Make It Mean Something

I’ve been reliving the year 2006 for the past couple of weeks as I’ve been working to meet a July 1st book deadline. I began this very blog in anticipation of the 2009 publication of a book I’d written about caregiving through cancer. Following my gut instincts, I’d pulled out of that book contract just two months before the book was to be released. My instincts were correct; that company has produced very little in the ensuing four years, and nothing of quality. The lack of any editing was a huge red flag, and several disturbing incidents led me to believe I would never have been able to trust that publisher. In contrast, my editor for Coupon Crazy has demonstrated just what good editing entails and the performance of Familius Publishing and their staff has been exemplary. 

That caregiving manuscript languished in a drawer for several years. I pulled some anthology pieces from it, but had otherwise given up on having it published. David thought about it more than I did, asking many times what I was planning to do with it. He’d read the entire book and felt it could help a lot of couples; through cancer, or in their marriage relationship. Without even re-reading them, I pulled out the first three pages for a critique at the Write-to-Publish conference last year. (Why would I read them? The manuscript had been slated for publication, I reasoned) The agent who did the critique commented that while the writing was excellent, he wouldn’t turn the page to read more. When I re-read the section, I realized I wouldn’t either, and I’d written it! I was embarrassed by my attempt to center on a single odd detail of my caregiving journey in an effort to grab the reader’s attention.

“How would you re-write that beginning today?” my publisher asked while we discussed the possibility of resurrecting the caregiving book. I didn’t hesitate. I knew exactly how the story would begin:

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 I jerked the strap of the baby carrier higher up on my shoulder, adjusting the weight of eleven-month-old Abby against my back. Shading my eyes against the sun’s glare, I squinted, looking up at the second floor windows of the brick building. Had anyone even noticed I’d left? An exasperated sigh escaped me as the small hand behind me firmly grasped a fist full of the tender hairs at the base of my neck. I reflexively resumed walking with the surprisingly strong tugs, picking up my pace in the hope that the bouncing motion would lull Abby to sleep. For some reason, she’d chosen this important day to skip a much-needed nap. By the fourth block, I was fuming, negative thoughts churning inside my head:

Why is she stubbornly refusing to fall asleep? Why did I always have to miss all the fun? It seemed at every single event in the last 25 years I’d been so busy caring for a baby or chasing a toddler I’d never been able to properly visit with anyone. I’d become the perpetual haggard mother, having spent a mind-boggling eighteen years either pregnant or nursing. I shook my head to clear it, and the movement startled Abby, who then began crying in earnest. Beads of sweat dotted my forehead and upper lip, and my eyes welled with tears of frustration. Typical that I would be walking alone outside tending to a fussy baby while a group of family and friends celebrated upstairs. Was ours even a marriage to be celebrated? Who has a baby at their 25th wedding anniversary party anyway?

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When I signed the contract for Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage I hadn’t realized how painful it might be to go back in time and delve into those months of David’s cancer treatment. While much of it was written during the experience, my revisions reflect the difference the passage of time can make in regards to perspective and yes, the honing of the writing craft. I’ve cut entire paragraphs and added discriminating details.

After revising the bulk of the original manuscript that concluded in 2009, I began work on the epilogue. How to sum up the ensuing years in a few pages? Not only did the specter of cancer again enter our lives in 2010 in the form of my mother’s terminal cancer and our grandson’s Wilm’s tumor, but there was David’s death to consider, as well. An introduction has been added so that potential readers will immediately realize that my husband did not die from cancer, for that is the reason I wrote the book in the first place; I could not bear to read any book in which the cancer patient died.

It occurred to me last night that the journal I kept during David’s treatment might be beneficial in revising my manuscript so last night I pulled this box out from under my bed.

2010-01-01 00.00.00-6

Along with the journal, I’d kept all the cards and letters David had gotten during his treatment. I’d started the journal while David was in the hospital for eleven days after his cancer surgery. I wrote every day and gave it to him after he was released. My intention had been to continue writing after he returned home, but instead, I transitioned to writing on legal pads, my chosen method for writing rough drafts.

I flipped through the pages of the journal, noting sections that might be helpful in the revision of the book. Then I got to the last entry, dated January 7, 2007. Apparently, I’d been upset about how David had handled a situation with the children and I wrote several pages regarding my hope that David’s experience with cancer would always have some meaning in our lives. I waxed eloquently for several paragraphs; stressing what the experience had taught me as a wife. “Our marriage is the best it has ever been. I have never loved you more than I do now,” I reminded him. Don’t waste the experience, I counseled wisely. Cancer has given us a second chance at love. Let’s not go back to our old patterns.

There, below my long diatribe, which David must have read thoroughly, he had written, in a somewhat shaky hand: “O.K.” Something I’d never seen before.

O.K.

2010-01-01 00.00.00-7

I burst into tears when I saw that.

Evidently, David had made a conscious choice, an agreement with me so to speak, to live differently after his cancer experience. He stopped complaining about minor things; things like our daughter staying up so late to read books, or her reluctance to do dishes again, at least not within her hearing. He began doing more dishes himself, started appreciating the fact that the worst thing he had to worry about with his teen-age daughter was her late hours reading, and in most ways, he became an ideal husband and father. That January morning when his complaints had prompted me to pick up the journal again was likely one of his first days back to full-time work after his treatment, and I imagine he was physically worn out. He wasn’t perfect by any means; he was human, after all, but during those last five years of David’s life, be became a different person than he’d been before his cancer. He was patient. He was kind. He was amazing. He was truly loved and he knew it, and that made all the difference in our life and our marriage.

And that is what I intend to convey in my book’s epilogue; Caregiving, and the shared journey through cancer become a gift in our lives. I want those who are just beginning their own journey to know that can happen~

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