Note how I focus on specific moments, incorporate my feelings then and now, and start to make sense of stressful experiences in the following passage. Also, notice that I jump around from moment to moment, which is fine. Your writing as healing narrative may not be well-organized and coherent--that's why you need to write, to start making sense of a jumble of memories. I also mentioned how it was hard to write about these moments, which you may notice, too, but the experience of doing so gave me relief, which I hope you'll also feel.
"You'll always have a place here"
I’m sitting in the salon of our old, tiny sailboat, The Blue Planet, legs folded beneath me, a test run for this summer—can I write on the boat after all? I’ve had this vision in my head ever since I first saw the opening of Jewel of the Nile, Just Joan typing out her romance novel aboard a luxury yacht while Michael Douglas splashed around in an exotic harbor.
Last summer on our sailing trip through the San Juans and up into Canada I couldn’t write, but last summer I was still running at half speed, struggling to keep up with the routine of the boat and a complicated diet that was supposed to get me off the multiple daily doses of anti-nausea meds imported from Canada.
I’m still not all the way back yet, but closer. I’m taking way less medicine and creeping up on my old endurance and strength, though I still don’t remember what normal feels like. I’m walking every day after classes, which has become more appealing than ever now that it’s sunny most days. It’s nice to tell myself that exercise is very, very important, and walk away from the kitchen table where I grade papers after school.
I remember the dream I had in the hospital after the second surgery that Aunt Nancy, Uncle Sam, Cheryl, and Mark showed up at my bedside. I love them, but seeing all of them there in the hospital terrified me. I realized I must be much worse off than I thought, or why else would they all fly from St. Louis to Seattle? In the dream I saw them walk in and gasped, “Am I dying?”
Then a few days later in waking life Mom said, “I have a surprise for you! I’m going to go get it from the gift shop.” I nodded sluggishly, unmoved by much; I think it was morphine that time, or maybe Dilaudid. And probably a Fentanyl patch as well. I wondered, mildly curious, what trinket from a hospital gift shop she thought I would care about. And then when she returned twenty minutes later, my sister Cheryl pulled open the curtain across the door, and I stared at her in shock, torn between happiness that she came, so unexpectedly, and disturbed by the uncanny similarity to my dream.
The funny thing is, we’re really not that close. But the fact that she was scared enough about my surgeries to fly across the country made me feel closer to her than I ever had before.
I remember during that hospital stay, after the second surgery, the overconfident resident coming to pull out my drain.
I don’t want to tell about that. How gaspingly painful it was the first time.
I had two drains after the first surgery, and I didn’t understand at all how they worked. All I knew was that I had two small openings cut into my abdomen on the left side, and these long, narrow tubes came out of both of them and ended in little round clear plastic footballs that filled several times a day with yellowish fluid. I didn’t understand where the liquid was coming from or what made it come out, but again, there was a lot that didn’t make sense. The Dilaudid gave me a very Zen attitude about it all.
I feel dispassionate telling this story, listening to Indigo Girls and Lady Gaga on my computer, reluctant to go back to that pain and uncertainty, the long, long road that I’ve traveled ever since. Especially on this sunny day, Jeff coming back from West Marine with a few tiny fittings that cost $50, giving me a puzzled look at the pained expression on my face. A horn sounds outside for the Dragon boat races down the way. It seems necessary, though, to remember, exorcising ghosts.
The drains didn’t hurt unless I forgot they were there and stood up without securing them and they pulled. The pulling hurt. It was a bit difficult showering, but I had to wind Saran Wrap around my abdomen anyway to cover the ileostomy bag, so I wove the drain tubes into the sheet of plastic, letting the footballs drape over the top. When I was dressed, I used big safety pins to attach the tubes to my nightgown or top, so that the footballs would hang down from the front of my nightgown or t-shirt.
I remember when I came back home from the hospital the first time, still so sick and weak. I had been supposed to miss the first month of school because of the surgery, but one surgery turned into three, and I had to miss the whole year. I was scared about coming home and handling all the tubes and bags on my own, still on the intravenous food, barely able to eat again, drugged and confused, uncertain about what life would be like for me now, driving past the front of the school with all the buses lined up to ferry the kids home, remembering that afternoon feeling of a good day’s work done, and me dropped into the middle of it, once a part of it, now an outsider. I remember Mom and Dad dropping us off and dawdling with the luggage, Jeff walking with me down the loading ramp to the elevator, the two flights of stairs to our dorm apartment clearly out of the question. I wore my baggiest pants and a patterned orange t-shirt that hung on me, my first real clothes after a week and a half in the hospital. I hadn’t worn makeup for months, too sick and exhausted either to put it on in the morning or scrub it off at night, but at least my hair had been washed within the last couple of days. We stopped because I needed to cry halfway down the ramp. I felt confused, empty, scared. Jeff held me.
We took the elevator to the second floor, and when the doors opened, the normally empty dorm hallway was crowded with students who shouted a greeting.
I’m glad Jeff’s messing with the lifelines on the deck of the sailboat right now—the reassuring rattle of wrenches and nuts tells me he’s busily at work—because my face spasms with half-swallowed sobs. I feel embarrassed by how emotional I can get so quickly, even now, just remembering. I was dismayed when I saw them, so unexpected, but also deeply moved.
Jeff just came through the hatch and asked me what I was writing about. I told him and asked what he remembered about that day. He said, “I was just glad to get you home.” After a moment, he added, “It was Chrissy’s idea. I was trying to time it so we got home right when school was getting out.” I didn’t know that. Or I forgot. I don’t even remember Chrissy being there. I just remember Susan, my boss, being in the crowd. I felt self-conscious about the drains dangling at my side, worried about how strange and disgusting they would seem, the dregs of infection trickling out of the openings in my abdomen. I didn’t even think about my hair or my makeup—I must have looked so drawn, so sick, so strange. Or maybe I did think about those things.
I just remember saying on impulse, when it seemed like they were waiting for me to speak, “I pulled up and saw all the buses outside, and I thought, I don’t have a place there anymore.” There were tears in my eyes, and it got hard to speak. What must my students have thought of me!
Susan protested warmly, “No.” She gave me a hug. “No, you’ll always have a place here.” I looked around at my students and felt touched to see their familiar faces.
Then I noticed other girls whose names I didn’t even know, and I wondered why they were there. My happiness faltered. If this crowd was here to greet me, who were these strangers? Maybe some of them got roped into coming or happened to be walking down the hall and the crowd blocked their way. How many of them were really there for me?
The crowd broke up quickly, and I made it down the hall back to the apartment, confused, embarrassed, moved.
It’s interesting—for the first time I reread that last part and thought, “Most of those girls were there just for me—can’t that be enough?”
It always seemed a little sad and confusing, but mostly sweet. I was so fragile, so addled by drugs and trauma, broken, scared, overwhelmed—and this just seemed like another tinged moment.
Since that was how I first experienced it, I haven’t been able to see it any other way. Now it seems different than I had thought. Maybe a few girls were stopped by the crowd or tagged along with a friend. That doesn’t take away from the kind intentions of those who came on purpose to welcome me back.
Suddenly I wonder about other moments in my life—how can I ever know what they really mean? If I can’t trust my own impressions, how can I make sense of anything?
Questions to prompt writing:
- Do you have a memory of returning home after a life-changing experience and feeling lost?
- Can you remember a moment of connection when you needed it most?
- Have you had a powerful experience that you interpreted one way at the time but now seems different looking back?