March 13, 2016 § 14 Comments
By Judith Hannan
The prompt at the first writing workshop I ever took was, “My mother never told me …” “My mother never told me that I could help her,” I began. The story that evolved was one I repeated for the next thirteen years. I had been kept out of my mother’s life, was never one of the inner circle privy to her secrets—the ones about the marriage she entered into at age 18, the nervous breakdown she suffered and overcame; or those of what it was like to become a college student for the first time at age forty, her first days of work as a psychiatric social worker; or those behind my father’s leaving her, his return when she found the lump in her breast, her death. The story always ended with my not being invited to ring the bed the day she died, of learning, as I dressed for the funeral, that I was the only one who didn’t know she was going to be cremated.
“Poor me,” I told myself that first year and the years after.
The fourteenth time I told the story was for part of a larger work, my book, Motherhood Exaggerated, which is a chronicle of my own evolution as a mother during my younger daughter’s treatment for, and survival from, cancer. My mother’s story would be key to understanding the kind of mother I was.
I was unprepared for my publisher’s response. “Poor you?” she said, “I don’t feel sorry for you. I’m not sure I even like you here.” The idea of gaining a sympathetic ear as opposed to sympathy was a new concept for me. I had a great deal to learn about perspective.
In those early workshops, we were told to just write for ourselves. This made sense. It encouraged expansive, non-censored thought. But expecting to excavate the full gold of a story without hearing it through another’s ears is like going to therapy without the therapist.
To alter the story I had been telling, though, required that I draw upon new tools. The metaphor of music, my first language for creative expression honed over many years of playing the flute, became the lens through which I could view my mother with compassion. I wrote her life as if it were a symphony, one written by different composers, in different keys, and with fluctuating tonalities. Early sounds of waves and carnival rides from my mother’s home in Revere Beach were transposed to a minor key when my mother turned six and her mother suffered a stroke that left her alive but unable to mother. Silence followed. I returned to a major key when my mother got married and had children, but marriage and children added to a hollow self is like multiplying a number by zero. My mother’s life had become a warped version of Handel’s Water Music. Immersed in metaphor I saw my mother as the unmothered person she was. But she ultimately climbed out of her depression assuming the strident tones of Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring.
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings ended my symphony. From the high shimmering notes that mark the peak of this haunting elegy, I could see my mother’s grief. How had I never seen that she was in mourning too?
My lens didn’t only have to be compassionate, it had to be wider. When I first wrote about my daughter’s cancer I wasn’t telling a story about people but about IV’s, scans, chemo drugs, and scars. I created a cloistered world of just me and Nadia where no one learned or evolved. So I stepped back. I described the doctors, observed the different ways my daughter and I interacted with them and, therefore, found an opportunity to explore our dynamic with each other. I took the time to examine our friendship with a Hasidic family whose daughter was also ill, which allowed me to delve into my own relationship with Judaism; despite my lack of faith, my religion could still offer me wisdom and the comfort of ritual. When I zoomed out and saw myself against the backdrop of the larger world, I emerged transformed as a mother, wife, and friend.
Unfettered writing, for our ears alone, can open doors, but to get to the doors behind the doors we can’t be Narcissus staring at his own reflection. We need other faces looking back at us, we need craft, and we need to connect our story to a world beyond our small pond.
Judith Hannan is the author of two books. Motherhood Exaggerated chronicles her transformation as a mother during her daughter’s treatment for, and survival from, cancer. The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live With and Beyond Illness is a guide for those who want to write their own stories of mental or physical illness. Her essays have appeared in such publications as Cognoscenti, The Forward, The Healing Muse, Huffington Post, Opera News, and ZYZZYVA, among others. Ms. Hannan is a lecturer at Yale University where she is working on a pilot study to examine the power of writing to heal. As a teacher, she works with homeless mothers, at-risk teens, and medical students, as well as past and current patients, caregivers, and family members. Ms. Hannan is the recipient of the Arnold P. Gold Foundation’s 2015 Humanism-in-Medicine Award and is a judge of the Foundation’s annual essay contest for medical students.