Last year I was asked to go on a journey. The invitation was unassuming- a simple request to teach a writing class. I accepted and showed up at the local hospital. On that fall day, I met a woman who changed the way I look at life. She was a tiny lady with bright eyes and a slightly crooked wig. She was the only patient that showed up that day and I think I know why. As we started talking, it became clear that she was insecure about how the cancer in her brain caused her to repeat the same sentences. She wanted to tell her story and I wanted her to be able to tell it. I offered to work with her, free of charge, and we set up a system. She would record herself telling the story on her phone and send them to me. I would type them and edit them. It seemed simple and efficient. We parted ways and I told her I looked forward to hearing her first recording.
About a week later, I sat down at a coffee shop to begin. It was a quiet morning and the shop was nearly empty. Soon I found myself fighting tears as I listened. I was suddenly listening to a mother struggling to tell her children that her cancer was terminal. I remembered my own mother's time with cancer when I was seventeen. I remembered the night my parents told us about the cancer. I washed those emotions down with another cup of coffee and continued to type. The next few months would be colored by her story. Christmas came and went and everyday included wondering if she was still here.
During this time, I came face to face with every emotion and fear I had kept locked away since that time when I was seventeen. In telling her story, I was forced to confront mine. Confronting the stories we have exiled to the deepest parts of ourselves feels like wading through the waters of hell. It is not beautiful. It is not grand. People would hear of our project and applaud my efforts. They had no idea the agony that came with it.
You see, when you are invited into the telling of someone's story, you become part of the story. You don't have a name or a face and the reader will never know about you. Instead, you are the mouth that gives voice to someone else's words. I made a choice when I began writing. I decided to not guard myself from her story. I chose to open myself and feel what she was feeling. In this I learned the true power hidden within our stories. I realized why all religions choose stories as the avenue for their truth. Stories invite us into them. Much like a novel has the ability to invade our present tense, someone's story has the ability to come to life through our own lives. We all have complexities and depths that will never be reached by lectures or sermons or self-help books. Yet, the story acts as a key to unlock all the doors we have worked so diligently to lock.
Then one day, I received a phone call. She was too weak. The family was called in. I dropped everything to finish her story... only it wasn't finished. Her last recording wasn't supposed to be her last. I wrote her letter the day before she died. She never read it. She never read her story. I was tormented over this, why hadn't I worked harder, faster? Why didn't I ask for more recordings? Why did I let my own issues hinder the project? For weeks I struggled with shame and frustrations. It was supposed to be a beautiful thing. I was researching publishing. It was supposed to end in her holding a book in her hands. It didn't.
I still have her story. I still have the letter I wrote her. The letter in which I told her that she changed my life. She taught me to value each moment we are given with the ones we love. She gave me an appreciation for my own mother. More than that, she gave me the freedom to fully embrace my story and the stories of every person I meet. That little fiery lady, completely changed the trajectory of my life- because of her I want to empower you. Because of her, I want to help you find the beauty in your story.