patients power and agency. This is more important than anything I document in the electronic medical record and yet, there is no check box for it at all.
In my last letter I mentioned my patient Shelly. Shelly’s mother-in-law overheard our discussion about your essay and was inspired to write with high school students about what they had lost after a school shooting. We expect adults to understand loss in its many incarnations, but for children to know it too is another matter. I’m glad when adults can give children a tool for coping.
I am sad to report an email from the clinic social worker was sent to me with a link to Shelly’s obituary. The memorial service announcement reported she died peacefully at home with her family by her side. That is what people want to hear. It is what we can bear to imagine.
This e-mail was sent out to members of the oncology team, and the list included nurses, physicians, therapists, and support staff. The disparate list inspired an idea, and I wondered what would happen if each of us on the list contributed one phrase for a collective essay about the things we’ve lost. In my imagination, lines formed from comments I’ve heard over the years: I lost the blue stethoscope my grandmother gave me when I graduated from med school. I lost my desire to be a surgeon after seeing my first c-section. The baby was more interesting. I lost the chemotherapy pill when it bounced off my shoe and landed somewhere under the bed.
Then, like a virus spread by a single sneeze, or a handshake, I wondered what this collective essay would look like if written by patients and staff members in the Veteran’s Administration wing of the hospital. Or the Orthopedic Unit? Or Mother-Baby Unit?
In the flurry of an unbridled imagination, I identified other groups who could contribute to this imaginary group creative writing project: Food Service staff, material management, maintenance, physical plant. A virus is not selective. Anyone can catch it. And like a virus, it is self-limiting. Participants only need to contribute one thought, one sentence, a single contribution to a collective endeavor.
What if this virus spread beyond the hospital campus to the entire university and the chemistry department published an essay alongside the philosophy department? Can you just imagine the juxtaposition, the similarity, and beauty in a list?
The virus could become an outbreak so significant that the larger community would be affected: the yoga studio, the credit union, and the food pantry down the street. We would need one great big repository for all the groups who would say, “Yes, we want to participate!”
Maybe your people know people who can make things happen with words and ideas. Let’s begin at the beginning and introduce your essay to a new crop of readers and writers – and readers who never dreamed they could be writers too. I think it has viral potential, and since a vaccine is not required, or desired, we can forgo all the vaccination controversy.
Your true fan,
Joey Elizabeth is a mom, MFA student, and registered nurse who tries to insert biblio-therapy between rounds of chemo-therapy because healing is not the same as curing. A fellow nurse calls her an anecdotal artist. Her work can be found on the back of envelopes, via Blackboard posts, and in notebooks in the bottom desk drawer. You can find her in the kitchen making dinner or at email@example.com.